Music is memory. Hearing a song or a piece of music, like thinking about one of the twenty-seven used cars I’ve owned, chauffeur me into my past.
I learned Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” on the guitar from my friend, Warren Wilson. I was living on a commune in New Hampshire. It was 1970, and I had never heard country blues before. Diddy-Dirty Money’s “I’m Coming Home” with Skylar Grey was the first rap tune I fell for unconditionally. It blends pop, with hip-hop and ballad.
I’m a sucker for ballads. I listened to the songs on this top-ten list of tunes about HOME while I was processing images and interviews for a film project I was working on with my wife, Joanne; it’s called Home Sick. I pretty near like everything Elvis ever recorded. His opening of Curly Putman’s “The Green Green Grass of Home” is so deep and sappy, it puts chills up my sleeve.
Paul Simon’s talent as songwriter and his harmonies with Art Garfunkel gave me a sense of musical hope when I first started writing songs myself in 1966. I was a sophomore in high school. Mohammed Ali declared himself a conscientious objector that year, and three years later when I dropped out of college, I did the same. In 1968 I heard Simon and Garfunkel perform together without a band, at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, not far from where they grew up.
The surprise for me on this list – because new music always sneaks up me when I least expect it – is the hotel-room-recording by Cathy Burton and Eller van Buuren, “Surrender.” Simple and un-produced. I really can’t say enough about the other artists mentioned here, even John Denver. If there is something I love besides my wife and daughter, it’s music. I can’t imagine the world without it, or them.
1. Diddy-Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey – Comin’ Home
2. Elvis Presley- Green Green Grass of Home
3. John Denver – Country Roads
4. Robert Johnson Sweet Home Chicago
5. Simon and Garfunkel – Homeward Bound
6. Dusty Springfield – I’m Coming Home Again
7. Cathy Burton and Eller van Buuren – Surrender
8. Joni Mitchell – Night Ride Home
9. Neil Young – Helpless
10. James Taylor – Carolina in my Mind
Jim Savio is a Lecturer in the NYUAD Writing Program. He publishes fiction, essays, and poetry.
Artur Rubinstein in 1906. Courtesy: Library of Congress.
I was first exposed to classical music in my grandfather’s sunroom. He kept his record player there, and often the first thing I would see upon entering his house was the silhouette of his hands held aloft over his bald head, conducting along with a recording of one of his favorite pieces – usually a schmaltzy Romantic concerto or symphony. Here is a playlist consisting of some of the recordings (most made in the 1940s and 50s) I remember listening to while sitting on the floor next to him.
The Nile Project features musicians from all eleven countries in the Nile Basin. (Photo: The Nile Project)
I went to The Nile Project on October 29, thinking that I could watch the performance and eat my dinner at the same time. Five minutes in, I had tomato stains on my shirt. Ten minutes in, I nearly choked on a corn kernel. Fifteen minutes in, I dropped my fork, almost stabbed my left hallux, and gave up trying to finish my salad. After the concert, I left the East Plaza hungrier than I had been at the start, but feeling emotionally and mentally fulfilled.
Having read the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center’s description ahead of the performance, I understood that The Nile Project formed in 2011 as a musical response to water conflicts in the Nile Basin. The project brings together “musicians of all 11 Nile countries […] to empower university students around the world with the tools they need to make the Nile more sustainable,” the Arts Center’s webpage informed me further. Given The Nile Project’s lofty political aspirations, I went to Thursday’s performance expecting a concert that had the main goal of sending a message to the Nile countries fighting over water rights, but would also make me dance. For the first five minutes of the concert, that expectation seemed spot-on: The opening act had the slow, somber pace I expected. But after the first song, I witnessed a veritable explosion of sound and realized how incorrect my expectations about the performance had been. Instead of setting their message to the sad tune I expected, The Nile Project delivered an upbeat performance that celebrated the life and music of the Nile countries. I had prepared to hear music with a message that might make me dance; The Nile Project played dance music that also had a message.
The Nile Project sings in a dozen languages; I thought I at least spoke one of them, but my semester of Classical Arabic did not help me understand the Egyptian singer Dina el Wedidi. For those of us who didn’t understand the lyrics, the group conveyed a mood rather than a discernable message. As Kate Melville-Rea (NYUAD’18) put it when I asked her to help me get a sense of what the group’s lyrics mean: “It’s not art if everyone understands it. Once you know what they’re singing, it loses its power.” The Nile Project certainly has that power intact.
Were the members of The Nile Project to read this reaction (a hypothetical I would be flattering myself with if I thought it likely), they might feel they had failed to convey the message behind their music to me. Far from feeling let down, I want to congratulate them: Despite my utter ignorance about the subject and lyrics of their songs, they elicited a visceral response in me that I have not felt since Toshi Reagon performed Parable of the Sower at NYU Abu Dhabi earlier this fall.
“Euphoric” is what Jon Pareles of The New York Timescalled The Nile Project when they performed at Globalfest in February 2015. (Photo: Karsten Moran for The New York Times)
That parallel to Reagon’s performance says a lot about both the subject matter (water scarcity and conflict) and quality (mind-boggling) of the show The Nile Project put on at NYUAD last month. Despite playing to a jam-packed East Plaza, The Nile Project managed to keep their performance as intimate as if they sat on a half-circle of chairs in the confines of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Black Box Theater, capacity 150.
Using more instruments than I knew existed, playing complex rhythms that boggled the minds of people with far more musical talent than I have, and exuding a happiness that seems to defy the sobering reality of what they are singing about, The Nile Project gave a performance that left me wanting answers. How did the singer make that vocal hiccup? What was the name of that piece with the jazz saxophonist? Who sang which songs? What was the name of that feather mask? Why did it have to end so soon? I do not know the answer to any of those questions, nor would I want to. Instead of taking a palpable lesson from The Nile Project, I took a mood, an uplifting sense of possibility and collaboration.
In the middle of a quiet street in Muttrah with its dim streetlights, cat-inhabited dustbins, and low-rise white-brown buildings, my parents found me a little piece of home, and I found a little piece of family.
In September 2003, a few months after we had just moved to Muscat, Oman, I attended one of my first Carnatic music classes. I was enthusiastic, and I had a natural affinity for music – passed down, no doubt, from my father and his family back in India whose love for music is so pure that it has transcended into every one of the grandchildren. During this journey spanning eleven years, several ups and ever so many downs, and ending in my arangetram, the three-hour solo concert that officially marked my transition from student to performer, I learnt about people: how they weren’t always the same, how they didn’t have to be the same as me, and how each of them could and would teach me something. But, mostly, I learned how to love them.
Carnatic music is a branch of Indian classical music that originated in South India. It is a wonderful system of music –melodious and mathematical, sharpening the mind in very aspect with every nuance one learns. My music teacher was supremely skilled at what he did. The quality of his teaching was par excellence; he was rigorous with his training, and he kept us working hard. But he also had his own, old-fashioned ideas of what the ideal Carnatic student was. A lot of his ideas had to do with the traditional Gurukul style of learning Carnatic music in ancient India, in which a student lives with the teacher, learning and singing and breathing music.
For the first three or four years of lessons, my life was relatively stable. As I began to progress to higher levels of music, however, my life began to intertwine with my class excessively; like a vine that is separated from its support, I wouldn’t know what my life was without music classes. My one hour-long class grew into two and three hour-long sessions. I began to miss my friends’ birthday parties and outings. The only constant things in my life became this class and the people associated with it. My parents were constantly caught in a conflict – several times, we’d make the decision to simply leave the class, but somehow, we could never find it in ourselves to make it happen. As much as they wanted to relax the schedule of my classes, they also wanted me to carry on with the musical tradition that was important to them—and clearly, I had a talent for and an interest in, this music. And so I carried on.
When we started to do public performances, the routine escalated to a new level. I started to take my homework and dinner to the classes, making the most of my scant break times and grumbling to my parents every night as we travelled back home. Steadily, this routine became a part of who I was. “Of course she missed the party, she was in her music class.” It was two days before a concert. “Come on, you can skip ONE class for me, can’t you?” Parties would never work as a good enough excuse to skip class. “You never come anywhere with us!” My parents hadn’t seen me properly in a week.
I was realizing, however, that in the midst of becoming a teenager, being frustrated with my music class, and the ever-changing dynamic of my social life, something very special within my teacher’s crusty old apartment kept me going. For the longest time, despite the striking differences in our personalities, my music classmates and I were each other’s support systems. The music had become something that belonged to us, our secret, a shared something that nobody else understood. In the little jokes about Sanskrit words that we barely understood, in comparing whose raga prowess was better, in a million little moments that nobody but us would ever understand, we found home. Our relationship within the confines of our music class exceeded any friendship I had with anyone else. They understood – and this understanding was enough to bind a bunch of middle-schoolers into a family.
Even now, the picture-laden, crumbling walls of my teacher’s tiny apartment hold some of my most terrible and precious memories. I remember the evenings that our teacher would be in an unusually pleasant mood, taking time off the lesson to show us pictures of his latest concert in Germany or Sweden as we huddled by his computer looking at pictures of him and his concert buddies – old, mustachioed men snapping pictures of anything and everything. I recall the days when we sat together in horror, our teacher growing somber and reminiscent as he told us terrible stories about his days at war. I remember us bursting into outrageous rants in the balcony when something was particularly unfair or frustrating and the palpable empathy in the air around us as one of us got taken to the small kitchen for a particularly harsh telling-off or even a spanking. I remember hearing the faint notes of a violin or little voices singing in unison growing stronger as I walked up the stairs to the apartment every day, filling me with a quiet happiness. I remember, in my final years in the class, learning to love my teacher along with my classmates.
As we grew up and went away to college, we haven’t kept in touch. I don’t know what my former classmates do every day of their lives. I don’t know what kind of people they have grown into, but every now and then, I think of them and I wonder. And then I am filled with gratitude that they existed in my life.
Below: A video of Bombay Jayashri, one of the author’s favorite Carnatic musicians.
[Editors’ Note: With this post, we inaugurate a new feature, the Electra Street Playlist. Each playlist is intended to serve as a soundtrack for “home,” conceived either as a place or a specific moment in time — or both.]
I had a pretty classical rock upbringing. My father was a disc jockey in the ’60s back in Paris, and as a kid I spent an insane amount of time digging through all the amazing record sleeves he had collected over the years. I’ll never forget hearing these songs on vinyl for the first time; it was weirdly emotional. I also realized how much I had left to learn.
1. The Rolling Stones – Out of Time
2. Love – Alone Again Or
3. The Syndicate of Sound – Little Girl
4. Buffalo Springfield – Expecting To Fly
5. The Yardbirds – Happening Ten Years Time Ago
6. Antoine – Les Elucubrations
7. Serge Gainsbourg – l’Homme a la Tete de Choux
8. Music Machine – Talk Talk
9. Georges Brassems – Les Copains d’Abord
10. Donovan – Universal Soldier
11. The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned
12. Hapshash and the Colored Coat – The New Messiah Coming 1985
13. The Electric Prunes – I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)
14. Keith Relf – Shapes In My Mind
15. The Zombies – She’s Not There
16. Pink Floyd – Interstellar Overdrive
17. Easybeats – Friday on My Mind
Readers are invited to submit their own playlists. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Playlist Submission.” Your email should list your tracks by artist and song title (though we’ll happily run more information if you provide it). If you want us to include embedded YouTube videos or SoundCloud files (or their equivalents), please include the relevant links in your email. We promise to publish as many of your playlists as we can!
Save for the six-year stint I had in my middle school and high school band, I never listened to any classical music. The closest I get to listening to any type of instrumental music now is the occasional jazz playlist that I pull up when I’m brooding about the miseries of life, but that’s about it. That explains why I didn’t have any expectations about Kronos when I got a ticket to their concert. All I knew about the Kronos Quartet was that their visit was extremely unusual — they’re world-class performers, and yet here they are performing in an intimate, two-hundred seat theater for free. Watching a string quartet isn’t something I would usually think about doing, but I’m learning never to say no to a performance at the Arts Center.
I attended the opening performance on Wednesday, September 16 and when I sat down in the Black Box Theater, I marveled at the dramatic transformation in the space: the last time I was there was for Theater Mitu’s production of Hamlet. As people slowly trickled into the theater, I browsed the program to see if any pieces would be familiar to me. None were, just as I expected. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was just how darn popular these guys were: according to the program, all the compositions they played that night were either written exclusively for them, or at least arranged to suit their quartet.
The Kronos Quartet at NYUAD’s Black Box Theater
(Left to right: David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang)
After the lights dimmed down and Bill Bragin finished his customary speech, the concert began…except not in a way that I expected. Sunny Yang, the cellist, emerged from the back of the room, making her way towards the stage, where she played alone — but not quite. The other three members of the quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, and Hank Dutt respectively) were playing outside, connecting music and space in a way I never really experienced. It was so simple. You heard them, but you didn’t see them. Despite its simplicity, however, this effect set the scene for the rest of the performance: the spotlight was clearly on the music, and the musicians were secondary.
Bill Bragin’s introduction revealed that the set list for each performance wasn’t going to be the same. The performance I went to was entitled “Good Medicine,” with the music predominantly coming from Central Asia and the Middle East. If it hadn’t been clear to me that Kronos wasn’t just any string quartet, it became clear as soon as they started playing: rather than opting for classic pieces by dead white composers (dead white men seem to build the canon in almost any aspect of art), they played music from composers they worked with specifically to create that piece. The best part of the set was the world premiere of a piece by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, with the Malian composer himself accompanying the quartet on his balafon. Quick aside — imagine the balafon as a kind of wooden xylophone, except much bigger than the plastic ones you used to play with as a kid. I know, I didn’t know those existed either … at least not until I attended this concert. Like I said: Kronos isn’t your grandmother’s string quartet.
The only word that kept coming back to me as I listened to that piece was joy: rather than trying to find an intellectual reaction that I could later write about, all I had was a gut feeling. I couldn’t think of anything to say — all I could focus on was how happy the music sounded.
One of my favorite things to do is to ask people what they are most passionate about. Seeing their eyes light up and their hands start getting into a frenzy as they try to explain what their next research project/installment piece/novella-film-painting is about is a beautiful thing. That’s what struck me the most about watching Kronos play; they were so engulfed into the music that their bodies swayed with every beat and their eyebrows wrinkled in pure concentration. Watching them gave me flashbacks to my band professor, who got so into his conducting that pools of sweat would start to gather on his forehead and you would think that he was directing the New York Philharmonic rather than a bunch of teenagers.
After Kronos stood up for their final bow — after coming back for an encore performance of a fun, poppy Egyptian tango — I realized that I’ve seen them somewhere before. I saw them a few days back, in an elevator in the Campus Center, as I was making my way to the library to finish the homework I was supposed to have finished. I remember some fragments of conversation to do with some kind of listening event with some kind of crowd, but I didn’t make the connection that it was Kronos in the elevator with me. After seeing them perform, however, all I could think about was that brief moment in the elevator. They were so unassuming, I didn’t know any better, and yet there they were right in front of me. Little did I know that these same people would eventually come together in a performance that would make me shift my understanding of what it means to make music, all without saying a word.