Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wist

We the people, having survived for so long on so little, and done so much for so long, are now qualified to do anything... for nothing.
I found the above musing in an old notebook of writings circa 1992. Spring cleaning, even if delayed until summer, does turn up the occasional nugget. It put me in mind of wist, hence some further musings on indigo moods.

effah-sakyi water bowls 1998


The above painting reminded me of the following photo from the African Futurist of fishwives in the morning in Elmina, Ghana.

fishwives in the morning


The stories they have to tell, the perspectives they could share. I want to have a conversation with them, simply sit with them in the middle of the day - in the brief moment before they get back to the important things on their plate. We the people indeed.

It also brought to mind the women who were dyeing cloths in those courtyards in Bamako, Abderrahmane Sissako's film that is, while the World Bank and international institutions were being put on mock trial in the foreground. The women and their work were meant to be the background and yet, from my standpoint, their stories and experiences were the foreground.

Wist is perhaps the attitude that best suits these unsettled times, we are all holding our breath and tightening our belts, bracing ourselves for who knows what.

In the USA especially, I sense a lot of wist in the air. Conveniently timed gut feelings abound all round, we have banned liquids and have to resort to zip-loc containers and long lines. Americans now need visa stamps and even passports. Heck, you can't even get out of the country if you want to without bribing passport expeditors or calling your congressman. When you take that trip to Brazil, you'll need to give up your biometric data, the reciprocal wages of bureaucracy and inconvenience, just like those visitors to the States have had to since it became a matter of Homelands and Security. If you stay in the country who knows who will be watching you or listening to your conversations. When you're on the subway, you need to be mindful of recent non-specific general threats. Suspicious people are everywhere - they could even be (gasp) next door! I think a lot of wist is in order.

There is a danger however: when wist devolves into nostalgia it becomes reactionary. Too much wist and you start dwelling on those good old days that never really were. Your thinking will get wooly and, without moderation, you are liable to be bamboozled into who knows what and then be left picking up the pieces, singing the inflation calypso as the chickens come home to roost. You really don't want your entire society to start behaving like actors in B-movies. The director may not cut the scene.

Hold on to wist I say. Wist is clear-eyed and lyrical. Wist is wary, wist is weary, yet while being realistic, wist embraces the here and now, the tense present and a better tomorrow. At heart then, wist is an optimistic sentiment.

The dictionaries present the word wist as obsolete and would direct us to to its adjectival compere, wistful. Of the latter I prefer the meditative, pensive and forelorn senses, but of the former, it is that still small voice of wist that attracts me, that quiet and attentive outlook.

In my book, wist is stoic and, at its best, eschews melancholy. When wistful, one is pragmatic yet hopeful. The British and the French know a lot about wist as their empires have seen better days. Others however are still seeking the black gold of the sun. Would they take a moment to be wistful? Wist is about humility, about acknowledging the small steps towards the wonders that are still to come.

Wist presents an opportunity for resolve, it is a brief respite in that moment as you gather yourself up for the next task, the next struggle. Wist is a flight to quality, a premium bond for these subprime times. Wist is soul insurance that actually pays you back when you file your later claims.

I'll prognosticate here. Those in the developing world are actually at an advantage in these wistful times. Of necessity, we are afficionados of wist, world-weariness has long been our lot. A lifetime of almost always expecting the blows coming your way will leave you better equipped to deal with this harsh world. The school of hard knocks is our neighbourhood and our response is communal not unilateral. Sissoko would say "we are all responsible". One shouldn't strike out on one's own just because one can, rather we find strength in community. Burning Spear would add: social living is the best.

A Wistful Soundtrack


Musically, the quality of wist is a step up from the blues however the blues tend to get more love since they are more dramatic and keenly felt - wist is merely transistional. In compiling a wistful playlist for this note, I initially thought to songs about holding on. To "hold on" is indeed the most resolute response to wist and I have many songs on that theme (Lisa Stansfield, Dennis Brown, Ann Nesby, Dwele and others can school you for a good hour about holding on). Shuffle serendipity struck however and instead I found my wistfulness encapsulated in the following songs.
  • Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come
    This song is perhaps the definition of soul music - the point at which the genre coalesced and departed from gospel and the blues. It is fitting that wist was the first vein in which Sam Cooke made out his soulful sound. There is both a spiritual and a bluesy feel to the song. Watching Talk to Me last night, that wonderful film about the life of Petey Greene, that ex-convict turned radio disc jockey, it was no surprise that A change is gonna come was the song that he played to sooth the soul on the airwaves in Washington D.C. that night after Martin Luther King Jnr. was assassinated. It speaks about optimism even in the face of setbacks. The vocal performance is one that few can equal although many have tried. A few sublime minutes of yearning and longing (the obligatory youtube link).
  • Duke Ellington - Mood Indigo
    The Indigos album is one of my favourites in the Ellington catalog, featuring wistful tunes throughout. The only vocal track on the album is of course Autumn Leaves that paragon of remembrance (see also the autumn soundtrack). Prelude to a Kiss is all about the lyricism of Johnny Hodges, as is the old faithful, Solitude. The song I'll highlight however is the title track, Mood Indigo. An economy of emotion, it features a perfect trumpet solo full of whimsy and reflection by Shorty Baker. That wondrous portion when the rest of the band join in is ecstatic. An earlier performance is on youtube with Jimmy Hamilton Willie Cook (see corrections) doing the deed on trumpet and with a more prominent piano solo by Ellington. Indigos are not quite the blues and the Duke's band prove that indigo is the colour of wist.
    You can listen to the mp3 for the next week: Duke Ellington - Mood Indigo
  • D'Angelo - The Line
    The crown prince of soul put it on the line seven years ago. The elements of the song are simple: Questlove's steady drums, James Poyser and D'Angelo's keyboards and Rhodes, a little boom bap from the bassist and above all the vocals. I hear Sam Cooke, I hear Al Green, I hear Prince, Curtis, Donnie, Marvin and more. It is a tour of the sounds of his favourite vocalists wrapped in his own stylings. It's the moment of truth, the stakes are high ("Will I fall off or will it be banging?"), he steels himself: "all I got to do is hold on". He'll stick to his guns, resolute to the challenge ahead.
  • James Carter - The Intimacy of My Woman's Beautiful Eyes
    Perhaps the hungriest of the young lions of jazz, James Carter can also be the most tender when he want to. The musical scion of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, he isn't afraid to engage in matters of the heart, albeit with a wink and a certain swagger. Hence this song is a study in contrasts: the wistful tone of the music set against the premise of the overwrought title. After a fairly subdued opening solo, the piano takes over and the bassist prods him along and what a piano solo. When Carter's saxophone returns wailing, or rather growling, the notes are urgent, longing and attentive — wistful in short. One hopes his woman forgave his missteps, the music is a plea for a renewed intimacy.
  • Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins - Mood Indigo
    Apropos tenor saxophonists, there is another version of Mood Indigo that I'm very fond of: this intimate meeting of jazz giants. Ellington introduces the theme on piano and the band step in smooth as usual. After a while Coleman Hawkins steps up and delivers the goods. His solo is discursive, breathy and virtuosic. This is someone who has lived body and soul. Duke's accompaniment is subtle, encouraging Bean to find the emotional depth in the melody. Simply magic.
  • Charles Mingus - Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
    Mingus recorded Mood Indigo twice, recognizing as he did, the genius of Ellington's composition. Each occasion elicited typically sensitive bass solos from him. I'll focus here on his own composition, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to Lester Young, written right after he learnt of Pres's death. It captures the mournful and elegaic tone of loss, Mingus' great band remembering the arch tones and oblique art of their friend who paved the way for them. In the hip-hop vein, I suppose the closest would be Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) although that arguably leans more towards nostalgia than wist.
  • Amel Larrieux - Weary
    The lead single of last year's opus, Morning, this song takes on the notion of hard experience in life. She takes her time to warm up as the song progresses and only really starts letting her hair down vocally at the midpoint. She's in control throughout observing the vagaries of the mood, a midtempo soul excusion. Watching the video (slightly lower quality on youtube), you see that she has a lot on her mind ("A woman is getting weary"). Ultimately she finds comfort around her friends and family as it should be. The song ends as it starts with Amel walking down the road. Perhaps the weariness has been lifted, in any cases she has given us music for a long walk.
  • Cannonball Adderley Quintet - Walk Tall
    Like the country preacher declaimed:
    The most important thing of all is that no matter how dreary the situation is, and how difficult it may be, that the song really doesn't matter until the song begins to get you down.

    So our advice to you, the message that the Cannonball Adderley Quintet brings to us, is that it's rough and tough in this ghetto, a lot of funny stuff going down. But you've got to walk tall.

    Walk tall. Walk tall.
Wist, the ineffable sentiment for our times.

Next: Resisting Nostalgia

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You wrote "An earlier performance is on youtube with Jimmy Hamilton doing the deed on trumpet and with a more prominent piano solo by Ellington"

The clarinet soloist is Russell Procope. The trumpet soloist is Willie Cook. Hamilton is visible in the first row of the band. He played clarinet and tenor sax.