The diary of a PhD student recalling curious past event as an immigrants’ child in Europe, now living between Italy, Sri Lanka and London.
Have you ever had one of your memories kick in when you least expected it? Maybe it was instigated by one of your senses. A certain smell/perfume, a flavour of something particular you were eating or something you saw, a particular object that had the power of bringing you to the past? I had that but with a song.
You probably can identify with that annoying feeling of having of a song that’s stuck in your brain but you just don’t know the title of … If you’re lucky you finally hear it played somewhere and thanks to a knowledgeable person/friend next to you or that god-given App that is Shazam you finally uncover its title. I had that so many times throughout the years, for instance with ‘Sultans of Swing’ of Dire Straits, which guitar line I kept humming at times in my head without knowing anything else about it.
There was one tune though that kept on playing in my mind, for years and years and years.
But I should properly give you the backstory. So, let’s rewind..
You see I love music, I was brought up by a father to whom music was absolutely central in life. Even afterwards I always completely immersed myself in whatever had a beat/rhythm/melody. What had a huge effect on me were my father’s audio cassettes/tapes and later CDs. I remember that at night he would always put a Sri Lankan music tape on and I would fall asleep listening to it, usually waiting until the end due to my weird sleeping patterns. It was all mostly Sinhala music but there were two cassettes that my father had brought or had been gifted (he’s not sure of either) which stood out. They had ‘African’ songs in the broadest sense possible, which stuck in my brain and pretty much moulded my music taste.
He would play these quite often especially when he was doing chores around the house, but with the advent of CDs and then of MP3 players, they soon got lost and forgotten. These tunes from faraway lands though remained woven in my subconscious more than I imagined. In particular, one of these songs. It would come to my mind in the most random of places, when walking, cycling, cooking and especially while travelling. The tune was somehow so evocative, it had that wanderlust flavour to it so that even when I listened to it as a little girl I would associate it with ‘nomadic’ images, of getting lost somewhere in unknown places of the earth.
So 5 years ago more or less I went back to Milan from London with a mission: find that damn (blessed actually) tape hoping that it still would be intact, play it until that song came up and Shazam the sh*t out of it to finally uncover the mysterious title! A pretty straightforward plan if it weren’t that I just couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched everywhere in the house, as if it were a quest to find the Holy Grail, but nothing… I did manage to find the other tape with ‘African’ music, which briefly mislead me into thinking that it contained my beloved tune, but again no. It did have other other tracks that I would listened to fondly such as Ismael Lö’s wonderful ‘Takou Deneu’, ‘Sofia’ and Rossy’s amazing ‘Raha Manina Any’ (dutifully Shazamed and later added to my Spotify playlist ‘Eclettico’).
But still I searched for that damn song. And I searched. I searched everywhere, trusting in Google for an answer, searching on YouTube. Sometime 3 years ago I even started listening to this amazing French radio station RTU which plays the most globally diverse music ever, and I always hoped it will magically play my song. But again, rien de rien. So my quest sort of fizzled out and I forgot about it.
For some reason almost two years ago, I downloaded Spotify on my phone to spice things up in my musical repertoire (I then upgraded it to Premium: one of the most fruitful investments ever). With that I became addicted to the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist, which is an automated music recommendation system that, through an amazing algorithm and by looking at your musical preferences and history, every Monday it cooks up the perfect playlist for you with new unknown songs!! Yes, it’s indeed an algorithmic calculation but it gets really uncanny at times. Uncanny to the point that this happened….
Story goes that exactly in April last year, while I was walking home from Goldsmiths library late at night, I started playing my new Discover Weekly playlist. I must first explain that it was a really grim period in my life. My heart ached badly as my grandmother had just passed away and for other stuff that unveiled emotions that I had never dealt with. On top of that I had my first major PhD deadline, my first chapter to submit, essays to correct and the Higher Education course (for the teaching certificate) that I had to complete. Hence, the reasoning behind my late journey back home from the library. On top of that, I was pissed off at Spotify because in those weeks of April it had created terrible ‘Discover Weekly’ lists, so I had stopped listening to it. But for some reason that night I decided to give it a try, again.
… and while I was walking right in front of Brockley cemetery I finally hear this song (please have a go and listen to it 🙂 )….
I completely lost it. I mean maybe it’s not of your taste, but you must admit that it is quite suggestive, especially the intro. Hearing it for the first time in such a long time, after such a long quest, it was a full other-wordly orgasmic experience. It was like listening to a type of music that embodies your whole being, the rhythm, the melody completely possess you and you just surrender. Chills to the core of my being.
I had one of those ‘Proustian madeleine’ moments. Marcel Proust is one of the most famous writers in European literature, and his famous work ‘À la recherché du Temps Perdu’ (In Search of Lost Time) is considered one of the most influential texts that first dealt with the concepts of time and involuntary memory. In fact, famous is the episode where he tastes a madeleine with his tea, which then triggers nostalgic memories of his childhood to come rushing in to his mind.
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”
Similarly, my recollection had this rare unique effect.
Maybe it was because it was a tough period for me in general, possibly also because I hadn’t gone back to Milan in a long while to see my parents and this reminded me of them and my past home, but I just started crying in the middle of the street. And I went home wailing as well and as soon as arrived home I went straight to tell this story to my flatmate Rea, all ecstatic not really caring of the time and whether she was awake or not.
It all seemed like pure serendipity, as that moment had been scripted by fate. Like magic (although it’s obviously traceable to technology and algorithms but for the sake of this post, to keep it more mystical, I’ll say magic) Spotify magically delivered this long-searched song and my quest ended.
Listening to this long lost song, which I now discovered is named ‘El Arbi’ by Khaled, was like drinking an elixir. The singer is a well-known musician, I already knew about his other famous songs Aisha and Didi (you must have heard of it) and I quite honestly don’t know why it never came to my mind that this song could have well be sung by him. I told my father on Skype and he was marvelled to hear it again too. Somehow this moment of sublime recollection really brightened up those foggy days, like a ray of light (finally!) or a pat to the shoulder that reassures you that it’s all going to be fine, that you’re on the right track.
Thank God for these moments, for nostalgia and memories! Thank goodness for the simple instances that maybe don’t count too much but enrich your life so much and just lighten you up.
All this clashes with what I’ve been really trying to do this past year: learn to live in the present, shift my mindset that has believed in the existence solely of a past and future all these years. I tried to have a sort of Buddhist approach to life. In all honesty I definitely haven’t achieved this fully but I’ve improved, as I do believe it to be crucial .
But, something that keeps me from this is in fact my eternal love for nostalgia. I bathe in it. I’m truly, madly, deeply nostalgic by nature. I’ve always valued it, even though most time it’s associated with sadness. As a sentiment, it’s indeed anchored in the past, so that’s the reasoning behind my inability to “live in the present”. When people say that to me, I’m like: Yeaaaah…easier said than done….
Because humans live with memories. If they don’t, it’s usually because they are trying to erase a certain event, a photo, the past in general, foolishlingly I would add but that’s their journey. The past doesn’t define you, but it does have an immense effect on your personality and the results you achieve or the misdeeds you commit in the present. And in cases as the one I’ve just told you about, recollecting of the past isn’t so bad, innit?