Here are the five recorded songs that affected me the most in 2019, continuing on from last night's post:
3 January 2020
- 5 - Dela by Johnny Clegg & Savuka from the album Cruel Crazy Beautiful World (1989). I didn't know what this song was until January 30, 2019, so it barely made the 2019 list. But, just like Travelin' Man, it was one of those songs I knew in the dark corners of my brain from when I was a kid. This time, it was thanks to one of my parents' favorite movies: George of the Jungle. I'd also heard Dela dozens of other times throughout my life but always just thought "yeah - that song - it's good." I first knew who Johnny Clegg was in late 2018 when I found his epic (in the literary sense) song Impi and thought it was utterly bad ass. I heard a lot more of his music throughout 2019 - he's a lot like Mathias Duplessy and the artist I want to become in the way he melts musics and cultures together and creates something awesome. Johnny Clegg was particularly good, timely, and fortunate enough to have a significant impact on the world around him, becoming a major part of the anti-apartheid surge. A beautiful moment in the history of pop music occurred when Nelson Mandela snuck up behind him on stage to dance along to Asimbonanga, Clegg's song about Nelson Mandela. Ironically, the title of that song (meaning "We have not seen him") refers to how Clegg and South Africans of his age grew up in a time when possessing the image of Nelson Mandela was punishable by prison time and they literally never saw him. Clegg got to make up for it with a hell of a view at that concert in Frankfurt in 1999. Dela is a hype song. Jungle calypso keys. Driving bass drum. background choir effects that almost sound like they were lifted for the soundtracks for the Halo video games. The lyrics make up one of those perfectly non-sappy love songs that also include some lines that can just be general motivational phrases: "I've been waiting for you all my life / waiting for redemption." It also includes some of Clegg's stunningly poetic nature references - especially the frequent-flyer "I think I know why the dog howls at the moon." Damn - I wanna know that, too. Johnny Clegg crossed the burning sea on July 16, 2019, passing into legend. This song is definitely one of the highlights of his personal epic, and I'll carry it with me on mine.
- 4 - Tonada de Luna Llena, originally by Simon Diaz (a recording of his version can be found on the album Tonadas from 1974) and covered by Natalia Lafourcade on her album Musas. I first noticed this song when I was playing my vinyl version of Musas, probably near the end of 2018. But it was in 2019 that I realized just how incredible this song is. It's become one of my favorites of Natalia's and when I discovered the original version it just added depth. The crazy part is, I'm pretty sure Simon Diaz did a lot of comedic stuff (a genuine Venezuelan Roger Miller). This song, however, starts with the line "Yo vide una garza mora dandole combate un rio / asi es como se enamora tu corazon con el mio" (I saw a black heron giving combat to a river / this is how your heart falls in love with mine). Whatever that means, it's not funny. If you ask me, it's about as deep as the Rio Grande, or even the Grand Canyon. I don't know much, but I know it's even more beautiful in the original Spanish than in the translation. And when it's sung with an offbeat quarter-note triplet over a Spanish-guitar-esque 3/4 it's even more maravillosa. Listen to the original by Diaz, then listen to Lafourcade's. Notice how the male accompanying Lafourcade (whoever it is - maybe one of the Macorinos) is basically singing the same part as Diaz and Lafourcade (usually) harmonizes with it. In a ghostly way, she's basically singing along with the musical spirit of Simon Diaz left behind when he passed away in 2014. If you want to hear me sing this over guitar or marimba, I can now. Because I love this song.
- Now for everyone who knows me and is saying, "where is all the mbira dawg?" You're about to get set straight with that song I posted about just a couple days ago. You've got another chance to go listen to it now:
- 3 - No Pain No Gain by Shava Mbira Band on their album No Pain No Gain (2011). Start listening to it here while you read this. Wait for the sound of the mbira to let you get comfortable and then ... "whoa ... is that an Australian lady ... just reading a poem?" It's a meaningful poem for starters, but then "whoa ... whoa ... now there's a guy singing? Jimminy Crickets. Am I being eaten alive by this sonic phenomenon?" Yes. You are. The mbira timbre is beautifully rustic. To me, it sounds like 68*, sunny, with the windows down, driving through the North Texas suburbs, having some sort of feeling of home being nearby, but knowing that "home" is transitive. And if you ask "is that really a sound?" you're clearly not listening to the song like I told you to. I discovered No Pain No Gain when I went on an mbira bender right at the beginning of 2019. I think I was in another down spell back then and all that mbira music brought me out of it. When I heard No Pain No Gain for the first time, I felt motivated. The last time I heard No Pain No Gain in 2019, I thought "Wow. That first time I thought I was the man version of the young boy. I reminisced. But now I feel the message even more, because I've done a lifetime's worth of growing in 2019. And it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone through all that pain. Troubles with women. Troubles with my career. DENGUE FRICKING FEVER. More troubles with women. Crushing self-doubt. Suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Fear. Counseling. Hope. Motivation. Real gain. From real pain. Shava was right all along.
- 2 - Castles Made of Sand by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from the album Axis: Bold as Love (1967) and first heard by myself as a cover by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their cover was released in 2006 as a bonus track addition to the iTunes version of their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (originally released in 1991). If you haven't heard this song in any of its iterations, you really are missing out. The lyrics are apparently somewhat autobiographical (for Hendrix - probably just the first verse, because Hendrix was neither an Indian Brave or a Girl in a Wheelchair, as far as I'm aware). Each verse tells a tale as old as time summarized in the line from William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" (that then became the title of Kwame Nkrumah's masterpiece novel that inspired what is likely the most important album by hip hop band The Roots, who have been performing as Jimmy Fallon's house band for a while now): Things Fall Apart. Hendrix's rendition of the idea is "Castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually." When I finally figured out what Anthony Kiedis was saying, it burned me to the core. I won't throw myself anymore pity party because by now you know, I've had quite a few castles slip into the sea right when I thought they were getting grand. But before I could figure out the lyrics, I had to cut through the fat, fat, FAT bass licks and overwhelming groove that the instruments provide throughout the song. It's jut so fat. The Experience's recording is also hot, but not quite as fat. They seem to be going more for the traditional Jimi grind: quick, slick, grimy, and just the right amount of heavy. I like Kiedis' vocals better, but obviously the Experience has better guitar licks. Castles Made of Sand told me to get on a bus that took me to the Jimi Hendrix Greatest Hits station, where I became acquainted with Little Wing, which is undoubtedly my favorite of his songs. If you're a Hendrix fan and you hate me for that, I'm sorry, I'm just kinda sappy, ya know? I dig that sort of stuff. And the Drum fills - god dang. Safe to say, listening to Castles Made of Sand probably 40 times on repeat over a couple day span during one of the most stressful weeks, thanks to work and my personal life, of 2019, rocketed the song up to the top of this list on the same Golden Wing Ship that the girl in the wheelchair saw when she was on the edge of the shore, laughing at her legs because she knew they wouldn't hurt her no more.
- NUMBER ONE - ZVICHAPERA by Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited (you can find a recording on the 2000 compilation Chimurenga Explosion) and covered by probably a dozen artists, none more important for me than Chiwoniso who recorded it three months before she passed away in 2013 (and the recording was not released until 2015). Chiwoniso is one of the artists I discovered on my early-2019 mbira bender and you'll hear about some of her albums in the forthcoming post(s) about my favorite albums of 2019. Dr. Thomas Mapfumo is basically Zimbabwe's version of both Nelson Mandela and Johnny Clegg wrapped into one person. He is the founder of the movement of Chimurenga music, which takes the Shona name for the Rhodesian Bush War (and later incidents of popular unrest directed towards the government of Zimbabwe). For those who don't know, you can call it Zimbabwe's Reggae, but stop calling it that quick because it deserves to be understood as a style all its own. The big idea is mixing the traditional Shona music and its main instrument (my favorite instrument in all the universe), the mbira, with rock and roll instrumentation. It works. Like really well. I actually got to see Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited perform live at SMU when I was there, before Robert Mugabe relinquished his control over their home country. Mapfumo and his band were brought in by the Anthropology Department and barely anyone from the music school knew about it. [Insert Trump "SAD" tweet]. I'm generally obsessed with mbira music, and I generally listen to stuff from Zimbabwe, which is generally in the Shona language. This sucks a lot because I don't know what they're saying and usually can't sing along. But it's great because it proves just how powerful music is as a bridge between cultures and languages. I don't give a rat's hand grenade what they're saying. I can tell exactly WHAT THEY'RE FEELING and that's even more important. I heard Chiwoniso's rendition of Zvichapera before I heard Mapfumo's. His is classic. Fantastic. Chimurenga through and through. Her's is a stripped down, mbira-focused arrangement with a pair of vocalists: Chiwoniso herself and a guy who sounds like he could've sang the part of the big bassy fish in The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea." I honestly think it's better than Mapfumo's. It's more intimate, and I love the bass notes of an mbira when they're properly amplified more than most things on the Earth. Remember that this is a posthumously-released recording, then listen to the end of the track where the song ends, the last mbira notes fade, and then Chiwoniso and her recording partner have a giggle-fest, Chiwoniso says something in Shona, and then it cuts to black. If that's not heart-wrenching, then you need a better plumber. I could listen to this song on repeat for a decade. Probably in large part because I could never replicate the majesty of that song myself. There's a lot of great music out there that I hear and think - "wow that's awesome" - and then I learn to play it myself and the awesomeness melts into my own ego, because deep down I know I'm actually pretty darn good. Most of the songs on this list are here because I couldn't stop listening to them, because they have some sort of magic that is heretofore beyond my understanding. Beyond my musical language. I can love it. I can bury myself in it's welcoming folds. But I can't replicate it. At least not yet. Zvichapera, though ... I don't think I'll ever fully understand that song. And that's why it mesmerizes me so. And it's moments, songs, pieces, recordings, performances, &c. that mesmerize me, that are my reason for loving music.
3 January 2020