As a big movie fan, I don’t know what I’d do without Turner Classic Movies, though I’d no doubt be better-rested without it. With so many more channels on TV now showing so little worth watching (and with so many ads), TCM is like an oasis of civilization. I often land in this cinematic Shangri-La at an hour when more reasonable people are sleeping though and the next thing I know I’m down a half-bottle of red and it’s 2 a.m. To paraphrase an old W.C. Fields movie title, it’s like “The Fatal Glass of Film.”
The other night was a case in point. I thought I’d be a good boy for a change and try to go to sleep at what I call an early hour, around midnight. But first, I tuned in to good old TCM, you know, just in case the peaceful mantle of Morpheus wouldn’t come easily. My timing was perfect, host Robert Osborne was just introducing a guest programmer, who chose a Spanish-language film called The Wind Journeys that Osborne had never heard of – no small accomplishment – and revealed he’d never heard of it either until recently.
He introduced it with a few comments, saying it was as visually stunning as Avatar, only without using any special effects, CGI or arty camera work. It was made in 2009 by a Colombian writer-director named Ciro Guerra, a joint productiion of Colombia, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands. He also said that it might be better named “The Devil’s Accordion”, because it’s about an old musician with a very special accordion with two cattle horns pointing out its sides, which he thinks is cursed by Satan. To end the curse he goes on a long journey to return the accordion to its original owner and the programmer said part of the tension in the story is trying to figure out whether the musician is insane or the squeeze-box really is possessed, because it leads to some strange adventures and places. The minute he mentioned the devil’s accordion bit, I was intrigued and thought, “We-elll, maybe just half a glass, I’ll give this baby five minutes, after that the subtitles will probably lose me as usual and I’ll drift off”. Wrong again Bix, within two minutes I was completely hooked, drawn in as if to a spider’s web, dohhhhh.
It was a complete surprise from out of left field, one of the damndest movies I’ve ever seen – strange, original, compelling, fascinating. The guest programmer wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he said the film was visually stunning, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This had everything to do with both the cinematography and the arresting geography of northern Colombia, which is richly varied, rugged and starkly beautiful. A desert region, some flat prairies, jungle and fields of crops, beautiful rivers surrounded by bizarre mineral deposits in almost surreal shapes, some lush, green mountains. A riot of colours; purples, reds and yellows, a low sky sometimes brilliantly clear and blue, other times ominously cloudy. And a howling wind in the background; not cold, but almost constant. Although there’s a lot of live music in the film, there is no music soundtrack as such, save for the swirling wind, hence the title. The land itself becomes one of the central characters in the storytelling and this is enhanced by the camera work, which is very still and often shot from a distance or wide angle. For once, the subtitles were very clear and readable, but this was not so crucial, as the dialogue is quite sparse and realistic.
The musician/protagonist is named Ignacio Carrillo and he has spent years as a troubadour, wandering about playing and singing in the local folk music idiom known as vallaneto, which consists of singing accompanied by accordion and percussion. He’s become a master of this and has had many wild adventures, being with many women and siring children he’s never known. After many years, he finally found a “good woman”, settled down and married her, at the beginning of the movie she’s died and he buries her. He has given up playing the horned accordion, convinced that it’s cursed, that it plays itself and he can’t really control it. He sets off to return the accordion to its owner, who lives in the town of Taroa, hundreds of miles away, riding the smallest, saddest burro imaginable, the grief and loneliness heavy upon him.
A young man of about 18 named Fermin invites himself along on this trek; Ignacio doesn’t refuse him, nor does he encourage him. Fermin is both naive and a little cocky, seems drawn to the older man his music, the slowly developing relationship between them forms the fulcrum of the spare story. So the film is a quest movie, a road movie, a buddy picture and a coming-of-age story, but its originality keeps it from falling prey to the usual cliches of these sub-genres. Except for a couple of markers, the story could have taken place in any period, it has the timeless quality of being a fable, or a parable.
Eventually, Ignacio is drawn back to playing the accordion and singing by the need for money. There are paying accordion contests and festivals to be entered along the way and he is also forced to provide the musical accompaniment for a machete-duel to the death held on a rickety bridge across the river in a remote town, not a scene I’ll soon forget. Without giving anything away, the two have many adventures and face almost insurmountable difficulties and the young man eventually proves himself both as a friend and as an aspiring drummer, he’s a man by the end. The quest is eventually fulfilled, but not in an expected way, the film’s ending is ambiguous and open to interpretation, without being a disappointing cop-out. I arrived at an interpretation that satisfied me, but had to think on it for a while.
Aside from the utter originality of the story and the unique filming of it, what impressed me most about this movie was how much wisdom and truth about music it contained. Fermin is always after the older man to talk about music and teach him about it and Ignacio replies that he has nothing to show him, that this music can’t be taught, that “you either have it, or you don’t.” Harsh, but true. There’s an amazing sequence in a small town where there’s a kind of accordion duel, where challengers are invited into the ring to knock off the local top dog, last year’s winner. In between choruses of a song, the incumbent and the challenger make up words in verses to insult and belittle each other. It’s almost like rap, both funny and dramatic. Ignacio finally emerges the victor and the top dog’s father is so incensed he attacks the troubadour with a machete, slashing apart the horned accordion’s bellows, necessitating a side trip to the mountains to visit a repairman.
Vallenato is a very moving form of folk music, with lilting rhythms and sad, poetic lyrics which deal with life’s big matters – love, loneliness, guilt, sin, poverty, joy, sorrow, death and staving it off – the songs are often in minor keys with elusive harmonies, the singing wonderfully lyrical. The accordion can be cheesy and I’m not generally a fan of its use in jazz, Parisian bistro music or polka, but in forms like Zydeco, Celtic/Maritime and South American folk music, it becomes an instrument of great lyricism and rhythmic power. The movie makes the point that so much of the world’s most eloquent music is not written down on score paper, but comes from deep inside of people and their lives and traditions, their souls really. This has not just to do with technique and practice, but with experience, the music has to be lived and felt in order to be played, it takes time.
This really resounded for me in a personal way, it translated to jazz. I practiced a lot when I began playing the bass, the instrument had to be gotten through, so to speak, and I’m still working on it. But I didn’t start to become a good player until I’d played for many, many years, had absorbed not only the rudiments of playing the bass and the repertoire, but had done a lot of playing and listening; had gathered a lot of experience and lived a little. I needed to have some of the self-indullgence lnocked out of me, to learn about relaxing, concentrating and reading people, how to behave and listen and develop a wider beat. All these things go far beyond technique, they have to do with thinking music and hearing the big picture, knowing what to play and what not to play and when. It takes years to learn all of this and there are no books on the subject. The lonely, knowing, world-weary figure of Ignacio personified these truths and I related very strongly to him. At this point in his life, all he has is his music, and he’s not even quite sure about that.
There was another unforgettable music scene involving a big vallaneto festival and competition, the winner will take away 1000 pesos. Each competitor must play with a hand drummer and a percussionist, the local drummer refuses to play with Ignacio because of a past slight, so Fermin volunteers, insisting he knows the basic rhythm of the vallaneto. But when they take the stage, Ignacio looks out and sees a beautiful woman with a two-year-old boy and falls in to a reverie about them; he may know this woman and the child is his, or represents one of his many long-lost sons. He turns to the other musicians and says “Change of plan boys, just try to play along.” Never taking his eyes from the baby boy, he proceeds to spin a strange song with halting rhythms about the sea, memory and a wooden horse. The percussionist is utterly flummoxed and Fermin does his best to follow along, but when the song finishes, it’s greeted not by applause but stunned silence. They don’t win any money and afterward, Fermin asks Ignacio how his playing was. The old man hesitates for a moment, looks him right in the eye and simply answers, “Terrible”, then turns and walks away.
The crushing truth of this also rocked me, there’s lots of lying in life, but none in music. I thought of how it felt when I first started to play jazz and knew I was terrible, whether I was told – as I occasionally was – or not. This didn’t necessarily change as I improved, because the people I played with were better and better and my expectations rose, it’s all relative. But I would never have gotten anywhere – and neither does anyone else – without repeatedly accepting the horrible truth of being terrible, of picking myself up off the mat to try again and again, surrendering to this Sisyphean humiliation. If you love and care about music and play it for the right reasons, you must accept this. Even after almost 40 years of playing, I still must sometimes deal with this reality. That on any given night, for a myriad of reasons I can’t control, I may be simply awful as though I were a beginner again, the simplest musical tasks seemingly beyond my recah.
Sometimes it’s the room, or a badly out of tune piano, a drummer with Hitler time and Nazi dynamics, a pianist with a million and one chords that make things so difficult. But most often it’s just me, I don’t have it, it’s not my night and the inspiration is simply not there, it’s terrifying. Sometimes it just feels this way at the beginning, you need time to warm up and adjust. If you’re lucky, your sound will drop in on you or you’ll play a song you really love or someone will play something perfect beside you that inspires you and you yell out “Yeah!!’ and you’re off to the races, you have a shot at arriving at the good stuff, of getting off the ground and playing some honest-to-goodness music. On rare occasions the Gods smile upon you and you hit the ball out of the park, get to briefly grab the brass ring at the end of the rainbow, but this is fleeting. I’ve learned to celebrate these small triumphs, then promptly forget them. When they’re over, they’re over, the next performance is a whole new ballgame. You start each night at square-one, in a position of high alert and utter humility, with open ears and a clear mind, assuming you know nothing. It’s true no matter how good you’re supposed to be, or how much you know, that there’s always something in music lurking just around the corner waiting to defeat you, you can’t ever get too comfortable. It’s like Lester Young once put it, more or less: “Boom, you play your licks and I play mine. Every night you just fight for your life, till death do us part.” When Ignacio told Fermin with such harsh frankness that he was “terrible”, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that listening to music can bring great pleasure and joy, and so can playing it. But it can be a harsh and elusive mistress: No matter what you play, music is the hardest instrument of them all. It’s life and death, just like this movie.
© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.
Dearest Steve, I will give you the same encouragement I have given to Alvin Queen about his diary of photographs; I hope you both will publish your cogent and insightful observations into a book. Yes I know that the publishing, marketing, and selling of books these days is an uphill battle or to use your phrase a”sisyphean” undertaking, however, I must say in both your case, well worth the effort.
I have taught the “History of Black Music” here in Paris at the Ecole Polytechnique and continue to teach in Vermont at Middlebury College and spend no little time searching for musicians of every genre who can articulate not only how they play their instruments, but the connection between the how and why. You are a truly gifted writer. I look forward to each blog. Almeta
Hi! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 4!
Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog
and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the excellent work!