jessie cole


Tag: get lost magazine

Songs of the sea

When our distant ancestors felled the first tree to make the first sea-worthy boat they couldn’t possibly know they were marking the beginning of what would become global travel. For tens of thousands of years the only way to breach the shoreline was by boat, and the only voyages undertaken were sailing across the sea. Think Vikings. Think Traders. Pirates. Explorers. Christopher Columbus, and our very own Captain James Cook.

Sea-shanties were the musical soundtrack to these voyages, and surely must be the earliest examples of the travel-song. Often call and response, rhythmically they matched the activity speed of the men hauling on lines. Work songs, they served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled. They also often provided an outlet for sailors to express their opinions in a way that would not cause punishment. Many of them were obscene: full of stories of drunkenness, whores, and the clap, but many were very beautiful. The best sea-shanties were those imbibed with a sense of what it was to be rolling on the sea. The adventure, discovery, romance, loneliness, hardship, and homesickness.

Gore Verbinski, Director of Pirates of the Caribbean, summed up the powerful nature of the sea-shanty when he said – “The ocean: it’s all about the vast blue that engulfs two-thirds of the planet. The human being cast against that abyss creates an interesting perspective. I think the sailors of that time were flirting with death, and these were their tunes. They resonate with people on some internal level that is not immediately obvious because it’s not in our memory, it’s in our blood. It operates on a cellular level. It’s what makes us feel so alone.”

Rogue_GallerySea-shanties aren’t sung anymore on ships. Modern day rigging just doesn’t need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. Like a lot of folk songs they had become almost obsolete, lost in the realms of obscure archives and sea-shanty enthusiasts, until music producer Hal Willner was asked to create a modern-day compilation. He spent several years researching and collecting songs, and then assembled a ragtag group of notable musicians to record them. The result was ‘The Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys’, an album performed by an eclectic array of artists, including Sting, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Bono, Lou Reed, Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Jarvis Cocker.

Many of the songs on the Rogue’s Gallery contain elements traditionally attributed to other types of music, and with the often anarchic lyrics they are sometimes even borderline punk. Nick Cave bellows wildly about the ‘fire down below,’ a mixed up reference to both hell and the clap, while Teddy Thompson sings of rolling all night and rolling all day to spend his money on Sally Brown. Whoever this ‘bright mulatto’ Sally Brown was, she certainly went down in history, turning up in a whole array of different sea-songs. Not bad for a woman of the night!

Place also plays a big part in the songs of the sea. Baby Gramps growls, (in a voice reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing), about the ‘Cape Cod Girls’ – ‘they don’t use no combs … comb their hair with the cod-fish bone, on their way to Australia.’ While the Barbary Coast has a whole song dedicated to it: ‘Look down along the coast of High Barbary…’

Arguably the most lyrically entertaining of the Rogue’s Gallery songs is entitled ‘Baltimore Whores,’ and involves a drawn out competition between four whores. ‘There were four whores from Baltimore, drinking the blood-red wine … and all their conversation was – yours is smaller than mine.’ As the song progresses, the descriptions become more and more inventive, moving from –“You’re a liar said the first whore, mine’s as big as the air. The birds fly in, the birds fly out, and never touch a hair’ to ‘You’re a liar said the last whore, mine’s the biggest of all. The fleet sailed in on the first of June, and didn’t come back till Fall.’ It is not very often that you hear women arguing about the largeness of such private areas!

Bono’s powerful rendition of ‘A Dying Sailor to his Shipmates’ brings us back to the adventurer’s elemental dance with death – ‘Oh, wrap me in my country’s flag, and lay me in the cold blue sea. Let the roaring of the waves, my solemn requiem be …I’m bound above, my course is run. I near the port, my voyage is done …’

Listening to this modern take on sea songs brings up many questions, the most interesting for the traveller being – has anything much really changed in the voyaging game? These songs speak of revelry, sex, discovery, transformation, loss, longing, and the journey into the unknown. All things familiar to the intrepid traveller. Italian writer Cesare Pavese claimed that “travelling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Sounds somewhat like a sea voyage!

Perhaps at the heart of all travel is the seeking of a new story. A new adventure, a new start. Sea shanties tell stories of long forgotten loves, famous battles, pirates, a longing for home (or the freedom from it), and the inescapable drive for adventure. An old roving sailor once said to me – ‘There are only three kinds of people: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea.’ But I think the American novelist Catherynne M. Valente says it best in her book The Orphan’s Tales: “It is not the sea that calls us back. What calls is stronger and more inexorable than any current. I long for the sea, yes, my skin is always dry, and I am always thirsty, and I miss the crash and swell of the black waves, but more, I long for the leaving. I am restless, I am ready, and the leaving whispers to me at night. It says that I will breathe easier when I am at the start of a story, rather than at the end.”

First published in get lost magazine, September 2010.


Tuva or bust!

It is possible that there is no music quite as strange as Tuvan throat-singing. Described somewhat unflatteringly as ‘a bullfrog swallowing a whistle’, essentially it is a singing style in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental pitch, producing a mesmerizing, even entrancing sound. Journalist Anne Underwood asks you to “Imagine a human bagpipe—a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistle like melody. For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally— all by the same person, at the same time.”

Tuvan throat-singing was unknown in the west until relatively recently, and the tale of its discovery involves the rarest of travel stories – an unrealised journey. There is something inherently wondrous about a long yearned for journey finally coming to fruition. That moment of standing on top of the mountain and knowing it has taken five, ten, fifteen, forty years to get there. Travelling is awash with such tales. Everyone has dreamed at some point of an exotic location, of seeing it with their own eyes, and many have gotten there. But what about those who haven’t? Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and all round eccentric, spent a decade in the 1980s trying to get to Tuva, only to succumb to cancer just before the visas finally arrived.

The mysterious republic of Tuva hides between two mountain ranges on the edge of Siberia. Specifically, it is a 170 000 square kilometre region between modern Mongolia and the former USSR. Legend has it when the Russians were negotiating the border treaty with the Chinese in the 18th century, both sides used ‘the mountain range’ as the border in this region, neither side realizing there were two ranges, with the fertile land of Tannu Tuva nestled in between. Once an independent nation, Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and remained closed to foreigners until the crumbling of Russian communism in the early 1990s. It is a country of great variety with almost every type of landscape: luxuriant meadows, green forests, boundless steppes, medicinal springs, beautiful lakes, rushing mountain rivers fed in spring by melting snows, dusty semi-desert and snowy chains of mountains.

Richard Feynman was a curious character. One of the most famous scientists in the world, he was also known as a prankster, juggler, safe-cracker, amateur painter, and bongo player. He pursued a variety of seemingly unrelated interests like deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, and lock picking, and had a perpetual desire to discover new things. He believed that the journey of discovery held just as much promise as the destination. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong … in order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar,” he once said.

tuvan stamp

Feynman’s fascination with Tuva began as a child collecting stamps. In a brief period of independence in the 1920s Tuva produced an array of beautiful stamps depicting life on the land, and for many years these stamps were the only images to come out of Tuva, tantalizing proof that the country was indeed real. When Feynman discovered the name of the capital he proclaimed – “Any place that’s got a Capital named K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!”

And so the journey began. It took him and his friends several years searching through libraries to track down one book about travelling in Tuva, an obscure German title published in 1931. There was simply nothing else. This was in the days before ‘to google’ had become a verb, when accessing information about a far-off destination involved more ingenuity than just tapping some keys. Closed to foreigners for nearly half a century, Tuva had become a kind of obscure imagined wonderland. It took a whole decade of searching for the place to gradually become real. This journey of discovery was the subject of a 1991 book entitled ‘Tuva or Bust!’

By far the most amazing thing Feynman unearthed was the incredible phenomena of Tuvan throat singing. Throat singing exists in other pockets of the world, but it is in Tuvan isolation where it flourished. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountains to create the proper environment for throat-singing. Many Tuvans believe in animism, a religious idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, and natural phenomena. Tuvans identify the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. The singing served several functions. Shamans used music to call upon spirits, conjure ancestors, discover birthplaces and connect with natural surroundings. Shepherds also used music to herd animals and imitate the galloping of horses. They sang certain songs while riding and played other music while working or relaxing. In this way, the largely nomadic people of earlier Tuva created sounds not to be analysed in Western terms; it was designed for specific ways of being. In this way, the largely nomadic people of Tuva created a music that was not easily analysed in western terms. Included with some editions of ‘Tuva or Bust!’ was a small plastic turntable record of this singing, previously unheard in the West.

Unrealised journeys hold a certain kind of romance, akin to unrequited love, or perhaps less tragically, the fish that got away. They are not the usual fare of travel writing, but what Feynman discovered about this mysterious place in all his thwarted efforts to get there was a journey in itself. It is difficult to envisage just how little was known about Tuva before the 1990s, and how revelatory discoveries of Tuvan culture must have seemed to Feynmen and his fellow journeymen. Today, Tuvan throat singing has its own wikipedia entry, and typing “Tuvan throat singing” into youtube brings up hundreds of videos. The Tuvan throat singing ensemble Alash regularly tours the US, and has their own myspace and facebook pages. A documentary, ‘Genghis Blues,’ about a blind US bluesman’s trip to Tuva to take part in the annual throat singing contest, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999, and Kongar-ool Ondar, perhaps Tuva’s most well-known throat singer has even performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. But when Richard Feynman first posed the question – “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” there was little evidence that such a place even existed.

Though it is now possible to travel to Tuva, it is still a place few travellers ever reach. And no doubt Tuva’s relative inaccessibility, (it still has no railway!), will guarantee the survival of what started out as music, not for audiences, but for the sake of communion with nature.

First published in get lost magazine, June 2010.

Back Inn Time

In the 1970s my parents were serious about backpacking, so serious that despite having four kids under ten, they were still ready to take on South East Asia. I was two, my brother six months old. This was before easy access to disposable nappies. Think about it. In the photos my mother stares calmly at the camera, long hippie hair, a cranky baby on each hip, the slums of Malaysia at her back, but she is smiling.


At six and eight my brother and I were considered big enough to carry our own backpacks. Japan was the next destination. My father had taken the two older girls the year before, and now it was our turn. Mum’s campaign against passive smoking had finally won out, and Dad spent half the plane trip puffing unhappily on his cigarette down the back of the plane. The plan on arrival was to get straight out of Tokyo, and into the mountains. My parents were on the hunt for traditional Japanese Inns. My father’s first priority was to wake up in Arashyama, a sleepy scenic town with a multitude of temples on the outskirts of Kyoto. Spurred on by his romantic sensibilities, we began the six-hour train and bus trip across country.

Theoretically my brother and I could carry our packs, but once we entered the crowded subway the weight on our backs made us topple down the steep stairs at an alarming speed. “Grab them, they’re going to go over,” my mother screeched, frantically grasping for the loops on our packs. We were out of control, bouncing down the stairs in leaps and bounds. At the bottom our knees gave way, and my brother and I crumpled down together on the concrete. We sat wide-eyed and waiting for rescue, our oversized bags pinning us to the ground. From then on negotiating the subway became a team effort. Like puppies on leashes, my parents grabbed our bags at the top of the stairs. “Got them? Holding tight?” They’d double check, and then we’d all bounce down together.

When we finally reached the Inn in Arashyama, exhausted and hungry, we were ushered through the immaculate Japanese garden by an elderly couple not much bigger than eight year old me. In the doorway began a bewildering array of bows. My brother and I did our best to keep up. Kids were clearly rare on the traditional inn circuit; the couple were excited to see us. They had soft creased faces and big smiles, but no English. Our room was simple. Tatami matting on the floor, rice paper doors, futons in the cupboards rolled out later for sleeping. The old woman signalled that we should kneel on the floor, and her husband brought in a small table, and a gas cooker. We watched as the woman carefully prepared our dinner, talking softly to us in Japanese. My brother, big-eyed and still slightly babyish, was the main attraction. While she cooked the old woman reached out a hand to softly pinch his cheek and touch his shiny blonde hair. He stayed still and quiet, as though hoping to camouflage himself against the tatami. When dinner was ready the woman broke an egg over the meat and stirred it about with her chopsticks. Sukiyaki. Motioning to my brother to open his mouth, she popped a slimy morsel between his lips like he was a baby bird.

Eikando temple - Kyoto

For the next hour, my brother did not refuse to open his mouth once. My parents and I were given our own small bowls, but the old woman continued to feed my brother with her chopsticks, patting his head and shyly laughing behind her hand. When all the food was gone she and her husband packed up the gas cooker and table, and backed out of the rice paper doors, bowing as they went. We all turned to look at my brother, my parents visibly proud of his magnificent effort to do as the Romans do. It was a moment to savour. He was a six-year-old traveller partaking of the exotic flavours of the big wide world, saying yes to every new experience that came his way. A true adventurer. I saw the admiration in my parent’s faces, and just for that second I wished it was me. I wished I’d been the baby bird. My brother looked back at us one by one, solemn-faced and wise-seeming, and then without warning he vomited all over the tatami.

First published in get lost magazine, September 2009

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