ARI SITAS, GEORGE & DEBBIE MARI
Cold Was The Ground- A Requiem For Elephants Too* Part I
Ari Sitas’ text is accompanied on piano by George and Debbie Mari
I am forced to imagine quite a lot.
Stuck in Freiburg with a virus hovering.
Perchance I was a pianist in 1931, hired on ships like the one from Bombay to Marseilles or London. They carted conservative yes-men from India to discuss the colony’s future.
I think that the ships were of the P&O Lines.
I was lucky to serve on the Ranchi.
I did so, whilst Her Majesty’s Governor sir was busy hanging people and arresting thousands.
Now I am at a loss in which direction I should steer this: the piano, the Indians or the job of playing a piano at a time when the world went KABOOM like now really where the world is going to go KABOOM where I should be with lots of Indians for they even gifted me a Bhagat Singh Chair but where I do not play a piano and it is only in my imagination in 1931 that I do so. In my imagination I play the piano well.
Imagining this allows me to read musical notation, something that I had not done for more than 30 years. It is not outrageous to go back in time when you are stuck in Freiburg, with a virus hovering.
Of course, they did hang Bhagat Singh then (a day early because they made the mistake of announcing the date of the hanging and unlike the aforesaid leaders they were carting on the cruiser line, the very ones I had to entertain with a waltz and a polka, he had big support). He had very big support.
Why am I saying this?
Bombay had a fine Cinema on Marine Drive where you would stand at attention as they played God Save their Fairest King and then showed a Newsreel of this bad guy whom Churchill called a Fucker it sounded like, but it was written Fakir in the subs, I promise you it sounded like the other word like now when the American President seemed to have said Africa…Shithole Countries but the subtitles read Pitiful Countries.
Anyway, he marched for days old Gandhi did, to get salt with thousands and thousands which meant that he dared to break Rule Britannia’s law and so they had to arrest him too and arrest another sixty thousand people.
My fascination with India started early.
In 1962 I met one of the most exciting girls ever: F.B… was her name, I stood on my head, showed great athletic feats and pelted her with snowballs in winter. It often snowed on the mountains in Cyprus those days. For me, India became real, I concentrated hard in my geography lessons, learnt about Fakirs and Gandhi, about snake charmers and Elephant and I even got a 9 out of 10 for my geography essay. I even thumbed through Jules Verne’s illustrated classic taking in each page with amazement finding so many resemblances between FB and Aouda.
Only to be rebuffed: I am Pakistani, you stupid!
Whilst I was proud of my parents’ post-colonial cosmopolitanism, I never forgave them for not explaining to me the politics of partition and how you could immediately recognise from the obvious distance between the eyebrows, who was from India and who was from Pakistan.
Meanwhile, I am again running ahead of my story: I thought one night when I had to play for maudlin and seasick maharajas and high colonial officials and functionaries, I was to get some patriotism in them. I owed it to my new Indian friends to take some stand but not over-exaggerate at the same time so no future historian will come to think much of the event, I thought what the hell, I am coming to my concerns about the piano later, let us play this song I learnt, “mera rang de basanti chola” which was the last song that Bhagat Singh sang on his way to the gallows. Let’s see how these sell outs react.
I didn’t know then but because I know now, I am imposing a psychosomatic cramp in and on my piano fingers.
No, it wasn’t the song of sacrifice or its saffron colour that jarred – I would play this song to authority on my air piano if I had to. It was about facing the piano in an empty functions room after they all marched out in disgust, leaving the piano to turn into an ebony tree in front of me leaning against an elephant. That’s when the cramp started, with the elephant species.
Yes, I had a vision of a Loxodontus Africanus. Not an Elephas Maximus Indicus by a Banyan tree. I would have also called him Subhro, like Saramago did after my good poet friend from Benghaliland. But that too is another story.
The piano. P&O SS had bought big numbers of pianos.
The joke was that they had the pianos first and then they thought of building the ships around them, later.
The point is that he got to play on real ivories at first because and later despite the Piano Technicians Guild’s protests they were to be only banned by 1947. From 1840 to 1940 hunters killed and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of elephants and enslaved thousands of Africans to cart the tusks to the sea.
The ships went mostly to America where Pratt, Read and Co made pianos for the rising US bourgeoisie. They had the machines that lathed combs, billiard balls, shirt buttons and then, voila, ivories. Speaking to elders in Zanzibar they recalled how the Americans came to trade weapons and dynamite for tusks. But my piano on this ship was the pride of London, a Kemble and Knight, slightly bashed but a genuine number.
The pressure was already on to stop killing elephants and to stop the making of these pianos – the technician guilds in Germany switched to making ivory Edelweis flowers as mementos. Hitler declared it a protected industry and made the ivory flower the emblem of the Reich saving thousands of jobs.
And his (my) next job after this trip was about to be in Munich and now the cramp, is driving him, I meant me, to dementia.
When in Munich, Herr Big Composer was very absent-minded, especially when it came to pay timeously during the rehearsal of the play.
The play was about a Mother by quite a famous writer.
There was always some soup around, despite the economic crash because the whole play revolved around soup and hunger and the main actress had to learn to ask the right questions and despair about everyday life and the gruel served as soup, oh Gandhi where had all that salt gone, I exclaimed, the rehearsal soup was tasteless.
The Big Composer Herr could play the piano well so we played together on the same piano sometimes, jolly two-handers, and he managed to hide some of my crampy scales. The notation was rather fine, a lot of punchy chording for ballads, statements and chorales oh how I hated it when the entire chorus was there, the soup was gulped down in seconds but we were getting it right all the way up to when the mother in the play unfurls the red flag.
There is a funny trumpeting coming out of the piano observed our famous writer, you will make it walk back to Africa the way you play.
The Big Composer did not catch it, I smiled, The Big Composer thumped a G-G-G instead, Ko-Mmu-nismus. The choir mis-timed it.
The Herr Big Composer was a shy man, it was the famous writer who started screaming.
By 1932 there was love. Yes, they were so fierce that sometimes on stage they would exchange feisty blows. They were in love and so poor. So, she shot him as he was sleeping. She then shouted it out to the neighbours. Then she shot herself. Their one year old was safe smiling in his crib. A woman called Mouse saved him.
They danced. They were according to a contemporary write-up, “creeping, stamping, squatting, crouching, kneeling, arching, striding, lunging, leaping in mostly diagonal-spiralling patterns” across the stage. She believed “art should be…an expression of struggle” and used dance to express “the violent struggle of a female body to achieve central, dominant control of the performance space and its emptiness.”
But the narrative is running away from me. Remember… breathe. Start again.
Rehearsals on an empty stomach seem fine as long as the flag waves decisively in the performance. The flag was just too big, the wrists of the Mother too weak.
They all forgot to face the typhoon or inquire whether it was coming at all. You get absorbed in the moment when art beckons. As a person who had sailed oceans, I could sense the gathering of its force. I mean the typhoon’s force, not the art’s power.
Now you better use your imagination: If you have triple the number of people out of work since two years back, numbering 6 million or close to that and having lost a recent war and got hurt by the peace and you thought you knew whom to blame and the leader was making daring noises by the day, it would not be difficult for brownshirts then, to mobilise enough people to smash the opening performance of a play.
They were also fed on soup and stale bread.
They were ready to take the fight, like Hindutva supporters now, to the streets, the working-class taverns and the theatres. Perhaps they took the gouged piano keys to Nuremberg to be anointed and re-shaped into Edelweis flowers.
Talking of pianos, his/my delightful bastard of an agent who was losing money on me as a piano player and a few others who played this or that instrument, was moaning that we had not crossed-over to more portable instruments.
He was more than happy about his business instinct though, indeed, he was ecstatic that he had insured the piano well in time to withstand financially its smashing.
He was negotiating our Big Time in Berlin and in Hamburg.
He also wanted to borrow some money from ME because the theatre did not give Mr Writer the money, he in turn did not give Mr Big Composer the money who in turn did not give his agent Mr Eich, I recall, the money and he knew that our piano player (me) must still have some money from his lucrative work on the ships.
Our dearest piano player, me, bargained hard because he wanted in return a good piano for the Berlin and the Hamburg gigs.
Herr Eich asked whether I perchance had ever considered a vibraphone, he could get me one for sure on the cheap and many modern but quite degenerate composers, many, he repeated were using such dreaded instruments,
He boasted a lot. For instance, that he knew of an Anton Walter in Vienna (fucking liar, they were from Mozart’s time) or that he would look into an Ernst Witting or a Bluethner just for me and then the magic word came out: a Boescudorfer. (If you only knew that it was to be bought out by Yamaha, you would have turned in your grave, you bastard). Oh how Eich loved mouthing the names of pianos. BoescuDorfer. Witting.
“Stop ignoring us”, came the WhatsApp message from India, we give you chairs and recognitions to play with our pasts not with some Germanic Neanderthals who stole our स्वस्तिक. Ah, I replied implying that I was totally aware of what they were saying. But dammit, I did not know how to cut and paste the words from a WhatsApp text, to get a quick translation from Google.
You should be following the याचन यात्रा!!!! – they added, that was a march to end all marches. Indeed I said, but was it as significant as the Salt March? – the Begging March was from Kerala to Maharashtra, that’s how far they walked just around the time after Bhagat Singh was murdered and Gandhiji started a hunger strike. Again.
Did you people ever know how to use the trains Queen Victoria gifted you? – I retorted; You just walk? Is that all there is to it? Walk?
By now I had sent the first message to Gmail and from there to Google Search and I said, ah your Svastik is getting a life of its own here, your gift to the neanderthals is about to bring bad weather, slaughter people. You two are zweiregenschrimyogi!
Stuck in Freiburg. My research plans were truly stymied as Freiburg was an afterthought and Kazantzakis’ death there was a sheer excuse. From India I was supposed to have gone to Russia, from Russia to Athens (then, Crete), from Crete to Spain. My study of the portrayal of the AfroIndian “Other” in Kazantzakis and Lorca was truly stymied by the lockdown. My return home to Cape Town was postponed to the “whenever”.
Lorca’s insistence that the heart of the duende, the deep song, was to be found in India, Kazantzakis’ insistence that it was to be somewhere between India and Africa although his Buddha adoration dragged him Eastwards. Russia was a diversion as I had no proof of Mayakovsky’s relevance to the study, all I had was the belief that poetry is an extension of music and sound. In Russia I was to look for Mayakovsky’s pickled brain, preserved and kept somewhere still to be discovered. I was told we had the technologies to genetically re-create each one’s clone.
He/I was already late to reach Hamburg, because the Ocean liner was late and Mr Big Composer’s ordeals were complicated.
Too late for the Altona bloodbath in Hamburg where the fascists were resisted seriously by communist counter action, putting up a vehement resistance against the hordes taking over their streets and neighbourhoods.
But the powers that be went for the communist networks: 15 arrested, a year later when the Nazis were in power, four were beheaded. We shall go slow motion later in 1933 to revisit their beheadings.
How different is it from the Hindutva goons out to establish grassroots rule in India? Are the lynchings and maimings of a different quality?
Another famous composer and pianist was to be his/my boss in Hamburg – he composed for a review, musical, theatrical, brazen. The score was simple he was told but you need to do a detour via Berlin said Mr Eich lighting up a cigarillo. Money, he said, Big Money. No, I said. Yes, he said.
It is good money Eich said – it is a part that will only last four weeks and your rehearsals in Hamburg only start in three but I have already organised a doctor’s certificate and it is just the thing for you because you are quite an impostor around here, just a word from me and you will be hospitalised for good.
What is it? It is the opening of Tarzan the Ape Man starring Germany’s absolute darling Johnny Weismuller, the pole vault gold medallist, the zero to Hollywood hero and it is big American money. Big! MGM!!
There will be thousands streaming to watch and it is your moment because the Americans want a piano man. Couldn’t they bring their own piano man? Oh they did, but he is a Shwartzman, there is… going to be a riot.
Stormy Weathers and I, our pianist, learnt to become close – call me Stormy Weathers for short he said. He gifted me in the weeks that were to follow a miraculous Zippo Lighter, just released in the USA, elegant, spirited, goodbye solitude, in came the style and thank our Weathers stormy or not, he also had a carton of cigarettes.
So you took my job and now you want my cigarettes too?
What good is a Zippo without, you call them what?
Uncle Sam did not cut Stormy Weathers off the payroll, he just added our pianist at quite a basic dollar per hour. Their only rift was over whether I would wear boot polish on my face as the promoters demanded. It is 20 marks extra man, I complained. I will give you 15 not to, said Weathers, OK OK deal, I have already developed a skin condition by thinking about it.
Will you show me what I have to play?
No, he said, you have to work it out yourself.
They spent the rehearsal nights and the show nights at his hotel – the lobby had a stuffed out piano where he would let his fingers go, what are you playing there?
Jazz! Jazz? – what is the key, why does the left hand move like this, what is that song again, All of Me by Louis Armstrong it is a Big Hit, you know it, I knew it from later of course with brass and trumpet but how could our pianist have known then, the answer was no and in his room Stormy had a record player where he played peculiar, a pained guitar and a moan and growl – no words our pianist said, no words, where are the words, this moan needs words.
This is no Christian shit said Stormy, this is Blind Willie Johnson, mark the name, Dark is the Night, Cold is the Ground… he is playing off I said in horror, it is your slave brain that is off, this is pure Mali he said. Can I keep this, I asked? There was an emphatic no, you have the lighter. Now you want my moaning too?
You promise you will put no boot polish tonight?
I swear, but what should I do with this gorilla suit – I asked in despair?
You are an Einregenschrimindemarschlochyogi, was the message from Delhi. I said, eat shit, you can’t write that, it has to be a noun agglomeration, you can’t stuff verbs and prepositions in that!
OK “umbrella up your arse”, you “mister arsehole of a yogi”- does that work?
Tell your alter, your piano man to check out the Novembergroup whilst you are there in a gorilla suit was the next whatsapp… mr Gora-yogi!
Here they are! The famed Novembergroup.
Because it is what we are trying to create today, or recreate today, it involved then all the artists and all the musos who were sharing in the revolutionary spirit of the times, the manifestos, the happenings, the person you should be looking up is the smith of many pieces for his piano licks!
Dear FB, I arrived in Freiburg full of anticipation. You can understand how disappointed I was when you postponed your arrival by a week. But now with the lockdown and the plague, may your arrival be postponed to the forever?
Dear Snotface, I am truly devastated. I dreamt about this re-union for a long time. Remember, it was I who found you with the help of Mr Zuckerberg.
Oh, you are techno-savvy, I asked on the next eMail.
Not really, my younger son found you for me.
I am on the frontline of the plague and my nurses here rely on me to be within reach 24/7. This virus kills. It is ugly, nasty, unforgiving. It is monstrous. I want to catch up. There are these two little poems I found from way back then, I was too embarrassed to share them then. You were only 10.
Indeed, he had a peculiar name the new Other Mr Big Composer, something like Stucken or Piecesmith.
He wrote on music, difficult music, he was a boff on the new Vienna music, he composed, he played the piano, he even played plinkaplonk jazz… just study him – was the message!
Our piano man tried to get to Piecesmith in Hamburg but alas he was about 5 years late!
I found the conflict between what a great philosopher of the time called an “exact fantasy” and a pure fantasy eating me up.
I was asking readers’ kindness to allow me to allow him to exist between 1931 and 1932 in order to drag him and others along later to shock them as the clock moves on to 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941.
My fantasy so far has been “exact”, every sentence had its factual shadow – but to get to Piecesmith in Hamburg I needed to cheat and get to 1926 by an audacious act that perforates the membrane of time. To go back. But it rebels, it needs to march forward to the typhoon, the flood, the catastrophe, the holocaust and war.
Even if he met him, what licence would he have to alter any historical occurrence – would that change the pattern of the typhoon, the flood, the catastrophe, the holocaust and war.
Would Hitler always be inevitable?
But unless my fantasy was given permission he could not play piano for the sublime dancers in 1926, he was stuck in 1932.
Somehow the Kunstfeste of 1926 were more daring for a pianist: Mr Piecesmith played the best of atonal, dodecatonal spurts for the dancers, they were a loving couple dressed up funny, as already hinted at but had moved in with them in a crazy appartment of madness and violence. As I started this narrative, they were in love, their love was extreme: she shot him, she shot herself. Piecesmith left the appartment just before the denouement. He never heard the shots.
But their dancing was not the only amazing expressionist piece of art: there were other brilliant dancers like the two sisters who escape my mind right now and there was the erotic magnetism of a very special one. Ms Baack.
Piecesmith escaped to Berlin, as the madness increased he fled to Prague but Nazi power caught up with him. He became a good enough citizen to survive the war and emerge as a post-war composer. Like the other big composer that he was to work for who ended up scoring movies with sturm and drang cadences they somehow survived.
I was too late too for the life of 1926 but he does have a photograph of the Hamburg Kunsterfeste core:
On the right above: the famous actor Gustaf, next to him a lady called Erika, next to her a Paul, next to him Willi the fine artist, next to him my grandad, below, the infamous Klaus (naked) and the sublime dancer Elsabe (naked). That was Hamburg and that was a small section of its avant-garde!
Imagine if he could have played the sequences for Elsbeth to flow elegantly and sensually just to shock; making sure that Paul, yeah the guy in the middle of the picture who was so skilled in playing the piano for silent movies before he turned to acting was not miffed; or having Erika launch into her acerbic takes on fascism and patriarchy or, getting Willi paint the backdrops for him and Klaus to duet in and through his celebrated texts, or having Gustaf act any parts. What would he have done if in 1933, a year later, Gustaf joined the Nazis to strut a brilliant decade of a career? He would have never known that he was to do that in 1926, not even in 1932.
Alas, Mr Piecesmith had the privilege denied to our piano man.
In 1932 though I had to work with the Other guy Composer No 3 instead, on KAWAL IN AM- a review that despite its claims that it was not political sported a three-metre blow-up effigy of someone who most definitely looked like Hitler.
Mr Famous Composer No 3 moaned about our piano player’s late arrival, about the indiscipline of the cast, about the fact that he had to rework parts because the singers were rather tardy and that the Nazi women’s league kept on protesting outside the venue of the Feste.
As our man’s agent already said in Munich, the score was simple enough – the cramp was still there in our piano-man’s fingers, the elephants were somewhere in his inner-ear trumpeting in sorrow, but there were enough fingers in both hands to let the satire roll -: “Ihr seid die Roeckfortschrittler/stets auf der Hut/Ihr seid die geborenen mittler/ohne Kraft und ohne Mut/Ihr seid aus Gummi bloss/und fallt beim ersten Stoss”… And then an excoriation of our philistinism: “wir sind Philister/wir wollen stets Philister sein!”.
Oh what fun was had in Hamburg, then, a year before the beheadings.