Of all the creative types that I have been associated with, I find that modern dancers have a genius for discovering music forms that escape even the musicians. Dancers, ranging from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham, were amazingly open to new sounds, rhythms and harmonies. It isn’t just the foreigners. Even young Christopher who teaches children hip hop in Bangalore introduced me to new music last week. I sat in on a class and loved the music. When I asked Christopher who it was, he said, “Hard Kaur. She is a Punjabi rapper based in the UK.” Check her out.
La Negra: A supporter of Perón in her youth, Sosa has always been a political singer.
Hence, it follows: If you, dear reader, happen to be in the mood for something offbeat, something that is not in your stream of listening, wander into a modern dance rehearsal and pay attention to the music.
It was in modern dance classes that I first discovered Bulgarian chanting; Youssou N’Dour, before he became a global juggernaut; and Raï singing (not Aishwarya, but Algerian music a la Cheb Mami). It was in a Mark Morris master class in New York City that I got introduced to one of my favourite singers in the world.
I remember that it was a stingingly hot summer’s day. The whole city had become like a heated windpipe. Sweating buckets, I climbed up 10 flights of stairs to a derelict loft in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn for the master class. Cursing fluently in borrowed Bulgarian (from the chanting), I stumbled into a narrow corridor that smelled of stale cigarette butts and ratty carpets. Then it happened. I heard the most wonderful voice wafting down from the end of the corridor. It was a high soprano and it was singing Gracias a la Vida or “Thank you for life”. I hear it now and get goose pimples. Perhaps it was the contrast between the voice from the heavens and the musty odour of my surroundings. Perhaps it was because I was so exhausted and the voice offered me instant succour. Or perhaps it was because I understood the words: Thank you for life. Whatever the reason, I was drawn to the voice and the music.
Songs become magical for a variety of reasons; and these reasons are personal for each of us. The song you listened to while making love for the first time will forever remain sexy in your mind, even if it so happened that you were listening to, say, the national anthem. Similarly, Jamaican steel drums remind many of dancing barefoot against the sunset on some tropical beach. Some music is forever associated with that sweet mixture of joy and sorrow: a wedding shehnai, for instance; or the “ketti-melam” of the south Indian nadaswaram. Some are songs of redemption, in the spiritual sense, or simply the boost needed after climbing up 10 flights of “fu*#@*g” stairs.
Mercedes Sosa is an Argentinian singer and a national icon. Her voice has the velvety roundness and nuanced assurance of an Opus One Meritage or a muscular Barolo. Indeed, as one of my readers, Bala, pointed out, drinking these wines while listening to Sosa is to experience redemption.
Gracias a la Vida, to this day, remains one of my all-time favourites. In the interest of introducing readers to other songs; at the risk of appearing to drop names; and in the hope that they will return the favour by sending unusual singers and songs my way; here are a few other songs on my list:
# Fragile by Sting (with a bone dry Sherry)
# Sinnerman by Nina Simone (with a sexy E&E Black Pepper Shiraz; the 2002, if you can get it)
# La Javanaise by Serge Gainsbourg (with a 1989 Bordeaux, n’est-ce pas?)
# Zaali Tawwal by Fairuz (a complex, expansive 1997 Brunello)
# Gayati Vanamali, a Carnatic music song (with south Indian filter coffee, but of course)
There are tons of Hindi and Tamil film songs in my all-time favourites list but I doubt that telling you about Ka Karoon Sajni, or Uyire Uyire, or Neele Neele Ambar Par (with a Dirty Martini) is going to add value.
Sosa, on the other hand, you may not have heard of.
I began to listen to more songs by Sosa. While I loved many of her songs, particularly her collaboration with Joan Baez, her first song — the one I heard first — remained in my heart, as cherished as a first kiss.
Sosa has the commanding presence of a diva. In her home country, she is called La Negra for her long dark hair. I like the fact that she is a political singer. She takes sides, makes her opinions known, has toured the world, and lived large. But, mostly, I listen to Sosa for her dulcet voice.
Listen to Gracias a la Vida with a glass of Malbec from either Bodega Norton or Catena Zapata. Listen to her in the fading light of evenfall and think of someone you’ve loved and lost. I recommend it.
Shoba Narayan is always looking for the most famous musician she has never heard of. Write to her at email@example.com