43. BURBUJAS DE AMOR – Juan Luis Guerra

 

There are some days, even now, when only Juan Luis Guerra will do, to jig along to in the kitchen while making a meal or washing up.

By the early 90s Guerra was something of a Latino legend in South America. Certainly, when we lived on that continent, and when JLG had slotted Asuncion into his itinerary, suddenly the TV (both channels!) was filled with little promo ads for his concert in one of the city’s football stadiums, and the racks of the street-sellers full of cheap copy import Brazilian/Argentinian cassettes had more than plenty of this particular bearded cantante. I picked up one of the many badly produced copies of his ‘Grandes Exitos!’ flooding the racks of these vendors in the plazas and…well…Guerra provided much of the soundtrack for our final year in Paraguay, for some of the nostalgic transition times in our return to GB, and – as I’ve said – has been absorbed into the general fabric of listening repertoire, as an occasional but integral part.

The merenge/bachata/salsa rhythms of his band and his songs were intoxicating, and as un-English as you could get. There was hardly a dud track on this Greatest Hits compilation, or in fact on several of the other cassettes I subsequently acquired (I had a particular fondness for his ‘Arieto’ album, and also one sent to me after we returned to the UK – ‘No es el mismo..’) His songs often touched on social comment – ‘Costo de la Vida’ and ‘Ojala que llueva cafe’ come to mind – but the pop-tinged love songs were equally good, perhaps better, with language and imagery that was fresh and inventive.

This song is a great example of that – ‘Quisiera ser un pez/Para tocar mi nariz en tu pecera/ Y hacer burbujas de amor por donde quieras/Pasar la noche en vela, tocada en ti…’ Blowing bubbles of love in your fishtank, spending the night ‘soaked in you’ may well be quite erotic imagery, but it’s at least fresh, original, playful. Many of the songs have that same air of inventiveness – ‘Como abeja al pañal’, ‘Carta de amor’ – but ‘Burbujas’ seems to me the best. Plus, as someone distinctly non-fluent-but-still-in-love-with-the-language, I love the sound of the words – ‘Burbujas’ (onomatopoeic?) is lovely.

Wikipedia tells me that his career has gone from strength to strength, and that’s great to hear – particular since his notable Christian conversion sometime in the late nineties/early noughies (?) – when such events can often signal career decline. I was of course excited to hear he’d found Jesus. Still am. But there’s one small cirrus cloud of disappointment: his album of entirely Christian worship songs – ‘Para Ti’ which I bought via ebay a few years ago has nothing like the sparky originality of language and imagery to be found on the ‘secular albums’. Instead, some rather conventional, even (I’m sorry) clichéd expressions of worship.

So here’s the thing. I know what’s really important, and I do rejoice in his fearless stance, his new faithful service to Jesus. But for some creative, stimulating, zippy love songs to dance to in the kitchen, I’ll be singing ‘Quisiera ser un pez..’!

42. BLOW THE WIND SOUTHERLY – Kathleen Ferrier

 

I knew that I wanted to write about a Kathleen Ferrier song, And I suspected that it was going to be ‘What is Life’ (from ‘Orfeo’) though it never felt like the one I most remembered…and then recently I heard Colm Tobim on Desert Island Discs who picked this one and a distinct Aha! Lightbulb moment of recognition and recollection reminded me that this indeed was the song, from a disc of Ferrier favourites, which had brought me such shivers of delight in my youthful listening.

My sister Judith may never know how much she indelibly engraved onto the soundtrack of my early years. Working as she did in London, and coming home to the valleys on visits during school holidays, she blew in with a touch of the exotic and the what’s-happening-in-the-capital in her tastes: one sensed that she had been exposed to a whole otherness of culture, droplets of which she shared, with modesty, but with generous enthusiasm, on these visits.

Musically these were often in the form of EPs (exotic enough!) – ‘extended play’ 45rpms, usually with a couple of tracks on each side, and a glossy ‘picture’ sleeve. These were beatnik times, late 50s, early sixties, pre-swinging sixties (though Judy was there for that too) and although my understanding of the scene was hazy to say the least, I can see that she availed herself to some extent in the experiences presented by the surging interest in folk clubs etc. (She told me, a few years ago, that she had seen the young unknown Paul Simon singing in one of these, as he did, of course, in the early sixties). So, I can remember her bringing home a ‘Tommy Makem and the Clancey Brothers’ EP – some fine Arran jumpers on the cover; I certainly recall at least one Joan Baez EP, with selections from her early Vanguard albums of traditional ballads. ‘All my Trials’ was on there.

But Judy’s treasures also extended us classically. One EP was a concert from the Hollywood Bowl; another was of Mary O’Hara’s harp music. And yet another was of Kathleen Ferrier. And wow. This was a voice quite unlike the familiar chanteuses from the radio: – very different from the girliness of Brenda Lee or the nasally womanliness of Connie Francis; not a belter like Shirley Bassey or Anne Shelton;  different from Doris Day and Helen Shapiro… If there were four tracks on the EP, the aforementioned ‘What is Life’ was certainly one of them, and I liked the touch of drama, the touch of implied theatre about it as much as I liked the voice.

But this song ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ was something else. The extraordinary timbre of that voice is highlighted by the unaccompanied singing on this traditional song. Only with late adult reflection do I begin to think of the incongruities of this kind of recording: songs that were birthed and nurtured from the rawness of oral tradition, shared in proud regional lilts in ragged impromptu sessions…here ‘polished’ with technical perfection of RP, with exquisite trilled rhotics accentuating the practised precision of diction and enunciation – not just the “ rrrolling” sea, but even within words – “brrring him..”, “sea brrreeze..” None of this incongruity occurred to me when I fell in love with the recording, or matters much now, if truth be told. That extraordinary trembly contralto makes of this simple song something starkly other.

There’s not a lot of it as a lyric – a woman is longing for a southerly wind to bring her sailor lover back home, and that’s it; and perhaps the sparseness of the content – the lexical repetition within its three choruses sandwiching two simple verses –adds to the poignancy and charm. And in childhood, not just mine, there’s always something mysterious and alluring about sea imagery isn’t there –  think of those John Masefield poems, quinqueremes of Nineveh etc, and the lonely sea and the sky. Here  the sound and images of ‘ships in the offing…’, ‘the deep rolling sea..’, ‘the barque/bark(?) bearing my lover to me..’, ‘the bonny breeze..’ all blew salt-tanged airs that swelled my childhood imagination.

Judy’s gifts and visits were always doing that, as I said. Here she had the help of this wonderful singer whose early death (and yes, a bit like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and Eva Cassidy) gives her legacy the quality of myth and legend, and why not.

 

41. TWELVE THIRTY – The Mamas and the Papas

 

 

In my time, I’ve probably picked up more than one ‘Best of’ Mamas and Papas collections, but I think I’ve finally got the message: in any of their compilations, there are going to be 5 or 6 ‘stand out’ tracks…and the rest are fillers. Now I’m taking a cold objective look, I think it’s probably true to say: that was indeed a true reflection of their career. John Phillips wrote a few absolute classics – and around them, to pad out an album, or a concert performance, or a TV appearance, they threw in some rehashed standards, some slowed-down rock songs, and some mediocre lyric/melody combinations hoping that Cass Elliot’s voice, and the prevailing appetite for commercialized faux-bohemia would sustain them.

But let’s affirm; the classics were classics. ‘California Dreamin’ is toweringly important  in its place in popular musical history: it has the feel of something with the substance of folk song, part of a national consciousness, which had been waiting to be discovered. ‘Creeque Alley’ is as clever and witty a song as anything that came out of the sixties : both mischievously self-referential in its narrative of the ambitions of their clique, and at the same time indicative of a more general cultural mood, I think.

And the mood is characterised by the focus shift from (in American geographical terms) East to West Coast, from the more tired, industrious, wisecracking, survivalist cynicism of east Coast’s mentality to the (as perceived) perpetual sunniness, free-spirited, tolerant/relaxed/libertarian lifestyle of the West Coast. ‘California Dreamin’ indeed – because the west coast becomes a kind of dream, an ideal to which the yearning spirit aspired…

Or so it seemed. ‘Twelve Thirty’ was another of this handful of Phillips classics. Perhaps, like many great writers, he really only had one theme, and perhaps that theme was this move from East to west, and what it symbolizes. This single is the only Mamas and Papas single which I remember buying, and it’s still my favourite. I’m imagining I was 15 (?) perhaps, when the single was released. My hazier memory imagines that all of their songs were released in the ‘summer of love’, ’67, and that can’t possibly be true, of course, but I think this single was actually released that summer. My understanding of the American popular-cultural east to west shift must have been sketchy at best…but in some small way I think I got it – and caught the ‘allure’ of freedom and newness that drew all those ‘young girls’ to ‘the canyon’ (Laurel Canyon? The several leafy canyons north of Los Angeles? Did I know that then?)

If this was Phillips’s great theme, where in ‘Dreamin’ he’d pictured the Eastern mentality from which they were escaping as cold, sterile – ‘the preacher likes the cold…’-, that cold church perhaps a symbol of the frigid institutional life which the new generation yearned to leave behind, in ‘Twelve Thirty’ we get the same images of the East’s stagnation – this time through the clock with its hands stuck on twelve thirty. NYC is declared as ‘dark and dirty’ – while the world of the west coast is pictured as a place of new openness, sudden connectedness, discovery – ‘At first so strange to feel so friendly/To say good morning and really mean it/ To feel these changes happening in me…’

I’ve not been to the West Coast of the States, so perhaps I ought to shut up now and bow to more informed experience. Still, here’s what I can’t help feeling: I cannot believe that any place can sustain this weight of idealism; when it carries the symbolism of such allure it becomes like C S Lewis’s idea of ‘northerness’ that drew him on towards…something beyond place, in his spiritually formative years. Perhaps I knew at 14 or 15, as I still believe now, that only a spiritual kingdom can satisfy the profound depth of those kinds of longings – for perpetual sunniness of heart, friendliness, creativity, community. Which is to say that in popular song, at least, the ‘Californian’ ideal of the sixties seems for me a ‘type’ of the Kingdom of God.

Have I strayed from my focus? Let me not forget the song’s delicious melody, the group’s unsurpassed harmonic sound…it’s a great single. Let’s put it back on the home jukebox.