We went to a concert the other evening at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre. The vocalist played electric and acoustic guitars. He was backed by a bass player. Drums. Pure and simple.
The vocalist opened in a different language. We enjoyed it. He was very good. His voice never departed from the range and mood typically associated with his nationality. I had heard many songs from there before. There's a strongly romantic feeling about them, for both men and women, but in different ways.
His second song was in the same language. My mind wandered around in the musical texture of those old recordings. Of that romance.
The third song likewise. Then the fourth. By this time the moods were beginning to wear. The songs were sounding very similar.
They wouldn't be, if I could just understand the words. Or if the instruments were more centre-stage. But the drums and bass were in the background. The voice was everything. The songs. It was very obvious there was a story he was telling that I was missing completely. Yet I could hear the emotion of it with each pull and twist of the words. The mood of it drifted down over our heads, between us so clearly, but with no hint of what it was about.
Maybe I was the only one who felt that this was a huge waste. That his enormous, perfectly-modulated-for-something voice was actually meant to convey meaning. And I began to feel I was wasting my own time and effort too. I tried not to.
By the fifth song it became very clear that all the other people around me were listening intently to songs they didn’t understand. As if they did. Maybe this was some huge prank being played on the audience. A performer with such brass he could play that prank right out to the end.
But no. This was music not storytelling. I usually can't follow the lyrics in this kind of music anyway. His voice was his instrument. So listen to the voice. Listen to him singing. To what he does with those sounds. How he manipulates them so perfectly. There is much more going on than just that ethnicity of song. If I were from that country myself, I would be into the details and wouldn’t even notice the dialect. But to me the details were the meanings of the words, and they were all hidden.
I was fighting sound boredom. It was all threatening to become white noise.
I thought of a new plan: I would listen for words that had obviously been selected for their sound, not their meaning. For their music. I worked at that but soon forgot it.
Then I tried to see these three guys as I would if I had entered a bar in their country and saw them playing on the stage, or amongst the tables. I would love it. They are the real thing. Even if I didn’t understand a word. That lasted a few minutes.
Linda, who thinks in pictures, not words, told me afterward with crinkled eyes and smiling cheeks of a vision she had had while sitting there beside me. Of a very poor village. Ramshackle houses. Poor people, dying people in a slum. But with flowers blooming all over. Colour. Ladies wearing full dresses and colourful scarves and tops. Linda had become a part of the scene. The women were dancing, their skirts and scarves flowing. The music was coming through. Everyone happy. The sounds were so powerful because that was all they had.
And eventually I too forgot my problem with the meaning of the words. I was tapping my feet, moving my head. Then, in the middle of a song, I realized that he had been singing it in English. And I hadn’t noticed it at all. And for a while it was strange to hear meaning, actual words about love, about how much he wanted this woman. I was hearing both the story and the music. Sudden depth. I was fully awake. My entire brain was seeing. And when the song ended the theatre erupted into wild cheers and laughter and whistling.