Many musicians I know despise classifications and categories. But inevitably we all end up creating genres for reference, even if they only work for us. Years ago I was listening to a vallenato compilation when, without any warning, one of the songs started saying, in Spanish:
I remember that, whenever Jaime Molina got drunk, he used to dictate:
That if I died first he would paint my portrait,
And if he died first, I would write his song;
Today, how I wish that he would paint my portrait
And not having to write this song.
It was mesmerizing. The lyrics, at the same time, were unequivocally blunt and avoided being unnecessarily corny. That day, without realizing, I created a new subgenre for myself, and from then on I’ve been adding songs to it. I picked up the name for it years later in a compilation of Garifuna music. I call them uremu lani ludu, which means “mourning songs,” although that name is not entirely truthful to the spirit of these songs. These are songs that are written for a deceased relative or friend, but they are rarely mourning. These songs are more about celebrating the person than lamenting their departure.
The second one I found is the recording that to this day I consider the most beautiful recording I’ve heard, and for that reason alone, I will save it for last. The third one I found was another vallenato: “Alicia Adorada” (“Cherished Alicia”), written by Juancho Polo Valencia. The legend has it that Juancho Polo Valencia used to travel all the time, going from one town to another to play his songs, leaving his cherished Alicia behind at their hometown, Flores de María. One day she got ill, really bad, and someone went looking for him. When they found him and he finally made it back to Flores de María, she had been dead for three days. He went to the cemetery and people started hearing the sound of his accordion coming from there. That was the first time this song was played, improvised at her grave, which later went to become a standard in Colombian music.
Fast forward a few years. I was living in South America and I became friends with the members of a band from the US. We started exchanging each other’s music and one day I was listening to one of their albums, listening to the music without paying attention to the lyrics, when it happened again: the lyrics in one of the songs were so striking, that I had to rewind the song, and I ended up listening to it for three days straight:
You looked better than you had in years.
I was lost among some memories of falling down the stairs:
Stitches in my head, cooling wax on my hand,
turtle-shaped pancakes and cactus needles in my legs
but you’re dead, my dear, you’re dead
you’re dead, my dear, you’re dead.
When I asked, I was told it was written for a grandmother. The scenes that the songs describes were from her funeral. Even though it sounded like no music his grandmother listened to (which I don’t know for sure, of course, but it’s a safe bet), I’m sure she would be delighted with the homage. The band was The Harvey Girls. The song is called “Real Fun”. [Editor’s note: We totally didn’t pay him to say this. No, really.]
It was after this song that I actually created the playlist called uremu lani ludu and started listening back to the songs I had to see if I could find more examples. Then I found Fernando Delgadillo’s “Bajo Tu Pisada” (“Beneath Your Footsteps” – warning, the link goes to a random youtube video someone put together using the song). This one was written by a man, for another man, and he says:
Lately I’ve found myself with an immense urge to talk about you.
Could it be that I feel the weight of this that I have to tell, and now that you are not
around to harass me with your pranks, I find myself recalling when you were around…
…but the world didn’t change with your death,
I would say it is just the same.
with no other intention than carrying our shoulders
to walk around.
It’s a beautiful song, written as an everyday talk between two friends.
Then, around that time, I was reading an interview with the vocalist of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and he said that one of their songs had been written for one of his sisters, who had died of an overdose. I had listened to that song dozens of times and I never realized it, but after the interview everything in the song made sense. The song is called “Basta de Llamarme Así” (“Stop Calling On Like That”):
Stop it, stop calling on like that
I will go, I will go up there, when my turn comes.
Meanwhile, I’ll sing this song.
In your voice, for you, or in the voice
of those sleeping there.
And I swear, that I will stand up to anyone
who dares to mention your name, here and there.
I have several versions of that song, but it was then that I realized that one of them is a demo, where the voice is almost whispering, and it breaks at some point. This demo is perhaps the one recording where the memory of the deceased person was freshest.
There are many more, of course. There are even songs within this genre written by famous people we don’t like (Lenny Kravitz wrote a beautiful, beautiful song for his mother, called “Thinking of You”). But this is getting long enough, so I’ll get to the one I said that I consider to be the most beautiful recording I’ve heard.
That song is called “Naguya Nei” (“I Am Moving On”) and it’s the second song in the album featured on that link. It was written by a Garifuna man called Paul Nabor, whose sister told him on her deathbed something that would become the chorus of the song, “When I die, I want a band in my funeral.” (“Lauba la banda habunana“) that perfectly captures the spirit of the whole genre. When I die, I want a band in my funeral.
–Alantl Molina is a creativegeniustype and currently lives in the southern part of the Americas.
The year was 1985, I was 10 years old. My family had decided that California was just never going to be home so we packed up and headed back to the Midwest. Specifically the small town of Burlington, Wisconsin, home to much of my mother’s side of the family. As I tried to get over the fact that the kids I now went to school with had never seen a city bus or experienced the culture that my former neighborhood in Daly City afforded me, I engrossed myself in a recent gift from my father. A cassette boom box. My Boom box looked like it came right out of the movie “Breakin”, which was something I was yet to see. Every night I would fall asleep listening to new sounds from this amazing thing. I say amazing because it also had two shortwave bands. And before you think it, I was not indie enough to even care to try and find something listenable through all the static, so I stuck to the big pop station in the area– 94.5 WKTI. I didn’t have any cassettes so the radio was the best I got.
I eventually managed to scrounge up a cassette tape from somewhere. Now that I think of it, it may have been a tape that I took from my younger brother’s Teddy Ruxpin doll and taped over it. Anyway, one night while falling asleep I heard this song that truly sounded like nothing I had heard before, the beginning had no drums just a keyboard line that stuck out in the same way I imaginethe guitar in “Daytripper” did for another generation. This riff was followed up by a lower bass riff and the introduction of drums. The two riffs meet and the song takes off. Now, mind you I had never seen the movie for which this was written. Up to this point I had seen 3 movies, The Saga of Lone Ranger, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Space Camp.
But for some reason this song grabbed me. I planned to make it mine. My recently acquired cassette tape was loaded and the next day after school I ran home to wait for the song to be played again. I did this for a couple days before it happened. I guess they didn’t spend the payola in the midwest for this song. Not knowing the title or anything else about it I accidentally missed the first keyboard riff, but once I heard it I slammed the play and record buttons down and grinned a mighty grin.
After that, I walked home from school. I had my song, I could play it anytime. Anytime usually came when I got home from school for the next 3 weeks. I would blast the song 2-3 times down in my basement bedroom before I realized that I was missing GI Joe or Transformers. Incidentally, I didn’t see Beverly Hills Cop until well into high school and when I did, would you believe I was still pumped to hear the song.