I wonder if you can tell something about a person by the music he/she listens to. (And I wonder what that “something” might be.) The reason I’m wondering this today is not just that we begin our annual Critics’ Week, our year-end roundup of the best music, etc.; but also because of the passing this weekend of two world leaders and one barefoot diva.
Vaclav Havel was a dissident whose relentless fight for personal and artistic freedom eventually catapulted him to the world stage: he was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. Havel was a longtime fan of Frank Zappa, and a supporter of the Czech underground rock band The Plastic People Of The Universe – at a time when supporting that band could mean being imprisoned with them. In other words, his musical tastes seemed to reflect his politics: personal, unconventional, pushing against the calcification of a previous generation.
Kim Jong-il, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the calcified traditions he inherited from his father, Kim Il-sung, the creator of the modern state of North Korea. His rule was built on a cult of personality that involved a state-maintained mythology about his family, his birth, and the country itself, and music was as tightly controlled as everything else. During my time in Pyongyang, I watched the state-run TV (there is no other kind) and saw program after program of orchestras playing lush, sanitized arrangements of Korean folk songs. Imagine the Lawrence Welk Orchestra with traditional Korean instruments playing the Korean versions of “My Darling Clementine” and “Jingle Bells.”
I mention those two songs because they are the two American songs that the Korean performers at the Pyongyang Conservatory performed for us on the day after the historic NY Philharmonic performance there, in Feb. 2008. That was their idea of “popular music.” (For all the gory details of a truly bizarre trip to Kim Jong-il’s capital city, read my diary/blog at http://www.wnyc.org/tags/on_site_-_north_korea/ )
Then, finally, there was Cesaria Evora, the “Barefoot Diva,” who did in fact perform barefoot as a show of respect for her own roots in the poverty of the Cape Verde Islands and the poverty that continues to strike women especially in the former Portuguese colony. Evora, married to a soccer player who was good enough to play and live in Europe, had a chance to live in Portugal, in Paris, and no doubt in many other places where her records had become synonymous with Cape Verde. She collaborated with global stars, incorporated Brazilian, French, and Egyptian sounds – but always came back to her home island and to the mournful, soulful morna of her homeland. Her loyalty to her roots, both musical and geographical, said a lot more about Cesaria Evora than all the glowing reviews ever could.