Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Where soul meets the mind

To reconnect with an age when music touched her heart and soul, Gladys Knight expresses desire in her cover version of Boyz to Men’s End of the Road, to time travel back to when art was that rich.

A place in Tlokweng provides such nostalgic throwback. What is unique about Soul II Soul (a British band in the 1990s had a name just like that) is that at a time when the country is suffering shock and awe from being carpet-bombed by house music, it is probably the only place within the city’s entertainment grid – if not in all of Botswana – that plays soul music every day of the week.

In the unlikely event that the music would be turned off at the time of a patron’s visit, the framed pictures hanging on the wall – as the name of the place – will give one clue what sort of music. There’s a young Gladys smiling down upon customers. She is in good company. On the same wall are soul canon stars like Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass. Those that didn’t make it to the wall also get a bit of the action by taking patrons back, back to a time like when Clarence Carter got caught in flagrante delicto in a Johannesburg house.

This particular Carter song is helpful in making a point about the educational and social value of soul music. When it tells a story, music can become a highly effective pedagogical tool. It is easier for learners to imprint linguistic patterns in the mind when words are blended with memorable music and learners are better enabled to retain grammatical structures in that way. Soul songs have high verb counts, as well as concrete referents for participants, times and places.

Under no circumstances can this song be used in a classroom setting but those like it that tell a story with plot, setting and characters are useful in a language class. English teachers can use music to engage students in lessons on literary devices such as figurative language. When Aaliyah lyrically tells on a temptress called Erica Kane for her disagreeable social habits (she turns a professor into a fool, a working man into a thief and those she has met are destined to drown), she is actually singing about something completely different, a deadly substance that rhymes with Erica’s name: cocaine.

In a Cultural Studies class, Sting’s Englishman in New York provides a valuable lesson on manners, cultures and taboos.

Born out of the black American experience, soul is a rich source of black history. Sam Cooke distilled his experiences of segregated America in Change is Gonna Come. When he would try to go downtown, he sings, somebody was always telling him: “Little boy, you can’t come around.” The song was thus a fitting tribute to the struggle of black Americans at a pre-inaugural concert to honour president-elect Barack Obama for going past downtown into the White House. As a sign of the times, the song was rendered in duet by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi, the former black, the latter white.

House doesn’t equip one with language skills, doesn’t tell a coherent story because content-wise it is made up of snatches of disjointed phrases and doesn’t even make any pretensions to conveying any message. However, no one – not even Soul II Soul – can deny the relevance of this genre in this cultural moment. As a concession to the stature of house, Soul II Soul indulges patrons whose tastes lean in that musical direction on Fridays.

Beyond its inherent virtues, soul offers some other benefits. The first is security. Unlike fast-paced music, soul helps keeps away young men who heal the itch in two of their fingers (fore and middle) by dipping them into other people’s pockets and handbags. The second is that unlike the said other type of music which is always loud, soul is played at a volume low enough to allow conversation. Thus, if you are civil servants who participated in last year’s strike, you would be able to exchange sob stories about punitive transfers and ATM cards locked up in safe deposits at the offices of loan sharks.

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