songs for my cities

Variation on a theme

Certain songs are inextricably connected to the cities I’ve lived in, either because they are about that place, or because I listened to them so much while living there, or because they have a sound that quintessentially belongs to that city, or some combination of all three.

Here are my favorite songs about the cities I’ve called home, whether for a few months or many years:

New York

Paris

Here’s why.

Dakar

Austin

Los Angeles

Shortly after I moved to L.A., The O.C. premiered and it became my guilty pleasure. I used to watch it every week with my roommates and we would sing-shout along to the lines of the opening theme song by Phantom Planet: “California here we come, right back where we started from, Californiaaaaaaaaa, here we cuuuuuhhh-ummmmm.” Now whenever I’m about to visit L.A. I listen to this song on the way to the airport, sing-shouting along. Its 100% pertinence – I’m going back to where I started my adult life to the soundtrack of this song – gives me goosebumps every single time.

And I have to include this one, too, which feels SoCal in an almost synesthesiac way.

Dublin

And for 100% nostalgic reasons:

Philadelphia

All of these are clearly very sentimental choices.

London

No idea why, but every time I hear this song I feel visceral nostalgia for my five year-old self who lived in London. I don’t remember ever hearing it there, but it was released as a single in September, 1985, which is when I was there, so maybe I did hear it and housed it somewhere in my subconscious, to make me teary-eyed at that distinctive guitar riff decades later.

This one is more on-the-nose London appropriate:


And just for good measure, here’s my favorite song that, though not necessarily about my home state (although it very well could be), is by the band I most strongly associate with New Jersey (and whom I adore).

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

R.E.M. ticket stub Monster tour.jpg

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!

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.]

happy new year!

I don’t know why I keep writing about the new year since I am possibly less enthused about it than anyone else on the planet. But, I did do two fun things to ring in 2017:

On New Year’s Eve a friend hosted dinner at his house and then we went up to the roof to count down to midnight. The annual official fireworks display was cancelled this year due to security concerns but the Dakarois took it upon themselves to pick up the slack. For at least a half hour, fireworks popped off every few seconds, every which way you turned. My photographic evidence, unfortunately, is not much proof at all… I managed to capture exactly one remotely-in-focus firework on my iphone.

I asked the people I was with to forgive my Eeyore-ness but to please help me come up with something, anything, to make me hopeful about 2017. Here’s the best we could do: a highly effective ebola vaccine has just been cleared for use in case of another outbreak, and the recent Chinese ivory ban means fewer elephants will die. (I would welcome your additions to this rather sad “list.”)

The next day, I went with Mamie, Tantie, their cousin, and a couple of friends to see Youssou N’Dour’s annual New Year’s concert. Mamie insisted that we get there before 10pm because she was sure the show would start early, it being a work night. I have been in Senegal less than a year, yet found myself setting straight someone who’s lived here her whole life. I told her, “If this show starts before 1am, 2017 really is bringing the end times with it.” And like clockwork, Youssou came onstage at 1:03 am. At 4:03 am, he was still running up and down the catwalks like a man half his age, and I had decided that third time’s the charm and I am done seeing him in Senegal. It’s a constant battle between enjoying the music and wanting desperately to be in bed, and with each show the old lady in me tugs a little harder towards the latter.

Speaking of being an old lady: at 12:30 after standing in the suffocating and pushy crowd near the stage for two hours, I had had enough and abandoned my group to go hang out at the periphery. There, I could breathe, but I also felt rather hopeless and adrift. This was a really bad omen for the year ahead. Then a man who had lugged over a plastic chair for himself offered it to me to stand on instead, so that I could see the stage. And then the woman on the chair next to mine put her arm around my shoulder, commanded sweetly, “Il faut dancer!” and led me in a distinctly Senegalese dance move with her arm around me the whole time. Normally I’m all about personal space but the woman’s generosity of spirit – bringing me into her joyful fold when she saw I was deflated and alone – changed my mind about 2017. I decided that the omen before had been a false one, and that this was in fact the real sign. We are never as isolated as we feel, and things are never as bad as they seem.

Here’s the concert, if you’d like to watch. It was so good, as always.

(I love the first song in the video above, and the one at 57:57 is my all-time favorite.)

(Another one of my favorites is at 26:27.)

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.

Orchestra Baobab heart heart heart

I said it last week and I’ll say it again: Afro-Latin music is the best stuff on earth.

After an incredible show, Saturday night ended with me sitting in the lead singer Rudy’s car waiting for his promised ride home. (I made that sound way more titillating than it actually was because I can’t help myself.) He was about to get in the driver’s seat but then disappeared, apparently to distribute ngalax around the neighorhood. When he showed up again twenty-five minutes later, he said he had to go to a meeting. It was 3:30 in the morning. I’m so accustomed to these lost in translation moments by now that I just laughed, considered it a fun non-adventure, and took a taxi home.

This situation, by the way, was not of my own making. One of the people with whom I went to the show was a guy named Doyen who works at the language center where I’m taking classes. He used to be a radio DJ and is good friends with the band. Rudy offered me a ride because he offered Doyen a ride.

Alas, it was not meant to be. But it is pretty remarkable how small a world it is here and how up close and personal you can get to the amazingly talented musicians in Dakar. Next time I see Rudy I am going to ask him for advice on taking drum lessons here. Because why not.