The sky is a perfect blue and though the sun is shining, there is little warmth in its rays. The air is still, breathless, and so takes on the quality that for whatever reason we have come to know as ‘crisp’. I am walking to Queens having just gotten off the Number 61 at City Hall. There is no particular reason why my heart should be so high in my chest, no particular reason why there should be such a swagger in my strut, no particular reason why I should feel such joy. But right at this moment ‘Mr Blue Sky’ by ELO is ringing in my ears and firing up that part of me which rejoices in simply being alive.
Music is powerful. For a long time I have been struck by the emotional impact it can have. One of my favourite films is ‘Last of the Mohicans’ almost entirely because of the way the romance of the story’s old fashioned heroism is not just complimented by, but soars to an emotional height because of, the movie’s soundtrack. In film, music attaches itself to the emotions being conveyed in the story and amplifies them, adding drama and romance and excitement and suspense. Jesus uses the image of salt to show that people who seek to follow him should draw out the flavours of the world. The flavours, the beauty of love and truth and right and justice, are already there in the DNA of the created by virtue of the identity of its creator. But they need to be brought out by just a pinch of salt so they can be truly tasted. A musical metaphor might also work in this context. As his followers we might seek to play a soundtrack, to personify a beautiful piece of music, that would, borrowing a phrase from Aaron Sorkin, invite the ‘better angels’ of those around us to dance.
Once a piece of music is attached to an emotion it can be difficult to untangle. Sometimes there is an organic link. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2 causes my soul to cry out against the tragedy of my nation’s history because that is what the song is about. But sometimes a song becomes about something because of when it is heard not because of what it says in itself. Who from Northern Ireland can listen to ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ by Ugly Kid Joe (Is that right?) without feeling the pangs of a people divided? Not because there is a natural connection but because a gifted advertiser melded the song to the story of a father grieving for a son caught up in our violence.
Even more than its ability to effect present emotions, music’s power is perhaps really shown in it’s confronting us with emotions from our past. As usual I articulate nothing of originality, everyone knows for example the power of music to conjure up the feelings of Casablanca-esque lost love. ‘Play it again, Sam’. Music and memory play together. As I begin to feel the reality of how little time I have left in Sierra Leone I know already that the music I will leave this place with will, for years to come, drag my heart right back to where it once sang. On Easter Sunday I wished that church could last forever but stood at the front of our service trying to conjure a sponge like quality in to my being in case I didn’t get my way. I have a song on my computer by a Sierra Leonean guy who calls himself Christo Whizzo called ‘Dance for God’, a fun, fluffy little Krio worship song, which our kids have a dance routine for, a routine they used at evangelistic services the church recently held in two of the larger villages here – ‘We go dance, dance before we God, We go shake, shake for praise we God, We go dance, dance, We go shake, before de God who make we all‘. It will surely always conjure up images for me of Ginger looking cute in her wee green shorts, Amidu’s hilarious lanky dance steps, Mattia’s little hunched body shake, Spengy’s showmanship. It will surely always conjure up the pride and love that go with the pictures. And the worries about whether they will be given the opportunities to reach their so obvious potential, to flame the fire of their multiple talents. It will surely always call me back to this time.
This call will probably sound even more loudly in the songs of praise and worship which I will bring back with me, not on a hard drive but in my memory. ‘Tell am Tenki’, ‘Good Morning Jesus’, ‘A de Shine’, ‘He has done it’ ‘So we Dance’ (A Brother Andy original rather than a Sierra classic...give it a few years...). And no list of Sierra Leone songs, to end this note with a little sparkle, would be complete without the wonderfully ridiculous ‘Check Yourself’. The full lyrics are important...and though I know I haven’t gotten it quite right in a few places, this is the general gist...
“You gotta check yourself now,
Examine yourself now.
On Monday, Monday you lie.
On Tuesday, Tuesday you smoke.
What of Wednesday?
On Wednesday, Wednesday you steal.
On Thursday, Thursday you drink.
On Friday you gossip all day.
On Saturday you fornicate.
Fornica-a-ate! (Yes, that’s right. My five year old sisters close their eyes with spiritual intensity and call out ‘Fornicate!’ at this point in the song. I am not mature enough to resist joining in with an enthusiastic ‘FORNICATE!’ of my own.)
And then on Sunday you pick up your Bible, put it under your arm and you go to Church.
You gotta check yourself now...”
It’s gonna be hard to leave. The last thing I want is for this all to become memory.