Monday, June 11, 2007

Easy Going Evening


My mom cooks like Stevie Wonder makes music. Her recipes channel the spirits of our ancestors just as his notes bring the bouillon of Black sound and expression to the listener’s table. “Easy Goin’ Evening” is his rendering of the subtle spiritual sounds that serve as the backbone of so much of Black music and culture. It’s his homage to the great-great-grandmothers and -fathers who sang when they couldn’t speak, who played instruments so that their hands could feel the silk of sound after enduring so much contact with the pointed teeth of labor.

Composing something as touching as “Easy Goin’ Evening,” or as epic as Songs in the Key of Life, requires an overwhelming sensitivity to what moves people. We can all respond to sound, but it’s through the processes of seasoning and basting that sound turns into music. How artists cook their sound goes a long way toward getting us to take it in, find it delectable, or want to share it with someone else. For me, long before I knew what that bit of magic called “Mom’s cooking” was, or before I figured out what music was, I knew that it had the ability to make people happy when done up right.

I spent the first five years of my life in ­Pétion-­Ville, Haiti, before coming to New York in 1981. My dad’s four teenage sisters and my paternal grandparents used to watch over me. My aunts would often choose me as the lucky chap with whom they could practice their imagined dances with the boys who battled for their attention after school. They would take me out onto the front porch of my grandparents’ house and hold me in their arms or place me on the top step. They pirouetted and spun as I played the role of ­Jean-­Pierre, Jacques, or whoever else they decided was their suitor. My most common response would be to clap enthusiastically to the beat of the sounds coming from my grandparents’ little transistor radio. And when my aunts bypassed the radio in favor of their own voices, my response became even more animated. As an audience consisting of my grandparents and a few other family members looked on, I hopped up and down on that top step, teetering, on the verge of falling off and potentially sacrificing a tooth to the tooth fairy. Those moments seemed so exciting. I hoped they would never end.

But in the winter of 1981, those experiences did indeed come to an end. It was a few weeks after the day I had spotted a ­scary-­looking white woman walking up the hill to my grandparents’ house. I’ll never forget my aunts and grandparents’ response when I reached the top of the hill and warned them that there was a white woman (a ghost!) wearing big brown sunglasses in our midst. They started laughing. And then my grandmother asked: “How does she look?”

“She looks white,” I responded, sending them barreling over in laughter. I’ve yet to live that response down because “white” is the last word that anyone would ever use to describe my mom’s deep brown skin. However, at five years old, having never seen this woman before, having been blinded by the sunglasses she wore, I should have been forgiven for thinking this woman might be one of the ghosts who chased after me in my nightmares.

The ­scary-­looking lady was not a ghost, but she was coming after me, and a few weeks after she arrived I boarded a plane to return to the United States with her. The laughter that accompanied the woman’s arrival had passed, replaced by the tears of people who had spent the past five years taking care of me. I carried a heart full of those tears all the way to New York.

When my mom and I got to Kennedy airport, a tall, thin, brown man was waiting for us. I vaguely recalled seeing him in the pictures she had brought with her to Haiti. When he crouched down and spread his wings open, she gave me a slight nudge on the shoulder to suggest that it was okay to go greet him. Before I could take one step, I was swept up in his arms and being spun around. I felt a kiss on my cheek, but I was so dizzied by the sight of all the people milling and scurrying about the airport that I couldn’t settle into the affection enveloping me. As I began to unleash some of the tears I had stored away, I felt the thin giant’s five o’clock shadow grazing my skin as he bounced me up and down and sang a diddy. I stopped crying, trying to make out what he was singing, but before I could understand any of the words, he had already stopped. His lips were now locked with my mom’s.

My stomach and mind were spinning as I continued taking in the scene. I was confused and scared because I didn’t really understand who this brown eagle was and the sounds and faces floating around me were totally incomprehensible.

We soon arrived at our apartment in New York, the place I was to call home. The only sounds I can remember from that moment were the last remnants of my crying pleas to be returned back to “Papa,” my grandfather. My noise was enveloped by a cold, wintry silence that someone born and reared in tropical Haiti had yet to encounter. There were no aunts scurrying about exchanging stories about boys. There was no yard where people could convene to swap stories as they roasted corn or sweet potatoes. There were no animals, chickens in particular, milling about on the periphery. It was just me, my mom, and my dad amidst a gaggle of closed doors.

They lived in a one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment that had a vestibule to the side that was to serve as my room. The vestibule had its own door, a little closet, and a bed with a few toys scattered on top—including a stuffed dog that I would go on to call “doggie” just like every dog we ever had in Haiti.

This being the first time my parents were putting their son to bed—surrounding him with all these riches, in the home they had been working for the past five years to put together—I’m sure they weren’t prepared for my response. I was scared by the combination of darkness, solitude, and silence that took over my imagination as soon as my mom and dad kissed me and closed the door (something which I’m sure they had learned to do from the television shows they were fond of watching). So I wailed like an elephant that had just been speared.

My dad immediately came back into the room and tried to comfort me. I remember him sitting on the side of the bed and rubbing my stomach as he told me that everything was going to be alright. He had this smile on his face that indicated that he was laughing not only at me, but at himself and my mom for their naïveté. It was his way of wiping away the tears. When I appeared to have calmed down, he got up and, this time, left the door open but again turned off the light.

Before he could make it back to his room, I was already crying again and screaming for “Papa.” Thinking that I was calling for him, Dad came back into the room, but I just kept on screaming. He tried reassuring me that he was there, but my father didn’t get it. He wasn’t my “Papa.” And the more he tried to make me believe that he was, the more I cried.

He took me out into the living room and turned on the lights. First he went to the stove to start warming up some milk. Unaware that it was too hot to drink right away, I took a sip and burned my tongue. Dad thought this was funny and laughed at me as he tried to console me to keep me from crying. After the milk had cooled down, I took a gulp again, but a leathery film had settled on top of the milk, and that made my stomach turn. My fear was quickly being compounded by an upset stomach.

Leaving the table, Dad strolled from the kitchen area to the living room and crouched down in front of the shiny gray contraption nestled in the corner of the living room between the worn navy blue sofa and matching recliner. As he sat in front of the shiny contraption, he stroked the fuzz brimming across his chin. I tried my best from where I was sitting in the kitchen to figure out exactly what he was doing, what this contraption he was surveying was.

After a few moments of crouching, he seemed to have found what he was looking for and removed this object from the bowels of the contraption. It was a big flat square, about the size of his abdomen. He looked it over, spinning it top over bottom in his hands to get a look at its underside. It must have met with his approval because he stood up and pulled out a shiny black disc that glistened like caviar shells and proceeded to blow on it. Reaching down ever slightly, he flicked a button on the machine, drawing a sound out of the two brown columns that sat beside it—boof. Carefully, he lifted the hood of the contraption and placed the disc underneath a silver branch that had a point at the end. Then he reached his arm down, touching the front of the apparatus again, and gradually the twin columns began emitting more familiar sounds.

The silence in the room was vanquished by a series of trumpet blasts and a sinewy series of bass guitar chords. The musician whose voice was being broadcast through the columns welcomed everyone to the party and told them that tonight was going to be great. A special plea was made to the men to take their woman and advance to the dance floor with her before someone else did. Upon hearing this, Dad chuckled and began to limber his body to the pulse of the sounds.

His body wasn’t the only thing beginning to loosen up; little by little, I felt myself being transported back home on the wings of this konpa, the musical form developed in Haiti that incorporates elements of other Caribbean sounds, including merengue, salsa, and zouk. This bit of konpa was like sweetbread, and my stomach and soul took to the treat. For the first time since I’d arrived, this place felt a little like home.

My mother must have recognized the sounds as well because she was drawn out of her room. She smiled as she brushed the slumber out of her eyes. When she realized that she had my attention, she sashayed over to my dad and told me to watch because I would have to do this with my wife one day. My dad’s long arms made their way across my mother’s back as they danced around the room in perfect time with the song. I watched and gradually began to smile. During one of their turns, my mom caught a glimpse of me smiling and she motioned for my dad to look at me. A few more turns and she sashayed over to me, her hands well out in front of her, so that they would reach me long before she did. She pulled me away from the table and the three of us danced together, my mom on my left side holding my left arm, and my dad doing the same on my right. I remember staring up and looking at these ­grown-­ups and watching them being reborn as my parents, for the first time feeling as if we were family.

The combination of laughter and music sealed my relationship with my folks that night. I wish I could give you the name of the exact artist and song my dad played that evening, but I can only relate the feelings my heart and mind imbibed. What matters most is that the sounds that filled the room made my parents happy, and I let myself get swept up in their glee. To this day, Haitian artists such as Tabou Combo, ­Ska-­Shah, System Band, and Coupé Cloué hold a special place in my heart, much the same way that artists and bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, the O’Jays, the Whispers, and Curtis Mayfield have a strong hold on the imaginations of my peers born and bred in the United States. Many of my peers would eventually be able to go back to these artists by finding echoes of their voices in ­hip-­hop samples, whereas my relationship with konpa—like my relationship with my parents—would grow blurry the more “American” I became.

I’m glad I haven’t lost the sense of wonder that swept over me the first time I saw my dad turn on his stereo. Even as I grew older, I still continued to be amazed when he went to turn on the stereo; he appeared to drift off to an enchanted island as he closed his eyes, drew his lips into a smile, put his right hand over his belly, his left one suspended in the air, and started to dance. After doing a few turns across the living room, he would either go into the kitchen and regale my mom with a story about Haiti or call a friend to talk about the days when they were young studs roaming the streets of ­Pétion-­Ville.

Nothing ever seemed to bother my dad. He was often silent, seemingly introspective, sitting in the living room with his long legs extending far beyond the front of the couch, and his pants unbuckled to liberate the paunch that was becoming too much for his trousers to contain.

Regardless of whether I was studying in the next room or even asleep, he would still play his music loud—often inciting the neighbors to complain. It was loud enough for him and my mom to hear it in their room on the other side of the apartment with the door closed. Back then I never gave a second thought to what might be going on in their room during these retreats because, well, I didn’t have a second thought to give. Since my brother was born a year after I came to the States, I eventually realized they were dancing indeed. Horizontally.

Years later, when my parents had long stopped retreating to their room to “listen to music,” my dad would still sometimes turn the music up and go to his room, but he would simply fall asleep, leaving it to my mother to turn off the stereo when she was ready.

Since she was always doing one form of housework or another, having the radio on was a soothing accompaniment for her. The radio generally stayed on for most of the day, and if I needed to have some quiet in order to concentrate, I would have to turn off the stereo myself.

The first time I turned off the stereo I was about seven years old. I made sure to lower the volume knob, and returning the record that had been on the turntable back into its sleeve, I felt powerful, as if I had undergone a rite of passage. That first time, as my dad floated off into slumber and my mom ­hummed-­sang a tune in the bathroom as she washed her uniforms for the upcoming week, I felt as if I had taken another step toward becoming a man.

The other sound I came to love soon after my move was my mother’s voice. Whether she was washing dishes or scrubbing one of her uniforms, once she recognized a tune on the stereo, she sang along. Sometimes she sang a song word for word, but more often there was a bit of singing interspersed with long stretches of humming. And there were times where she just made up her own words.

Her singing was undoubtedly the best type of music in the house. Whenever she sang, it felt as if we were all being given a reprieve from whatever ills were afflicting us. Her feathery alto had the strength to drive any talk of bills, work, or other disenchanting topics out of the house. Unlike the blaring sounds and machismo posture of heavy metal and rap music, or the übertailored images of Black boy bands that I eventually imported into the house, my mom’s singing voice held no traces of aggression or cosmetic enhancement. Her voice was pure in the sense that it never called attention to itself; no one ever asked my mom to sing, but she somehow found her way to singing. It was another form of expression for her, a way to convey feelings, memories, and ideas that needed a medium other than regular conversation or speech. Indeed there was often sorrow in her spirit sounds, but aggression? Never. Her singing seemed to be telling me that the male artists I was bringing into the house might be able to teach me how to dance or walk, but she alone could teach me how to fly.

Her voice could carry my father to Haiti and transform him into the young man she thought so fondly of, perpetually reintroducing him to the young woman he had fallen so deeply in love with.

My mom also had the ability to transport me to hysteria whenever she tried belting out the latest Lionel Richie or Michael Jackson song. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a woman with a deep Kreyol accent singing “Beat It.” Sometimes I would run in from a baseball game in the parking lot to use the bathroom or get a bite to eat and would find Mom in the bathroom, washing her uniforms in the sink, her knees slightly bent, head down and moving side to side trying to keep time with the hands that were dutifully engaged in their labor. As she washed, she shimmied from side to side singing “Beat it, beat it . . . tatoodoo, too, doodooo, toooot . . . Meb bop, pop pop pop, pop . . . Beat it! Beat it!” For her, the beat and the lyrics were one. Not a word of it made sense to anyone else, but it was worth seeing the joy her singing brought to her face.

Mom mashed up “Beat It” like it was a garlic clove in the bowl of her mortar. However, for a song like “Easy Goin’ Evening,” she was bound to be gentler. When this song came on she’d hum it as Stevie wrote it. If she was particularly moved or troubled by the never-still waters of Black womanhood, she’d conjure up poignant Kreyol lyrics to go along with the song. During these moments Mom sounded like a Haitian Mahalia Jackson appealing for “Jesus Christ to kenbe mwen [Jesus Christ hold me].” Often such appeals were offered as she baked chicken, fried plantains, cooked red beans and rice, and kept her eyes on the gravy in a kitchen that seemed on the verge of melting under the weight of all this activity in the July heat, all the while keeping her eye on the clock to make sure that she had enough time to get ready for “work.” Easy going evenings were as rare for Mom as the musical acumen needed to compose a song such as “Easy Goin’ Evening” and the rest of the Songs in the Key of Life.

On “Easy Goin’ Evening,” Stevie honors the legacy of all mothers with four minutes of subtle elegance, just like my mom honored her own mother’s life by wearing at least one article of black clothing—even wearing a black t-shirt underneath her nurse’s uniform—for seven years after her mother passed away. It was her way of paying her dearest respects to the woman who had brought her into the world. After seven years, her sartorial elegy complete, she started wearing bright colors again: orange linen skirts, red shoes when she and my dad went dancing, and her pink robe, which replaced the black one that had become a morning staple. Mom’s seven years of wearing black is like the ­verse-­less “Easy Goin’ Evening” because both reveal an affinity for tradition and their power lies in what is not said.


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