The Strength, Suppleness, and Beauty of a Body
The agadir—the collective granary—of music is made of songs and compositions for embodiment. Arooj Aftab, Julia Adolphe, and Layla McCalla are three musicians who contribute such music to the agadir, aiming to revive human life. All three take positions with their words and compositions, offering audiences a road—or a chimen, as it is said in Haiti—to revival.
Rewriting Antigone is what all three musicians have done, critical of populist society. Here, Antigone stands in front of her sister’s body, unafraid of her father—her pater—Creon, unwilling to be the patriot of patriarchy. It’s rewriting the myth of Isis and Osiris. It’s Isis mending the body of her sister this time.
Listening to Julia Adolphe’s compositions is a meditation. Vitality, rendering theatrically, in the voice of a violin, like in the three-part composition Unearth, Release, channels different emotions. Anger, Julia Adolphe says, is a healthy response to a threat. Adolphe stages this vitality in a world that has done what it can to shackle a woman’s vitality.
Of the many women whose tears began in 1492 and continue on this continent, Atabey, the Taino goddess of life and fertility, must have broken down, knowing that to kill the present is to kill the future—because the future itself comes from the present. The Taino were the first Indigenous people encountered by Christopher Columbus. The Taino draw Atabey’s zemes, her magical symbol, on the stomach of pregnant women. In naming another composition Dark Sand, Sifting Light, Adolphe identifies another present from which a new future can emerge. Again, in this piece, Adolphe stages vitality, the revival of the body into one of complexity, and making melody into a vessel.
Embodiment is plasticity. In an interview in Purple Magazine, Catherine Malabou, the French philosopher and psychoanalyst, speaks about the “neurological revolution, which happened around the 1980s: the shift from the brain being considered as a rigid organ to it being seen as this plastic organ that can be transformed, differing from one person to another.” She goes on to state in the same interview that “if you play the piano every day, more and more, the neural connections used when you play the piano will grow in size because the quantity of neurotransmitters will increase and increase, so you’ll experience more and more pleasure.” Therein lies what happens with revival: revival through music is a revival of the brain itself, and thus of body and mind.
A tremendous observer of both traditional music and a philosopher of it, McCalla sculpts traditional enrapturement and trance. Trance these days is a populist affair. The equinox—that is a well-handled instrument’s repetition along with some provoking, direct lyrics—is McCalla’s take on what human life should be, in a world that conditions us to turn away from such revival. “Mize pa dous” (“Me and My Baby”), “Lavi vye neg” (“Heavy as Lead”), among others, are all phenomenal songs on Capitalist Blues (Jazz Village, 2019). Her take on the rock-and-roll tradition in “Aleppo” is a standout.
M anvi di l me pa ka di l, “I want to say it, but I can’t say it.” The phrase is from Tabou Combo, written during the years of the Duvalier dictatorships, and has been used by Haitian music critics to frame the élan of Haitian music. McCalla took off this transnational babouket (“muzzle”) to produce music. “Settle Down” is ferocious, and textured with depth, allowing us to relieve ourselves of any muzzle, karmic weight, etc., just as rara, the tradition it is in, invites audiences to do so.
“What have I lost by gaining a profound sense of things? What have you gained from not seeking a profound sense of things?” Within Faouzi Skali’s rendition of traditional Sufi wisdom lies the quest and questioning of the Sufi, one for heart and sense. Arooj Aftab, being Sufi, invites us to look past the veils of our ego. Several little fish swim to a big fish and ask “What is an ocean?” one Sufi story goes. The big fish answers, “You are in the ocean, you just don’t know it yet.” In Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam, 2021), Aftab sings to us about what we are, and what living is, if we love and can long—or ghazal—for the profound sense of things (God). “Inaayat” most poignantly ascends towards this, never once straying away from the path.
“I jumped with joy among the apple trees sensing again the strength, the suppleness and beauty of my body,” writes Leonora Carrington in Down Below, her diary of confinement in a mental institution. Confinement is not hopeless. Aftab’s, McCalla’s, and Adolphe’s music offers us ceremonies for revival, as Christian revival led to gospel and rock and roll.