Sunday 13 January 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A recent, marvellously written essay by the US-based, British writer Zadie Smith had me reliving memories of how I discovered and became keen on rock in mid to late 80s Havana. Smith’s article, entitled Some Notes on Attunement: A voyage around Joni Mitchell, was published in The New Yorker and was part of my holiday reading. Although I only came across Joni’s music some a few years after I found rock'nroll, I came across via Big Yellow Taxi, Some Notes on Attunement… dealt with themes with which I was able to identify.

For instance in Zadie’s household her parents “loved music, as I love music, but you couldn't call any of us whatever the plural of "muso" is. The Smiths owned no rare tracks, no fascinating B-sides (and no records by the Smiths). We wanted songs that made us dance, laugh, or cry”. Likewise in my house, my parents played music (mainly traditional Cuban music) that was mainly uncomplicated and had a beat to it. My father, being a pianist with his own band when I was little, would segue from a piece by Chopin (a composer with his own groove in my humble opinion) to one by the late Cuban virtuoso Ernesto Lecuona seamlessly. So, like Zadie and her family who had Ella and Aretha, we had Benny Moré and the Martí sisters.

It was whilst at secondary school that my musical landscape was altered forever. A girlfriend, her sailor father, an old record player and a bunch of albums by the likes of Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were the launchpad from where I dived headfirst into the world of rock’n’roll. With the passing of time I came to the realisation that this was the music my younger thirteen-year-old-almost-fourteen was searching for then. It was different for the college girl Zadie Smith, though. She had Blackstreet and Aaliyah, but couldn’t quite dig Joni the first time around. Nor for many years after for that matter.

It was during a trip to Wales that the British author – already in her early thirties and accompanied by her poet husband – “got” Ms Mitchell. But not without first putting up a fight. Joni’s music had been an unwelcome companion throughout much of the journey. In vain she had pleaded with her consort to let her change the “bloody piping” that was getting on her nerves so much. And then it happened. The driver stopped at Tintern Abbey. The change of scenery, the quietness of the place and the closeness to nature all contributed to Zadie’s epiphany:

We parked; I opened a car door onto the vast silence of a valley. I may not have had ears, but I had eyes. I wandered inside, which is outside, which is inside. I stood at the east window, feet on the green grass, eyes to the green hills, not contained by a non-building that has lost all its carved defences. Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below, open to precisely those elements it had once hoped to frame for pious young men, as an object for their patient contemplation”.

Nowadays Ms Smith cries when she hears Joni Mitchell. She’s usually overcome by emotion, which means she doesn’t think she’s capable of listening to the Canadian singer songwriter in a room with other people or on her iPod whilst walking the streets. Just imagine the spectacle! The author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man reduced to tears over her love of a singer she used to hate.

This kind of musical epiphany tends to arrive when our defences are down. I had a similar one to Zadie. Aged seventeen, a friend of mine took me to the International Havana Jazz Festival in 1989. I, reluctantly, agreed to go with him. At the time, though, my world was more Guns’n’Roses than Irakere. However, with my defences down, jazz not only broke through but also fixed its abode inside me and became overnight one of my favourite genres. It still is. One of my most vivid memories from that first night at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza was watching the great trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (a year before he defected to the US) blowing the audience away with his prowess. It helped that back in those years my mind was focused on other kinds of beauty as well. I was beginning to find my own voice through the literature I read and the movies I watched. Music, therefore, was the next logical addition.

Zadie’s piece is not just about Joni Mitchell’s presence in the Brit’s life. Smith also discusses Seneca and Kierkegaard, the latter’s Exordium (Attunement) providing the title for the essay. However, you could say that the essence of her article is an attempt to explain why sometimes we’re overcome by epiphanies, like the one she underwent with Joni Mitchell and the one I experienced with jazz.

Many people come up with resolutions for the New Year. I have never, to my knowledge, adopted a similar approach but if there’s one goal that I’ve inadvertently set for myself for many years – ever since that first night at the International Havana Jazz Festival – it has been to keep an open-mind about life, specifically art, in the same way Joni Mitchell’s open-tuned compositions changed Zadie Smith’s mind. In her case, though, with a little help from a Welsh abbey.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 16th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Thanks for the link to the essay. I've been a fan of Mitchell for as long as I can remember and an admirer of some of Smith's work so look forward to reading this later over a cup of something.

  2. Ok, I'm going to have to listen to some Joni Mitchell again to figure out what I didn't get the first time.


  3. nice....first album i ever owned was zztop's eliminator....i was pretty big in the metal scene back then shortly after....used to go all over for concerts once i could was much more classical in the home i grew up in...

  4. sure is a powerful force, isn't it!? I'm always amazed at the emotions a song can stir..and the memories!

  5. Really enjoyed the video. Joni Mitchell was such a strong influence in my younger years. I'm going to read more of Smith's work. Thanks for the introduction to her. Hope you are having a great Sunday!

  6. Ah musical epiphanies! Interesting story about Zadie. I grew up singing Joni's song around the campfire so my love for her music is linked to those fond memories. I actually prefer her songs best when they are sung with just acoustic guitar. Her recordings can sound too synthesized and busy for my taste.

    Nice to have you back to blogging!

  7. I am beyond frustrated. For some reason I can get no sound from the video. I will keep trying.
    I love your open mind approach - I think it is the only way to experience life, in all its magic. Great post - thank you.

  8. Love Sadie Smith and love this post about music.

  9. A beautifully told story with a great meaning. We do need to keep an open mind ... to allow for the rare epiphany!

  10. Yes, I think music is the one art that is truly universal- it can cross boundaries that the other arts can't. If, in some future life, I can choose a talent, it would be the gift of writing beautiful music that can speak in unexpected ways to those with open hearts and souls. :)

  11. Keeping an open mind is the best policy indeed, not making any stupid resolutions like it is some magic day. Songs can sure bring about much too!

  12. ha - chopin is surely a composer with his own groove..i think everyone of us have that songs and music that touches them in a unique wonderful

  13. Superb voice! And having dipped into the essay, am very excited about the prospect of reading it through. Massive thanks for both.

  14. I couldn't agree more about the open mind. Much of the music I've come to love, though it has existed for many years (and many of those before my own existence) has been "discovered" by me since turning 50. If your mind is open.. ears and eyes can't be far behind. A fine post.

  15. It's not easy to be open. I need that letting-go moment and chance to conspire.

    Zadie Smith has a super piece in the recent issue of The New York Review of Books. I think you'll like it.

    Greetings from South Beach . . .

  16. In my experience, an open mind leads to an open heart.
    And an open heart leads to genuine fulfillment.

    Such an amazing voice, absolutedly magical!
    Many thanks for sharing :)

  17. Just what the doctor ordered!
    Yes, we must keep an open mind/heart, and embrace the many truths around us. I grew up with Elvis and rock and roll. In my thirties, teaching in a little town in the deep South, a student of mine sat outside the classroom waiting for class to start playing a harmonica.
    From that day on, that Blues tune took me searching for more.

  18. Many thanks for your kind words. Like Zadie, I didn't get Joni at first. But I have been the proud owner of the Hejira album for a few good years now. Plus a compilation. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  19. I haven't listened to Blue in ages, but I will again now. I have been enjoying the best of Coltrane lately.

    I didn't make any resolutions but I did vaguely decide~in general~to hang out more when I happen upon ethereal and/or inner beauty.

    I popped over from Brian's blog.~Mary



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