[Este artículo se publicó originalmente en el blog Sing a Simple Song de Hiram Lucke, de The Harvey Girls]
Many musicians I know despise classifications and categories. But inevitably we all end up creating genres for reference, even if they only work for us. Years ago I was listening to a vallenato compilation when, without any warning, one of the songs started saying, in Spanish:
I remember that, whenever Jaime Molina got drunk, he used to dictate:
That if I died first he would paint my portrait,
And if he died first, I would write his song;
Today, how I wish that he would paint my portrait
And not having to write this song.
It was mesmerizing. The lyrics, at the same time, were unequivocally blunt and avoided being unnecessarily corny. That day, without realizing, I created a new subgenre for myself, and from then on I’ve been adding songs to it. I picked up the name for it years later in a compilation of Garifuna music. I call them uremu lani ludu, which means “mourning songs,” although that name is not entirely truthful to the spirit of these songs. These are songs that are written for a deceased relative or friend, but they are rarely mourning. These songs are more about celebrating the person than lamenting their departure.
The second one I found is the recording that to this day I consider the most beautiful recording I’ve heard, and for that reason alone, I will save it for last. The third one I found was another vallenato: “Alicia Adorada” (“Cherished Alicia”), written by Juancho Polo Valencia. The legend has it that Juancho Polo Valencia used to travel all the time, going from one town to another to play his songs, leaving his cherished Alicia behind at their hometown, Flores de María. One day she got ill, really bad, and someone went looking for him. When they found him and he finally made it back to Flores de María, she had been dead for three days. He went to the cemetery and people started hearing the sound of his accordion coming from there. That was the first time this song was played, improvised at her grave, which later went to become a standard in Colombian music.
Fast forward a few years. I was living in South America and I became friends with the members of a band from the US. We started exchanging each other’s music and one day I was listening to one of their albums, listening to the music without paying attention to the lyrics, when it happened again: the lyrics in one of the songs were so striking, that I had to rewind the song, and I ended up listening to it for three days straight:
You looked better than you had in years.
I was lost among some memories of falling down the stairs:
Stitches in my head, cooling wax on my hand,
turtle-shaped pancakes and cactus needles in my legs
but you’re dead, my dear, you’re dead
you’re dead, my dear, you’re dead.
When I asked, I was told it was written for a grandmother. The scenes that the songs describes were from her funeral. Even though it sounded like no music his grandmother listened to (which I don’t know for sure, of course, but it’s a safe bet), I’m sure she would be delighted with the homage. The band was The Harvey Girls. The song is called “Real Fun”.
It was after this song that I actually created the playlist called uremu lani ludu and started listening back to the songs I had to see if I could find more examples. Then I found Fernando Delgadillo’s “Bajo tu pisada” (“Beneath Your Footsteps”). This one was written by a man, for another man, and he says:
Lately I’ve found myself with an immense urge to talk about you.
Could it be that I feel the weight of this that I have to tell, and now that you are not
around to harass me with your pranks, I find myself recalling when you were around…
…but the world didn’t change with your death,
I would say it is just the same.
with no other intention than carrying our shoulders
to walk around.
It’s a beautiful song, written as an everyday talk between two friends.
Then, around that time, I was reading an interview with the vocalist of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and he said that one of their songs had been written for one of his sisters, who had died of an overdose. I had listened to that song dozens of times and I never realized it, but after the interview everything in the song made sense. The song is called “Basta de llamarme así” (“Stop Calling On Like That”):
Stop it, stop calling on like that
I will go, I will go up there, when my turn comes.
Meanwhile, I’ll sing this song.
In your voice, for you, or in the voice
of those sleeping there.
And I swear, that I will stand up to anyone
who dares to mention your name, here and there.
I have several versions of that song, but it was then that I realized that one of them is a demo, where the voice is almost whispering, and it breaks at some point. This demo is perhaps the one recording where the memory of the deceased person was freshest.
There are many more, of course. There are even songs within this genre written by famous people we don’t like (Lenny Kravitz wrote a beautiful, beautiful song for his mother, called “Thinking of You”). But this is getting long enough, so I’ll get to the one I said that I consider to be the most beautiful recording I’ve heard.
That song is called “Naguya Nei” (“I Am Moving On”) and it’s the second song in the album featured on that link. It was written by a Garifuna man called Paul Nabor, whose sister told him on her deathbed something that would become the chorus of the song, “When I die, I want a band in my funeral.” (“Lauba la banda habunana“) that perfectly captures the spirit of the whole genre. When I die, I want a band in my funeral.