Ear Worms, Eumatezoa, Boxers, Fate.
To what extent do I manufacture my world? Are you a figment of me? How and why can I be reading the paper and listening to the radio and the second my eye lights on a word, say “manipulative” someone says it. I realize that statistically that’s perfectly credible, because of the millions of times that does not happen, apart from common words. Of course it causes a shock, but as soon as the rationalisation sets in, it abates and I go on reading. Allowing myself a shred of a grin.
But yesterday and today the shock of inane coincidence struck hard against my rational wall of disbelief.
For no apparent reason (to me) I started to hanker for a tune. Not unusual for anybody I’m sure. Let’s narrow down on the statistical improbabilities (I leave you to do the maths). The tune is not a pop song, it’s obscure to say the least. A shepherd boy greets the dawn. In Italian. In an opera. Included in the introduction to Act 3 of Tosca by Puccini. The title is “Io te sospiri” which means something like “With a sigh…” It is haunting and superbly beautiful. It is the sort of ear worm that can move in to the cochlea, connect with the brain, make itself very comfortable and live there forever.
A sunny afternoon in Johannesburg about fifty years ago. A bored fourteen-year old boy struggling with an endless Summer and teenage angst discovers his hated father’s record collection and while his impulse is to drop it into the swimming pool he resists that, because father would certainly beat him for it.
Boxed sets of vinyl, unopened. A nest of classics, virgin. Aunt used to play classics for him on long relative – visiting afternoons and here was a direct connection to that beautiful woman with her sophistication, her perfect house her excellent taste.
Tchaikovsky symphonies. Beethoven. Ravel. Also, Tosca by Puccini. With Tebaldi, Di Stefano, Gobbi. What on earth.
Opened the box. That pungent chemical smell of new vinyl, freshly printed paper. A booklet, “libretto”. Gosh. All the words, translated into English.
He skewered Disc 1 onto the record player and with the libretto’s guidance the needle liberated a multicoloured and utterly believable story, adorned by music which shredded, stabbed, stretched the emotions until they bled. The characters were so real he felt as if he could touch their desperate love, the jealousy, the horrible intrusion of the real world into their lives, with utterly shocking consequences
The delicious damage stayed there for life. Like PTSD. Post opera soporific distress disorder. And from that moment the boy found himself at a door leading to a wonderland of emotional and spiritual excess in which all the emotions were explained in music, in which stories ranging from the impossible and divine to the mundane and contemporary unrolled like magic carpets.
Fifty years later, the yearning for that tune. In these internet days, all tunes are available. In fact I owned a cd of that exact performance. So I went to the opening of Act 3. And “Io te Sospiri” was missing! It wasn’t there! Frustration! For some reason – this was a live recording – someone forgot to press “record”: when the shepherd boy wandered singing across the stage, following his cardboard sheep. Resolving to download it later I ran my bath and switched the radio on, and there it was. As pure and beautiful as the first time I heard it.
Ok cynic I admit it was an internet opera station, Otto’s Opera House. But of the thousands of operas they play (always complete operas), why Tosca? Right then? And the opening to Act 3 too? Right then?
AND on the subject of music, and ear worms in particular. One of the returnees from the past is King Kong. Nah, not the ape, although I do remember the original movie with a sadness for the creature (I know just how he felt in New York.) No, the musical. Yes there was one. It wasn’t about an ape either. It was the story of a black boxer in the Apartheid South Africa of the fifties and sixties, in the Sophiatown township.
What a story! This Zulu guy – a boxer with hands like destiny, a body like King Kong’s (the gorilla) and the personality of a Donald Trump with twice the intelligence – arrives in town. Defeats every possible opponent. Falls in love with beautiful girl. And then, as in so many stores of this type (mainly the true ones) everything starts to crumble. A defeat. Then another. And finally, riven by jealousy, he kills the girl.
At his trial he begs for the death sentence. The judge denies him, commits him to prison where he kills himself.
Great plot for Grand Opera. But they made a Jazz Musical out of this true story instead. Todd Mashikiza wrote the music, Miriam Makeba sang, Hugh Masikela played the trumpet. I saw the musical at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1959, and I still have the tunes in my head.
Dear Esther Mennel brought it all back by asking if I’d heard the Radio3 program (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08f4pxd#play) which recounted how the musical came about, describing the genesis of the idea and featuring some of the music.
So now, thanks E! I have a WHOLE NEW SET of earworms to accommodate…poor cochlea… “Back of the Moon boys, Back of the moon boys, Top shebeen in Joburg is the Back of the Moon!” Quite a change from “Io te sospiri”!
Photo: Miriam Makeba as Joyce and Dan Poho as Popcorn in the original production, Johannesburg 1959.