Monday, August 27, 2007

The Portuguese had a word for it. (Part 2)

Before I moved to the US to continue with university college in the early 90s, my grandmother actually said to me, all serious-like, "Now you must go back to your country, where you can be happy." I said nothing and nodded sagely, but in my mind I was kinda like, "Damn, is it that serious?" I mean, don't trip: I completely considered Nigeria to be "my country," but it was pretty clear to me and most people around me that I just never seemed to completely fit in there. The idea that America was "my country" ultimately was based less on the fact that I happened to have been born there than on the perception that America was a country full of oddballs and eccentrics, so I'd probably feel right at home there.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. When I got to America, I found that regardless of whatever my birth certificate may have claimed, I was definitely a foreigner, and most people never let me forget that. Like I said before, you never really know or appreciate your country until you leave it; it seemed like I became more Nigerian with each day I lived in the US. (Actually, more than that, I found myself becoming more African, which was a bit of a new experience altogether.)

Still, my existence felt somewhat clouded by alienation: I was an outsider in the mainstream society, and while there was a pretty sizable Nigerian community in Boston, I really didn't feel welcome among that crowd either. I'm pretty sure most of them thought I was gay. At this point, the only two groups I felt fully embraced by were Latinos and Haitians. (Do I repeat myself? Yes, technically, Haitians are Latinos, but you know what I mean.)

So I'm not particularly surprised one night, about a year and a half after my arrival, when I'm on the bus going home from work and some middle-aged Haitian guy steps up and casually strikes up a conversation with me in Kreyol like we're Port-au-Prince pallies or something. He prattles on a mile a minute for about a half a minute, before I cut him off mid-mile with a helpless shake of the head and a polite "M'pa pale kreyol."

Undeterred, he switches to English: "You fwom Afwica."

Pause: I kinda hate it when people start conversations like that because it's usually a prelude to all kinds of annoying assumptions. "Yeah," I sigh.

"I know dat! I know dat!" he exclaims. "You know how I know?"

He's obviously quite pleased with his successful deduction and wants to celebrate by verbally illuminating his logical process like Sherlock Holmes explaining the trail of clues to his dimwitted audience stand-in Watson. Why deny him the pleasure? I figure. "How?" I ask.

Basking in satisfaction, he leans in to whisper in my ear. "You wea'ing shoes." he says.


Now, based on prevailing stereotypes, I guess I'd've understood if he assumed I were African if I wasn't wearing shoes, but how does wearing shoes...?

"You wea'ing shoes," he repeats, sensing my confusion. "Not sneakers. And you wea'ing pantalon, not jeans. So I know you either Haitian or Afwican."

"How do you know I'm not just a professional?" Of course, I'm not a professional; I work in a record store. But I am a bit bothered by his stereotyping and also concerned about the degree to which my mode of dress allows me to be so easily profiled. Yes, I don't usually wear sneakers, but I don't think it has anything to do with where I'm from--I just happen to find a lot of the sneaker styles of the 90s to be immensely ugly. As for the trousers, well, I just didn't have any clean jeans to wear that day. I notice that he is similarly attired, in slacks and casual shoes, with a button-up shirt.

"Also," he continues, ignoring my question. "If you was fwom Amewica, your pants would be down here."

He gestures to a latitude just south of his buttcheeks and laughs. I laugh, too.

"You a musician?" he asks, nodding towards the big, battered hardshell guitar case sitting next to me. I just started taking lessons and I had one before work that evening.

"No, I'm just learning."

"You playing Afwican music?" he ventures excitedly.

"Nah, mostly soul like... Curtis Mayfield? And reggae." Pause. Grimace. "But my teacher keeps making learn Eagles songs."

"'Hotel California'?"

"More like 'Lyin' Eyes' and 'Take It Easy.'"

"I am a musician," he declares. "I used to be a musician. I play bass." He pronounces it like the fish. "I used to play Afwican music."

"Oh really? What kind of African music?"

"Mewengue and salsa," he proclaims proudly.

"That's not African music," I offer delicately, trying to keep the "duh" out of my voice.

"Yes, it is!" he insists. "Spanish music is Afwican music!"

Okay, thinks I. This conversation got ludicrous real quick, didn't it?

"You don't know?" he laughs, not bothering keep the "duh" out of his voice. "Spanish music come fwom Afwica. It's all the same widdim, you know? The widdim."

I thought about this exchange a few weeks later when I started hearing dance band highlife in my sleep. For several nights, voluptuous basslines scored my dreams, peppered with skeletal, off-kilter percussion patterns. One night, I woke up and was surprised to find that I still heard the music: the deep, loping bassline and lopsided percussion was actually seeping through the thin walls of my apartment. Still half asleep, I opened the door and stepped out to ascertain the source of the music--the rhythm emerged, fully dressed up with horns, flutes and guitars and it became clear that what I was hearing wasn't highlife at all, just the Puerto Ricans next door blasting salsa in the middle of the night.

Spanish music is African music, the Haitian dude had said. What did that really mean? Well, obviously I knew that the transatlantic slave trade had extended to the Caribbean and South America and as a result there was some African lineage present in the people and, by extension, the music of those regions, but I never thought too deeply about how (and why) it manifested itself. Suddenly, I was wondering why the basslines in salsa sounded like highlife and why the basic organizing rhythm pattern in much Afro-Latin music, the clave, was just about identical to a Calabar rhythm called tinkoriko and most all, why I was so damned disappointed that the sound I'd heard was not highlife?

I was homesick, I had to admit. I missed Calabar. And while I'd never considered myself a fan of it before, I missed that damn highlife music. Like it or not, it was a part of my consciousness, triggering comforting memories of rainy Calabar mornings, listening to those easygoing clave rhythms and tart, coppery horns while getting ready for school. Or hanging out on the fringes of "grownup" parties with friends, trying to get loaded on free drinks and talk to girls while the heavy-of-foot old folks shuffled to languorous rhythms, singing along to the choruses with a mix of pleasure and sadness for the good old days that seemed to get gooder the older they got. I wanted a little bit of that feeling, but I didn't have any highlife music on hand. And it was quite rare to find highlife CDs in American stores back then. The closest I could get to that feeling was through Latin music: Fania Records, new-wave salsa, old-school Cuban son... I just immersed myself in it.

(Some people found this odd, though; during one of my National Guard weekends, my squad sergeant--an African-American gentleman in his late 30s with whom I had bonded over regular discussions of early-80s R&B and "boogie" music--found some Arsenio Rodriguez and Ruben Blades tapes in my bag and sat me down for a lecture.

"Look, son," he said. "I know you wanna fuck some of these fine-ass Puerto Rican girls out here, and if I was young and single, I'd probably wanna do the same. But you gotta be yourself, man. You ain't gotta start listening to this 'La Cucaracha' shit to make these Latin girls like you. Just be yourself. You ain't gotta go to them. Let them come to you." )

So I listened to a lot of Afro-Cuban music. And I read books like Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit and Black Music of Two Worlds and The Latin Tinge (both by John Storm Roberts). I learned about how the traditional music of African slaves survived south of the US and developed into various forms of Latin American music, then was imported back home in the 1930s to inspire the creation of modern African music. Learning about the legacy of African art in the New World imbued me with a renewed understanding of African culture back home.

Not long thereafter, while re-stocking the shelves in the World Music department, I came across a CD called Money No Be Sand. My attention arrested by the pidgin title, I took a closer look: 1960s Afro-lypso, Pidgin Highlife, Afro-Soul, Afro-Rock is what the sub-title read. And it boasted liner notes by John Storm Roberts! Intrigued, I took the CD home with me.

Now, remember that the World Music establishment at this time was fairly ignorant about highlife. Most of them didn't even know what it was. If you ever heard mention of highlife, it was usually in reference to Fela, because it was generally known that his music was "a fusion of James Brown's funk, Miles Davis's jazz and traditional Nigerian highlife music (whatever that is)." I remember the trade mags struggling to find the vocabulary to even describe this compilation. Most of them settled on "nutty" and "weird and wonderful," and perhaps predictably, they gravitated towards its more familiar aspects ie the awkward but endearing attempts at Western styles: Jimi Solanke & The Junkers' Yoruba garage rock on "E Je Ka Jo," The Ramblers Dance Band's spirited take on The Tennors' reggae classic "Ride Yu Donkey," Charlotte Dada's cool and haunting Latin-inflected interpretation of The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down."

It was the more straight-ahead highlife numbers that seized my imagination, though: I think part of the reason I never fully got highlife before was because I just didn't understand the context it was coming from. Maybe because of the festering wounds of the Civil War and the crash of the initial optimism that followed independence, our parents never talked in too much detail about the Sixties. Sure, we read books that were written during that era, but I really don't think people from my generation came close to understanding the excitement of being the first generation of Africans to live fully in a world of modernity and glamour, in which they were free to shape their own destinies. Most of my age-mates thought of highlife as dusty old "traditional" music; what we didn't understand was that highlife was anything but. As the German African art scholar Ulli Beier put it in 1966:

"'Highlife' is a reaction against the austerity of traditional African life. It is a way of life that believes in pleasure, music, drinking, free love, and ostentatious spending of money. The Onitsha writers speak about this new generation: schoolboys, teachers, drivers, clerks--people who have not yet gone very far in being 'westernized', but who already find themselves in sharp opposition to traditional ways of life."

Listening to the songs on Money No Be Sand, I finally got that, and I could see for the first time how this music reflected the aspirations, the sensuality, the passion of a young generation navigating a brave new world and looking forward to the future with nothing but hope.

One thing I still couldn't put a finger on, though, was why that inherent wistfulness. That undercurrent of sadness I always heard in the music. That frayed feeling to its harmony. But once again, Latin America helped me develop the conceptual vocabulary by which to think and talk about African music.

Back when I used to watch Fantástico, I was always mesmerized by the bittersweet flavor that seemed to characterize much Brazilian music. The melodies were so pretty and lilting, but they also had a strange... incompleteness to them. Like something that was perpetually missing, creating an instability that was never fully resolved: a lingering sense of longing or sadness even when the music was upbeat (such as in this discofied Gal Costa number I used to love):

Years later, I would learn that there was a name for this wistful tension between sorrow and joy: saudade, a uniquely Lusophone concept that was famously untranslatable into English. My Cape Verdean roommate tried, though; he told me it was "homesickness... but not really." A Brazilian coworker described it as "like sadness where you're happy to be sad." Probably the most succinct definition I've come across is the one by writer A.F.G. Bell from his book, In Portugal:

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

Is there a word for that in any African language? There should be, because I hear it in many different musics all along the West African coast and even as far down as in Congo. Is it the legacy of the Portuguese explorers and traders who, by virtue of being the first Europeans to set foot in these areas, set Africa on course to modernity (a journey that has seemed like a boon and a curse, often at the same time)? Or is it more likely some deeper, older impulse in the African psyche that recognizes pleasure and pain as two sides of the same coin, that renders songs of joy in gloomy minor keys and dirges as celebratory frolicks?

Aaaaahhh... Questions, questions. What do I know? Just listen to this music, people.

> DOWNLOAD DIVSHARE! (i hope*) <



*I know DivShare's been "acting like bra and pant" lately, but I tested this link and it downloaded at a decent rate; it came through in less than a minute.


chris a - South Africa said...

Thanks for a good read - a Mozambican friend (who does not like Saudade) sees it as a Portugese throwback and longing for times when you felt important because Portugal was a globally important power .. lost glory kind of thing .. I like your take on diaspora's better.

jon said...

Nice post, thanks for that. I wouldn't be surprised if the Spanish didn't get a few musical ideas from the North Africans who ruled them for a couple of centuries. That would have filtered through to South America and then back to Africa ( a different bit I know ) Round and round it goes. . . I wonder if there is an Arabic word for the concept of Saudade . . ?
How do you pronounce that anyway?

Comb & Razor said...


that's a pretty interesting take on saudade... i never really thought of it in those terms. usually, i hear of it linked to the Portuguese's propensity for voyages without certain return and the resultant homesickness (as well as the agony of those left behind at home).

but yeah, i never cared too much about the Portuguese experience of saudade. i originally titled this post "The Brazilians Had a Word For It" but i decided i might as well give the Portuguese credit since it was their concept originally!

one way interesting way i've heard the concept explained in the Brazilian context: Brazil is a big country occupied primarily by three groups of deeply nostalgic people--Portuguese, Africans and Native Indians--all of them pining for their lost homelands.


yeah, Spanish music is definitely influenced by the North Africans... who were in turn influenced by the Arabs, i guess. it's really interesting following the cycle of influence all around the world... but it seems like Latin America is the pot that all these influences cook in.

"saudade" is pronounced "sau-DAH-djee" in Brazilian (and i think in European, too) and "so-DAH-djee" in Cape Verdean. the general concept is not as unique to Lusophoen cultures as it's made out to be... i think the Japanese and the Germans have their own equivalents of it, though i can't remember the words right now.

Africainement said...

Your grandma's coment was too funny lol

Aristizzle said...

Dang. Thanks a whole super big bunch for sharing this especially since (per "This item has been discontinued by the manufacturer." I'm crazy happy to hear those Godwin Omobuwa tunes.