If you knew me during the time I worked at Barnes and Noble (a decidedly small subsection of our audience, admittedly), you know all about the corporate bullshit, the awful customers, the meaningless bestsellers, etc. You probably know that everyone who doesn’t know a book’s title or author thinks the cover is blue. You may have heard stories about Creepy Bike Guy. I’ve assuredly vented about the students who have never heard of Shakespeare, and if you’re lucky, I’ve told you about the woman who called asking if we sold juicers. Retail is a weird place.
You likely also know about some of the absolute trash we had to listen to (half a year of Anna Nalick, I’m looking at YOU). When you’re playing music to sell to an upscale clientele of mostly older coffeeshop denizens, you get a lot of pablum. Interestingly, though, we also got more than our fair share of super-diverse discs. Almost every genre was represented each month, which made spinning new discs a bit of a treasure hunt the first time. I would bubble excitedly for music change-overs, hoping I got to be the first to spin this or that intriguing new CD. Honestly, when it comes to new genres, nothing has been more formative as a jump-off platform. Besides a handful of rock and pop artists, working in music introduced me to excellent albums from John Hiatt and Roseanne Cash, numerous classic blues and jazz samplers, and above all else got me more familiar with international music.
“Kanawa” was one of the tracks on a sampler from Putumayo, a label which really always did fine work bringing international sounds to an American audience. I can’t even rightly start to explain how the song makes me feel. Habib Koite’s singing is clearly plaintive, yearning (which makes sense if “kanawa” means “don’t go,” as the interweb claims), and that’s all fine and good, but what touches me above all is the guitar. It’s simply beautiful playing which enhances that vocal plea, but alone, and especially with the accordionesque accompaniment, it feels like a sea breeze, relaxing with friends, breathing in life. You’ve all breathed in life before, right? Taken a deep breath and just felt like everything good in existence was filling you up? That’s what this song feels like for me… it’s like letting your muscles go limp and just relaxing or surrendering, wrapped up in a simply beautiful package.
There’s a richness here. It’s a rich voice and a rich orchestration. It’s the way the guitar plunks like water dripping into a bucket, a sort of sunshower, but resonates to coat you in a cool, thick wash of sound. It combines obvious virtuoso skill with a sound that is outside the spectrum of most of what we’re hearing on a day to day basis. It’s a gem like this that makes me want to seek out new music from any angle I can, no matter how trite the radio might feel.
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