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:

We’ll ride through the city tonight

“I see the stars come out of the sky. Yeah, the bright and hollow sky” Iggy Pop, The Passenger

I’m not a devoted Iggy Pop fan, I haven’t listened to The Stooges much either… but The Passenger is one of my favorite songs. For some reason it gets me going, every time I listen to it I want to get up, scream along the la la la la la’s and just kind of bounce along from one place to another. I would’ve loved to have played the role of David Bowie who sings back-up during the chorus! Which is why writing this post is proving more difficult than expected.

“Yeah the bright and hollow sky. You know it looks so good tonight”

In all truth the difficulty for writing this post is that this song during the last 10 years of my life this song has been everywhere and for some strange reason I’ve mostly kept it to myself. I know I’ve listened to it with my brother a few times, it’s made its way onto mix-tapes/cds for some road trips with friends, but the memories I have of this song are of me listening to it by myself. While in my last post I argued that Neil Young sings about her in Cowgirl in the Sand, this song is all about the first person singular, and I love it. That’s why it’s so contagious.

“I am the passenger and I ride and I ride.”

It’s true the song later goes on to talk about the we and the “stars made for us tonight”, but I don’t really buy it. I think that comes in when the song already has you worked up about yourself, your alleged free spirit and how you’re riding along through the city’s lights. I’m sure many see it a different way, but that’s always been my feeling whenever I’ve listened to it. I like it this way too…

“I ride through the city’s backsides. I see the stars come out of the sky.”

I have to admit I’ve tried listening to this song with some of my girlfriends to see if they like it… not a single one of them has. Mostly I’ve gotten indifferent reactions. Perhaps it’s that in a relationship the idea of being a passenger is a no-no (when everything is going well), but I think I’ve been with girls who deserve more credit than that. I think it’s as simple as everybody having a song that for whatever reason pumps them up, but these songs have to be discovered in a way that you can be absorbed by them. It doesn’t work if somebody just plays it for you. That works for the Dylans, Cohens et al, but not for Iggy Pop and The Passenger. It’s too raw, too energetic. You can’t share that, what are we crazy? 

“So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride. Oh, oh, Singing la la la la lalalala!”

When so many love you, is it the same?

Hello cowgirl in the sand. Is this place at your command?” – Neil Young, Cowgirl in the Sand           

After my first contact with Neil Young I wasn’t too impressed. If I recall correctly a friend had recommended I listen to some of his more intense rock songs like Rockin’ in the Free World and Like a Hurricane. They were alright, but I had already discovered Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and I was a lot more focused on lyrics than any guitar solo. The songs weren’t doing it for me and Neil Young sort of got crossed off the list. I was a fucking fool.

One random weekend about 7 or 8 years ago I was talking music with my uncle and he mentioned Neil Young. Basically, I expressed my initial opinion from the paragraph above and he went on to express my final conclusion from the paragraph above, that I was a fucking fool.

“Can I stay here for a while? Can I see your sweet, sweet smile?”

My uncle put the album Harvest in my hand and told me to get back to him on that. I listened to it with a chip on my shoulder wanting to prove that my initial perception of Young had been right, but a fucking fool is hardly right. By the time I reached Heart of Gold (4th track) I was already convinced that Young was a stud and that the album was something special. I’ve since listened to it hundreds of time, recommended it to anybody who would listen and even made a few copies of it to give to girls, with surprisingly good feedback…

“Hello ruby in the dust, has your band begun to rust?

Harvest has everything to be considered one of the best albums of all time: the artist is in his prime, it has great lyrics and there’s not a single bad song in it. It’s also short enough, about 40 min, to leave you wanting more. However, since discovering Harvest I’ve explored Neil Young quite a bit and there’s one song which I love, to the point that it had to be the first song of his I include in this blog, Cowgirl in the Sand (Live At Massey Hall 1971 version).

“Hello woman of my dreams. This is not the way it seems”

I’m sure… well, almost sure. Alright… I want to think that I haven’t used this song to tell more than one girl that it reminds me of her. In fact I want to think that I have never said it to a single one. That would have been like cheating, the song is that good. I honestly don’t think I have, but I can’t guarantee. Whenever I listen to the song I like the mood that Young creates, but I really like the way he shifts the focus on the woman, sorry, the cowgirl. He sings about her, whoever she is. So what I like about the song is that it’s mystical enough that I’ve felt comfortable listening to it in many different situations. Whether it’s been intimately with a girl, reflecting on a relationship, pursuing a crush, dealing with a break-up… the song just fits well. Or at least it allows for interpretations that fit well, which I guess is the point, right?

So before I ramble on, if you haven’t listened to this song, or this version, here it is courtesy of a fucking fool.

“After all the sin we’ve had, I was hopin’ that we’d turn back”

 

 

Girls’ faces formed the forward path

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

Nobody compares to Bob Dylan. I don’t like everything about him, I don’t like all his albums and I don’t think everybody has to like him, but I still say nobody can compare. I think it can be argued that The Beatles were bigger than Dylan, sure, but I don’t think there’s been an artist in modern music as influential as Dylan. What the Beatles were to music fans I think Dylan was to musicians.

I first realized who Bob Dylan was when I went to see the movie The Hurricane in 1999, during the movie Dylan’s song Hurricane sounded really familiar and I was sure my father had that song on a vinyl record somewhere. My father fished out the album Desire from the basement and I began listening to it over and over again, I loved that song and soon after that I finally began to branch out to some of his other albums.

It’s funny, because even though I’ve become a bit of a Dylan freak since, something which all my girlfriends and friends have had to suffer through (or benefited from, as I like to put it), I’d still say my brother is an even bigger fan than I. We both have our father to thank because he listened to Dylan a lot and we’ve always had his albums lying around the house, but I think we’ve taken the baton since then. Dylan to this day is still the safest bet to play on the stereo whenever we’re all together. Mother, you know we are very sorry.

It’s hard to pick out a specific Dylan memory because there are endless amounts of them, but I think a have a good one for this post, since in a way it serves to back the argument I made before about Dylan being to musicians what The Beatles were to music fans. When I was in my third year of college I went on a 300 mile – 15 day hike by myself. I met a lot of people along the way (a post on a couple of them later…), but mostly I loved hiking by myself and every now taking out my MP3 player lo listen to some music. My favorite song during the trip was Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages, but not just any version…

“A self-ordained professor’s tongue. Too serious to fool”

It was My Back Pages performed live during Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. It tops the original and for me it turned a good Dylan song into one of his bests. This version features George Harrison, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Roger McGuinn and Dylan himself. The performance has everything going for it… Eric Clapton breezes through a guitar solo effortlessly, McGuinn shows he was a great vocalist, Tom Petty sings a nice mellow-y verse, Neil Young goes all out during a second guitar solo, George Harrison is solid like always… it’s amazing.

And Dylan? He sings a short verse, but is easily the least memorable of the bunch during the song. That’s something I like about that specific performance and I’m sure he was fine with it too. I’m guessing he thought something along the lines of: I influenced these guys so they could be this good and they’re all here singing a song I brilliantly wrote 28 years ago.

And brilliant it was…

“Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats, too noble to neglect. Deceived me into thinking, I had something to protect”