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