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June 2019
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11-06 The Power of the Lyric

a column written by James for the Sligo Weekender

As someone who has sung for their supper now for twenty years, I have oftentimes been praised for my diction, and for meaning the words. During my college years I was awarded the Plunkett Greene Trophy for Interpretation at Dublin Feis Ceoil. Yet I know that at times, still, the music, and indeed other unforseen circumstances tend to take over.

When I myself observe a performance, I find myself internally analysing the orchestration, chord progressions, harmonies, rhythm, quality of playing/singing, intonation, timbre, phrasing, stagecraft, hand movements, expression - and of course the lyrics. Paul Valéry claimed that poetry and lyrics are a language within a language. In dance music, lyrics are (questionably) forgettable. In Gospel and Country, lyrics can inspire, apart from perhaps such amusing titles as Drop kick me Jesus through the goal-posts of life, or Youre the reason our children are so ugly, or my all-time-favourite My wife ran off with my best friend, and I still miss him. Lyrics can be of a political or social nature, tell a story, narrate an event, describe an object or situation, all the while expressing feelings and emotions. I am fully aware of the fact that as well as penetrating the music, singers need to immerse themselves deeply in the lyrics. The music and lyrics both need to resonate internally. When I met Finbar Furey in London shortly after I recorded Green Fields of France, he said he had heard the recording, and as he thumped me forcefully in the chest-bone, he closed his eyes and in a hoarse husky whisper uttered  I can hear you feel the pain. After I got my breath back, and got up off the floor, I accepted the compliment wheezingly, as I do know the futility of war is something that has always struck a chord within me.

Yet despite all of this, I think one of the most unexpected lessons I learned on one of my many grounding trips to the Kenyan slums was the overwhelming strength and power of the lyric.
As you are reading this I am back in Africa, building with Kenya Build, and also releasing Cheryls Children  On Top of the World. (See Facebook Cherylschildrencd). Sincere thanks to so many of you who purchased a copy of the CD at our recent fund-raising concert in the inspiring setting of Castle Dargan, and thanks to all involved. Every cent of all of those ten euro notes has by now been delivered to Samuel and the children at Cheryls.

When we recorded the tracks at the Loreto Convent in Nairobi last year, the lyrics kept jumping out at me. My eyes welled up as I watched AIDS orphans swaying, eyes closed in prayer, gently sing I once was lost, but now am found, amazing grace how sweet the sound. I was convinced they believed anything was possible as they sang with conviction Labi Siffres stirring words The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing, because theres something inside so strong. In Happy Talk, as Chico executed the standard South Pacific actions with Chicos own inimitable style, the kids persuaded me that if you dont have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true. Within the walls of the new accommodation blocks, as the sun set on Dagoretti, I heard childrens voices as they chanted Consider yourself at home, a song sung by orphans in Oliver!. To listen to orphans, with hellish pasts and negligible possessions, sing of  the bare necessities gives that Jungle Book classic an entirely revised meaning. Their favourite song was the title track by The Carpenters. As we rehearsed, I asked a few of the children why they were on top of the world. Delvin said it was because she loved to sing. Jacinta explained that Jesus was in her heart. And little Kevin Kipkoech floored me completely by saying because I am alive. Patrick, who was severely abused and traumatised, composed his own rap which made it on to the album as a bonus track. When we were given a heart-breaking translation of the middle section in Swahili, tears flowed freely.

The children love to sing more than anything, but they also mean the lyrics, and in so doing have taught me to re-evaluate the strength of lyrics. Do we differentiate between the art object and the art maker? After all, as Yeats wrote in Among School Children  How can we know the dancer from the dance?.