Concerto by Chris Green
1: Allegretto con moto
There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of the country. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s Piano Sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. Fame beckoned.
Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concerto No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.
For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.
She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part-time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.
Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copywriters. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.
To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.
2: Largo misterioso
Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.
It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’
Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.
‘For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’
‘But I thought it was alright now,’ Nia says. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’
‘It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many, it is a hand to mouth existence.’
‘I did see a few beggars.’
‘Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French-speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’
‘But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised. It has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’
‘That’s nice,’ Nia says. ‘Where is that from?’
‘Satchmo,’ Red says.
‘That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ Nia says.
‘Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’
Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.
Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.
‘It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ Red says. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’
‘Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’
‘It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’
Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.
‘Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’
‘You mean …… the big chords?’ Nia says, taken aback by the image.
‘Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’
Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.
‘That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’
‘That’s cool then,’ Red says. ‘You’re hired.’
‘But it can’t last,’ Nia says, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’
She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.
‘Nothing’s incurable,’ Red says, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older than you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’
‘Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’
‘That’s the common myth, isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’
‘How does this ….. gris-gris work?’
‘I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’
3: Allegro con sentimento
Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.
Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.
Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.
Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.
‘What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’
Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.
She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there.
‘I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’
Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.
‘Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’
‘You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’
Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.
Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.
‘In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ Loup says.
‘I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ Nia says. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’
‘It’s impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’
‘And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’
‘Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’
‘And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’
‘France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’
‘So the French were the worst,’ Nia says.
‘No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’
‘Not a lot of comfort, really.’
‘Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ Loup says. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’
‘I know,’ Nia says. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’
‘Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.
‘Fire away,’ Nia says.
‘I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ Loup says. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’
‘With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ Nia says.
‘I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’
‘I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.’
‘I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’
‘Does he have big hands?’
‘Yes, he does have big hands as it happens,’ Loup says. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’
‘Blacksmith.’ Nia finishes his sentence.
‘How did you know?’
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved