The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

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JUL-AUG 2022 Issue

Anima / Arrhythmia

Various Artists
Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono
(Atlantic, 2022)

“The democratic individual is distracted,” and “the democratic psyche remains parched,” writes poet Will Alexander. What else should we be focused on, instead of these distractions from our dynamis, our potential? Perpetual, truthful, peace.

The music of Yoko Ono, Maud Lübeck, and The Dedicated Men of Zion is a yana, a vehicle, of this peace. Their songs are anima, animating human minds, instead of the arrhythmia, that accelerated heartbeat that illusory commercial music makes in us, killing human culture in the process.

Yoko Ono’s album Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono reveals a philosophical songwriter adept at sensuality, testimony, and protest. Ono plays with what she knows, herself, sculpting knowledge, and logic, into consequential poetics and music.

The album's songs are performed by a cast of well-known contemporary musicians, but the highlight is her lyrics, which are honest, brutal, and beautiful. “Toyboat” is contemplative, poetic and revealing: “I’m dreaming of a lake I’ve never seen … help me out of here.” Asking for help is significant; performed by Sharon Van Etten, it lifts the veil on a mind’s struggles and desires. The same goes for “Dogtown,” where the lyrical climax explains the narrator’s desire. “One day I’ll be just a little stone,” she tells us, where what one desires is a koan, and nothing from an ad.

In “Born in A Prison,” sensuality, politics, and compassion are a grammar, much more than a voice. It is a masterpiece that could be in rock music’s Sahitya-Darpana. Painful truth is expressed in a simple subject-object-predicate form: “We’re born in a prison / raised in a prison.” The song flows toward realizing desire, desire again a koan, and realizing a practice toward liberation.

Wood becomes a flute when it's loved
Reach for yourself and your battered mates
Mirror becomes a razor when it's broken
Look in the mirror and see your shattered face

It’s almost the perfect blend of logic, self-realization (Apramāda), and avant-garde art: Tristan Tzara’s Dada meets Je Tsongkhapa or Milarepa’s songs. As such it is a major moment in twentieth century intellect. “Born in A Prison” was first released in 1972, four years before The Clash were formed, two before the Ramones were founded.

Maud Lübeck’s most recent album is 1988, Chroniques D’un Adieu. The word chronique, chronicle in English, descends from the Greek kronos. Kronos, a mythical titan, and the son of heaven and earth, separated heaven and earth by castrating his father, thus founding time on earth and a Golden Age for humans, as in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Time, how we mark experience, was intended to be an idyll, the myth tells us.

In “L'éternité,” Lübeck sings: “C’est pas qu’un chagrin / un chagrin d'été … c’est mon coeur,” which translates to “It’s not just chagrin, a summer chagrin, it’s my heart.” Lübeck tells the truth, to liberate herself from the conformity of cynical urban love. From this truth, she develops a poetic style, singing labyrinthian lyrics over repetitive instrumentation. This repetition allows her to convey vertigo in the Pizarnikian sense: “Not verb, but vertigo. Does not indicate action,” i.e., the song is more about what is done to Lübeck than what Lübeck is doing. Her anima is together navigating the vertigo that is imposed.

In “Pourquoi” she tells us that “y a trop de soleil, trop de lumière…" There’s too much sun, too much light, she sings, on the day that she and a lover will part. The album begins with an “Ouverture” that quite explicitly tells us in spoken word that this is about love, before elaborating on the theme, song after song.

It’s as if Lübeck is singing to Leyla, who Majun, in an Arab desert, longs for in his songs. Leyla means night in Arabic, and night implies desire. Poetic song in France descends from Andalusian love songs, which, like in the poetry of Hafiz or Rumi, bring us to the realization that love is an epiphany, anima, soul, something that will know truth. “Listen to the pen … listen to its complaint …” Rumi tells us, from the thirteenth century, about Lübeck’s music.

The Dedicated Men of Zion are important. Gospel music is too often pushed aside as cathexis, or too much emotion, not modern enough. Bullocks. Their The Devil Don’t Like It is tight and earthy, with colorful instrumentation. Their take on “A Change Is Gonna Come” takes the song away from pop and to places in the heart, and feeling throughout the body, through both vocals and instrumentals. Their music is a return to harmony in the grand sense, harmony indicative of human relations. “Rock My Soul” asks to be rocked, to be revived, into an honest, courageous, being.

First, we are spectators of this yana, this music that is anima. Then we internalize what we hear, and that is what we choose to relate to ourselves and others. As we struggle against what commerce does to us, songs animate and resurrect us. We’ve only begun to be human, on our way to one day becoming expressions of bliss.


Adolf Alzuphar

Adolf Alzuphar is a Haitian music critic, and a pye zanmann storyteller.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

All Issues