Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Music and history

I like to listen to music in languages I don't know (mostly Latin languages, because that music is the most fun!). Figuring out what they mean is fun, not to mention singing along.

Music is full of history. I often used it when teaching at Penn State. It began with an Afro-Peruvian Christmas song by Susana Baca, which I heard while cat-sitting for a prof. The song was gentle, exotic and all, the kind you'd hear in a bohemian coffee shop. But it turned out to be a slave's complaints about being beaten by her master and bitten by mosquitoes!

Another favorite is Manu Chao's "Clandestino" -- great to dance to, but it's about an illegal Algerian immigrant in Spain who has to remain invisible ("I left my life between Ceuta and Gibraltar, I'm a line on the sea, a ghost in the city.")

Some doses my undergrads have got in the past:

Europe in the mid-19th century: Les Misérables (Alain Boublil is a Tunisian immigrant to France)
Slavery: Susana Baca (Peru)
Indentured labor: chutney (Trinidad and Tobago)
Pan-Africanism: EVERYone knows Bob Marley! Incidentally, his 62nd birthday is next week.
Decolonization of Africa: highlife (Nigeria -- thanks to Susan for introducing me to it)
Diversity in the Middle East: Khaled (Algeria/France), Fairuz (Lebanon - thanks, Brinda)
Margaret Thatcher: Pink Floyd's "Final Cut" (UK)
Postcolonialism: Junoon (Pakistan/US), Apache Indian (UK), A. R. Rahman (India)

I try to choose music with a cool factor and a beat that's hard to ignore (Khaled can really wake up an 8 a.m. class!). I use slides to help students locate the song on a map, follow the lyrics, and see the symbolism in the album art, performer's clothes, whatever.

Here's a song by the Brazilian band Carrapicho, which I'm sure many of you will recognize! (I'm not entirely comfortable about the video). I first heard it in a club in Bombay, but it's originally from an Amazonian musical play in which a slave couple wants to bring back to life a bull which they have killed. If their master finds out his bull is dead, he will kill them. So they consult a shaman, who prescribes beating drums till the dead animal starts to dance. So the first verse of this song is "Beat the drums, I want to hear the tic-tic-tac until the bull starts to dance and people from everywhere come to join the fun."

The second verse is about the mighty Amazon, "river of my life, the same god who created your beautiful image also created the sky, forest and earth, united the races, and created love."

Here's an interesting article about the Brazilian tradition, by drummer Layne Redmond.

(I sometimes also listen to songs in languages that I do know.)

No comments: