(A Tribute to the High Priestess of Soul)
by Jean Claire A. Dy
*this essay was published in the “Ways of Seeing” column of the Mindanao Times in 2003.
“I loves you Porgy…Don’t let him take me….” Nina croons in my ear as I watch the sun slowly set in the horizon. At the shore, little girls in bright floral dresses are picking shells, souvenirs of one hot summer picnic. I sink into the hammock and close my eyes. It is the late ’90s, when I was still vulnerable to college heartbreaks and teenage angst. A time when listening to grunge, alternative rock music was hip. A time when it was tragically “dorky” to pay attention to jazz or blues or any of those considered as “oldies music.” So it was serendipitous for me to stumble on Nina Simone one hot summer afternoon when I was cleaning my Aunt’s room. Stuffed in one of her boxes was a cassette tape of one of Nina Simone’s records.
A few years later, I meet my writer friend Douglas who drinks beer with Nina, Billie,, Sarah, and Ella in the background. He gushes about Nina Simone’s original composition “Four Women”–a powerfully gritty song about the fates of four women–Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Each persona tells you about how it was to be a woman in ’50s America. In the first stanza, Nina takes the persona of Aunt Sara and sings about her struggle:
“My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again”
Douglas effuses: “Four Women horrified me. It made me feel like genuflecting too. That sorrow can be sung so well. And that you are given a crash course on the lives of Black Women 101 through stanzas.”
Only Douglas could have said it best. And so that night amidst the cloud of cigarette smoke, the clink of beer bottles, and the chatter of other friends, I conjure an image of me lying again on the same hammock by the beach. On my lap is J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and in my head is Nina singing “Sinnerman.” They were an incongruous pair, J.D. and Nina. Yet they embodied other afternoons that followed, spent around singers and writers who in ordinary circumstances won’t be expected to gel.
Fast-forward to April 25, 2003. I am in Davao City preparing fish a la king, while Douglas is in Digos watching over the family business. He sends me a text message informing me of Nina Simone’s death. She died alone with her cat in a small town in France. I stop in the middle of whetting a kitchen knife as my heart asks in surprise: “So she was alive all those years I’ve spent listening to her?” Didn’t I ask Douglas this? Being a bigger fan than I am, he must have known all those years. Besides, he would have thought me strange for not knowing. And so my heart answers back: “If she could sing for you with so much life like that, she must have been there all along for women like you.”
Perhaps some people would say that writing about Nina Simone, weeks after her death is too late. The news is stale. And besides, almost everyone has written about her, what else can another person say? Yet it is not so much with a vague sense of duty than a deep sense of nostalgia and gratitude that I write this piece. One knows where the heart locates its memories.
A number of Filipinos my age and certainly those younger than me haven’t heard of Nina Simone. If they have, they would happen to associate her name with a model or a title of some Al Pacino starrer, or recognize her as a “has been” artist, yet couldn’t pinpoint what kind of artist she was. Among the young, only a handful has heard Nina’s music, what with so much MTV around. This is understandable since Nina’s music wasn’t quite considered to be “pop” enough. Her music was in-between–not quite classical, not quite pop.
The High Priestess of Soul, as her fans would call her, Nina Simone defies easy classification. She was a protest singer; a jazz singer; a pianist; an arranger, and a composer. Her discography traverses many music genres: jazz, rock, pop, folk, black and soul. Her musical style has influenced other great musicians from Bob Dylan, who did a cover of one of her songs, to other rock musicians.
Nina Simone wasn’t just any other singer. Nina was also a committed civil rights activist in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s and fought against the oppression of black women. Along with other remarkable black singers of her time–Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, to name a few–Nina changed the tide of the American music scene. Like Billie and Sarah, Nina sang songs that moved people’s hearts.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone was a child prodigy and had her first piano recital at 10. She attended Julliard Conservatory of Music in New York when she was a teenager, and was considered as one of the few blacks to do so.
Eunice started singing when she was forced to work as a pianist in a club in Atlantic City after her family moved to Philadelphia. It was then that she adopted the name Nina Simone from “niña,” Spanish for little girl, and “Simone” in homage to French actress Simone Signoret. It was in that club that Nina first sang and when she did, she wowed the audience. Since then, her climb to fame kicked off with a string of hits, such as “I Loves You Porgy” and “Wild Is The Wind,” among others too many to mention.
Yet despite her success, Nina Simone still felt haunted by the reality of racism. She wrote her first raucous protest song “Mississippi Goddam!” in reaction to the killings of Medgar Evers in Mississipi and four black schoolchildren in Alabama. Nina calls the song “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” It was her comment against society’s passive attitude toward racism. During the five-minute track, one can feel the rage within Nina’s soul as she sings:
“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!”
Embittered by racism, Nina Simone finally renounced her homeland a few years later. She spent some years as a nomad, roamed the world, until she finally settled in Carry-Le-Rouet, a quite inconspicuous town in France. But Nina never stopped singing.
I lost my first and last copy of one of Nina Simone’s records years ago. So when Douglas lent me a copy of “The Best of Nina Simone,” a collection of her greatest hits, a few months ago, I felt like it was serendipity all over again.
During one of those lazy warm afternoons, I listened to the album Douglas lent me. I lay on the sofa, and imagined myself sitting on the same hammock by the beach back in the ’90s. When the first strains of the piano surrounded the room, I held my breath for a second, and waited for Nina’s husky melancholic voice to enter “I Loves You Porgy… Don’t let them take me….”
I listened to that album over and over until I grew tired of it. Last week, upon the news of Nina’s death, I played the album again. I stared at Nina’s picture on the cover and said my thank you.
That album contained the songs that changed my heart countless times, taught me how to look at the world in a different, more colorful way, and even showed me how it is to love.
“Break Down and Let It All Out,” gave me lessons on how to deal with the pain of breaking up. One has to stop holding back the tears and “Break down and let it all out…” because “holding back ain’t gonna do no good.” Then there’s Nina’s passionate version of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Te Pas.” Despite it being in French, Nina sang it with overflowing intensity that it always brings tears to my eyes. And of course, I could never miss out “I Loves You Porgy.” Nina’s rendition of the Gershwin classic will always remind me of that particular afternoon at the beach, when the world appeared simpler through my eighteen-year old eyes.
In this lifetime, I have often associated my journeys with music and musicians. When I recall certain events in my life, I also remember the songs that accompanied them. Tacky as it may sound, my first kiss unfolded with Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” playing in my head. When I had to deal with my first jerk of a boyfriend, Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” was in the background. There was Billie Holiday’s “Misty” accompanying recollections of romantic epiphanies. Countless songs attached to countless memories. Through all those moments, there was always Nina Simone floating above the melodies in my head.
Whenever I recall that afternoon at the beach, I’d often wonder about the little girls picking shells at the shore. Will they ever discover their own Nina Simone? Will they have the chance to listen to a great musician with a “soul” who will sing to them about love, peace, pain and everything in between? Perhaps they will–one way or another.