Back before YouTube, people got their entertainment from minstrels traveling town to town with their harps and epic poem-songs, telling stories of the wider world (and hopefully getting a free bed in the process). Modern troubadours might not score free bunks, but—whether you’re a player or enthusiast—music still has the power to connect people in surprising and profound ways. Here are ten reasons to pack that harmonica and keep your ears tuned for the local stuff.
1. Local music is a direct line into the culture. Some musical traditions go back hundreds and thousands of years and are intricately tied to social or religious aspects of a community’s culture. By exposing yourself to locally brewed sounds, you’ll have the opportunity to educate yourself about other elements of that region’s people as well.
2. You can learn about music from other travelers’ countries. You never know what might happen when you pass the guitar around at a hostel. You could get Russian ballads, Cuban jazz, Celtic folk, Spanish flamenco, or Argentinean tango—all while sitting on the beach in India. Hard to find a better forum for world music than that.
3. You can share your country’s music. One night in Durban, South Africa, I was jamming with some local musicians; when I busted out the bluegrass, they were totally bowled over. By sunrise, they were playing “Over the Waterfall” like they’d been doing it all their lives. We created a link where there was none before; it was an incredible feeling (and if Bela Fleck sees a surge in overseas sales, I humbly accept full credit).
4. You can learn to play a new instrument. There are an astounding variety of musical instruments out there, from the balalaika to the berimbau, the esraj to the erhu. Why cling to the guitar when you can try your hand at the gopichand? You’ll add depth to your musical repertoire and dig beneath the surface of the local culture at the same time.
5. You can bond while waiting for your bus. Music can happen anytime, anywhere: in the courtyard of your hostel, on a train station platform surrounded by luggage, or in the back of a bouncing tuk-tuk. Think of all the times you end up sitting around waiting for something, shuffling your feet, rereading your Lonely Planet for the gazillionth time—you can fill those moments with music instead and interact with the people around you.
6. Music transcends language and culture. You don’t need to speak Kiswahili to feel the groove of Kenyan hip-hop. And the people you meet don’t need to understand English to appreciate your version of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” You can communicate a lot without sharing a language, as long as you’ve got passion and a shared sense of the human cause.
7. It’s a portable party. A handful of travelers plus a few beers equals a chill night. Add a guitar or an iPod with speakers and you’ve got a party. It’s one of the best ways to invite other people into your circle (especially if they’re shy or don’t speak your language), and if they have mp3s to share or are musicians themselves, it will only amplify the fun.
8. You can spread a political message. In many developing countries and regions of conflict, music is one of the most powerful ways of communicating a cause or opposing oppressors. Help the message go viral by getting it on tape (it’s easy to outfit an iPod with a microphone for recording) and spreading it to the world.
9. You can create something new. Some of the greatest musical traditions—including reggae and rock and roll—came about by combining earlier styles together in unique and interesting ways. On the road, you’ll have no shortage of inspiration from local traditions and other travelers. Try putting a Caribbean beat behind a sitar melody line and mix in some gospel harmonies. Start a band with one member from every continent (okay, Antarctica might be tough), and relish the fusion that follows.
10. Music is free. At least, the music we create ourselves is. Think about how much money we spend entertaining ourselves on the road, with drinks, cover charges, transportation, and craft shopping at the overpriced tourist market. Why not skip the spending and get a jam session rolling at your guest-house? Recruit your dorm neighbors and the guy who works at the front desk—see what y’all can come up with.
A regular contributor to Matador, Jenny Williams, a former national soccer player, quit a job in book publishing to travel in the Middle East, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.