I FIRST HEARD the haunting, beautiful song, "Olive Tree" (sung, I later learned, by a woman named Zhu Feng Bo), at the beginning of a rather quizzical online video posted by Christoph Rehage, called, "Time Lapse: Growing a Beard and Walking to Germany", which chronicles a long journey taken on foot.
In the process of his long journey, although he starts out inside a room, clean shaven, Rehage grows a beard. The somewhat whimsical visual log he made of the journey, which I stumbled across while surfing the web, is an amusingly done time lapse video in which Rehage seems eerily to be standing still as everything around him shifts and changes. He stopped on his walk every few days or so, almost always in the outdoors, throughout his 3,000 mile trek, to point a video camera at his own face and take video images of himself. In the lower right hand corner of the screen a ticker rolls off the number of kilometers Rehage has walked as images swirl behind him. At the bottom middle of the screen a peel of Chinese city-names and provence-names unwinds too fast to read, and all the more impressive as such. Meanwhile, the roads, the fields, the cottages, the bridges undulate and move and writhe behind his relatively motionless, composite image; people buzz by him, around him, and stop to interact with him every few seconds, then phlitter off, swallowed back up by the jerky swirl of a temporally speeding universe Rehage has taken up a still position within--or seemingly so: it is the magic of time lapse.
I struck me as a refreshingly odd thing, that this young man has decided to go out and walk across a goodly portion of a foreign country--and one of the more rural portions at that; so that he was sure to meet hundreds of ordinary, plain Chinese people, not government officials or Chinese sports figures. It is a clear example of that wonderfully reassuring attitude that seems to be cropping up among a portion of our youth now--the anti-globalists, particularly: the Earth and everyone in it is and are one. Why shouldn't human beings simply go out and start walking around the planet?
Back to the song this blog entry is about, though: "Olive Tree" plays as Rhage's video begins, though near the beginning, the music squeals to a halt with a sound like an old fashioned phonograph needle being snatched off a record, and the music shifts to a driving, techno beat melody by The Kingpins called "L'Aventurier"; so back to the video for another bit, and then we'll get back to the song, and to the singer, Zhu Fengbo. In the video, as the techno melody drives and clatters away, we see all the activity and geography materializing around Rehage, showing us literally everywhere he's been and everyone he has met in China.
Go on, go ahead. Watch the video. I'll wait until you're done.
Okay. One thing struck me--maybe you noticed it too, as you watched the video above--and I suddenly stopped being amused by all this when I saw it: in the final third of the sequence a Chinese woman appears, phlitting about, but unlike all the other flashing faces, this woman's face returns, stays, plays around with Rehage, even kisses him. It becomes clear, as she interacts with him for a long segment of the time lapse, that he had some sort of relationship with her; perhaps an affair.
"Perhaps an affair." Poignant words when you dwell upon them. But then, with what I know of love, its best not to, eh? Indeed, he finally ends up standing in an airport somewhere--at least the fleeting flash of images SEEMS to suggest an airport--and she kisses him again, and dashes away, this time, not returning. For a moment ('a moment' in HIS time continuum, that is) he glances not back but sort of to the side as if he is about to look back, to where she had been and is no longer. His face registers now a flickering reaction to her departure--a fleeting sadness, then the video goes on, relentlessly on.
It was very touching; in fact, my heart was deeply touched by it...His eyes take on a look in these moments of apparent loss. A sadness, a sorrow. But time lapse is nothing if not rat-a-tat-tat insistent: time marches on, an on, and on, until finally, he reaches his end, and the video culminates with Rehage back inside a room very much like the one where he'd started, clean-shaven again, only this time with a mustache. The mustache symbolizes of course, as in a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a novel by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the mark of 'difference' left upon him by the journey--for he has changed (she is gone); her mark remains.
Now at this point in the video, the very end, "Olive Tree" begins to play again, and I'll be damned, but this time, THIS TIME I really, really heard it. A Mandarin voice; a pure soprano, a sorrowful vocal, seeming to be singing across a distance, across a gulf. It hit me really hard, and stirred such a deep seated sorrow in me that I suddenly felt a penetrating sense of, well, love. Or is it loss? But love, definitely--all the love I'd ever felt in the past for all the women I'd ever loved. All the women I lost.
I thought, let me find out who it is who's doing this to me.
Having been a famous singer for forty years, Zhu Fengbo is known throughout China as a famous soprano vocalist, first coming to prominence in the 1960s. A veteran of the Shanghai Opera House, she (surprisingly) studied architecture at Tongji University, but then apprenticed as a singer with the great Chinese vocalist, Ju Xiufang in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. After 1965 she found work as a soloist with The Beijing China Art Troupe, The Shanghai Ballet Troupe, The Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, and The Shanghai Light Music Ensemble. She was considered a powerful force in music due to the strong, even, highly expressive style she affects: her voice is considered 'old school' in the sense that she is a throwback to the provincial, folk music style of pre-revolutionary China, and she evokes both traditional Chinese folk singing technique and more modern, bel canto technique. During her 40-year career, Madam Fengbo has recorded many albums--many of them available on Amazon.com--and has hundreds of songs 800 songs, in her body of recorded work, which includes work songs, peasant songs, popular songs, and foreign folk songs as well. The poignant longing that seems to arise from her song reminds me a bit of another penetrating voice: that of Ofra Haza.
Ofra Haza, the Yemenite-Israeli singer who reportedly died in Israel in 2000, became famous worldwide in the late ’80s, with the album, SHADAY and the single from that album which I have heard played in clubs and in cafes from London to Paris to Berlin to Lagos: "Im Nin’alu". SHADAY stayed on European charts throughout the late 80's. I traveled across Europe in the late 80's and early 90's and I constantly heard her music, still popular and ubiquitous throughout that period. "Im Nin 'Alu" in particular was popular with African American, and with French African Rap artists throughout the late 80's, and Haza's songs were frequently sampled by Nas, Snoop Dog, and by Eric B and Rakim (most notably on their song "Paid (Played) in Full"). Don Was, Iggy Pop, and Ali Jihad Racy were all enamored of her music, and sampled and re-recorded her. Her globally popular album of Yemenite Songs was released in America uner the name, "Fifty Gates Of Wisdom", and from that American release, her influnce became ubiquitous among Hiphop artists and fans. She worked with producer Thomas Dolby to get a more western, funkier undertone.
Listen. Hit the tab up there.
See what I mean? Her voice is utterly piercing; sad, poignant, isn't it? In a time in American culture when these characteristics have been relegated to soap opera, and our mainstream popular musics sound more like advertising jingle than R&B's soulful, narratively strong meta-dramas (you know: Sam Cook, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin), the emotional impact of music is no longer part of what we partake of when we turn on a radio (unless of course it's a satellite radio). It's more the case now that we seek out music itself as a commercial break rather than a spiritual catharsis.
This is the element that American music is now missing, now that we have censored the powerful musics of singers like Nina Simone and Janis Joplin (many of the younger generation do not even know who these soul shattering women are! Who knows anymore the songs, "I Shall Be Released," by Simone, or "Take Another Little Piece of my Heart," by Joplin--two songs that will reduce you to sweat and tears?
It was in Detroit, in the early 90's in fact, that I had my most unnerving experience with listening to Ofra Haza. I had traveled in Southern Afrika with my walkman radio earphones firmly pressed to my head, listening to "Im Nin 'Alu", with its plaintive, beseeching tonalities, like a voice drifting over desert sands. Rather than returning to my home in Upstate NY, I flew directly from London back here to Detroit, listening still to Haza on my walkman, and for some reason found myself on Gratiot Avenue (near Conner) on an early Sunday morning. The urban decay, the emptiness and the blasted urban cityscape seemed far, far more like a desert to me than anyplace I had been in Africa, and as "Im Nin 'Alu" rang in my ears, I felt the chilling irony of that song seeming to be about Detroit rather than North Africa. Her voice has the power to transport the soul of the listener:
Im nin'alu daltei n'divim daltei marom lo nin'alu
"...Even if the gates of the rich will be closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed."
Though a sad and mournful thing, my grief, flowing from me over the death and rapid rotting away of the city of my birth, that morning my heart was deeply touched.