Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Everyone Understands a Song and a Smile

Paris Musical Experience of a Lifetime:

This blog is a place where I just philosophize, ramble, describe and pontificate about my life as a performing singer songwriter and the subsequent situations this lifestyle gets me into.

Sometimes these posts are meant to be funny, sometimes they are meant to be serious but they always tend to have at least a little to do with music. This isn't on purpose necessarily. It's just a reflection of me. I can have a crazy sailing trip through squalls in the Pacific (http://ericerdmanmusic.blogspot.com/2012/07/bring-me-my-parrot-ya-scurvy-dog.html)
or be eating frog legs at a Belgian dinner party (http://ericerdmanmusic.blogspot.com/2012/07/laughter-is-best-medicine-and-it-pairs.html) but the fact of the matter is I would never have been in those places if it weren't for music.

So even when I discuss non-musical topics like the great foods I've eaten or interesting people I've met on my travels, it may have seemingly nothing to do with music but truthfully my travels almost invariably happen BECAUSE of music. Therefore music is always somehow involved. Additionally, since music is what I know I tend to relate all my experiences to music one way or other.

Music is vitally important to me. Music has been virtually my reason for getting up in the morning everyday since I was a very young person.

So I believe I should tell you of the most amazing musical moment I've ever experienced.

I don't remember the year (either 2003 or 2004) , but Dale Drinkard Jr, Jay Hines and myself decided to take a trip to Europe. We had about 14-15 days there so we planned about a week in France and about a week in Italy.

During part of our time in France we stayed in Paris. Paris has an incredible subway system (the Metro) which will get you basically anywhere you want in the city. We became very familiar with the Metro quickly and after about 2 days we had a good feel of the station layout and the layout of the city.

One of the days in Paris we happened to be heading back to the hotel via the Metro exactly at rush hour. Rush hour in the Paris Metro is something to behold. There is a mass of humanity the likes of which you will never see elsewhere. And this mass of humanity is in such a hurry it is almost a stampede.

As everyone knows Paris is a grand city and it is also a cultural hub. There are people of drastic and starkly differing looks comprising that stampede.

As we headed up the corridor we moved at a decent speed. We realized however that the middle of the corridor was the equivalent of the "passing lane" so we kept ourselves closer to the wall as we briskly walked.

Well along our passage through the corridor we began hearing this amazingly jubilant music. As we continued it got louder. We were getting closer but couldn't tell where it was coming from. This music was probably the happiest sounding music I have ever heard. It had a slight "island feel" to it but it wasn't reggae. It had a tinge of middle eastern influences but not a lot. It was just almost Afro-Cuban but with a twist.

 As I was attempting to get my ear and mind around what was going on with this amazing music, we saw through the crowd, the source. There were three men sitting against the wall of the corridor. They were playing these very homemade looking gourd xylophones and singing.

Now that we were so close the power of the music was even greater. We were enthralled.

Well we knew we had to hear some more but the crowd was so aggressively moving down the huge hallway, stopping was not an option. Had we attempted to stand in front of them and listen we would have been carried away by the river of speeding people.

The only way to stay stationary was to do as the musicians and put our backs to the wall. So once we swiftly passed in front of the musicians we jumped out of the flood of humanity and lined up along side them against the wall.

Now that we were still I was able to study the musicians more deeply. It was apparent that these men were African. They were wearing their Kufi hats and Dashikis. Their skin was the darkest I have ever seen. The xylophonesque instruments they played were wooden and obviously handmade. They played them by striking the instrument with fat wooden dowels that were about 8-10 inches long. It was interesting to me. I had never seen this exact instrument nor heard this exact sound.

Dale , Jay and I stood there for probably 5 minutes alongside of these men. As we stood there we watched a few thousand people shove by. All this almost violent motion filled the air with an odd tension. Yet these three African men's triumphant music completely soothed the scene.

Without the music I believe that corridor would've seemed almost evil but with the music is was like a piece of art. The juxtaposition of cool, relaxed happiness and the stress-filled hustling people was like looking through a kaleidoscope. These flashes of colors like broken glass. Once the music danced over them the entire scene seemed like art.

The three men began a new song. As we listened, Dale and I began to understand the general structure of the song. One man played more chordally on his instrument, another man played arpeggios on his, and the third basically soloed. When the singing came in, there was a discernible lead part, with a part harmony response.

These men were singing in an African dialect of which I had never heard before and I haven't heard since, but the melody and harmonies were simple and memorable.
After hearing what I would call the chorus once, Dale looked at me and said, "I have my part" and hummed it to me. I then picked my harmony note accordingly.

Of course neither he nor I knew what words we would be singing, notes are notes and vowel sounds are vowel sounds.

When the African men got to the "chorus" of the song again, the lead singer did his line. When the two back up singers sang their response line Dale and I chimed in with ours.
You would have thought a bomb went off. Those three musicians snapped there head's around to look at us. They were in such a state of shock and happiness they almost messed up the song.
Their smiles stretched out from ear to ear. The musician closest to us looked at his fellow musicians and made the universal sign for quiet down (obviously so that the harmonies could be better heard).
They went back into the "chorus" again. Now that we knew we were not intruding, Dale and I belted it out a little stronger.
This is still the happiest sounding music I've been a part of. The music insisted that you dance. It was light and wonderful. Dale and I got closer and closer to approximating the lyrical phrases with each pass (initially we knew the first words had a long I sound and the second long A sound so we were basically singing "IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII......OOOO OOOO.....OOOO").
To see and hear the excitement that music gained when we sang along in turn excited me.
We were all dancing and singing and belting out this beautifully happy tune.

That's when I took my eyes off of the musicians for the first time. I glanced up expecting to see the blurs of people. But that's not what I saw at all.

Unbeknownst to me, while we were finding our parts, "joining the band", and enjoying singing with these African men, the crowd had taken notice. Hundreds of people had just stopped and formed a semicircle around us. There was still pushing and running in the tunnel but it had been quarantined to the other side of the large tunnel. This song we were singing had turned half of the tunnel into a concert. And this wasn't an ordinary concert audience. There were people from seemingly every culture in the world. I saw Metropolitan Parisians, Indian people, Middle eastern women wearing their Burqas, Italians, Americans, .... It was the most multinational , multicultural audience I've had the privilege to play for.

The African men were so genuinely excited and happy. They were enjoying having those extra two harmony parts so much that they extended the song. I think we sang that song for about 8-10min. But I loved every single second.

Eventually we ended the song. The crowd roared with applause. The musicians bowed and gestured to us as if you say thank you to our special guests. That entire corridor was filled with joy and happiness.

As we turned and walked away, the weight of that song sunk in for me.

We had just performed a song with strangers that spoke a different language, for a group of people that probably spoke 30 different languages.......and we all understood each other anyway.

If there has ever been a moment that could illustrate the concept of "Music and a Smile can speak in any language", that was it.

If I had wanted to convey ANY other sentiment to those African men, or any of the dozens of groups of people in the crowd, I would have been unable.

However, Dale and I understood the feeling of that song (even if not the words) and we were able to join. We were able to join in with the musicians and express ourselves with them. And due to that power we were able to connect with all those different cultures at once.

Music is a universal language. Everyone understands a song and a smile.

(NOTE: these are not pictures I took. I wish I had taken some but I was too caught up in participating and experiencing the moment that I just didn't. These pictures are some images I found on Google that give a general idea of the crowdedness of the subway, the African xylophone instrument, and the way the musicians were dressed)

PS- Thank you Nikki Hocutt for reminding me to write this one. It is definitely one of my favorite all time moments


  1. Oh my God! I love it! I was able to envision everything you said. Articulation at its finest, my friend. You are the consummate storyteller. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Nikki.

    I would not have thought to write about that one day without ya. And that is one I needed to tell.
    So thanks.