Female spirit of independence

A couple of years ago I traveled to Guinea-Bissau for work. I knew a little bit about the country before going since some of the work I was doing was related to projects being implemented in the capital of Bissau and two other regions of the country. I loved it, although I would still say I know very little about it.

A year before going I can confess that didn’t know anything about it, other than it was in West Africa and that they spoke Portuguese. To my disappointment the second of my “well documented facts” was really only half-true since even though Portuguese is the official language most people speak creole or in some case the language of their specific ethnic group (of which there are plenty of…)

My first contact with (good) African music goes back to when I was 19 or 20, and it was thanks to my uncle who I talked about briefly in another post when I mentioned he got me hooked on Neil Young thanks to the album Harvest. He’s probably the most wide-spread music fan I know. He likes music from all over the world, has a huge collection on his computer and is always trying out new artists from all sorts of genders. To his benefit I must say he’s got pretty good taste.

So it was him who some random weekend introduced me to few well-known artists which I’d never heard of, such as Habib Koité and Amadou et Mariam, both from Mali, or Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. They were all pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite genre, but definitely music worth exploring and great for branching out every now and then.

When my work lead me to learn a little more about Guinea-Bissau I wondered if any good artists had ever come out of there. I had not fucking clue. I think I even asked my uncle, he had no fucking clue. I later learned that Guinea-Bissau, mostly because it’s extremely poor, is a country that is often overlooked, and it’s very hard for elements of its culture to be showcased at the international level. Music being a clear example.

Although to my surprise, after a little research I found out that in the last 50 years (or so) there have been a few artists which have made it out of Guinea-Bissau and have been recognized internationally. One of those is the band Super Mama Djombo, which I discovered after watching a documentary on medical evacuations taking place in Guinea-Bissau. The film was well made, it did a good job shedding light on the severe health situation in the country while at the same time integrating cultural aspects like local dancing and, most of all, music. One of the songs in the soundtrack was titled Baliera, which even though in the movie it’s performed by a young artist I tracked it back to Super Mama Djombo, the original composers and a band whose story is very interesting.

The band was formed in the mid-sixties when most of the members were kids at a boy-scout camp, later growing up to record their first album in the seventies. Their name, the ‘Mama Djombo’ part, is that of a female spirit that was popular among the beliefs of independence fighters at the time. Guinea-Bissau gained independence in 1974 and the band grew in popularity while becoming politically active. After a very successful career, extraordinary by Guinea-Bissau standards, the group separated in 1986… but reunited in 2008 to release a new album called Ar Puro. The song Baliera is from that album and it’s pretty damn good. I recommend giving it a chance, push through the first 10 seconds (which sound like any random African song) and see if you like this electric folky-rythmic, at one point jazzy, tune… recorded in Iceland, but straight out of Guinea-Bissau.

I couldn’t find the lyrics and I don’t speak creole. So no lyrics in this post, hopefully a song you like:

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In the pouring rain…

“Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs. Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known” – The Beatles, Penny Lane

Why was she humming Penny Lane? I’ve wondered that a few times. It’s not a bad song, but hardly one of The Beatles’ best. It is catchy, I guess that could’ve been it. Although maybe there’s another reason, one I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.

“In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass, and in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.”

I worked with her for two years, the second of which sharing a desk while we typed away on our piece of shit laptops. Hipsters would’ve loved them; I thought they were pieces of shit. It was a great working relationship, we discussed the projects we were involved in, we stopped every now and then to chat about… well, anything really… and we had fun joking around. Our jobs weren’t very stimulating, but we had great times. So I wonder, where did Penny Lane come from?

“Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout..”

We talked about music occasionally, we both loved the classics: in her case Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky… in mine Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Joplin, Van Morrison, Lennon, Baez, Petty, Harrison, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Fogerty, Townshend, etc. (just a much better list in general). Yet we still managed to find a lot of common ground, and talking about music was commons practice during our last months working together. Even so I never asked her, why Penny Lane?

“On the corner is a banker with a motorcar. The little children laugh at him behind his back”

I can’t remember exactly when it first happened, but my guess is that it was around the fall of 2012. It was just a random day at work and for some reason she began to hum Penny LaneNa, na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na… I love The Beatles, so I nodded along as I typed on my computer (I may have even made a poor attempt at whistling the melody, that sounds like something I would’ve done). The song struck me as an odd choice for her, but for some reason she got into the habit of humming the song fairly often during the next few months. The most I recall saying is something along the lines of “Oh, Penny Lane, nice song”, but that was it. After she began going back to it pretty often I began to wonder, why Penny Lane?

“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes”

Did she just hum it for kicks? Did she like the catchy melody? Did she listen to it growing up? Did it have some romantic meaning? Had she made love to it? Had she seen McCartney play it live? Has she actually been to Penny Lane? I’ve often wondered… I probably should have asked her at the time, but it’s one of things where I’ve become more curious over time, a little bit more every time she hummed it. One option would be to ask her now, because as I mentioned before, my current girlfriend used to be my co-worker (I’ll let you put two and two together…). I know I’ll definitely be tempted to next time I hear her humming it, but I kind of like the option of just wondering… why Penny Lane?

“There, beneath the blue, suburban skies”

I gave you my onlyness, gimme your tomorrow

“If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady. Would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?” – Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow (Original song by Tim Hardin)

The first time I heard the song If I were a Carpenter was about 10 years ago. An uncle sent me a version sung by Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow during Johnny Cash’s Memorial Tribute Concert in 2003 and I liked it immediately. I later heard other versions, including one by Johnny Cash and June Carter, but, as is often the case, I still prefer the one I heard first. It’s a fucking great song and one of my favorite duets.

“If a tinker was my trade. Would I still find you?”

In a previous post I explained how Tom Wait’s Closing Time was an important album in my relationship with my current girlfriend, well this song was too. One thing I didn’t mention was that before I began going out with her we had been friends, we worked together actually, for two years. During most of that time we both had out own separate relationships and although I was happy with mine, I have to admit that during the second year I became pretty attracted to my now current girlfriend. I dismissed it as a work crush and didn’t consider acting on it. I had a relationship I liked, we worked together and there were a whole other bunch of factors which I’ll write about sooner or later. Fortunately I caught a break…

“If I were a miller, and a mill wheel grindin’. Would you miss your colored blouse? And your soft shoe shinin’?”

My relationship with my girlfriend abruptly ended. We were long distance and I had decided to leave my job and head over to where she was, but about two weeks before I was supposed to leave it all went sour. She was pretty cruel in how she dealt with the situation but, as I expressed on my Fallen Robin post, I don’t have any hard feelings. I just “remember” her, but as Leonard Cohen helped me phrase it I don’t even think of her that often.

When I say I caught a break I truly mean it. We had a fun relationship, she was attractive, she was smart, we were pretty independent, but overall it was pretty clear that the whole of our relationship was pretty weak. I’m certain that had it not been then our relationship would have ended sooner or later. I haven’t spoken to her since, but I honestly hope she’s going well and I’m sure she can find somebody who’s a better fit. So where’s does my luck begin?

“Save your love through loneliness. Save your love through sorrow”

The first week after the relationship ended I was pretty broken-down, it was tough having to explain to family and friends that finally I wasn’t leaving. The second week I was still a little bummed and decided to go with a friend to another friend’s beach house for a few days. We had a great time and it was good for me to clear my mind a bit, eat my weight in seafood and do some good old fashion buddy drinking. And the third week… well that week began what has so far been my favorite relationship. So I thanked Tom Waits, I thanked Martin Scorsese and now without further ado… thank you ex-girlfriend.

Where do Will Nelson and Sheryl Crow singing If I Were a Carpenter come in? Well my current girlfriend and I began as co-workers, but about a year after that we became good friends. I got into a pretentious habit of sending her songs every now and then that she “had to listen to!”. She seemed to get a kick out of it and even sent me songs back every occasionally. This didn’t stop even when I left the office, so during my trip to the beach with friends (week 2 of the break-up) I sent her this song, which fortunately for me struck a nostalgic chord with her. She loved a version of it sung by Joan Baez which she had listened to a lot on an old cassette that she once had. So she loved the song and it definitely helped me score some points. Even though for her Baez’s version is still the best, for me Nelson’s and Crow’s remains the special one. Maybe if Bob Dylan had shown up to sing the duet with Baez it might have been a different story.

To the carpenters and the ladies…