Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Orientalish Travels: Miserlou with the Ebene Quartet

The Ebene Quartet, picture from the BSO website.
On August 17, I went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's lush summer site, Tanglewood, to see the young group from France, the Ebene Quartet. The last set, "Fictions," contained  a surprise for me.  The group played a beautiful version of "Miserlou," one of the first songs I danced to with Nick Samra at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge, MA in the 90s.  Their version, which is available on I-tunes and worth picking up, made me curious about the song's history.  A quick scan on Wikipedia and I learned the song is documented as an early 20th century folk song, a rembetika from Greece that spawned versions in various folkloric traditions before it's foray into rock fame in the 1960s and into the belly dance clubs it went.  Interestingly random how some songs stick.

Writers on Dance: Muller's The Appointment (1)

Herta Muller photo from Wikipedia entry
In July, I posted dance excerpts from Herta Muller's book, The Hunger Angel.  The way this writer uses German-Romanian folk music and dance to convey beauty in moments of a character's or characters' seemingly inescapable desperation startles me each time I go back and reread sections of her work.  Here, in The Appointment, the narrator's husband comes home from a factory where his clothing has been stolen due to her own complications with the local powers.  His borrowed clothes fall from his body as they dance.  She sees, in their dance, his love and sacrifice for her.

"At home, Paul made fun of his appearance and pranced about the hall.  The seat of his trousers billowed down to the back of his knees.  He stretched his arms out and whirled me around, faster and faster.  I put my ear to his mouth, he hummed a song, closed his eyes, and pressed my hand against his chest.  I could feel the swift pounding through my hand and said:

"Don't charge around like this, your heart is fluttering like a wild dove.

"We daned more slowly, keeping our elbows in front of us and sticking our behinds out so our stomachs and legs had room to swing.  Paul bumped me on the left hip, spun around, bumped me on the right, and then his stomach danced away from me, and my hips swung up and down of their own accord.  My head was empty except for the beat.

"This is how old people dance, he said.  You know, when my other was young, she had pointy hips.  My father called them tango bones.

"I stepped on Paul's dusty toes with my own red-tipped ones and sang......

We felt so together, we laughed our way through the song, in which death seems like a special prize following a life that's been paid for dearly.  We gulped down the song as we laughed and never once missed a beat.   Suddenly, Paul pushed me away...

From Herta Muller, The Appointment.  Translators Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm.  New York: Picador.  2001. Pages 91-92.

Orientalish Summer Travels: Abbey of Gethsemani

Lake near Thomas Merton's hermitage
In August, I stayed with my parents for a week at the Abbey of of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky.  It was a silent retreat, but we walked for hours around the grounds where the monk and writer Thomas Merton lived for most of his adult lie.  Merton rose to fame with his autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, and through his writing that advocated a deeply grounded, pacifist message in the late 50s and sixties.  Merton was significantly influenced by Eastern thought near the end of his life.
Merton's grave
His accidental death in 1968 occurred while he was traveling through Thailand to experience more fully the cultures that spawned these paths.  Merton's grave on the Abbey grounds (pictured right) had items of acknowledgement draped on it from pilgrims (like me, I suppose), crosses and stones growing pale from exposure to Kentucky sun, reminding me of Thoreau's gave in Concord, MA.

On an Orientalish note, Merton was intensely interested in Sufism, which he considered a "living" mystical tradition.  A book, Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story from Fons Vitae highlights his relationship with Sufism.
Abbey of Gethsemani after Compline
Book from Vons Vitae