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Sun-Kissed Ballads for the Spirit: A Quarantine Playlist


These are some of the songs that have been getting me through these past few months. It's a lawless company of songs that wild out in different directions, dominated by the moody flights of the piano, my first love. It is a playlist of Big Feelings, because that's just the way the world has changed me lately—up and out of the old routine and status quo which allowed lethargy, indifference, and conformity to seep in and color everything gray. Now, I am more easily inspired, more easily brought to anger or tears, and enveloped by a sense of urgency as I watch the world transform. These songs help me chill out, and sometimes to submerge myself in the emotion of the day.

I created this playlist around the smokey Ethiopian jazz sounds of Hailu Mergia, specifically the songs he recorded with Dhalak band on a single cassette tape at the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa during the band's rehearsal times over the course of three days in 1978, an album called Wede Harer Guzo. 

"Wede Harer Guzo (meaning ‘Journey to Harer,’ which is a town in Eastern Ethiopia) was recorded during a period of military-imposed curfews when clubs had to stay jamming until sunrise because people weren’t allowed on the streets at night” says Brian Shimkovitz of the record label Awesome Tapes From Africa. In a way, I feel the forces that have come together to create this pressure cooker-moment in time have done something similar to us; now we have to stay inside with our music and our dancing thoughts night after night, jamming until sunrise, and beyond. 

A tarot card I've been pulling a lot during this pandemic has been, surprisingly, The Sun. The Sun is a card that seems to symbolize a lot of what we're missing out on this summer, as we're under the perpetual overcast of a global pandemic, quarantined indoors with daily reminders of our mortality. And yet the sun, especially here in Austin, with temperatures as high as 108°, is shining hard. Oppressively hard, in fact. This card is not showing up as a cute reminder that no matter what, the sun still shines (spoiler alert: the sun will run out of hydrogen in about 5 billion years and die, so even our platitudes are rife with instability.) I think this card is here as a reminder of the cycle of renewal, as a spark that instigates a fire, an elixir of vitality, a cracking open of the shell, and out bursts the grasping burgeon of new and unknown life.  

Life bursts forth in all of its demented and hallowed forms from these songs. I feel most melancholy and hopeful within the cathedrals of the incantatory waltzes traipsing from the fingertips of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun. Her musical language is hypnotic, yet unfixed—as Kate Mollesin of The Guardian says, "With Emahoy, nothing is regular. No fixed metre, no pulse that can be set in notation, no strict adherence to any one scale system. Her melodies flit between traditions; they float on their own axis." Impulsive and warm as sunshine. 

Another lurch of heat rises out from three soulful songs recorded by the '50s soul band lost to time, Penny and the Quarters. The gentle doo-wop tenderness in these fuzzy, one-take recordings wields the ability to knock me into tears in the span of a refrain. The simplicity of the lyrics only helps to give momentum to the honest swelling of the voices of these Ohio teenagers who thought they were just doing a practice run, that the real recording would happen later, but it never did. The real recording happened in their warm up, that vocal tuning, searching for the right wavelength with a childlike wail:

It's a natural fact, there's no turning back, and here's some advice to you:
You've got to say it's

You and me, (Ohhh, oh, oh, oh, oh)
You and me
Nobody baby but you and me. (Hey, hey, hey) 

I'd like to say that this is a playlist bound by a theme, like unlikely harmonies between artists with seemingly nothing in common: The Mamas and The Papas, Ichiko Aoba, Colleen, The Lijadu Sisters, Angel Olsen. But what binds them is this moment in time, the moment in which I have stepped into their music like different rooms inside a giant house, where I have found a blue room with a bathtub full of solace and tears, a yellow room with tall windows and lots of sun for a congregation of plants, a basement den with too many couches decked out in '70s print where I can go to argue with my feelings, only to climb the stairs again with a new perspective that includes more of the world, open another window of my house so that it can include a little more of the spectrum of human feeling, and so we can call out to each other across the way, saying "Help Me" and "Come On Home" and "What Will Tomorrow Bring" until our voices are nothing but sun.  

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