Al-Andalus Playlist

One of my loves is flamenco music, and along with it, all music of North Africa and the Middle East — especially music that harkens back to the era when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in southern Spain.

Here’s a sampling of some great music of the Al-Andalus diaspora.

The first is a clip of a movie called “Ladino: 500 Years Young.” Ladino is the language that Jews spoke in Spain, and when they left for North Africa, Mexico, and other places, they took their language and their songs with them. The film follows Yasmin Levy, an Israeli singer who breathes new life into old Sephardic songs.

The second is a wonderful excerpt from an all-female concert in Morocco. The music blends flamenco, Sephardic songs, Arab music, and other music as well. It’s an incredible back-and-forth that always gives me chills when I watch it.

Here’s a song called Wahashtini, recently sung by an American who shocked everyone by placing 3rd in “Arab’s Got Talent:”

And finally, two songs from the very old Spanish song collection, “Cancionero de Palacios.” This song is called Tres Morillas. The first line goes, “I fell in love with three Moorish girls in Jaen: Axa, Fatima, and Marien…”

This last one is called Pase el Agua. It’s in old Catalan, I think:

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Goldmine!*

OMG! So excited to see that Take 6 is coming to Austin! These guys have such tight vocal harmonies that it defies description.

I’m psyched they’re still touring . . . and after all this time, they’re still Take 6, and they haven’t downsized to Take 5 or Take 4 or Take 3 1/2 or Take Pi.

Cause “Take 3.14126535897” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Here’s Goldmine, just one of their awesome songs.

An Even Higher Level of Nerdvana

I am honored to say that my song “Dark Matter” has been featured on another episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk Radio. My geek cred has just gone up exponentially.**

The new episode is Cosmic Queries: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Full of all sorts of geeky goodness, including Dr. Who references, and Neil explaining why Dark Matter should really be called “Fred.”

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** So exponentially, I want to write a function for the increasing slope of my geek cred.

I Have Reached Nerdvana

Geeks! Do you know who Neil Degrasse Tyson is?

Well, you should! He’s a badass astrophysicist. Head of the Hayden Planetarium. Frequent guest on The Daily Show. And host of an all-things-science-and-geeky podcast called Star Talk Radio.

(How geeky is the podcast? He interviewed Whoopi Goldberg about her role as Guinan on Star Trek. Yesssss! So Awesome!)

Aaaaaaand (drumroll please): My song Dark Matter was featured in a short clip at the top of his latest podcast!

I am such a geek! I have achieved Nerdvana!

I will now sit atop my Geek Mountain while other acolytes come to me, seeking to attain GeekLightenment.

Interjections

From the strange summer of 2009, a short piece on music and life:

I have developed a raging crush on someone, and I am unable to communicate with him in any sort of normal, human way. This is how it goes every time I see him:

Man: Hi, Sofia, how was—

Me: I LIKE LINOLEUM!

Man: …errr…

Me: IT’S MADE FROM FLAX!

Man: …I have to go talk with my friend now.

The good thing is that I am so awkward, and it makes both of us so uncomfortable, that I’m starting to find it funny. In fact, yesterday evening, at the end of a performance I went to, I said to him, “Hey, I was thinking, that since every time I see you, I say something awkward, we could just practice, and get it out of the way at the beginning.” He laughed.

Here’s my theory of harmony singing: if I’m singing along to a song I don’t know, I have to make my best guess about where the melody is going, and harmonize to that. If my guess turns out to be right, my harmony sounds pretty with the melody. If my guess turns out to be dissonant to the melody, then I’m singing a passing tone, on the way to the “right” note.

Passing tones are those little notes in a song where the harmonies sound a bit dissonant — it makes you feel tense to hear it, and you feel a need to resolve it. And, when the harmony goes back to sounding pretty, you feel this great sense of relief and beauty.

So maybe life is the same way. It’s either “right”, or it’s a passing tone. And, passing tones are “right,” too — in fact, some of the most exquisite moments in music that I’ve sung have been the passing tones. And both kinds of harmonies resolve at the end.

So maybe I can relax a little.

One Morning with Martha Stewart

There is a special shame American women are taught to feel, a fear that if we were left alone in the middle of the wilderness, with only our wits and native flora to guide us — Could We Darn a Sock? Bake a pie? Sew two sheets together from muslin?

I do not think this particular expectation is foisted off on men. There’s no Martha Stewart Living for men, teaching you to feel self-conscious because you no longer melt down your own lead to create bullets. If Bob can hunt game for the winter, so much the better, but it’s not a test of his worthiness in society. When Bob’s newborn son is born, he does not feel a pang of regret because he has to go buy a rocking chair, rather than carving it out of wood. Yes, a good paycheck and IKEA are good enough for the average man.

But throughout the world, societies always place their anxiety about changing cultural values onto the women. That is why men who are atheists want devout, traditional wives, and Indian men in three-piece suits want their wives to wear saris.

Here in America, women have also born the brunt of our cultural anxiety about the modern age. So we’re supposed to be modern, work full time, get a paycheck – and then kick off our shoes and spend lots of time and effort doing the kinds of old-fashioned chores for which the phrase “labor-saving device” was originally invented.

Yes, we women are somehow supposed to become proficient in newfangled modern life, but also stencil and bake and crochet and set up jars of preserves for the winter. Come home with your shield, or on it.

Preferably knitting a tea cozy.

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This is all to explain how I, one recent morning, found myself setting about the Project of Cleaning my Filthy Venetian Blinds. It was fueled by disgust, of course – many, many tenants before me had ignored this issue, and by now it was truly frightening. But somehow, all those years of housewifely propaganda factored into it too. According to magazines, I had been missing out on some hitherto undiscovered height of ecstasy, easily found again if only I would enter into a gloriously tedious, anachronistic cleaning routine. So I set about to clean these things in a style to make Martha Stewart proud, assured in the promise that my fabulous orgasm would be in the mail.

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But first, let me explain my usual approach to housekeeping: Obliviousness. 

This approach works not merely for housekeeping, but for life!** Try it! You too can miss your subway stop on multiple occasions because you’re trying to remember the lyrics to Backstabbers or the bass line to Use Me.***

But anyways, back to housekeeping. Not the highest thing on my radar. For example, once or twice I’ve had people over to my place, and they’ve said, “Sofia! You have all this stuff all over your kitchen floor!” To which I reply, “I have a kitchen floor?”

Up until that point, I had been operating under the illusion that I was standing on some sort of interstellar vortex which automatically sucked away all pieces of onion, garlic, etc. that happened to fall on it.

Well, anyways. I’m terrible at maintenance cleaning, but I do like a good project, with its promise of an actual sense of accomplishment (as opposed to regular housework, which has been correctly described as ‘Sisyphean’). And this morning, I noticed my venetian blinds.

So, I thought about cleaning them “the old-fashioned” way.You know, the way Our Foremothers did. I quickly went out and enslaved someone of darker complexion than myself, and forced this hapless individual to clean for me.

Well, no.

I quickly went down on my hands and knees, and scrubbed the venetian blinds in the ancient ways of my people. Then, for dramatic effect, I died of consumption.

No; still no good.

Ok, I took a rag, and overcome with nostalgia for a time that never was, a time after plastic venetian blinds but before women’s suffrage, I dampened it with an artisanal mixture of water, white vinegar, and a tiny bit of soap. I felt good; I felt honest; I felt that judgmental busybodies who have servants clean for them so that they can oversee media empires extolling the virtues of cleaning your own house…I felt that these people would not snub me. I suppose true Martha Stewart overkill fashion would have required rags imported from France for the sole purpose of cleaning plastic venetian blinds, but my rags did just fine. (I just mistyped “my rage.” Hrmmm. Freudian typing.)

Then, I lovingly wiped down each plastic, filthy blade of the venetian blind. Top and bottom. “Who sweeps a room as for thy God makes that and the action fine,” that sort of thing. I listened to This American Life. A nice Sunday morning.

By almost the end of TAL, I had finished one half of one set of blinds. I have 4 windows with blinds. At this rate, it would take me 8 hours to finish — not including the actual windows themselves.

At this point, I had a thought which tied me even closer to women through the ages. I thought, “Who the FUCK invented Venetian Blinds? Obviously a man, or someone who never ever expected to clean them. Why can’t everyone just have curtains? Then you could just throw them in the wash and be done with it.”

The ancient imprecation having been observed according to prescribed ritual, I then thought, “There has got to be a better way.” I took another set of blinds outside, laid them awkwardly over a folding chair, and hosed them down. They are dry now, and slightly warped in places, but I think they’ll smooth out. However, I can’t seem to get them back on the little window venetian blind hook thingies. (More ancient imprecations followed as according to custom.)

I do have to admit, though, that the left half of my lovingly caressed blinds are lookin’ mighty fine. So once I become independently wealthy, then I can do the rest. In the meantime, Martha Stewart’s fictional nostalgic housewifery factory is just going to have to wait.

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** I’m not proud of this, but I got into a fender-bender last year because I spaced out trying to remember the lyrics to the theme song from “Maude.” So I would have to put a big caveat in there, which is that spaciness does Not Work when operating heavy machinery. Don’t Space and Drive.

*** 70’s funk will always have a special place in my heart.

A Few Thoughts on the Nature of the Voice

Different stages in life have their own times, and so do different kinds of abilities. Athletes peak young. Dancers peak young. Models peak young.

Singers peak old.

In the classical world, a “young singer” is any singer under the age of 40. A woman’s singing voice doesn’t even finish developing until she’s about 35, and a man’s develops a little earlier, but still in the late 20’s/early 30’s range.** So the 30’s aren’t even the peak — they’re just the beginning of the peak.

Being a singer is like this: let’s say you have an instrument, and you play it all the time. But every once in a while they take it away, raise the bridge, and put different gauge strings on it. Or you drop it, they fix it, and when they give it back, now it’s painted blue. And if you’re sick, or you’re in a bad mood, or you’ve stayed up too late, your instrument now plays only in E flat for the next week.

After you’ve been playing your instrument for years, you find that all these tiny incremental changes have made a big change overall. All of these adjustments — all of this living — have put more power, more strength, and more soul into your instrument than you ever dreamed of.

And maybe you find that, all this time, you thought you were playing a violin, but your instrument seems to have become a sitar. Or a trombone. Or whatever.

And, coincidentally, that thing it became? Secretly, that is the instrument you always wanted all along.

I believe that it takes 30-plus years for our bodies to begin to find our voices because that’s how long it takes our hearts to begin to resonate and sing at their true frequencies. For most of us, we spend years wandering in the dark, saying things we don’t believe, giving and taking disrespect, and trying to figure out who we really are and what we really want to say. It is not until well into adulthood (if then) that the dross begins to fall away to reveal hints of the gold underneath. Why then should our singing be any different?

The song makes the singer just as much as the singer makes the song.

Story: A few years ago, after years of singing with a beautiful, clear, church-choir soprano, I came out with a blues-mama belt straight from my gut. I was 32 years old, I had been singing regularly for decades — and I had never heard this voice come out of me before. The song came out when my heart was ready, and my voice came out to welcome the song.

Story: Several years ago, when I was having vocal problems, I found that if I said something I didn’t really mean (like “yes” instead of “no”), my throat tightened up and my problems got worse. For the sake of my singing voice, I had to truly think about my speech. I had to make sure that my voice was aligned with my heart.

Story: Around about the same time, I noticed that I could only sing without discomfort in Spanish! And then I realized that losing my ‘voice’ was not a new experience: when I was 4, my family moved from Spain to the U.S., and the other children teased me so much that I forgot Spanish. Losing my first language was my original sin, learning it again was my journey, and singing in it now — is redemption.

So: good luck to everyone. May you all make friends with yourself on the continuing journey to your heart’s true voice.