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
Shortly before I set off on what would be an 11-week hike from Catalonia to Cornwall I was tipped off to this song via a tweet by the people over at Caught by the River. This infectious slice of modern soul moves at a pace that is just right for walking, and I’ve lost count of the times that it helped me regain my step as I began to falter or wilt as the summer days wore on. The video’s great, too!
Since their formation in 1999, Dalla have led the way in promoting, writing and re-interpreting traditional Cornish music. This tune, Helston, is a furry dance and a musical centrepiece of the St Michael’s Day celebrations that are held each year in the Cornish town of Helston, traditionally on 8 May. In this original arrangement, the clarinet leads us off up the road, while double bass, brass and djembe help to keep us in time. Towards the end, we are reminded that the tune is sometimes known as ‘John the Bone’, with Dalla singing the following refrain against the musical background: John the Bone was marching home, when he met with Sally Brewer, He kissed her once, and he kissed her twice, and he kissed her three times over. Furry dances are meant to be danced by couples in line, so thankfully there were no Helstonians around to watch in dismay as a solitary walker, poles in hand, bobbed his way along the back roads of France.
I don’t normally listen to music while out on the trail. Walking brings its own rhythms that I find are best complemented by attention to other melodies: to birdsong, to the wind singing in the trees, to the tune being hummed by my own rambling thoughts. However, spending weeks alone on the trail is a different proposition, and as I wove my way across France this summer I found that music was often a welcome companion. Some of it had a visceral energy that brought renewed vigour to my footfall as I began to flag on a hot afternoon. At other times a tune or song stayed with me as a reminder of the home I’d left behind, or of the one towards which I was heading. And then there was the music that carried me deep down inside, to more spiritual reflection and to an awareness of what was going on elsewhere as I walked on into the day.
Back home now in Catalonia, much of that music continues to resonate, and so I have decided to share a selection of ten pieces, ambassadors of all those songs and tunes that proved to be good companions on the trail. Each selection is accompanied by a short text that says something about my connection to the music, and by clicking on the title you will be able to listen to and/or watch a performance of the tune in question. While out on the trail I had time enough to savour this music, and I would like for you to have the same opportunity. Therefore, rather than presenting all ten selections as a single playlist I will post them in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks. Here’s the first tune. Enjoy!
Back in the early 1980s my brother-in-law, Len, had a brown Morris Ital, and one of the most memorable trips I recall making in that car was to Fairport Convention’s annual reunion at Cropredy. I had not long turned eighteen at the time, and was still many years shy of discovering the pleasures and pain of long-distance walking. When, over a quarter of a century later, I walked Wainwright’s coast to coast trail eastwards across the north of England, Len was one of those at my side. This summer, as I walked west across Brittany, he was there again for a few days, quietly urging me towards my goal. While the Ital has long since left the road, Fairport Convention continue to reunite each year, and two brothers continue to learn new things about each other. As for the song’s refrain, we need more than ever for it to be true: “Walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me. The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree”.
Where or why I set off I couldn’t tell you, and neither am I sure where I’m heading. There is a path of sorts, but from time to time it disappears, only to reappear again in a slightly different guise, like a sand furrow on a tidal beach. But I’m not lost, and neither do I feel alone. In fact, there are times when I feel I have too many companions vying for my attention. Sooner or later, I trust, the fragments of path will join up to make a map of sorts.
In the meantime, here are some brief dispatches from where I’m at.
A book. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is, as it’s title suggests, about raptors, yet it opens with her learning of the death of her father. Fascinated with falconry throughout her childhood she finds herself responding to grief by buying and attempting to train a goshawk. Yet this is no superficial attempt to disengage from the pain of loss. There are no empty words like ‘moving on’. On the contrary, she moves towards. Towards a closer engagement with the world, with the only place where life can be lived. A third of the way into the book I’ve come to realize how little I know about raptors. But grief, pain. That’s a world I’m familiar with, and Helen Macdonald makes for an honest and eloquent companion. Click here to read an interview she gave to Caught By The River.
A documentary. Curiosity, humility, patience. These are just some of the qualities we need if we are truly to learn something from our encounters with the natural world. To learn, in the words of the psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, from experience, rather than viewing life and the world through a lens carved from preconceptions. I first came across Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain in the autumn of 2010, and since then I’ve returned to it whenever I start to sense that I’m losing sight of the land, and of our dependence on it. Although I have never walked in the Cairngorms of which she writes, the way in which she opens up that landscape is a gift for the imagination. A documentary about Shepherd’s book, presented by Robert MacFarlane, was broadcast this week on BBC Scotland. It’s available on iPlayer until Tuesday 9 December, and can be downloaded for later viewing.
A report. There are many necessary criticisms that can be levelled against psychotherapy, but one that has always struck me as misplaced is the charge that it generates dependency. Children are acutely aware of their dependency on their parents, and later, in adolescence, must rail against it in order to make the transition into adulthood. Maturity, however, requires a rediscovery of our dependence on others, an awareness of our interdependent relationship with all living things. We are not very good at this. Take an issue that has attracted much media attention this week: mothers breastfeeding in public. Our social landscape is saturated with images of breasts as objects of desire, yet the breast on which the infant depends, the one upon which, if all goes well, we are placed when entering this world, that breast is apparently too much for some to bear. We want to consume, to possess, but we don’t want to think about where things come from, or what is involved in producing them. A report just published by the Chatham House think tank reminds us that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships put together. This is not new knowledge, yet as the report also states, the majority of people continue to believe that transport is the biggest contributor to global warming. Importantly, the research on which this report is based does not suggest we give up meat. But the findings should lead us to reflect, and to a greater acknowledgement of our interdependency.
A song. As the year comes to a close, those of us who enjoy meat may be drawn by the opportunity to eat seasonal venison. Nowadays, wild deer populations are generally managed by wildlife rangers, since natural predators like the wolf are extinct outside some national park areas such as Yellowstone. This management is necessary, since in the absence of top predators the numbers of deer will otherwise become too large for habitats to support. Free to roam without fear, deer can have a detrimental impact on the local ecosystem, not least through the overgrazing of new-growth vegetation. Have we, like the deer in a wolf-free land, come to believe we can feed with abandon? Might an unintended consequence of austerity be that those of us with plenty come to learn the meaning of enough? You will arrive at your own answers to these questions, but along the way, step off the path for a moment and listen to The Wolfless Years by Chris Wood.