Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Songs We Do Not Understand)

Adwa is the last track of Ethiopian singer Gigi’s 2001 debut album of the same name. It is a haunting melody that lingers long after the last note has faded away. It is also a song sung in Amharic, Gigi’s mother tongue. In fact, the whole record is performed in this language. Yet, it remains one of my favourite CDs ever more than ten years after I bought it.

Nice cover but can you understand the lyrics?
Adwa tells the story of the battle that saw the forces of the Ethiopian Empire overpower the army of the nascent Kingdom of Italy. I know all this, not because I speak Amharic, but because I looked the song title up online.

You’ve probably clicked the link to the track I embedded above, or maybe you will do it later, after you’ve read this post. Does it matter if we understand the words of a particular song? This is more relevant to enthusiasts of the genre known as “world music” (a bigger misleading appellation has yet to be invented by man) as we are constantly exposed to melodies from all over the world. Whereas Anglo-Saxon music – of the rock and pop variety – ruled my teenage years, my late 20s, 30s and now early 40s have been characterised by records from Azerbaijan, Mali and Malaysia, to name but a few of the countries whose artists fill up my ever-stretching CD shelves. What this means is that my musical borders have expanded and new horizons have been explored, in addition to developing a deeper understanding of other nations’ cultural make-up. What it also means is that I still find myself at a loss when it comes to attempting to decode the language in which many of these songs are performed. And still you will find me trawling the vast, borderless, faceless internet for the golden key that will unlock a particular song’s mystery.

Efforts like this is what I would like to believe Chris Moss had in mind when he penned that controversial article in Songlines magazine back in the summer. As a consequence of his “Soapbox” column, there was a discussion about people’s attitudes towards music sung in a language different to their native tongue. It also earned me a “Star Letter” award in the next issue.

Chris’s feature opens with three examples of songs that probably get people tapping and nodding along until you find out what they’re about. It’s something I have witnessed myself in Cuba when I still lived there. Occasionally a freelance job would come up and as part of the experience I would take the person or persons to a salsa concert. As they shook their booty to the catchy Latin rhythm, I would whisper in their ear what the singers were saying in the chorus. Cue horror and surprise. I still remember on one occasion a Canadian woman who called herself a feminist stopping dead on the spot when I told her that what they were bellowing out from the stage was (literally) “I don’t want no broken c...s”. She got so upset that she asked me to take her to the venue manager immediately. To which I replied: “Are you really planning a) to make your way through this sea of people in the dark and b) try to stop the music because you find it offensive after I had to translate to you what they were saying because you can’t speak Spanish?” She calmed down but I doubt she listens to salsa now.

Chris’s article is full of passion. The guy learnt Spanish in Buenos Aires and as he avers in the piece, that opened up a whole new world to him. I totally understand him. The same happened to me when I came across English. So, why don’t more people do this, open themselves up to new experiences through the medium of a foreign language?

As I wrote before the column stirred up some controversy, not least because Mr Moss seemed to take issue with his fellow English-speaking fellows. So, the next issue and the one after that – in which my missive was named Star Letter – were full of responses in the mould of “I didn’t know I had to speak the language to enjoy the music”. I can see the point of those replies, too. I don’t know how many times I have heard it said that music is universal. One correspondent’s comments chimed with me. She wrote that she listened to music (all music) with “an open heart”. This is a trait I have found amongst many of “world music” lovers. Perhaps it is the trait that unites us all and this niche mentality, this secret brother/sisterhood is the only reason why I still use the term “world music” despite the fact I hate it. But at the same time I can’t stop thinking of the composers and singers who write words for people to listen to them, understand them, analyse and discuss them. I’m not talking here of the easy-listening or dance-orientated approach of chill-out and salsa music respectively. In those two cases lyrics are sadly superfluous oftentimes. The intention is to get people to tap their feet and nod their heads as opposed to use their brains. I’m referring more specifically to songs from the likes of Angelique Kidjo, Habib Koite or MC Solaar. These are singers and singer songwriters whose compositions brim with social and political messages. I do feel that if you don’t grasp at least the essence of what they are saying you miss a huge chunk, not just of the actual song, but also of the context in which the song was written.

Chris writes about his discovery of the music of Violeta Parra and León Gieco (the latter was part of the soundtrack to my adolescent years) and how this led him to understand Argentina’s historical, cultural and socio-political narrative. The same happened to me when I began to listen to Anglo-Saxon rock and pop. As an experiment to find out if I could listen to and understand music with “an open heart” I dusted off my old copy of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and played the third track, Masters of War. I imagined that I was someone who couldn’t understand a word in English; therefore Bob’s bitter indictment of the US establishment would most likely pass over my head. But, I said to myself if I just focus on the melody I should be all right, after all I could always “feel “it. So, that’s what I did, I tried to just “feel” the melody, just feel it for what it was, I concentrated hard, I closed my eyes, I scrunched up my face in a deep frown  and...  I failed. Don’t get me wrong, nice guitar chords, but if you can’t speak English the song becomes just a succession of similar notes on a loop with a nasal voice singing over them. It was also disrespectful to Bob himself, my experiment, it was, because if Dylan had wanted someone to "feel" Masters of War rather than understand it, he would have written the song as an instrumental. With a different musical arrangement, for sure. This is the reason why, when someone tells me that they "feel", say, the Cuban singer songwriter Silvio Rodríguez's music, I always think that they're getting only half the picture. The half they are missing includes tracks like La Familia, la Propiedad Privada y el Amor (literally, The Family, Private Property and Love, a reference to Friedrich Engels' treatise calle The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), where Silvio rages against the patriarchy, organised religion and so-called morality. Like Dylan's Masters of War the guitar chords are uncomplicated, but the words are some of the more powerful you will find in any song in Spanish.

What can we, world music lovers, do to overcome this language deficit? My advice is the same I gave in my letter in Songlines. It is impossible to speak the language of every single singer or composer in the world. But it is more manageable and realistic to master one or even two languages and through them explore the music of the culture to which they belong. In the case of Spanish, that means exploring the culture of more than 330 million people. No doubt you will find melodies as haunting as Adwa and singers as mesmerising as Gigi.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd November at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As most of you know, because I posted a passage from it recently, I just re-read The Master and Margarita. If I were to tell you the plot in a nutshell I would say that the novel is about a visit the Devil and his associates pay to good, old dear Moscow during the Stalin era. As soon as they arrive they wreak havoc. However, even faced with the destruction of their city, Muscovites still refuse to believe that it is the Devil at work.

The scenes of chaos, disbelief and naiveté that Bulagakov so well describes reminded me of the debate about climate change.

Green taxes, renewable energy, carbon pricing, you name it, I have heard it. I have learnt a whole new vocabulary in the last ten years or so that my attention has finally turned to the issue of the slow, but ultimately unstoppable, global warming of our planet. I confess to having felt indifferent before. Seventeen years ago I was still getting used to the idea of not just travelling to another country but also looking to spend the rest of my life there with the family I was just about to form. Under these circumstances I am sorry to say that polar bears and their plight were not at the top of my priorities.

They are now, though. Climate change is real and it is here. But rather than a straightforward issue climate change is a topic fraught with squabbling and bickering. This is a subject that has the word politics emblazoned across its chest both with a capital and lower case “p”.

The future?
The way I have come to think about the damage we are doing to our planet is the same way I have come to see smoking. Apologies if I have already used this example but it is perfect for a post like this. Imagine if someone lit up next to you and straight after having that cigarette they dropped dead. Would you ever touch a ciggie? Hell you would! Because you don’t want to die. Simple as that. In this case the danger is real, it is palpable but above all it is immediate. Of course, we all know that smoking does not cause instant death (we’re talking normal, over-the-counter cigarettes here). That is one of the reasons why people keep smoking. This is a habit that brings pleasure (yes, I know it’s not everyone’s idea of “pleasure” but it is for most smokers and after an initial tough rite of passage, what with all that coughing, it becomes normal) and which provides a social network of like-minded smokers. As we also know, twenty or thirty years down the line, bar the odd exception here and there (Uncle Jim was a chain smoker and lived to one-hundred and ten. Yes, he was a rarity, not the rule), you finally confront your lungs on that X-ray in that cold, impersonal GP’s room. You also have to confront the terrible news about the “c” word. If, on the other hand, you don’t end up with lung cancer, your health will equally suffer from all kinds of ailments. Either way, that first ciggie behind the bike shed in school has metamorphosed into a chronic disease.

Climate change is no different. Like smoking, we cannot see the immediate effects of our lifestyles on the planet and similarly by the time we realise the harm we have done, we will be facing the equivalent of an X-ray in a cold, impersonal GP’s room.

The reason why this issue has been on my mind of late is that there is a new book out by the Canadian author Naomi Klein. Now, full disclosure is called for here. I have been a fan of Naomi’s writing since I read No Logo about twelve or thirteen years ago. The way she laid bare the exploitation of sweatshop workers in Third World countries was an eye-opener for me. The Shock Doctrine, a thorough account of how free market capitalism cashes in on natural and man-made crises for its own gain, was another book I devoured avidly. This time Naomi turns her attention to the plight of our planet and brings us This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. I will surely buy this volume but for the first time I have the uneasy feeling that perhaps Ms Klein is slightly out of her depth. I’m not one of those people who judge a book by reviews. I like to read the work, analyse it and arrive at my conclusions, but in this instance I have paid a closer attention to what critics are saying and writing.

There are many reasons why I feel that Naomi has bitten more than she can chew this time. For the first time I feel that the solutions she offers might fall way too short of the real changes we need to make in order to stop the destruction of our planet. There are many challenges to Ms Klein's theories. I will address three of them only, otherwise this would make for a rather long post.

Partisan politics. We’ve come to a standoff in contemporary politics in which neither left nor right is willing to budge. This impasse has led to a cultural war of which climate change has become a high-profile casualty. This is not just in the developed First World, but also in state-run, capitalist China and Russia. Attitudes to climate change have become as toxic as abortion rights or social welfare. The difference is that whereas the latter two belong more to a domestic agenda, global warming affects us all.

It is not hard to see why the traditional left-vs right struggle has met a barrier in regards to climate change. Countries are not run by governments, but by corporations. They are the ones with the wherewithal to raise funds in order to support the type of candidate who will respond to their corporate interests. That leads me to the second reason.

We used to make things, now we import them. Or, we have them made elsewhere. For corporations to be financially viable and stay competitive they have to reduce their production costs and maximise profit. If that means closing a factory in the Midlands and relocating it to Indonesia, laying off in the process a thousand workers, so be it. We, consumers, on the other hand have stopped asking where our stuff comes from and accepted that it is our right to buy it. For a mobile phone to reach our local retailer, it first has to go from Eastern Congo (the coltan in its capacitors is dug there by miners who are amongst the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of victims who have died in the “conflict minerals” wars) to India or China or another sweatshop where it is assembled. Now, try convincing that bloke who has queued up for two days in a row in the pouring rain to be the first to get the latest (insert model here. I want no trouble with lawyers) that in a certain way he is responsible for global warming. That leads me to the third and final reason.

Our lifestyles. They are hard to change because many of us have worked hard for them. And I will tell you what, reader, or maybe you will be the one telling me this, we will be loath to lose the standards to which we feel entitled. We work our fingers to the bones, some of you might even work unsocial hours. That telly from Japan (assembled all over the world), that new Mini (c’mon, it’s not a bleeming gas-guzzling SUV, is it?), the long-haul holiday to Australia (the first time you've taken a vacation abroad for five years). It’s my/your sweat in those choices, you might say to me. To which I will nod in agreement. This seems to be, based on the reviews I’ve read so far, the part of Naomi’s argument where she falters somewhat. It’s less difficult to rally support behind the plight of sweatshop workers or tsunami survivors. The cause is not just, but it is also distant. It is a whole different ball game when the issue is so close to home. To the point where we might be forced to change our lifestyles completely. That is why one of the solutions she offers, a network of activists organising mass action at summits and taking to the streets, will work short- or even mid-term. Long-term? Not a chance. It is also worth mentioning that what complicates this situation even more is that we also have populations in developing countries attempting to emulate the “western way of life” with devastating effects to their economies. Not only do they fall prey more easily to unscrupulous (western) investors, but also their governments are more prone to corruption.

Those of you who have been visiting my blog for a long time probably know that I am an optimist by nature. When it comes to climate change, however, I find a dark cloud looming over the horizon. This dark cloud is similar to the one in the last chapter of The Master and Margarita that presages a storm that threatens to destroy Moscow. Let us hope that for once fiction stays fiction.

© 2014

Next Post: “Living in a Multicultural World”, to be published on Wednesday 29th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


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