As I walked this summer from Catalonia to Cornwall there were many songs and pieces of music that accompanied me along the way, and I have written about some of them in a number of recent posts. Of all the music I listened to on the trail, however, there was one piece that haunted me like no other, and which became that most oxymoronic of beasts, a welcome earworm. The focus, then, for this last post of the year is a piece of music that might stand as that other kind of last post, as a commemoration of the fallen, in this case, of those whose lives have been lost while seeking refuge.
No-one plays the kora, the 21-string West African harp, like Toumani Diabaté, although his son, Sidiki, is clearly on course to take up the mantle. The Diabaté family are descended from a long line of griots, custodians – through music and storytelling – of the oral traditions of their people. In 2014, father and son joined forces and released a CD of ten kora duets, entitled simply Toumani & Sidiki. Following griot tradition, each of the ten pieces is named in honour of people, places or events, and the title of one of the songs, Lampedusa, manages to evoke all three of these things.
If, at the start of the millennium, you had asked me to name the southernmost point of Italy I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that it was the island of Lampedusa. We all know this now. Despite being part of Italy, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia than it is to Sicily, and over the last ten years or so it has become one of the main entry points for migrants seeking a foothold in Europe. Some have made it, many have perished in the attempt. In the first four months of 2015, an estimated 1600 migrants were taken by the sea on the crossing from Libya to Lampedusa.
I don’t know how many times I listened to Lampedusa as I walked home this summer. It was there at the outset as I crossed the border into France along a high mountain trail that was once used by smugglers and fugitives but which is now a designated hiking route between Port Bou, in Catalonia, and Banyuls-sur-Mer. At no point along that trail was I required to show any identification or proof that I was entitled to be there. Such are the freedoms I have been gifted simply by being born in a certain place and time.
The song was still with me eight weeks later as I walked west out of Bains-sur-Oust in southern Brittany. I had spent the night as the guest of Dominique and her husband, Gaël, in a house large enough for three families, let alone three adults. In the room where they served me breakfast that morning, a giant flatscreen TV showed the news images of the day, desperate men clambering over wire fences, plodding along railway lines, pleading with lorries. I thought, then, of the minor trespasses that I had committed while walking across the French countryside, and of how close I was, geographically, to Calais. Politically, however, I was a million miles away, for I am a citizen whose rights include the possibility of walking for pleasure rather than to save my skin.
As I write these words on the last day of the year, I am listening to Lampedusa still, this time on a one-track playlist that is set to repeat. Round and round goes the kora dialogue between a father and son who, as griots, know the value of storytelling, and who understand that it is in the telling of people’s stories that we weave a thread of hope from events worthy of lament.
Here, then, are two versions of the saddest and most beautiful thing I have heard all year. The first is the original studio version, the second a live version filmed in Madrid (with Sidiki offering a flavour, I think, of what Jimi Hendrix might have done with a kora).
Happy New Year, one and all / Bledhen nowydh da, onen hag oll