Sunday 20 December 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One of my favourite lines from a song ever comes towards the end of Billy Joel's 'New York State of Mind', the fourth track from his 1976 album 'Turnstiles'. It goes like this: "I'm just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson river line (piano-pounding, momentum building)/ 'cause I'm in (the piano pirouttes mischievously)/I'm in a New York (this is the moment when Richie Cannata's saxophone spirals up and down melodically) state of... (half a second silence) mind... (the whole band comes back for the finale)."

I have often wondered why I like this section of that song so much when I have never been to New York - though, I'd love to -, I have never got on a Greyhound bus and I don't even know what the Hudson river looks like (though I'm under the impression it's quite long and broad). Some of the theories I have come up with are: Billy's tribute to his hometown echoes my feelings for my beloved Havana, the Greyhound serves almost four thousand destinations in the US, thus, symbolising adventure and the open road for me; and the same goes for the Hudson river with its expansive mass of water.

But apparently there's more to my fondness for this song than I first realised. According to research conducted by the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human Development and London-based chamber group, the Nash Ensemble (The New Statesman, 31st August, 2009), we, human beings, seem to have a built-in sense of musical harmony that allows us to engage in producing and/or listening to music. And I can hear all of you singing like a one-voice choir: But we knew that/after all, music is a universal language. I'm afraid there wasn't any effort on my part to get those verses to rhyme. Apologies.

I agree with your above refrain, of course, but there was one element, amongst some others that Guy Dammann lists in his excellent article, that attracted my attention straight away. It was the fact that music affects the amygdala, the part of one's brain that is involved in emotions of fear and aggression. And although that might not explain, at first sight, my penchant for that particular line of 'New York State of Mind' (hostility=love?) it might clarify why my hearing Billy singing that verse brings such a raw response in me. In my case, as a person living abroad now, my tension and dissonance manifest themselves in occasional displays of melancholy and nostalgia (I call them my fado moods, after the Portuguese musical genre), which obviously trigger off the need to listen to a particular kind of music.

It was in this situation, also, that I found myself recently after visiting Pilgrim Soul, one of my favourite blogs. This space is the domain of the Puerto Rican-born, US writer Judith Mercado and on it she discusses issues such as: identity, literature and music. It was the latter on which one of her recent posts touched when she uploaded a clip of a famous Puerto Rican song, 'Lamento Boricano' accompanied by an exquisite write-up about the sources of inspiration for one of her novels and the reasons as to why this particular track had been chosen. What could have been a totally personal experience (hers) became a shared tear-jerking moment (for me). I last heard 'Lamento Boricano' when I still lived in Cuba and I cannot even remember by whom, however, that was beside the point when I watched the video. What happened after can only be illustrated through Guy Dammann's explanation in the aforementioned feature: 'the significance of musical sound derives from the representation of that most elusive of all structures: the human subject itself.'

To wit: Judith Mercado and I had just shared a subjective moment together, steeped in our common history. We both come from the same neck of the woods, Latin America, and 'Lamento Boricano' had helped bring that cultural experience closer.

Of course, it helped that the song de marras was sung in Spanish. What happens, though, when we are touched by a composition written and performed in a language we don't understand? Does it still move us? Again, I agree with Guy when he states that 'when we hear music, we hear that another sensitive being is present. The proof of this is, in the best tradition, strictly empirical: people have been discerning this in the music they love for centuries.'

Personally, what both research and essay showed me is that music truly is the universal language and Guy's essay confirms that suspicion. I have known people who don't like visual arts at all, or can't stand dance. I've met others for whom cinema is irrelevant, but I have never heard of someone who doesn't like music, and I mean, someone who doesn't like any musical style. The world of harmonies might be linked to the area in our brain that guarantees our survival, but we can certainly vouch for the safety and warmth we find in its bosom even if one has never taken a Greyhound on the Hudson river line.

And to prove or disprove Guy's theory about music being a universal language, my clip today is a classic from that revered Catalán singer, Joan Manuel Serrat. Whilst going through some of my previous posts recently - yes, I do that every now and then so as to avoid repetition - I was struck by my sheer hypocrisy. There I was, a few weeks ago, ranting and raving against the classics' dictator and his monoculture, and yet, I am also guilty of contributing to that phenomenon. Most of the clips I upload on this blog are in English. I know why, of course. My blog is in English, most of the readers are English-speakers (in fact, bar a couple of them now, most fellow Cubans have deserted me, [sobs]) and I live in an English-speaking country. But still, I think my little Iberoamerican corner should be promoted more. That's why, in order to redress this imbalance and after seriously berating myself, I will be posting music in Spanish and Portuguese more often. I hope you will still enjoy it and more importantly, understand it. Although, taking into account the song below, that will sometimes be a hard task even for Spanish speakers.

'El Romance de Curro "El Palmo"' deals with the eternal topic of unrequited love but in this case the ending is quite sad and tragic. Curro, a fake Gypsy, loves Merceditas, who works as a cloakroom assistant. The latter elopes with a doctor and Curro dies of love. Quite simple, really. But if there's an aspect of Serrat's songbook and poetry on which we, fans, can always count is the lack of simplicity in his melodies. His songs are powerful vehicles that travel the whole gamut of human experience, from sheer regional patriotism (cor, the guy was born in Barcelona, you don't get any more patriotic than that, all right, then, since you insist, Basques, too, have that local pride embedded in their DNA) to sublime romanticism ('Penélope' and 'Lucía' come to mind). So, 'Romance...' goes beyond the traditional tale of unreturned passion and delivers an emotional, poetic narrative, teeming with themes such as: class, deceit, manhood ('Y Curro se muerde/los labios y calla/pues no hizo la mili/por no dar la talla') and the afterlife. For Spanish speakers, who, as I was, are at a loss over some of the terms Serrat uses in the song, find below a little glossary for you. And I hope you enjoy the clip. Many thanks.

Pegarse el piro: To leave, to escape.
Marcial Lafuente Estefanía: Prolific writer of cheap western novels.
Cura- pupas: Doctor.
Palmar o palmarla: To die, in this case 'Curro fue palmando', Curro was dying.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'El Último Trago'(Review), to be published on Wednesday 23rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting what you say about music. I often think of it as a sort of "time machine" too: hearing music that's years -or hundreds of years- old can really take you back in a very vivid way. You have not only impression of a "sensitive being" being present but also one of the age they lived in.

  2. Music is a universal language, indeed! I do know that, although I don't speak every language in the world, I can enjoy music from just about anywhere, regardless of the language of the lyrics. I think that the key element that hooks us in music is that subjective element you spoke about sharing with Judith through your exchange. When we find something in a song or composition that we can relate to or react to in an emotional way, something that brings back a memory, or makes us think about someone or something we like to think about, even if that memory or thought is sad, as long as we are reacting with our emotions we feel like we have found a piece of ourselves in that music - and we like it.

    By the way, your song clip was gorgeous. I don't speak Spanish but I do understand it to a great extent because it's so close to Italian and French, but although I missed some of the words and phrases, the music, the voice, the words... something, or several things, worked together and allowed me to establish a connection with this piece of music and voice. Thank you for an excellent post, Cuban!


  3. Very interesting post Cuban. When you think of it, at the most primal moments in human existence sounds automatically emerge in response. Those sounds are musical. For example: the cooing we do as we gaze in our newborn's eyes; the wailing we do at the death of those we hold dear; the giggles we emit when embarrassed; the growl heard in our voice when our boundaries have been violated. They are all musical and they all perform the vital function of release of emotion and the communication to others of what our being is experiencing.

    It would not take long for the human brain to extend these fundamental sounds and expressions into melodies and then to add lyrics to further express the emotion in the moment.

    Music is primal and visceral. Music can emerge from a mood and a mood can be evoked by music. Clearly, we are wired to emit and receive sounds - and look at what the human mind has done with that capacity - your musical selection makes that point.

    Our brains are wired too to receive and appreciate music. Look at how we seek out a babbling brook, children laughing, a birdsong; how we are silent before the roar of crashing waves and the grumble of thunder in the skies. Our composed human-made music references all that has been provided in nature. How glorious!!

  4. To punish me for various crimes, my computer refuses to make sounds from blogs (sobs). Somehow this problem has to be solved so that I may partake. But yesterday, on NPR, I heard Bob Dylan singing a christmas carol in his perfectly terrible voice. I know that I was supposed to hate it, since that was the purpose for which it was being played, but I loved his croaking, recognizable immediately. But was it music?
    thank you, Cuban...

  5. Cuban - you obviously have struck a chord in my little brain! :0) I was just thinking how rhythm is such a primal thing too - and, therefore a component of what attracts us to music. If you think of some of the world's great religions.....the adherents rock while saying their prayers. Rhythmic and bilateral movements can evoke mystical states. Music that offers the rhythm to which our bodies can move, resonates with a primal need to balance our brain hemispheres. We really are hard-wired to respond to all the magical components of what we call music. I will stop now. I promise!

  6. Thank you very much, Cuban, for discussing your experience with Lamento Borincano and for linking to my blog. Music does seem to penetrate an emotional center which defies time and space. Your last post by Zadie Smith discussed the obligation of the writer, reader, and critic to access our “deepest self.” When I write fiction, playing relevant background music, more than any other tool, enables me to bypass my usual cognitive gatekeepers and get to the emotional core of a scene. It is almost as if music was the original language which we subsequently coded into its numerous manifestations. Something of the original still lingers, though, enabling a communication never accomplished by the erstwhile universal language of Esperanto or, for example, by English despite its global reach. Loved the Joan Manuel Serrat clip, BTW.

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    I'm sorry,Melissa, for your ordeal with your computer. I hope the situation improves soon, that's a beautiful song you're missing out on. And as for Dylan singing Christmas carols, well, I think that I'd rather listen to him singing 'Masters of War'. :-)

    Bonnie, you expanded beautifully on my original post. Many thanks.

    Nevine, you have vindicated me. I felt a bit apprehensive about uploading a video in Spanish so hard to understand (although there's a high quality option). But Serrat's feelings come through very strongly.

    Dominic, many thanks for you cotnribution. It was much appreciated.

    Judith, I love your blog, it was an honour to have been featured on it yesterday.

    I have just arrived from a day out in one of my favourite places in London: Brick Lane. Now it's time for a hot drink, chocolate cake and 'Being Julia' on the DVD player.

    Have a great week you all.

    Greetings from London.

  8. I so enjoyed reading this, and your blog is marvelous.

  9. I enjoyed reading this post, music does that for me too - creates for 'occasional melancholy and nostalgia', but for me it's got nothing to do with living abroad .. the music just links up with old memories and brings me back to different moments in time.. I have little experience with non-English music, little bit of Latin from Church music but there is a magic in each piece of music.
    Thank you

  10. Always fascinating, your posts - and often leave me wondering ab out something I thought I knew. Sure MUSIC is a universal language, though a particular piece of music might not be... might it?

  11. Visiting via Ocean Girl....

    What an erudite blog you have. I love learning new things, so I'll be back.

  12. It was quite a revelation but you're absolutely right: I've never met anyone who wouldn't like music!

    I love that song too, The New York State of Mind, it really is a state of mind and I think it'll leave a deep impression on you when you finally see it. And I suspect it's the only city that explains the hostility=love equilibrium, you can't help but love it however much you hate its vertical lines, noise and business.

    Have a great Christmas

  13. Many thanks for your kind feedback. And here's a Christmas treat from me. If you live in the UK, and if you liked the recent series on writing by Zadie Smith uploaded on this blog, pick up the latest issue of Prospect magazine. There is a wonderful essay by Zadie called 'That Crafty Feeling'. I haven't finished it yet but I am loving it.

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  14. Siempre me gusta la musiquita que compartes con nosotros.

  15. I totally agree Cubano, music speaks many languages across many cultures. I too have fado moods, mostly while listening to music steeped in African rhythms.

  16. Gorgeous ! sin ti no entiendo el despertar...que bello y el piano es divino
    Queria felicitarte unas muy felices navidades llenas de paz, amor y claro musica y letras !!
    Un abrazo muy fuerte desde Andalusia...

  17. As a New Yorker, I find the interludes and silences in the song capture so much of New York's essence. One always thinks of the hustle and bustle of The City, but there are beautiful moments of silence, and the song evokes them perfectly.

  18. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Hello London,
    You may have already come across the book 'Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy' by the science writer Robert Jourdain, but if not, I recommend it highly. For someone so interested in music generally, and how it affects us, I think you would find it quite fascinating.

  20. It is so nice to come into your blog and read all your wonderful posts - this one in particular "struck a note" with me. I grew up with that Billy Joel song in the back of my mind, almost like a personal theme song. I'm two hours from NYC, visit as much as I can - and i've always been inlove with the city - it's exciting but also melancholic just like the song. thanks for writing this post!

    Random note - years ago I saw Billy in concert - in London of all places!

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