Glenn Dixon threw on a backpack after college to go to Europe and never really stopped travelling. The now 45-year-old lifelong Calgarian turned his experiences in over 70 countries into two books, the first, Pilgrim in the Palace of Words, on the languages of the world, and his most recent, Tripping the World Fantastic, all about the world’s music. He sat down with Swerve Going Out Editor Jon Roe to talk about his travels, the similarities of language and music and what type of music has the most universal appeal.
What is the longest you’ve ever gone on a trip for? About four months. I taught [public school] up until last year when I quit to become a writer. A lot of it was travelling on teacher time, July and August. I had a couple leaves as a teacher when I could go on for more extended trips.
Did you have the music book in mind when you were travelling, or did it come to you after? A little bit of both. My first book was about languages around the world. I did my master’s degree in linguistics. It’s the same publisher, so they were after me to get another book. I thought, well, I’ve been a musician all my life as well—how about a book on music? I had been to a lot of places where there was incredible music performances. After I got the contract for the second book, about a year and a half ago, then I scrambled to go to eight or 10 more countries that I knew would be pivotal for a book on music.
Which were those countries? Cuba, Jamaica, India. I took sitar lessons in India, on the banks of the Ganges. I went to Africa, to Ghana for African drumming. Vienna was another big one.
Music and language aren’t really as dissimilar as people think, right? That’s absolutely right. Both books include anecdotes about my crazy travel stories, but I’ll also say something quite serious about language or music that comes from the research. Definitely, the more that I researched, the more I found they’re almost like Siamese twins.
What qualities do music and language share? They’re both centered in the auditory cortex. When we think of language, we tend to think of what we’re reading, but for most of human evolution, it was spoken. It’s the sounds of the words and our ears hearing these words. The prosody of language—which means the rhythms and melodies of language—that’s what makes an accent. Those are exactly the same things that happen in music. It’s really a lot of the same brain real estate being lit up by these two things.
On your website you include the latest elements of brain research and music research. Could you delve into that a little bit more? Two or three years ago I read a book called This Is Your Brain On Music [by Daniel Levitin] and I cursed that guy because I loved that title. I wish I thought of that title myself. It’s a great book. He’s out of McGill [University], actually, and he’s one of the world’s leading authorities. That got me hooked. In probably the last two or three years, and that’s it, this brain research on music has absolutely exploded. There’s really a lot of interesting things coming out.
Maybe I should say this: people have asked me before about how you can have this little thin book, about 300 pages, about music of the world? That’s kind of a fool’s errand to try and attempt that. I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get to a lot of music of the world. The question I was really after answering was why we play music. Music is in every culture on earth and every culture that has ever existed. The thought became: Well, why? Why is this so important to us? That’s when I started to go through the brain research. It’s a little bit of seeing a performance in Cuba or India, but then talking about why that has such a powerful effect on us.
You’re a guitar player . Did you bring your guitar with you on your journeys? Some of the trips, yeah. It’s becoming increasingly hard to get your guitar in one piece on an airline. Sometimes, even if I didn’t have my own guitar, somebody down there would have a guitar or some other instrument. I took sitar lessons in India, thinking it would be quite similar to the guitar and it’s not at all. More than just see the performances, I tried to learn from the people down there and play music with them, absolutely.
Did you have go-to song to share? There’s lots of things like Neil Young that everyone would know. But funny enough, the music that would come up all the time, all over the world, even in remote little villages in Tibet, is Bob Marley. Everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere. People would just light up when I started to play that.
Which Bob Marley song did you play? “Redemption Song,” “No Woman, No Cry.” Pretty much anything I could think of by them. It’s funny—I do have a chapter on going to Bob Marley’s house in Jamaica and it’s also where he’s buried. I did that deliberately because he is the first artist that has a complete universality about his music.
On Thursday, you’ll be mixing in some film with some storytelling? I seldom do a formal reading. I took video tape, as you can see on my website. All the musical performances in this book, I filmed in some way or another and they’re on the webpage. The idea is in the e-book, there’s a link that you’ll be able to click on and the video will open right up. At the National Music Centre on Thursday, I’ll show a lot of the video—sort of more extended versions. It’s kind of an informal talk.
Tripping the World Fantastic: A journey through the music of our planet: Thursday, April 18 at the National Music Centre, 134 11th Ave. S.E. 7 p.m. Free. nmc.ca.