Orelsan in New York

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About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.

“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.

I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.

I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.

The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.

So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.

My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading

all of digital life is a foreign country

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I haven’t had much time to devote to this blog since being back in New York, but I recently found a nearly complete post that I wrote two or three years ago in my drafts folder. I dusted it off, and here it is for your reading pleasure until I have time to write something new:

The online sale for an in-demand concert was about to begin, and I knew it would be tough to snag tickets. As I waited anxiously, itchy trigger finger hovering over the Return key until the appointed moment to click furiously and hope for a miracle, a memory came rushing back.

Continue reading

my Senegal playlist

Before I left Senegal I gathered all the West and Central African songs that I had either heard for the first time and loved, or learned to love better, while in Dakar and I put them onto an itunes playlist. I just transferred them into a Spotify playlist so that I can share them with you:

If you are eagle-eyed / eagle-eared you will notice that one of these things is not like the others… I heard “Prayer in C” for the first (and second, and third, and fourth) time during a twelve-hour stint in the Casablanca airport and it grew on me so much that I googled the lyrics to identify it. When I got back to Dakar I downloaded it on itunes and continued to play it repeatedly, so that it is now inextricably linked with my time in Senegal even though the song is French.

Following my foray into French new wave, my next digging project is to find the best of Nigerian and Ghanian highlife music. Any ideas about what’s good, let me know!

some French new wave for your Wednesday

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A child of the 80s, I grew up with new wave music. I loved it then, and I love it even more now.

When I attended junior high in the early 90s, my first French teacher started every class by playing a few songs from one of her old records for us. Most of the stuff on heavy rotation was awful (I remember hearing this particularly terrible song about 8,000 times), except for Indochine. I loved them despite the fact that my hopelessly dorky teacher did, too.

A few years ago, I rediscovered Indochine on iTunes, and I found myself again adoring them.

Over the past year or so, a question repeatedly occurred to me: who are the other icons of French new wave? Surely Indochine must be just the tip of a vast and mighty iceberg. Yet the only other quasi-new wave French song I had heard apart from the Indochine catalogue is Ça Plane Pour Moi. I began a quest for the other gems that heretofore never made their way across the Atlantic to my American ears.

What I discovered is that, sadly, there are not many gems after all. Whereas the 80s were a time of utter magic for American and British music across several genres, the era did not seem to treat the French nearly as well, at least in terms of pop. I did copious digging to find French new wave and cold wave songs that stand the test of time and sound as great today as they did back then. Unfortunately, most of what I listened to was tepid at best; banal, outdated, and embarrassing at worst. (Though the videos – and dancing and fashion therein – were often pitch-perfect, highly enjoyable parodies of themselves. Case in point.)

But I did find five songs that I truly love, which I hereby present for your listening (and viewing) pleasure. Continue reading

anticipatory nostalgia

As I’ve mentioned before, my family moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to the London area when I was a kid. I spent a year and a half living an everyday little girl’s life while also soaking up mid-80s British pop culture in all of its splendor. I remember so much of my time in England, 32 years later. The layout of our various apartments and later our house; several traumatizing incidents from kindergarten and first grade; interactions with my brother and sister; key moments in the love story and breakup of my school-bus boyfriend; every friend’s birthday party; my toys; the walks we used to take; the food we used to eat; the dairy delivery we used to get. But the memories that hit me the hardest, on a visceral level that gives me chills, are almost entirely musical.

They are not even memories per se. When I hear a song that I first listened to in England, I usually don’t remember a particular moment associated with it. Instead, I am transported back to a general time and place, and I re-experience the feelings I had while listening to the song at the age of 5 and 6. That’s powerful emotional stuff.

These songs in particular really get me:

a-ha – Take On Me

Do They Know It’s Christmas? from Band Aid

Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World, as I’ve noted.

The Bangles – Manic Monday

The theme to “Chariots of Fire.” I never saw the film but my music teacher would play the theme song for us on the piano at the end of every class, after my schoolmates would beg him to.

And perhaps more than any of the others: the theme song to “EastEnders,” a long-running British soap that first aired soon after my family arrived in London.

My mom loved it, and it seemed to be on all the time. I heard that song and saw the opening titles with the satellite photo of the Thames zooming out to reveal East London so much that it came to represent all of England for me. To this day, any time I hear the music, my heart clenches with nostalgia.

So, that’s how I know that the Senegal song that will stop me in my tracks and bring tears to my eyes years from now is none other than the theme song to “Wiri Wiri,” Senegal’s favorite soap. Like “EastEnders,” “Wiri Wiri” always seems to be on, and I have heard the opening and closing music countless times. It is quite catchy and stirring in much the same way that the “Eastenders” theme is.

Here’s the whole song, which is by none other than Youssou N’Dour. He seems to be behind everything beloved in this country.

I can list a bunch of other songs – hit singles from Youssou and other top Senegalese artists – that I know will similarly make me emotional. But I am guessing “Wiri Wiri” will be the one to effortlessly transport my heart to a time and a place that will forever stand out from other times and places, and that I will wish I could return to just once more.

[P.S. The actors’ expressions on “Wiri Wiri” are so amazing that I enjoy watching it even without knowing what anyone is saying. I like guessing the storyline and getting Mamie or Tantie to tell me how close I’ve come. Try it – it’s quite entertaining.]

[P.P.S. Remember how yesterday I said that even annoying things are making me preemptively homesick for Senegal? Well, this morning I peed in a squat toilet that had gone un-emptied for too long. As mosquitos swarmed and bit me everywhere that I couldn’t swat fast enough, my pee – and everyone else’s – splashed back from the nearly overflowing hole in the ground onto my exposed ankles. It was a good reminder that there are some things no amount of sentimentality could make me miss.]

Cultural relativism in action

Do you know what these fully grown and otherwise normal adults are doing?

The Electric Slide.

Yes, the dance of my bat mitzvah memories is also apparently a mainstay at Electrafrique nights here in Dakar. I’ve seen the dance floor taken over by the Electric Slide twice now. Both times it started spontaneously with one or two people. Both times I watched in horror and then fascination as more and more people joined in, oblivious to the fact that the Electric Slide IS IN NO WAY COOL.

I think of this particular line dance as a vestige of my pre-pubescence, and the precursor to the Macarena. I blithely danced it nearly every weekend the year I was 13, wearing socks, a pouffy dress, and a training bra. I would not be caught dead doing it ever again, even in jest. And yet… a bunch of really hip Africans and Europeans seem to think it is the COOLEST THING EVER.

That, my friends, is a harmless but potent example of cultural relativism.

Have you experienced something like this recently? I’d love to hear about it…

my one year Sene-versary

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One year ago today I arrived in Senegal. Just yesterday, I posted a love letter to my home for the past year, Dakar, so I won’t do that again today. Instead, I will post a most fitting love letter to myself.

I, after all, got me here.

Dear Ruth:

Now, I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt like this before. Yes, I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

I’ve been waiting for so long, now I’ve finally found someone to stand by me. We saw the writing on the wall as we felt this magical fantasy. Now with passion in our eyes, there’s no way we could disguise it secretly. So we take each other’s hand, ‘cause we seem to understand the urgency.

Just remember: you’re the one thing I can’t get enough of. So I’ll tell you something – this could be love, because I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt this way before. Yes I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve searched though every open door, ’til I found the truth, and I owe it all to you.

XOXOXO,

me / you

P.S. We can build this dream together, standing strong forever, nothing’s gonna stop us now. And if this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other. Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

Youssou, encore une fois

YoussouNdourOn Saturday we went to see Youssou in a very different venue than last time. It was a concert space en plein air, as they say, and it was packed with a generally younger, more casual, and much more energetic crowd than at the Grand Theatre gala.

I almost skipped this show because of the fear it could never live up to the first one, but then I realized that would be incredibly silly. And in the end, the two shows had such different vibes that they were like apples and oranges.

One thing remained constant, however: the ungodly hours. Youssou is nearing 60 years old and yet he came onstage at 1:15 and finished performing at 3:49am. (I know the precise time because by that point I was checking my phone every five seconds.) He and his band kept asking the crowd, “Est-ce que vous êtes fatigues?” and my whimpered “Yes”es were completely drowned out by the delirious “Non!!!!”s.

But earlier in the night, when I was not yet falling asleep on my feet… here’s the moment that gave me chills. (That’s my beautiful and charming “host sister,” Cecile aka Mamie, at the end.)

I’ve now heard this song, “New Africa,” live three times. The first time was in New York and I got baby chills. In Senegal, the baby chills turned into enormous adult chills, and I felt a bit like a sucker for cheap thrills. But can you blame me?

It was an awesome night. There’s a longer video here (including amazing drumming and dancing) if you want to see more.

happy weekending

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After ten days straight of nothing but eat-sleep-edit, by this past Thursday I was feeling out of the woods enough on my video deadline to take a little break. During this little break, which has inadvertently extended to today, I have inexplicably decided to continue staring at my computer screen, to set down a few links that will go completely stale if I don’t share them soon. Also to post some pictures from the Dak’art Biennale, which I managed to get to just under the wire, on its last day this week.

First, the links:

Pick a country, pick a decade, and listen to the popular music of the era. My friend Jennie posted this link to Facebook a few weeks ago and I have been meaning to tell her since then that it has made me so so so so so so happy. Right now I’m listening to music from 1960’s Congo and it is amazing. I could spend the rest of my life blissfully down this rabbit hole…

Anthony Bourdain has lovely things to say about Senegal, and I agree with all of them.

There will be a refugee team at the Olympics. This is amazing, and there needs to be a documentary about it (and I need to work on it).

In Morocco I kept telling shop owners I was just looking but might come back to buy later, and without fail they would respond, “Inshallah,” which I found hilarious because I had just finished reading this article.

Hyperintelligent commentary on the usage and interpretation of “woke.”

The ostensible reason I am posting this article about getting chills while listening to music is because I like that the word for that sensation is French, but the real reason is that I love beyond measure that Air Supply was part of the study.

A reminder to stay positive while learning another language.

The end of sleeper train service in France. 😦

When West Africans dress, the fabric is the message.

Instead of renting one apartment, sign a (pretty expensive) lease that lets you live around the world.

On the pleasures of traveling alone.

The seven joys of traveling, from a joyful traveler. 

In English, double negatives make a positive, but that’s not true for all languages.

15 slang French words every French learner should know.

Along the same lines, 20 funny French expressions. (Can someone French please confirm that number 19 is still in common usage? Because I would like this phrase to come out of my mouth as often as possible.)

Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? I refer to a foreigner intending to stay someplace temporarily as an expat and one hoping to stay permanently as an immigrant but I guess that is also fraught.

And now, some Dak’Art favorites:

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The piece above, which at first glance appeared to be a sculpture wrapping around the gallery wall, turned out to be a photo-mural featuring real people. I loved it. The artist explains. dakart_africa

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The above were all at the IFAN Museum of African Arts, which I intend to revisit soon to check out the permanent collection. I mistakenly thought that one of the other Dak’Art exhibition sites was at the old railway station that I passed by and went gaga over on one of my first walks in Dakar. It was actually only for performances, and there were none the afternoon I visited. But what there was… was the most spectacular train station in disrepair I’ve ever seen. This may be my favorite place in the city. Also, I am in love with the French phrase for railroad: chemins de fer, literally “routes of iron.”

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And now I’m off to grab something to eat before getting back to editing. Enjoy the rest of your weekends!