Josna Rege

34. His Master’s Voice

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on April 5, 2010 at 12:29 am

Athens, 1962: I still remember the day my parents brought home our first record player. It was so alien to me that I was unable to hear the noise emanating from it as music. Standing by the strange box with its little black disc rotating in a dizzying blur, the metal arm scratching its hard, shiny surface like a fingernail on a blackboard, I struggled to make it all out. Eventually, after many repetitions, I began to recognize the sound as a song, distinct words began to emerge, and Jamaica Farewell came into focus.

How many times I listened to that song, puzzling over the words and learning them all by heart. I felt for the man who had to keep sailing away from the place he loved, and empathized with the “lickle girl” he had to leave in Kingston Town. How sad I would be if my Daddy had to leave me like that.

More records followed, including more by Harry Belafonte, my mother’s favorite. One had the nostalgic Island in the Sun on one side and the raucous Coconut Woman on the other:

Drink your coconut water (shout: coconut!)/Coca’s good for your daughter (coconut!)/Coca’s got a lot of iron (coconut!)/Make you strong like a lion (and here my father would roar like a lion himself.)

We had an EP with two Belafonte songs on each side: Day-O and I Do Adore Her on one, and Will His Love be Like His Rum and Dolly Dawn on the other. One particular line used to frighten little Sally, who was only two:

When Dolly go into a turn/Old man laugh and their eyes begin to burn.

Why did their eyes burn, she wanted to know.

Mum brought home another puzzler: this was called “Ottilie Sings Bessie.” I didn’t know who either Ottilie or Bessie were, or why one would want to sing the other.  Mum liked to play one side—called, inscrutably, “St. Louis Blues”— but for me, listening to it was like going back to the beginning when nothing made any sense: all I could hear was the harsh screeching of tomcats fighting in the night. Even when I could make out some of the words, the track remained discordant and grating. (It was more than a decade later, in the United States, when I finally came to appreciate the majesty of Bessie Smith.)

Most of our other early records were Greek popular hits of the day—by Theodorakis, Tsitsanis, Kazantsidis—and I learned to sing them all. My parents used to have frequent parties when we children were sent to bed, the grown-ups broke out the records and the retsina, and everyone danced. Sally and I would peek out from our bedroom door to see our parents in lines, doing the cha-cha-cha. Later, we  watched them dance the Charleston, and just before we left Greece, they were starting to do the twist. (In America, Mum complained, people didn’t have proper parties; they didn’t eat real food—raw vegetables dipped in sour cream didn’t count—and more importantly, they didn’t dance.)

In England in 1963, my Auntie Bette had a LP of Harry Belafonte live at  Carnegie Hall, and we listened to it again and again. We loved Man Smart, Woman Smarter, though it wasn’t until much later that I would come to understand why that late-50s American audience went deathly quiet when Belafonte sang,

I was treating a gal independently/ She was making baby for me/The baby born, I went to see/His eyes were blue, it was not by me!

Another favorite of ours on that album was Matilda. In the chorus, Belafonte invites different parts of the audience to sing along. When he comes to “Women over 40!”, there is nothing but nervous laughter until, coaxed by the handsome Belafonte (“sing a lickle louder”), a few brave women begin to sing.

At the time, my mother was only 35, and Auntie Dorrie had just given her a new record for her birthday, an American single by a trio called Peter, Paul, and Mary. The A side was a song called Blowing in the Wind, which provided me with a new puzzle: why would “ants, sir” be blowing in the wind? (I was not to learn of the Civil Rights Movement for another five years, when, at school in India, we heard of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the two American exchange students sobbed; or of Bob Dylan until still later, after we had immigrated to America.)

Before we left for India, we visited my Uncle Charlie’s antique shop (“junk shop,” my mother snorted) in Queen’s Crescent, Mum’s old neighborhood in North London. In a generous flourish, he gave me an old gramophone when I admired it, a heavy wooden box with a wind-up crank and massive ear trumpet, and the logo of a dog sitting in front of it, bearing the words, “His Master’s Voice.” Sadly, we had to leave it behind,  but I often think of that dog, ears cocked, head inclined quizzically. What did he hear?

About five years ago, Harry Belafonte came to the Calvin Theater in Northampton and I bought tickets for my mother and myself. Although his voice was hoarse now, he was as handsome and gracious as ever, still the ambassador of all that is best in America, indulging his adoring audience with all the old favorites. When he came to “Matilda,” and called, “Women over 50!”, Mum and I both sang out, loud and clear.

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  1. Josna,
    I am totally addicted to your memoirettes, now. This one is fantastic! I love your description of yourself as an innocent young girl with virgin ears, never having heard music on a gramophone, listening over and over before being able to distinguish that it was music.
    And how wonderful that you and your Mom sang with Harry Belafonte together recently!
    Tell me another…

    • Thank you, Anna. Harry Belafonte has been a constant in my life, from the early days when my parents were young, through our moving to America (where I became a fan of Reggae music and another global cultural ambassador from Jamaica, Bob Marley), to Mum and I going to that concert and actually seeing him in person after all those years. x Jo

  2. We had that same Harry Belafonte album — ours came as a set of 45’s. We played it over and over and over . . . Completely loved him. A couple of years ago, when I’d mentioned it to Alan, he bought me a CD of the album, and it was just wonderful to listen to it again. All the words had never left my mind. I saw Belafonte at the 1983 commemorative march on Washington. I liked it so much better than any other march I’d been on, which were mostly anti-nuke or anti-war. This one was full of blacks, which the others weren’t, and I remember contingents from the US Post Office marching together along with other unions. Belafonte was by far the best speaker of the day. I hadn’t known about his politics before then (just a singin’ guy to me), and was blown away. Loved him even more.

    • Yes, I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m sure that’s partly why my mother liked him so much. He’s exactly her age—1927-born—and has been active in civil rights and human rights since the 1950s. More recently, the 1985 recording of “We Are the World,” as a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa was apparently his idea. In 1994 he went to Rwanda and returned to the US to raise awareness and funds. I remember seeing him on television at the time talking about the colonial roots of the ethnic violence there. Also in the 1990s he and his wife won a major award to do HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa. BTW, he co-starred in an interesting 1995 film with John Travolta called White Man’s Burden.

  3. […] His Master’s Voice […]

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