We were sitting in a Starbuck’s in Yokohama, one of my private students and I, discussing her anxiety about an interview she’s conducting tomorrow for which she is less than prepared.
“…at least you have the questions prepared so…”
“Actually…” she said, and smiled painfully.
“You don’t even have the questions prepared?”
“I’ve been so busy lately and…”
That’s about when I heard those voices coming from the speakers strategically placed around the cafe.
Like a chorus of human chattel toiling away, sowing, planting, picking something on some boundless plantation stretching as far as the eye can see off into the horizon, where the work is never done and tomorrow promises more of the same as did yesterday, humming a song a lifetime long, its beginning unremembered, cuz you came into the world humming it, and its ending nowhere in sight…it’ll be hummed by those who remain behind, hummed over your corpse.
I felt it in my chest, my heart writhing in rhythm with the hymn.
“…I just haven’t had time to work on this. What am I going to do?”
I shushed her with a finger to my lips.
“Can you hear that?”
Plates rattling, school girls kawaii–ing, staff-people irrasshaimase–ing and arigatou gozaimas–ing customers coming and going, another English teacher nearby earning his keep…Shut-up!
“That!” I said, my head aimed at the ceiling, searching for and finding the nearest speaker- straining to contain beyond its brink this profound sound, like a dark cloud sliding by a full moon, illuminated from above and from within.
“You mean the music?” she said, listening now. “I don’t know this song.”
But, I did.
Memories lunged at me…including one of the first time I’d heard it.
I had to be about 8 years old. I was at school….kinda.
I’ve written a number of times about the school I attended as a child, including a bit about how it helped shaped my world view. I wrote of how remarkable an institution it was.
I don’t believe I mentioned this though: That, in addition to being a school, the building also served as a night club. After school, the main floor was cleared of all the desks and chairs and blackboards, and tables were rolled out, a candle placed in the center of each. The stage was multi-purpose, used for school plays and various other activities, but, at night, it was used by performers. Our parents- some of them teachers by day, but by night became cooks and waitresses and engineers, etc…for the show!
My school was not only a cultural center but an entertainment hotspot in Bed-Stuy.
My mother was one of the school’s bookkeepers so she was usually on hand. And, sometimes, I’d find myself in my school for these after-school, after-hours shindigs.
The “club” attracted some of the top names of the time in Jazz, poetry, and all manner of art. One night, Pharoah Sanders would be there. Another night The Lost Poets would make an appearance. The poet/singer Gil Scott Heron, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Max Roach also made regular appearances.
The “club” could seat maybe 100 people comfortably and legally, but I’m sure there were many more than that there on any given night.
One such night, I was stretched out on two raggedy wooden chairs near the entrance (not an uncommon sight…this was a family thing) watchingplenty of afros, conrrows and Dashikis passing by, and counting the seconds until I could go home. Waitingfor my mother, takingtickets and money at the door…whining and complaining.
“Ma! Maaaa! When can we go home?”
“Just go to sleep! I’ll wake you up when it’s time to go,” she said, smiling at the customers adoring me.
“But, I’m gonna miss Baretta!”
I knew that meant that we weren’t going home any time soon.
Not long after that I heard one of my teachers introducing the evening’s guests.
“…and so, without further ado, we’re proud to present a group of living legends, the illustrious, the ingenious, incomparable sounds of…
I think I fell asleep about then.
I woke up to a strange sound: Silence.
I could sleep through horns, guitars, pianos, even applause. hell, in New York, I could sleep through sirens, screams, gunshots, even. But, silence can be disturbing.
Reaching through my grog came the haunting opening of Cristo Redentor. Those voices without words…
At the time I remember it reminded me of that “Wizard of Oz” song “Out of the Woods.”
That song always gave me the creeps. Though it was a song supposed to convey a message of success and victory, there was a quality about those singers’ voices that, though optimistic, conveyed something altogether different. Something mocking Dorothy and her friends’ premature celebration. A deeper wisdom coming from a dark source having a little fun at their expense. Out of the woods, my ass.
I sat up, placing my feet on the floor, and looked around. My mother was gone. I was alone in the entrance area. But, I wasn’t scared.
I just knew I was in a place of absolute safety. Those women chanting that woeful melody were there with me. They were the voices of every mother I’d ever known, would die defending me, die fending for me. And the men singing were like all men compounded into one man…and this one man had a voice unlike any man’s voice I’d ever heard. A voice of consummate understanding… it understood the wails of the women, and soothed them in a way that usually only women can soothe. The understanding of someone who’d experienced great anguish- the pain of frustration, the pain of confusion, the pain of WHY, but had the power to endure, hell, to transmute it into utter simplicity, into an answer…the pain was just the measure of life, and it was beauty.
I wasn’t afraid at all.
I got up off those chairs, walked over to the doors of the club room and pulled them open. Candlelit tables and glowing faces surrounded a stage, upon which a band stood. I didn’t know who they were. One of dozens of Jazz performers that had come through my school. Jazz went in one ear and out the other back then. But, this song entered and didn’t exit. Never exited.
I stood there in the doorway watching the trumpeter, bathed in a blue light, that became green, then yellow, then orange and red, as the gels rotated, his face glowing with sweat, leaking from his temples, glistening in his bushy sideburns; on his face was too much concentration, indeed, too concentrated, too anguished, too focused…he had no audience. No wonder there was silence. He was alone, playing for himself, playing for the world he lived in; a blind man standing on a cliff playing for a deaf sea… .As were the pianist, and the bassist, and the drummer.
A hand came to rest on my shoulder. I felt it. I thought it was his, the trumpet player’s. But he was on the stage.
I imagined I could feel his breath, like a cool breeze on my neck. I could taste the notes, their joy in their repetition, at repeating the answer over and over, each phrase unique yet exultantly redundant, each musician speaking in a different tongue yet in a language all could understand but could never respond to…aside from with acknowledgement.
I acknowledged it.
Then, long before I couldn’t take no more, amid my youthful quintessence yearning to hear the burden once again, the equisite pain in the refrain, he glided to an anticlimatic end.
“Come on, it’s time to go,” my mother said gently, as the audience slowly began to applaud. I looked up at her. She was still watching them, her hand squeezing my shoulder.
Over the years, I’d forgotten about that night.
I’d never learned the name of that song or who those musicians were. I used to hear it all the time when I was a kid, so it had become one of those songs you take for granted would always be around. It was practically the theme song of my youth, the overture of my community. It seemed to find its way into every film or documentary about the black experience back then, the dirge of black suffering. It devolved practically into pop. Black radio stations even used it for advertisements. But, it eventually fell out of vogue… maybe it hearkened back to days of dark despair a little too much for the progressive-minded forward-focused generation X’ers.
And, until today, in a Starbucks in Yokohama of all places, it had been about a good 20+ years since I’d heard it.
I’d searched high and low, but without a name, an artist, or even the ability to do it justice by humming it, I’d written it off as just one of those things, in a long list of things, we lose in life.
A staff girl was passing by and I called to her.
“Could you please tell me the name of that song that’s playing?”
“Sure…I’ll be right back.”
With little hope of it being granted, I silently said a prayer: please don’t let it be on a Starbuck’s CD.
But, I guess I should be thankful it was…