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the dialect – not language – of music. of writing?

April 14, 2011

here begins another blog post where i try to muzzily tie together music and writing, but i can’t help it. i was inspired by a concert that i just saw on the 13th – i got to see the johnny clegg band (formerly known as johnny clegg and savuka, formerly known as juluka) at the royal conservatory of music here in toronto.

can i just digress and say that the reno of the RCM is absolutely gorgeous? makes the ROM look like a hemorrhoid on toronto’s ass in comparison. (i hate the ROM reno. i’m biased.)

anyway, i listen to a lot of clegg’s music when he was known as johnny clegg and savuka. brief history: he is a white south african who partnered with a black south african and began playing gigs during apartheid. got death threats, harassed, you name it. broke boundaries and really has the most beautiful music – south african folk with a celtic twist framed in 1980s pop. my parents used to rock me to sleep to his slower songs and dance with me to his faster songs. i literally grew up on this music, and seeing him live – well, i cried. and he put on a hell of a show. he shook staid toronto loose.

by the 2nd song, about a sixth of the music hall was up on its feet, dancing.

by the last song, the entire place was on its feet.

it was, in a word, amazing.

breath-taking, really.

toronto gets a rep for having a huge stick up its ass, and in that one moment of sheer dance, i became so much prouder of my city. there was a 70 year old man beside me disco dancing. there was a slew of younger south african women dancing with their fists in the air in the front row. there was a granny in the third balcony who was shimmying. there were young men in the mezzanine two-stepping. and there was my father, jumping to his feet every time he heard a song he liked.

i was filled with such an energy. once everyone started dancing, they didn’t want to stop. they danced out into the lobby. they danced up to the bar. they danced their way to an encore.

and the thing is this.

clegg sings in zulu about half the time. zulu is not a language that i know.

and still we were on our feet, reaching our arms out, singing along phonetically.

life is about synchronicity and repetition. earlier that morning, i met up with my friend mark who helms a gypsy klezmer bonanza band that plays here in toronto. we had been talking about music and writing and he told me that if it – god forbid – came down to it, he would pick music over writing because music was more accessible to more people.


i thought a lot about that, because, as you might know, i am a musician, and i am also a writer. and while i have laid aside my instrument for the past few years and focused more on the writing side of things, music is still a language that i can read and speak and write. i still remember treble clefs. right? okay.

so i started making connections in my head about music and music being a language and writing. i’ve written about this before. it’s a subject that really occupies a large space in my brain. mark’s band – lemon bucket orkestra – doesn’t always play songs that are english. they don’t always sing in english. johnny clegg doesn’t always sing in english. maybe about a third the music in my itunes is probably in another language (sigur ros, gogol bordello, seu jorge, sinead o’connor, edith piaf, the chieftains) but still i can identify with the music and that is how it is accessible. but i think music is less of a language and more of a dialect. because there is something common in most music (a beat, a rhythm that rearranges time and makes it more pleasurable or less pleasurable depending on the experience) and that is what we pick up on.

so language has that too. at least, i think it does.

i can listen to boris pasternak’s or lesya ukrainka’s or federico lorca’s poems and still find them beautiful without completely understanding them. in fact, i have known some workshop facilitators at ubc who have had their students translate poems (in languages unknown to said students) into english without providing any rudimentary translation. completely blind translation. and somehow it works because humans pick up on things – key words, key breath points, key beats.

and i thought:

okay why can’t i accomplish an accessibility within my own writing? why can’t i mimic music and create my own dialect that has assonance and consonance, that people who aren’t native english speakers might understand? if a band can play a polish folk song or a zulu war song and i can still dance, cant i write an important paragraph that still affects people despite language?

there must be something key and underlying that is deep within both of these forms that i identify with, that people identify with. a sort of heartbeat. blood. or something.

maybe that should be my goal. write something that is accessible and manages to shake people up, even if they don’t completely understand it.

on that note, i’m posting two of clegg’s songs from over the years. the first one is my absolute favourite song of his. the second had the entire koerner hall at the RCM up on their feet.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marek permalink
    April 14, 2011 11:15 pm

    oh too funny, i remember growing up to this in south africa and watching him on Tv all the time. thank you for reminding me of him once more

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