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The rhythms of listening

For Yasmine Hamdan, singer

When I was watching and listening to you perform last week, Yasmine, I had an impulse to draw you — an absurd impulse because it was too dark. I couldn’t see the sketchbook on my knees. At moments I scribbled without looking down or taking my eyes off you.

There’s a rhythm in these scribbles — as though my pen were accompanying your voice. But a pen isn’t a harmonica or a drum, and now in the silence my scribbles mean almost nothing.

You were wearing red high-heeled shoes, black leggings, a dark-brownish, half-transparent T-shirt with padded shoulders, and an orange shawl the color of apricots. You looked as though you weighed very little — dry, sparse, like a perpetual wanderer.

Drawing by the author

Drawing by the author

When you began to sing, you changed. Your entire body, no longer dry, was filled with sound, as a bottle can be filled to overflowing with liquid. You sang in Arabic, a language I don’t understand, and yet I received each song as a complete experience.

I received each song you sang, as did a hundred or more other people, very few of whom were Arabic-speaking. We were able to share with you what you were singing. How to explain this? I’m not sure I can, but I want to make some notes.

A song, when being sung and played, acquires a body. It does this by taking over and briefly possessing existent bodies: the body of the double bass standing vertical while it’s being strummed, or the body of the harmonica cupped in a pair of hands hovering and pecking like a bird before a mouth, or the torso of the drummer as he rolls. Again and again the song takes over the body of the singer, and after a while the body of the circle of listeners who, as they listen and gesture to the song, are remembering and foreseeing.

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. While it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension, which is uniquely theirs. A song fills the present, while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, farther and farther. Without the persistence of this hope, songs would not exist. Songs lean forward.

The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time — a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.

Most songs being listened to around the world at this moment are recordings, not live performances. This means that the physical experience of sharing and coming together is less intense, but it is still there in the heart of the exchange and communication taking place.

Good mornin’, blues,
Blues, how do you do?
I’m doing all right.
Good mornin’
How are you?
 — Lead Belly

The song I most remember my mother singing is “Shenandoah.” She would sometimes sing at the end of a meal if there were guests and there was a moment of silent plenitude. She had a soft alto voice — melodious, never dramatic. The song, which was in my father’s songbook, dates from the mid-nineteenth century. The Shenandoah Valley was a site of Indian villages in Virginia and West Virginia.

O Shenandoah
I long to see you,
away you rolling river
O Shenandoah
I long to see you,
Away, I’m bound away
Across the wide Missouri.

It became a song often sung by black people because the Missouri River separated the slave-owning South of America from the North. It was also a song boatmen and sailors liked to sing. The lower reaches of the Missouri were much navigated in those days.

My mother sang it to me when I was one or two years old. Not often — it was not a ritual — and I have no precise memory of her singing to me alone. But the song was there, a mysterious object among others in the house, and I was aware of it being there — like a shirt in a wardrobe — for special occasions.

’Tis seven years
since last I’ve seen you
and hear your rolling river
’Tis seven years
since last I’ve seen you,
Away, we’re bound away.
Across the wide Missouri.

In every song there is distance. The song is not distant, but distance is one of its ingredients, just as presence is an ingredient of any graphic image. This has been true from the beginning of songs and the beginning of images.

Distance separates or can be crossed in order to bring about a coming-together. All songs are at least implicitly about journeys.

I wish I was in Carrickfergus
only for nights in Ballygrand
I would swim over the deepest ocean —
the deepest ocean — to be by your side.

Songs refer to aftermaths and returns, welcomes and farewells. Or to put it another way: songs are sung to an absence. Absence is what inspired them, and it’s what they address. At the same time (and the phrase “at the same time” takes on a special meaning here), in the sharing of the song the absence is also shared and so becomes less acute, less solitary, less silent. And this “reduction” of the original absence during the sharing of the singing, or even during the memory of the singing, is collectively experienced as something triumphant — sometimes a mild triumph, often a covert one.

“I could wrap myself,” Johnny Cash once said, “in the warm cocoon of a song and go anywhere; I was invincible.”

Flamenco performers frequently talk about el duende. Duende is a quality, a resonance, that makes a performance unforgettable. It occurs when a performer is possessed, inhabited, by a force or compulsion coming from outside her or his own self. Duende is a ghost from the past. And it’s unforgettable because it visits the present in order to address the future.

In the year 1933 the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca delivered a public lecture in Buenos Aires concerning the nature of duende. Three years later, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, he was shot by supporters of General Francisco Franco. Granada was García Lorca’s hometown.

“All the arts,” he pronounced in his lecture,

are capable of duende, but where it naturally creates most space, as in music, dance, and spoken poetry, the living flesh is needed to interpret them, since they have forms that are born and die, perpetually, and raise their contours above the precise present. . . . The duende works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand. It changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine shop, with adolescent blushes; gives a woman’s hair the odor of a midnight seaport; and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages.

There is always too much on my writing table, too many papers. The other day at the bottom of a pile I came across a postcard that a friend had sent me from Spain a few months earlier. The picture on it was a black-and-white photo of a flamenco dancer, taken by the Spanish photographer Tato Olivas, who is famous for his pictures of dancers.

When I came across this image, something triggered in my memory that I hadn’t noticed when I first saw the postcard. I waited. Then it became clear.

The photo of the young woman about to dance reminded me of a drawing of an iris, one of a series of drawings I made a couple of years earlier. I found the drawing and compared the two.

There’s something in common, an equivalence, between the geometry of the dancer’s body and the geometry of the opening flower. They have, of course, different features, but their energies — and the way they are expressed in shapes, gestures, and movements on the surface of the two images — are similar.

I scanned both images and put them together to make a diptych, which I then sent with a letter to Olivas. He replied that he had taken the photo twenty years earlier in the famous Madrid school for flamenco called Amor de Dios. It’s now closed. He never came across the dancer again and didn’t know her name.

“Academia” (detail), by Tato Olivas; drawing by the author; “Sara Baras,” by Tato Olivas

Left to right: “Academia” (detail), by Tato Olivas; drawing by the author; “Sara Baras,” by Tato Olivas

He went on to say that the “coincidence” of the two images had made him think of another photo of his that was even closer to my iris drawing — a photo of the legendary dancer Sara Baras when she was young. He sent me a print of it. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The dancer and the iris are like twins, except that one is a woman and the other a plant. You immediately assume that either the photographer or the draftsman painstakingly set out to “match” the other image. But this is not the case. The two images had never been placed side by side until now.

The likeness is inborn, as if it were genetic — which, in the normal sense of the term, it can’t be. The energy of the flamenco dance and the energy of the opening flower appear, however, to obey the same dynamic formula, to have the same pulse despite their very different timescales. Rhythmically they accompany each other, although in evolutionary terms they are far apart.

“With gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages.”

An Annunciation painted by Antonello da Messina in the 1470s is a small oil, no larger than a modest mirror above a washbasin. In it there are no angels, no Gabriel, no olive branches, no lilies, no doves. We see the Virgin close up, head and shoulders down to her waist, dressed in a blue robe and mantle. On a ledge in front of her is an open Psalter or prayer book. She has just heard the announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God. Her eyes are wide open but she is looking inward. Her lips, too, are open — she could be singing. Her hands are pressing lightly but searchingly against her bosom. It is as though they want to touch her inside.

We have noted how a song borrows existent physical bodies in order to acquire, while it’s being sung, a body of its own. The borrowed body may be that of an instrument, a single player, a group of players, a bunch of listeners. And the song shifts unpredictably from one borrowed body to another. What Antonello’s painting can remind us of is that in each case the song settles inside the body it borrows. It finds its place in the body’s guts — in the head of a drum, in the belly of a violin, in the torso or loins of a singer and listener.

The essence of songs is neither vocal nor cerebral but organic. We follow songs in order to be enclosed. We find ourselves inside a message. And this is why what songs offer is different from what is offered by any other message or form of exchange. The unsung, impersonal world remains outside, on the other surface of a placenta. All songs, even when their content or rendering is strongly masculine, operate maternally.

The words of songs are different from the words that make prose. In prose, words are independent agents; in songs, they are first and foremost the intimate sounds of their mother tongue. They signify what they signify, and at the same time they address or flow toward all the words that exist in that language.

Songs are like rivers: each follows its own course, yet all flow to the sea, from which everything came. The fact that in many languages the place where a river enters the sea is called the river’s mouth emphasizes the comparison. The waters that flow out of a river’s mouth have come from an immense elsewhere. And something similar happens with what comes out of the mouth of a song.

Much of what happens to us in life is nameless because our vocabulary is too poor. Most stories get told out loud because the storyteller hopes that the telling of the story can transform a nameless event into a familiar or intimate one.

We tend to associate intimacy with closeness and closeness with a certain sum of shared experiences. Yet in reality total strangers, who will never say a single word to each other, can share an intimacy — an intimacy contained in the exchange of a glance, a nod of the head, a smile, a shrug of a shoulder. A closeness that lasts for minutes or for the duration of a song that is being listened to together. An agreement about life. An agreement without clauses. A conclusion spontaneously shared between the untold stories gathered around the song.

Eight o’clock on a summer evening in a Métro train heading for a Parisian suburb. There are no empty seats, but the standing passengers are not crammed together. Four men in their mid-twenties are standing in a group near the sliding doors on the right-hand side of the coach, the doors that don’t open when the train is running in this direction.

One of the group is black, two are white, and the fourth is perhaps Maghrebi. I’m standing quite a distance away from them. What first catches my attention is their very visible connection and the intensity of their conversation and storytelling.

The four are casually but scrupulously dressed. Their appearance seems to matter to them even more than to most men of their age. Everything about them is alert, nothing is hangdog. The Maghrebi is wearing loose blue shorts and spotless Nikes. The black man has combed locks, the color of sandalwood, in his thick hair. All four are virile and masculine.

The train stops and a few passengers get out. I move a little closer to the quartet.

Each intervenes frequently in the recital of each of the others. There are no monologues, but equally nothing seems to be an interruption. Their fingers, very mobile, are often near their faces.

Suddenly it dawns on me that they are deaf. It was their fluency that prevented me from realizing this before.

Another station. The men find four seats together. I stand close behind them. They continue to behave as if they were alone. Yet the manner in which they decide to ignore the rest of us is a form of tact and politeness, not indifference.

I glance up and down the coach. It seems that I’m the only person who has noticed them. Occasionally one of the four grunts with laughter. Their storytelling, their commentary on events, continues. I am now watching them as curiously as they are watching one another.

Left: Virgin Annunciate, by Antonello da Messina © bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, New York City. Right: Drawing by the author

Left: Virgin Annunciate, by Antonello da Messina © bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, New York City. Right: Drawing by the author

They share a vocabulary of gestural signals to replace a vocabulary of pronounced words, and this vocabulary of theirs has its own syntax and grammar, which is mostly established by timing. Their gestural signals are made with their hands, faces, and bodies, which have taken over the functions of both tongue and ear — of one organ that articulates and the other that receives. Yet in the entire coach, probably on the entire train, there is no dialogue taking place that is comparable to theirs.

Each physical feature with which the quartet gestures in order to converse — eye, upper lip, lower lip, teeth, chin, brow, thumb, finger, wrist, shoulder — has for them the range of a musical instrument or of a voice, with all its specific notes, chords, trills, and degrees of insistence and hesitancy. Yet in my ears there is only the sound of the train, which is slowing down for the next stop. Several passengers are getting to their feet. I could sit but I prefer to stay where I am. The quartet are, of course, aware of my presence. One of them gives me a smile, not of welcome but of acquiescence.

Intercepting their myriad exchanges, to which I can give no name, following their responses back and forth while remaining ignorant about what they’re referring to, swinging to their rhythm, carried forward by their expectancy, I have the sensation of being surrounded by a song, a song born of their solitudes, a song in a foreign language. A song without sound.

This train is bound for glory, this train,
This train is bound for glory, if you ride it, you must be holy.

 — Biddleville Quintette,Chicago, 1927

Recently I watched and listened to François Hollande, the French president, talking to the nation for almost three hours during a televised press conference. His discourse was algebraic; that is to say,, logical and consequential, but with scarcely any reference to a tangible reality or to lived experience.

He has a sense of humor, he is intelligent, he gives the impression of being sincere and of believing in the alliance with big business that he is proposing, although he was elected as a Socialist Party candidate. But why is his discourse so vacuous? Why does it register like a monologue of acronyms?

It is because he has forsaken any sense of history, and therefore has no long-term political vision. Historically speaking, he lives from hand to mouth. He has abandoned hope. Hence the algebra. Hope engenders political vocabularies. Hopelessness leads to wordlessness.

In this respect, Hollande is typical of the period we are living through. Most official discourse and commentaries are dumb concerning what is being lived and imagined by the vast majority of people in their struggles to survive.

The media offers trivial immediate distractions to fill the silence, which might otherwise prompt people to ask one another questions concerning the unjust world they are living in. Our leaders and media commentators speak of the world in a gobbledygook, which is not the voice of a turkey but that of High Finance.

It’s difficult today to express or sum up in prose the experience of Being Alive and Becoming. Prose, as a form of discourse, depends on a minimum of established continuities of meaning; prose is an exchange with a surrounding circle of different points of view and opinions, expressed in a shared and descriptive language. And such a shared language no longer exists.

By contrast, songs can express the inner experience of Being and Becoming at this moment — even when they are old songs. Why? Because songs are self-contained and because songs put their arms around historical time.

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
Takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried nowwww
But I won’t be worried long.
 — Woody Guthrie

Songs put their arms around linear time without being utopian.

The collectivization of the land with the famine it caused in the Soviet Union, and, later, the Soviet gulag with its accompanying encyclopedias of double-talk, was initiated, relentlessly pursued, and justified in the name of a utopia in which a new and unprecedented Soviet Man would soon live. Likewise, today’s ever-extending human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by market forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely; a utopia where, in Milton Friedman’s words, “Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of the tie he wants and get it.”

In any utopian vision, happiness is obligatory. This means that, in reality, it’s unobtainable. Within the logic of utopias compassion is a weakness. Utopias despise the present. Utopias substitute dogma for hope. Dogmas are engraved; whereas hopes flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.

Both candles and song often accompany prayer. And prayer in most, if not all, religions, temples, and churches is double-faced. It can endlessly reiterate dogma or it can articulate hope. And which function it accomplishes doesn’t necessarily depend on the place or circumstances where the prayer is being prayed. It depends on the stories of those praying.

In the small town of San Andrés in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, there’s a small church. From the church comes the faint sound of voices singing. Inside there’s no priest. Four singers are standing — two men and two young women. The four are indigenous Indians. The men stand far apart from the women, and all four are singing in polyphony. The women have small babies attached to their backs.

In a side chapel there is a life-size statue of San Andrés, the apostle, carved in wood. He is dressed in a tunic and breeches that are not carved but are real clothes. On the floor of the church behind the altar are almost a thousand lit candles, many of them in small glass jars. A side door behind the altar has been left ajar, so there is a draft of air that makes the candle flames quiver and lean sideways. The rhythm of the voices joins the rhythm of the flickering candle flames.

Eventually one of the babies cries out to be fed. The singing stops and the mother gives the baby her breast. The other woman, her baby still sleeping, picks up the carrier bag at her feet, takes out a tunic, unfolds it, and walks over to the statue of San Andrés. There she exchanges the tunic she has brought for the one the statue is wearing. As she foresaw, the worn tunic needs to be washed.

The thousand candle flames, a few centimeters above the floor, still quiver in the draft.

Cesária Évora died a few years ago. It was not until she was in her forties that she became a world star. She sang black West African Portuguese songs in a language and with an accent that were incomprehensible to most people who were not from Cape Verde. She was intransigent, obstinate. The pitch of her voice was that of a teenager trying her luck in a bar for sailors before going home to look after her sick mother.

When she toured the world, filling gigantic stadiums, she wasn’t exotic. She had a round face like a bosom. When she smiled, which she often did, it was the smile that comes after the tragic has been assimilated.

The rich listen to songs; the poor cling to them and make them their own. Life, Évora said, consists of gall and honey.

I think now of Moya Cannon’s remarkable poem:

It was always those with little else to carry
who carried the songs
to Babylon,
to the Mississippi —
some of these last possessed less than nothing
did not own their own bodies
yet, three centuries later,
deep rhythms from Africa,
stowed in their hearts, their bones,
carry the world’s songs.
For those who left my county,
girls from Downings and the Rosses
who followed herring boats north to Shetland
gutting the sea’s silver as they went
or boys from Ranafast who took the Derry boat,
who slept over a rope in a bothy,
songs were their souls’ currency
the pure metal of their hearts,
to be exchanged for other gold,
other songs which rang out true and bright
when flung down
upon the deal boards of their days.

The way singers play with or defy the linearity of time has something in common with what acrobats and jugglers do with the force of gravity. Recently, in a French town, I saw a family of tumblers performing on a street corner near a supermarket: a father, three boys, and a girl. There was also a dog, a Scottish terrier. The dog, I later found out, was called Nella, and the father, Massimo. All the kids were slim and had dark eyes. Massimo was thickset and imposing.

The eldest boy, who was probably seventeen, perhaps more (difficult to estimate their ages because for them there is no category of childhood), was the principal juggler and handler. The young girl, of six or seven, climbed him as if he were a tree, a tree that then transformed itself into beams for a roof that she sat upon. The father was standing a good way behind them with an amplifier and sound gear between his feet on the paving stones. He was watching them with beagle eyes and strumming a guitar. The roof beams became an elevator that gently deposited Ariana, the girl, on the ground. The boy descended like an elevator, very, very slowly, and the girl stepped back onto the paving stones to the rhythm of her father’s guitar.

Drawing by the author

Drawing by the author

Comes the moment for David (ten or eleven years old) to do his number. There are only half a dozen spectators, it is midmorning, people are busy. David mounts his unicycle, rides it down the street, turns and rides back with the minimum of exertion. He does this to show his credentials.

After, dismounting onto the sidewalk, where there is a stuffed leather ball the size of a gigantic pumpkin, he kicks off his sneakers and steps onto the ball. Pushing with his heels, and using the soles of his feet to take on the curvature of the ball, he slowly persuades it forward. The two of them advance. He keeps his arms down by his side. Nothing he does reveals the difficulty of maintaining his balance on the rolling ball.

He stands on it, chin up, looking into the far distance, like a statue on a plinth. The ball and he advance in triumph at the pace of a very slow tortoise. And at this moment of triumph, he begins to sing, accompanied by his father on a harmonica. David has a miniature microphone attached with tape near his left cheekbone.

The song is Sardinian. He sings in an unruffled tenor, the voice of a solitary shepherd. The words describe what happens when a jinx is put on you, a story as old as the hills.

Triumph and jinx, jinx and triumph, brought together in an act that, as you watch, you hope will go on and on and on. Picasso painted the same act around the year 1900.

The jinx and the triumph. I have tried to explain why songs today can refer, in their own incomparable ways, to everyone’s experience of the world we are living in. And this, Yasmine, is how we can share with you what you are singing.

With your right hand you’re holding the mic, as though it might be swept away by a current. As your voice reaches a certain pitch, you make a gesture with your left arm. You point it vertically at the floor where the cables coil beside your red shoes. And the thumb of your left hand points straight down to touch the tip not of your first finger but of your second finger. Your first finger is bent double and points upward to touch the pad of your thumb. We can’t see its tip. And this gesture, as your voice descends, singing your song about Samar’s nights, announces that the muzzle of the song is nestling in the palm of your hand.

We listeners begin to clap to your rhythm. Our clapping has nothing to do with applause. It is for generating the energy and sharpening the shared attention necessary for heading elsewhere. And suddenly, as we dared to hope, the elsewhere comes here to us through you.

’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Seeing Through Lies,” on Jean-Michel Basquiat, appeared in the April 2011 issue.

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