Does hearing a particular song ever twirl you around by the heels, throwing you and your world view off kilter, revealing another dimension to existence? Of course. In that way, many songs act as a form of transport, refracting not only the sounds in our ears and the light before our eyes, but our very thinking in an unexpected and unique fashion, moving us beyond our usual perspective.
I have had kaleidoscopic (or kaleidophonic?) experiences with a number of the songs in this playlist, but let me recount just one, the so-called “Sukiyaki Song,” as an example:
I was riding alone with my father in the family car, circa 1963, at about age 7 or 8, on our way to the Perry County Golf Course, when I first heard “Sukiyaki” (or “Ue o Muite” by Kyu Sakamoto). Even now, 50 years later, I recall how impressed I was by the arrangement, by the singer’s sweet voice and amazing whistling, and by his words, in a language I had never heard:
Ue o muite arukou
Namida ga kobore naiyouni
Hitoribotchi no yoru….
While I couldn’t understand the lyrics, hearing such a song, one that was both “foreign” and yet familiar at the same time, startled me — turning my world upside down, a fact that might be reflected in me eventually residing in Japan for 17 years, and in the way that the Sukiyaki melody has stayed with me (and with millions of other listeners) all these years.
Other songs in this set provide the listener with the same sort of exhilaration. Reach into the depths of Jeff Buckley’s passion as he presents the Cohen classic “Hallelujah” or imbibe the elegaic beauty of Paul Desmond’s alto sax in the “Theme from ‘Black Orpheus’,” and contemplate the impact that these songs have had on listeners since their release. Ride on the melodic waves created between Niladri Kumar’s sitar strokes and Talvin Singh’s beats in “River” or on the chanting pulse of The Congos mystical “Congoman,” and try not to be moved! Then sing along with Francis Magalona in “Kaleidoscope World,” and see if you don’t feel part of the Big Picture.
Whether by inciting an “aha” moment, initiating a series of inescapable body gyrations, or simply giving a person pause from the daily routine, many a song has such potential. That’s the bewildering power of music.
Check out this varied set, and see if you agree. And as always, enjoy!
It’s mid 2012, and there’s roots reggae playing tonight, as happens every Saturday night, in the Hotel Santa Fe Bar & Grill. But this isn’t a dislocated place in New Mexico, nor is it throwback Jamaica — I’m beachside on the island of Guam, seven hours west of Honolulu / three hours east of Manila. High tide or low tide.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Bob Marley & the Wailers first popularized reggae worldwide, 30 years have passed since Bob moved on to that big sunsplash in the sky, and you can still hear Jamaican-based ska, rock steady, reggae and dub emanating from sound systems and stages in every corner of the globe.
A few years back, while living in rural Akita-ken, in northwest Japan, I used to hang out in Bliss, a street-corner drinking spot in the picturesque coastal city of Honjo. What I recall most about Bliss are three things: the long blonde dreadlocks of the Japanese surfer-dude bar master, the complete Marley oeuvre on display in CD form, and — if I remember correctly through the haze of time — an Olympic-size rasta flag (with a cannabis leaf) unfurled in the shop’s front window. To top it off, the music was invariably a soul rebel soundtrack.
We’ve all heard reggae, even those among us who still don’t quite get it. Wherever you stand though, you have to be amazed by the quantity and quality of music that has originated in Jamaica. When I visited in the late 70s, the 11,000 sq kilometer island was home to a mere 2,000,000 people (in contrast to tiny Singapore’s 2.2 million at the same time). But what a dynamic musical culture!
While I might have been oblivious to the power of reggae in 1979 (sure, I’d seen Peter Tosh in concert, but that was only because he played as an opener for the Stones), what stands out in retrospect is that no matter where I was in the west of the island — strolling through the street market in Negril, catching sunset at Rick’s Cafe on the West End Cliffs, or lounging somewhere along the infamous 7 Mile Beach — reggae was pulsing from ghetto blasters and PAs alike, and everyone within earshot was grinding their hips.
What I didn’t know at that time was that Jamaica was home to hundreds of competing recording labels and studios. One label, Island, was the world’s leading indie music brand back in the 70s, and is now a mainstay under Universal. Sound studios such as Studio One, Treasure Isle, and The Ark, the home base of early Wailers’ producer Lee Perry, made an impact through both the music and the mythology that grew alongside it. (Remember, The Ark was allegedly burnt to the ground in a splif-inspired fire, ignited by Perry himself.)
There were also thousands of professional musicians in Jamaica during that era, a good number achieving international renown, all the while leaving us with a huge catalogue of classic recordings. Many of those included astute social commentary, with others being playful or self-mocking. Performances were typically soulful and heart-felt.
This episode’s set includes an array of songs, mainly from the 70s, with lesser-known artists like Tinga Stewart and The Uniques represented beside well-established singers such as Desmond Dekker and Max Romeo. It also presents more recently released numbers with a clear Jamaican connection, starting with a pair by Abyssinia Infinite (showcasing percussionist Karsh Kale, the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, and the fine singer Gigi), a bouncing social critique by Tiken Jah Fakoly from Cote d’Ivoire, and a party song by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars.
This is the first in a number of episodes dedicated to all and anything ska-ish and reggaesque. Bliss indeed.
It was supposedly Pythagoras who realized that the pitch of a musical sound was in proportion to the length of string that produces it. He also apparently understood that basic numerical ratios can be found in the intervals of harmonious sound frequencies. With these ideas in mind, he went a step further and proposed that the sun, moon and various planets each produce their own tones, which are in relation to their orbits and the distances between each other. Mother Earth and the quality of life of its inhabitants would naturally be affected by the music of these spheres.
Well, I can dig that. Again, I’m reveling in sunset at one of the beach-front tables at the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, on Tumuning Bay, Guam. I’ve mentioned this place in the previous episode. The bay is at high tide this evening, and pretty much empty except for a trio of local fellows casting a net for what catch I don’t know (I haven’t seen a fish longer than an inch during my forays into the water). Beside them, there’s a young loving couple cam-whoring, and further down the beach a slightly hunched Korean or Japanese lady apparently trying to train her Chihuahua to swim. I’m dry yet enjoying the restaurant’s sesame-tinged Tuna Poki, and a cold Stella Artois, but things are far from perfect — the background noise sucks.
What is it about so many of these paradisical drinking establishments and their bad taste in musical entertainment that riles me? (I must ask now for you to forgive my irritation, and my pretension.) Just above the bar is a 36-inch TV delivering raunchy music videos (which segue into Major League Baseball by 8pm). At the same time and in distinct counterpoint, the bar’s stereo system belts out tunes as improbable as ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” and “American Woman” by the Guess Who. Clearly, somebody in management needs a lesson on more appropriate ambient music. (I’m preaching to the converted if you are a regular listener at Radio Moka.)
How rare it is for a “rock free” playlist to appear in paradise. I think back, recalling when and where a beachside establishment bucked the trend and played music that seemed to fit the scene: Mykonos, Greece, 1979 — the master of a small tavern that served killer ouzo introduced me to the wizardry of two true guitar heroes, Paco de Lucia and Baden Powell.
Praia do Meco, the nude beach on Costa de Caparica just south of Lisbon, Portugal, 1981 or so — an airy cabana serving beers also had a cassette player, where for the first time I heard the lyrical voice of Brazilian Milton Nascimento.
Perhentian Island, on the northeast coast of Malaysia, early 1990s — a sandy tie-dye place called Coco Hut, wedged between three gargantuan boulders and canopied with dried coconut fronds, served Alpha Blondy’s reggae and jazz by the likes of Stan Getz amidst a buffet of catch-of-the-day curry and grilled barracuda. That all made perfect sense.
This week’s set is yet another foray into background ambient consultancy. I’ve purposefully kept the focus on Latin, Brasilian and African-based rhythms, each song with a clear tropical vibe. If only I were in charge here at the bar & grill, what magical musical majesty I might suggest.
But now the sun is blazing a bit too brightly (yep, blinding me) as it begins its dip into the Philippine Sea; the Earth seems still for a second, and good, as she grinds inexorably along her axis.
Happily, I imagine other realities, parallel universes, where no music is ever overplayed, where Anglo-American rock, rap and pop are kept at bay, and where every beachside bar and grill gets its sound just right —- in accordance with the music of the spheres.