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