Thursday, February 18, 2010, 11:12 PM
i’ve been watching all these youtube videos of older black women singing in churches and their voices have moved me because they sound, for lack of a better word quite honestly, “wet.” you should know what i mean…remember the cassette tape [yes, a throwback i know] that i’d play in the car on our long trips up and down 95 or 85 or back and forth on 40 or 10, the tapes from convocations in memphis and specifically the way Emily Bramm Bibbey [her name just sounds sanctified, holy and full…like she just ate a goodass meal she cooked] would walk up to the mic and without pleasantries – the only sound you’d hear being the movement of the microphone towards her mouth – would belt out
one day at a tiIiIiIiIiIiIiIme, sweet jesus!
…that kind of voice, her kinda voice. or even Loretta Oliver from Fellowship in chicago [just in case you think i have a pentecostal bias, though Loretta grew up pentecostal, Fellowship is baptist] singing
wonderful savior is he!
wherein her voice sounds of its climbing out of the depths from the wonderful, reaching the apex by he! or her singing
it’s a hiIiIiIighway up to heaven…ooOOooOOooOOh!
though sung with a much more rapid velocity than Bibbey’s, Oliver’s voice likewise uses melismatic rupture as hallucinatory of a bubbling vitality, a bubbling life. like i said, their voices sound “wet” but i’m not too sure how to translate this to “paper” [though, i suppose, if you think of the screen as “paper,” then you can think of the lowercaseUPPERCASE alternation as attempting to visually represent the shaking of the voice, its refusal of being stilled, its fugitivity, its wayward nature, its lack of decisiveness, indexed by the repetition of interplay].
the point i’m getting at is that there are voices that, for me, sound as if they were submerged in some deep, mysterious, watery grave and those voices struggle for their own resurrectional capacities to be heard in and through such wet substance. to be underwater is to be, we know, beneath the surface and this below and beneath makes anyone standing above – on a ship’s deck, for example – inaudible. it’s not as if the sounds do not exist below the surface of a body of water; indeed, there are sciences dedicated to listening to the sounds underwater. the vibrations that produce sound, audibility, the soundscape, move more quickly and further and further still underwater. so it’s not as if life is not occurring in any underneath or underwater inhabitation; it is that one must position oneself securely within the folds and underneaths that are generally discounted as listless, lifeless.
so, like i said, i’ve listened a lot to Emily Bramm Bibbey and Loretta Oliver and couldn’t shake the feeling they kept giving me. i put a status on facebook saying, simply, that their voices sounded “wet” to me, and other than a few “likes,” there was no conversation that ensued, which was cool. i figured saying it out in public would make the “feeling” their voices gave me go away. but, of course, this week was also the week that i had my students read about the Zong massacre, particularly the poetry that Philips produced by using the court case … amazon has a better description of it than i do:
In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.
it’s like youtube knew that i’d be having my students read about this particular massacre and this poetry that emanates from such underwater mausoleum and found a sonic, spiritual, ecstatic parallel to such praise and lamentation. so though i was initially against it because i did not want my students to confuse the pleasure of singing in a church with the pain Philips tries to echo [and it is indeed an echo, a hollowed out, previous to situation, recitation of sound that produces proximity by way of nearness to a source without ever laying claim to the conditions of such emantional force; echo because it is the reflection of sound waves, waves as in ocean and water? perhaps], i played clips of Bibbey and Oliver singing while we discussed the book. i looped several of their songs and sermons [i had no idea until this week because of youtube that Bibbey was assistant pastor of a church in new york for a while] and while we talked about Philips’s poetry, their songs and sounds of watery upheaval were playing in the background [i initially wrote and deleted blackground, but i’m not so sure it’s wrong]. if Philips’s poetry dives into the water to receive a word from the submerged, Bibbey and Oliver’s voices attempt to extend outward from the same sorta condition of submergence.
it’s not simply that their voices struggle from some sorta underwater dwelling. their voices sound of gurgling, the flow of sonic resource that from within them – in a broken, irregular current – come rushing out. gurgles make me think of bubbles and bubbles are from underwater, making me consider the air necessary for such encapsulated plea to be released to swim to the surface. the gurgle is nothing other than the sign of life of the submerged, the sound of water current attempting to eclipse such breath and breathing. the bubble is formed because some air from a body or organism was taken with them either as a thrown away, discardable material substance – such as the captives aboard the Zong ship – or taken with them as a decision to throw oneself overboard because, as the testimony service song says, they’ve got a hiding place, even in the overboarded underwater world. what i’m not saying simply enough is that one takes air, which is to say life, with them and the gurgle and bubble is the fact of the capacity to take things with you, in you, even in the face of conditions that would attempt to take away even your capacity to hold shit in…
Bibbey and Oliver’s voices come to us, in all of their force and magnitude, as evidence of having been submerged but having, also and most importantly, survived any attempt at drowning. i guess the question that keeps coming to me is this: are their voices, with the “wet” sound, rehearsing an ontic condition of the submerged that keep coming to us again and again? why would such a “wet” sound be so pleasurable, why does it move the congregation in such endurational ways? what is the capacity of the “wet” voice to show signs of life even if gurgling, bubbling, from horrific conditions of drowning? maybe Philips’s poetry, attempting to sing something of the breath and vitality of the more than 150 drowned captives, and the “wet” voices of Bibbey and Oliver are a part of the same aesthetic production…or something. a different kinda baptism.
i’ve been thinking about breath a lot lately, and not simply because of my foray into bikram practice. i’ve also been having lots of trouble sleeping lately, yet and still, all over again. you keep coming to my mind from way below me, in my stomach, in my heart and i feel night sweats on my brow, i awakening with labored and belabored breath. i attempt to sleep and i feel faint, as if i were about to be carried away by currents too forceful for me to fight but i still struggle within the currents…and against them. it’s as if i would black out each time i lay head to pillow but this blackening would be too weighty to bear and i’d never wake up. so i’m exhausted a lot, tired a lot and only fall asleep after i can literally no longer stand or sit or lay. it just comes to me and i awaken hours later. but each time i wake up, hard of breath, out of breath, tired from breath, i only have just enough breath left to squeeze out your name, moth’s powder, as if the name itself were agitational torque working in and through my body.
corny way to say i miss you, right? lol…but i do. and at least i’m laughing a bit more about it, about us, these days. though, as i said, sleep is difficult. dtim still thinks i should contact your mother, say hi or some shit…and shit, valentine’s day just passed and i didn’t even say i love you. but that, you already know. and still, i do.