Sunday, 24 January 2016


And the mood became sweeter.  The music that was being played came to an end, and in the wonderfully lit room, blurred circles of light thrown on the ceiling from the lamps on the floor, people stopped dancing.  What next came on went straight to my heart - sad guitars, words, a song, an American girl singing 'Barbara Allen'.
      That voice!  It needed no music; it hardly needed words. By itself it created the line of the melody; by itself it created a whole world of feeling.  It is what people of our background look for in music and singing - feeling.  It is what makes us shout 'Wa-wa! Bravo!' and throw bank notes and gold at the feet of a singer.  Listening to that voice, I felt the deepest part of myself awakening, the part that knew loss, homesickness, grief, and longed for love.  And in that voice was the promise of a flowering for everyone who listened.
    I said to Indar, 'Who is the singer?'
    He said, 'Joan Baez.  She's very famous in the States.'

This is a passage from V. S. Naipaul's great novel A Bend in the River.  The narrator is an Africa-born Indian who has left the east coast to open a store in the Congo.  The location is a new university in his town, presided over by a white American professor.  'Barbara Allen' is of course an old English folk song.  Naipaul was intrigued by identity long before it became the rage, and he understood that it is a complicated business.

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