The amiable, laid-back host of Radio Jamaica’s Sunday afternoon show Palav, Gerry McDaniel, recently invited me as a guest on his program. I felt honored and happily accepted. I sat down on the “long bench” alongside Patria-Kay Aarons, the vivacious television personality, weather forecaster and entrepreneur (I would be remiss if I did not mention her line of Jamaican-made confectionery, Sweetie, now being distributed in the U.S. And I confess to digging in to a packet of Paradise Plums during the show, thus rendering myself unable to speak). But…we chatted. And we chatted.
The time flew past, our conversation interspersed with phone calls, text messages and other types of communications. I had a chat with my husband on the air; Patria-Kay had a chat with her mother. Gerry kept one eye on his computer screen. His assistant Valdimir Wallace flitted around taking photos. Producer Stacy-Ann Delavante waved, laughed and made comments from beyond the glass.
There was, as Bob Marley said, “So much things to say.”
Stacy-Ann had asked me to share a few pieces of music that I particularly like, that could be played on the show. Now, I do have eclectic musical tastes (to say the least) and sent her a list of ten absolute personal favorites – some rather obscure, or “weird” as Stacy-Ann put it. It was very hard to choose just ten – but in the end, only one piece was played. No matter. Having put some thought to it, I decided to share my “Top Ten” with you, my readers. Do bear in mind, however, that these are not my only favorites. Really, I would have to do something like a Billboard Hot 100, or what my friend Neil Morgan does with his Song of the Year and Album of the Year (@ImmortalCritic).
These are in no particular order, and as I said, there are many serious omissions… This is just the tip of my musical iceberg.
“The Way You Dream” by Michael Stipe and Asha Boshle. From the album “One Giant Leap.” This album is a bit of an oddity, created by two Englishmen in 2002. They went around the world with a laptop computer recording different voices and remixing them. It has a philosophy: unity through diversity, love and peace, and all that. It works pretty well and has many beautiful tracks, opening with a stirring chant by Senegalese singer Baba Maal and ending with a moody number by Eddi Reader, the red-headed Scottish singer/songwriter. This particular track, with the voices of Michael Stipe (lead singer with REM for many years) and Asha Boshle (a wonderful Indian singer, now in her eighties!) is haunting. Stipe’s intense and introverted vocals are a striking contrast to Boshle’s soaring voice. Beautiful.
“Clair de Lune” (this was played on the show, by the way) or “Moonlight,” written in 1890 by Claude Debussy. A simple and sweet classical piano piece, it is part of “Suite Bergamasque,” and was inspired by a very romantic poem by Paul Verlaine, which has the line: “Au calme clair de lune triste et beau…” (In the quiet moonlight, sad and beautiful…) I have always loved this period of music, art and literature in Europe – that turn-of-the-century malaise. I also love this piece because, as I mentioned on the show, it was one of my father’s favorites; he used to play the piano every evening before dinner, at home. I do miss those evenings.
“All Along the Watchtower” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. From the album “Electric Ladyland.” Now, forgive me, but rock music flows in my veins. I grew up on it and would have to say it is my first love, musically speaking. As a teenager, I was completely in awe of the genius of Jimi – one of several rock musicians who died at the age of 27, strangely. He was so young (and yet he always seemed like an “old soul”) and had already pushed the boundaries of music in several different directions. He was a great fan of Bob Dylan, who wrote this song for his excellent country-ish album John Wesley Harding in 1967. Dylan himself said he was “overwhelmed” by Hendrix’s intense, lonely, bluesy version. The amazing lyrics spring to life in a different way: “Outside in the cold distance/A wild cat did growl/Two riders were approaching/And the wind began to howl.” Magic.
“California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas. Apart from being a really catchy pop song that was a big hit at the time (1965) this song written by John and Michelle Phillips is a delicious whiff of nostalgia. Nostalgia not only for the “Flower Power” era on the U.S. West Coast, which I fell in love with – but also it’s a song about longing to be somewhere where you are not (a warm and sunny place). This was early, fresh “psychedelic” pop, with no drug references. The Australian singer Sia (whose face we don’t see very often these days) recently recorded a version of it for a film called “San Andreas.” It’s a classic, and the title has almost become a catchphrase.
“Flamenco Sketches” by Miles Davis. From the album “Kind of Blue” (1959). I have not always loved jazz; it’s a taste that can sometimes take a while to acquire. After two visits to the Monterey Jazz Festival, I am convinced that the music is best experienced in live performance. Then, I swear, anyone with any blood flowing in their veins would be converted at the altar of jazz. I never had the privilege of hearing this group of magnificent musicians perform; apart from Miles on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, the legendary John Coltrane (alto saxophone), Cannonball Adderley (tenor saxophone), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) are the other musicians. This is glorious and chilling.
“For Emma, Forever Ago” by Bon Iver. From the album of the same name. Actually, I adore the whole album, and not just because it bears my name; it just creates its own little world. Bon Iver is an “indie folk band” (to put them in their right category), with singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, a rather scruffy, laconic but somehow hip young man from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This album was allegedly recorded in his father’s hunting cabin and released in 2008. The cover depicts a window frosted over inside, which means seriously cold. This track is the bounciest on the album, which I actually know by heart.
“Saeglópur” by Sigur Rós. From the album “Takk” (2005). I first heard this album in my brother’s car on a hot summer’s day, driving through the English countryside; our mother had just died. I thought I was dreaming – the music washed over me and then back again, like waves on the shore. I had never heard anything like it. The title of this track means “Lost at Sea” in Icelandic. Yes, Sigur Rós are from the land of Bjork. Singer Jónsi Birgisson’s vocals float and rage and this eight-minute track sounds like five seconds. It’s hard to describe this band’s music; they are called “post-rock,” whatever that means. They are probably my favorite band, ever – a statement that is hard to make. Oh, by the way, they appeared briefly in “Game of Thrones” – remember Joffrey’s wedding?
“Throw Down Your Arms” by Burning Spear. From the album “Dry and Heavy,” released in 1977. Hands down my favorite reggae singer of all time, Mr. Winston Rodney has that earthiness, depth and genuine passion that is so missing in the “prettier” singers. I have seen him many times in concert (sadly, he does not perform in Jamaica at all). I love this song because of his live performance of it (at the now-defunct Rainbow Theatre in London) in the early 1980s; it affected me deeply. It is simply a plea for non-violence. Put down the “rock stone” and the gun! By the way, the musical lineup on this album is a “who’s who” of reggae brilliance: besides the legendary Sly and Robbie, there is Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Earl “Chinna” Smith, and more. Really powerful.
“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. From the album of the same name released in 1975. A sweet melody from a perhaps underrated album, a beautiful, wistful follow-up to the powerhouse “Dark Side of the Moon.” David Gilmour starts off playing acoustic guitar with a kind of AM radio effect, sounding distant and lonely. The song (and most of the album) is about former band member Syd Barrett, who was suffering from poor mental health at the time. Gilmour’s guitar is sweet (such an underrated guitarist, too) and the lyrics are sadly resigned: “So, so you think you can tell/Heaven from hell/Blue skies from pain..” I just learned that the veteran Ivory Coast reggae musician Alpha Blondy did a version of the song (among many others). That I would love to hear.
“Yamore” by Salif Keita and Cesaria Evora. From Keita’s album “Moffou.” One of my passions is African music in all its incredible diversity; and of all countries the music of Mali moves me the most. This opening song is in a mixture of languages, it seems – some French, some Brazilian (dialect) and other African languages. But I am sure it is a love song, sung by two soulful African voices. Salif Keita is always called “The Golden Voice of Africa,” and is a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century. He is albino, and suffered for it, before becoming a superstar. Cesaria Evora is from Cape Verde – a rich and deep voice. She became famous quite late in life, but sadly died four years ago. Look for the beautiful video of this song, too.
Well, there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my little collection of favorites – and that you will look around on YouTube to find and listen to them. Tell me what you think!
And thanks to Gerry and Palav for giving me this opportunity to distill some of the music that inspires me. Oh, did I mention opera? I didn’t? Well, again I wouldn’t know where to start…
I can only sum up my feelings, in the words of the great German philosopher: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”