Driving the long hours towards Albuquerque through the empty landscapes about two years ago was a meditation. I pondered philosopher Alan Watts ’ideas. He contended humans are hard-wired to fight for survival above all else, even knowing it is a battle which cannot ultimately be won. Out of this paradox, he thought, comes the creation beauty. Even creating our own personality is an act of art.
I mused: I am nothing in this landscape. I am even less in the landscape of the universe. And still, here I am, watching, recognizing beauty -- what a mystery! What suffering! How will I ever come to terms with death?
I considered the German poet Erich Kästner ‘s lines: " Whoever has not been born sits on a tree in the universe: laughing!"
The other day we stepped into Albuquerque’s Old Town church, a lovely adobe erected in the late 1790s. Gabriel does not enjoy visiting churches, but this time was different. As soon as we entered San Felipe’s, we were greeted with singing. Two elderly ladies were rehearsing. Despite their constant interruptions to repeat phrases to perfect their rendering, their singing filled us with calm. We sat for quite some time. I remembered how I sang as a child. We sang, my sisters and I, in the car on long drives with our parents. We sang canons in harmony. We sang as we washed the dishes. We sang on school hikes. I was in the choir which sang Bach masses at Christmastime. I had a good voice, but never learnt to read music. Sitting in the church, I missed that singing. I longed for it -- for the joy in its creation.
I remembered a concert in Swakopmund while I lived in Namibia.
My two German – Namibian women friends in Swakopmund invited me to a amateur concert which takes place every year before Christmas.
The concert took place in the courtyard of an old German building. We had brought extra sweaters and blankets with us, as at night it still got very cold.
My friend told me about her friend Jenny who organizes this yearly event. “Jenny is always busy,” she said with much admiration,” she works in a local travel agency, she works as a ballroom – dance – teacher and she organizes the volunteers for this event.”
I looked around. The walls of the courtyard were built with bricks and wood in between like the old German way. We sat along wooden tables on wooden chairs. Above us were sun umbrellas spread out even though it was getting dark now. The place was packed with people. I just saw white people and they all seemed to speak German. Was I sitting in a beer garden in Germany? Then I discovered the tops of palm trees sneaking over the walls and remembered that I was far further south than Germany.
The show started. Jenny herself was the first performer. She had a deep and good voice. She sang parts out of different famous musicals. I am not crazy about musicals, but she sang a song out of Cabaret which I am fond of. Then another woman sang songs out of other musicals. Her voice was okay, but once and again it grew quirky and hurt my ears. It must have been the microphone. Somebody came and fiddled around with the microphone. Then came two more women who sang very badly. Afterwards teenage girls and some little girls danced to disco music. They all tried to be very sexy, but seemed to be awfully stiff. There is just one young skinny man among them who danced and whirled and seemed to have the greatest time and I enjoyed watching him quite a bit.
They kept singing about wonderful or disappointed love, about New York, then a few German songs and so on. They were all whites.
I had finished my glass of wine, I was yawning. I was cold. I wanted this to be over with.
Driving home I remembered the small song performances the cooks and waiters in many lodges here offered to their guests after dinner. They were amateurs also; they did commit this or that mistake. But I was always sad when their performances ended, I always wanted more.
“We are in Africa here,” I commented to my friend,” Africa is filled with black people and many of them carry rhythm and song in their very blood. We just visited a concert where there was not one black African singer and not one black African song was played!”
The following day we sat with Tia and Anna, two female friends from the Mondesa Township in our car. My husband asked them, “Do you also watch this Mexican soap opera The Gardener’s Daughter?”
“ Yeesss!” came the immediate answer in a happy chorus,” We absolutely love this series! The main actress once came to Windhoek. That morning no car could drive through Windhoek, so many people came to greet her. It is on Friday nights and we never go out before we have finished watching it. And these wonderful names which the Mexican men carry: Juan – Carlos and Jose – Eduardo! And this wonderful long and silky black hair of many of the Mexican women!”
We laughed. Who knows what both women had done to their crizzly and wiry hair: today it was completely flat! Maybe they had wigs on? Wigs were very popular here, but I did not dare to ask.
Tia started humming what she said was the song of that Mexican soap – opera. My husband listened carefully and exclaimed with utter surprise,” That is the song of the Gardener’s Daughter?”
Both women nodded with huge smiles.
“That is the song Paloma Negra!” my husband cried out,” Had I known that I could have sung it to the cooks in the lodges whenever they asked me to sing a Mexican song! It is one of the most famous Mexican songs and about the only one I know how to sing!”
He now sang Paloma Negra. Tia and Anna were in ecstasy.
Later that day we told our friend who has a travel agency in Swakopmund about our discovery of the popularity of Paloma Negra in Namibia. He had just returned from a journey with a group of Swiss people to the Caprivi in the very north of Namibia.
“Up there live a lot of people, you know, and my Swiss people were curious to visit a mass. So, in a small village I went to the priest and asked if we could join the mass on the following day which was a Sunday. He agreed and there we went. Everybody was in high spirits, the black citizens as well as my Swiss tourists. The blacks sang with all their skills and might. And we were all deeply moved until the community now asked us to sing something for them! WOW, were we uncomfortable. We were all intellectuals and agnostics; nobody remembered a spiritual song from their childhood. Finally we agreed on a children’s song which is popular in the German speaking countries: “The life of the gypsies is a happy one”
“And that is what you sang?” I asked. I know the song, of course, nothing to do with God or the Church
“Yes,” he laughed,” and they loved it. Then they asked me to translate the words of the song and I said truthfully: it is a song about enjoying life and everybody was content.”
These memories of my childhood – singing and singing in Namibia moved me to sing myself. We had left Albuquerque and reached the house of our friends in Taos. I went on a walk across my friends´ land - I went alone and noticed that nobody was near. I started to sing every childhood song I could remember the words of....slowly but surely my heart became light and lighter, the joy of being alive entered my very bones. More and more words of long – forgotten songs entered my brain and even the tail of my friend´s dog, who accompanied me, seemed to wiggle happier all the time….
Let us sing again!
Art by Kiki ("Let Us Sing!")