In May of 1999 I decided I was going to learn how to speak Portuguese.
I came to this decision the way many men come to such decisions: I fell in love with a woman. More accurately, I fell in love with a woman’s voice: the voice of Amália Rodrigues.
I had heard her music before then, of course–she had been singing for six decades–but the time had not been right. In my teens, my tastes in music ran largely along Afro-Brazilian lines, with some folk music from the Americas. In my twenties I discovered Asian music by living there and grew deeply fascinated with the music of India, Pakistan, Iran and Thailand.
I turned thirty in 1999 and a couple months after my birthday I was in Canada. There I saw a bit of a documentary series, Uma Estranha Forma de Vida, commemorating Amália Rodrigues and her extraordinary career as a singer and actress. Later that year, I saw Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World once again (which was set in the “future” of 1999), and recognized her in a bit part on the metro. Then, in October of the year, she died.
That same year for me was a truly difficult year that saw me separated from my wife, homeless, working two full-time jobs simultaneously and a part-time besides, yet still sleeping in a Volkswagen Fox with my pet budgie.
In short, a time made for fado.
The rise of the phenomenon known as “world music” coincided with the rise of the Internet (text only, but still vital) and with my adulthood. As I became an adult, the world, as Thomas Friedman put it, became flat. Flat, but vast; immediate, but mysterious. World music became a way of knowing the world. While everyone else was diving into grunge, which struck me as the last gasp of the angry white adolescent, or commercial rap, which struck me as another pitiful attempt by music industry sharecroppers to sell another bunk image of my culture to the white middle class, I was instead turning away from these all-too-familiar pleas of middle-class America toward the unappreciated voices of my world at large, embarking on a quest of sorts to find out what world we really lived in.
The invasion of Kuwait kicked that quest into high gear. As a citizen, it seemed to me untenable to live in a nation who constantly raided and destroyed the histories and lives of other people in other cultures, yet knew absolutely nothing about them. Music was my gateway but also my inspiration. After falling in love first with the music of the Middle East and the Maghreb, then with the music of India and Pakistan, I read everything I could about them. Then that became insufficient. So I went there.I wanted to learn from them, what they were like when CNN did not find them newsworthy. And too, I wanted to show them the real face of America: a real Black American with intelligence, passion, commitment and concern, who spoke more than one language and cared about something other than money and bitches. Not the hoodlum images of Black Americans constantly beamed into their lives by the broadcast media and its colonialism of the mind. Not, in short, anything they had heard about before or seen. I shared the blessing of seeing them as they were: not only rough, obsessive, noisy, tribal, and vain, but also elegant, passionate, meditative, loyal, devout. A lot, in fact, like my homeland.
Thinking about Europe, things were different. I had been there before in my teens, and had always felt an affinity there. Yet I did not think I had anything to offer to Europe in the late 90s. Hadn’t Europe just been through a massive cultural change of Velvet Revolutions and newfound unity? And was this not the very unity I could not find in my own America? Traveling through Europe I felt unable to do anything but learn. Yet I could not stay away. England called me first but Portugal finally demanded my presence as I sat in that darkened room in Canada listening to that beautiful voice slicing through me with those words…
Solidão de quem tremeu A tentação do céu E desencanto, eis o que o céu me deu Serei bem eu Sob este véu de pranto Sem saber se choro algum pecado A tremer, imploro o céu fechado Triste amor, o amor de alguém Quando outro amor se tem Abandonado, e não me abandonei Por mim, ninguém Já se detém na estrada
I read those lyrics over and over. I knew I would have to learn the whole language. I knew I would have to go there.
I taught myself Portuguese through music. Dulce Pontes, Cristina Branco, Madredeus, Maria Teresa de Noronha, Carlos do Carmo and Mísia helped me not only understand Portuguese as a language, but Portuguese as a people.
When I had mastered enough of the language and felt that, finally, I was ready, I handed in my request for vacation in December of that year and arranged my tickets to Lisboa.
That was on the 7th of September, 2001. That week, America changed.
I probably felt the same desperation and confusion as most people. What I did not feel was anger and fear. I felt something quite different. I felt connected. Not in a trite way, as though suddenly I had some revelation about what it meant to be American–by traveling the world, I had already known that. Instead I felt connected to the entire history of humanity and inhumanity. I felt that exquisite sense of my own finitude and the infinitude of the world. I felt like one of the pebbles along the beach upon the ocean of the universe, too small to be noticed yet still searching for some meaning in it all, trampled under foot of powers far beyond me.
I understood saudade, that uniquely Portuguese word, for the first time.
I considered cancelling my flight to Lisboa in December 2001. Instead I rescheduled it for April. By then American desperation and fear had turned to a kind of madness. Bloodlust raged. It was unbearable. I had to leave, if only for a week. It was important for me, I reasoned, to recover somehow, but it would also be important for the people I would meet to see an American who did not share his country’s official rhetoric.
I stayed at a hostel across the street from one of the most beautiful churches in Europe and met travellers from all across Europe. As I conversed with them in French, German, and/or Portuguese about European politics, African immigration, tribal history in the Balkans, the poetry of Pessoa, and my beloved subject of international music, most of them mistook me for North African. When I finally spoke English under protest, they mistook me for Canadian–as Europeans often do. As I told them I was American, I could see eyes bulge and brows raise. One demanded to see my passport, thinking I was pulling his leg.
“How do you know so much about us?” he questioned me.
“Not all of us are war-mongering pretty boys and Texas hicks, you know. And I don’t wear grills, either. See? Nothing but plaque and tartar.”
As he laughed, he patted me on the back and said, “Okay. Then you won’t have this at home yet.” He pulled a CD out of his backpack and handed it to me.
“Use it wisely!” he laughed.
That was the first time I heard Mariza. She had just released Fado em Mim. The first song on it, her version of “Loucura”, did not strike me immediately. For a song about madness, it moved effortlessly and briskly–too much for me. The second song, however, stopped me completely. Here was a youthful yet mature voice, crying out slowly at first in a voice of pure lyricism, then gradually gaining in strength and power, like a prize fighter bloodied but unbowed, standing up to face the next blow with defiant pride. I took her song by the tail and let it fly me wherever it wanted to take me. From the traditional arrangement of tunes like Maria Lisboa to the fresh, jazz-like arrangement of “Oiça lá ó senhor vinho,” I could tell this was the new voice of fado. The new voice of Portugal gave me a new song to sing when I returned to America.
I returned home that month, calmer, wiser, deeply immersed in the old world saudade, but with my own accomplishment of putting a new face on America for several fellow travelers.
By the end of the year, I would hear rush to hear Mariza’s voice at a jazz festival in Montreal and in Japan singing the Portuguese national anthem at the FIFA World Cup. Her star has only continued to rise. I have seen her three times since, including in 2009 at the University of Washington.
As I went to see her on last Friday night at the university, my life and my country had become noticeably different from the first time I heard her. My country remains hawkish and filled with extremism and bloodlust, still engaged in a mindless war in a country most of them know nothing about. The deep sadness of 2002 seems to be gone: not solved, necessarily, but sublimated into daily life, always threatening to disrupt.
Mariza of course remains extraordinary. Her voice has grown richer in the past eleven years and, too, I think her experience has broadened not merely her knowledge of different styles of music across Lusophonia, but also in her emotional temperament. She has also learned how to lead an audience. Anyone who can get a couple hundred AARP-aged Seattleites to sing along in Portuguese has mastered a skill unknown to anyone in Seattle itself. Her luscious beauty and high fashion sense as a fadista help bolster her incredible stage presence that, while tertiary to musicianship, clearly affects the people in the concert hall. Her band, too, is superb.
Walking through the doors of Meany Hall, I flashed back twenty years to the 1993 concert of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I stood in line for an hour to get tickets for the show, which I managed only just. The queue ran up the stairs back toward Red Square. The audience was filled with dozens of desi, as expected. More strikingly, though, it was filled with students: most people under the age of thirty. One would have been hard-pressed to find a handful of grey-haired Seattleites in that crowd. It was 1993. President Clinton was encouraging Americans to serve their country, to go abroad, to see the world. World music songs and traditions were in regular rotation on college radio stations like KCMU. I myself DJed one such show. Northwest Folklife Festival featured music from around the world including rai, ragamala and reggae, and Bumbershoot was even more diverse.
I flash back to the present. It is 2013. Most of the audience is grey-haired. People my age are extremely rare to spot in the crowd. Even more rare are students. For a world music concert, the audience is shockingly homogeneous. The world no longer seems like the open place of twenty years ago. President Obama is not encouraging public service among citizens, except the military. People not only do not go abroad to see the world, they often do not even come out of their own houses. World music is barely noticeable on college radio stations. I no longer DJ. Northwest Folklife has become a whitebread hangout. Bumbershoot is risible.
In 1993, the world seemed a more open place. Americans who were tired of the navel-gazing adolescence of much in the culture turned their vision outward. Third-world and second-world rhythms became so attractive that WOMAD could not only support a music label but also a regular festival that did not include Squeeze, Chic, Bonnie Raitt or other “radio friendly” acts. There was, I think, a sense that the world was there to teach us more than we knew.
That is no longer the case. Americans have grown tired of hearing about the world. They have largely withdrawn from it, preferrring, I suppose, to allow our only conversation with peoples of the world to be discussed in military terms. It is much more difficult for Americans to travel abroad, but even more difficult for foreign artists to travel to the USA. Security has attained levels of paranoia quite disturbing, as anyone aware of any NSA activity knows, while remaining untrained, foolish and arbitrary–as anyone who has dealt with TSA knows. The US Citizenship and Immigration office regularly denies work visas for international artists–ask anyone at On the Boards or PEN American Center. Everything right now in our cultural life suggests that Americans would rather not fight these battles, so they simply stay home plugged into the computer and broadband system–where they can be neatly monitored and tracked.
I wonder if there even remains a place in our society for world music. I wonder sometimes if there is even a place for the world itself. I should like to think so. Whatever the funk in which our culture currently drowns, I like to believe that beauty will always find away.
I am naive. But I will hold on to the naïvete. The alternatives are far too bleak.