Monday, November 10, 2008
I was sad to read that Miriam Makeba had died recently. I tried to draw her way back in the early 90's and the portrait became one of my 'failures'.
I have a confession to make - if I had a choice, I'd much rather be a musician than an artist. I think music resonates with our deepest emotions in a way other arts cannot. Even basic drum rythms seem to affect us - it can whip mobs into frenzies, it can drive us mad (think of bad music over loudspeakers directed over enemy lines) or keep us dancing into the small hours! Beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics can melt hearts, soothe our sorrows, send us to sleep or overwhelm our emotions. Whereas spoken language is learned, the language of music seems to be instinctual. (Some might argue the same is true of visual art, but when I think of the arguments about whether this medium is better than that, impressionism is better than realism etc., I just don't see that with music. Whether it's heavy metal or classical we all understand it's valid, it's music, and simply down to preference. We like it or we don't, an artist's statement ain't gonna change anything!)
The 70's was an absolutely fantastic time to be a teenager. I have musical memories as a child in the 60's, of course- one of the first songs I remember was Downtown by Petula Clark and I was a big fan of The Monkees when I was about six! Growing up, I went through the Donny phase, then the more mature David phase (or was it the other way round?!), had a brief fling with the Bay City Rollers but all that ended abruptly the moment I heard Queen singing Seven Seas of Rhye on Top of the Pops. Freddie designed the album covers and they seemed to be from another wonderful, creative, outrageous world so far removed from mine. (Actually, bizarrely, they did cross the following year when I was in the back of a school bus coming back from a swimming lesson and just as it passed the English National Opera building, Queen came out of the entrance! My friends mimicked the look on my face for ages after that!) They seemed to bridge the gap between music and art. But while I was mad about Queen, I used to listen to the radio most nights and I'd enjoy Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Lennon - everything from what was called 'progressive rock' to the silly ditties that were in the charts. It was all fun and all so exciting and new.
Too much fun for my Dad's liking because I got packed off to boarding school in the middle of nowhere (that was just outside Dublin in those days!) and at that time it was like stepping back into the 50's. I started in September 1976 and came home for the Christmas holidays and was horrified to find out the world I'd left behind in London only months before no longer existed - punk had arrived and I hated it! I tried to like the Jam, the Police and the Stranglers. I got into the Cure and Joy Division but my heart wasn't in it. It was depressing, negative and cynical and I didn't need that, not then. Spandau Ballet were fun, at last, and the 80's had a few good moments but it was nothing compared to the 70's.
By that time (the love of art having been supposedly educated out of me), I was then a battery hen, working in a dreary office, and travel became a passion. In 1984, I took myself off to The Gambia in West Africa as it was just opening itself up to tourism. There was a very long, hot dusty walk into the capital Banjul, from the hotel which I enjoyed and one day, half way along, I stopped off at a little bar for a drink. I heard the most amazing sound coming from the tinny little radio and asked who was singing. I couldn't quite get the name right so when I got home I went up to a music shop in North London and asked if they recognised it. Yes, it was Youssou N'Dour, from Senegal (The Gambia is a tiny country surrounded on all sides by Senegal.) The love of music was finally re-ignited! I discovered the great sounds coming out of places like Zaire, Rwanda, Mali, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Madagascar and of course, South Africa - a year or two before Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon made their discoveries! But from those first notes on that tinny radio and those haunting vocals, there was no mistaking these sounds were something special. I tuned in to Charlie Gillett's world music show and it really seemed like Africa was emerging from the darkness. The music was so full of hope, the time for change had come. But there was big trouble brewing in Rwanda and I remember hearing Charlie talking about how the climate in that region was changing and effecting the musicians and the music.
Listening to Miriam Mekeba takes me back to those hopeful days. It's sad to think of what has happened to Africa in the intervening years but after last week's elections in the US, who knows, it might inspire change in ways we can't yet imagine.