I’M SITTING at the counter in my favorite New York diner, tucking into eggs over easy with hash browns—very English, the breakfast fry-up, but very American, too. I’m washing it down with cranberry juice—caffeine is probably the only vice I don’t have—and someone turns on the radio.
Most of the time, I don’t hear music. My brain just tunes it out. We’re all bombarded with some sort of music on a daily basis—in shops, TV commercials, restaurants, lifts—most of it simply noise pollution, deadening us to the real joy of music. So I only listen when I really want to. But the Puerto Rican waitress has turned on a Spanish channel, and a seductive salsa rhythm seeps into the room. It’s a charanga band—a traditional group that uses flute and violin over the standard latin rhythm section of congas, bongos, and timbales—and now I’m half-listening. Then the violinist takes a solo, and I’m hooked. He’s a great, inspired player. The band is playing a simple three-chord vamp, and he follows the chords closely, and yet still manages to come up with witty, ingenious, melodic twists. And the way he plays with the time! Dragging a phrase, and then ending it right on the beat. Setting up syncopations—accents that go against the beat—and then turning them around, playing them backwards. Then he hits an unexpected high note, and it’s like a shaft of light going right through my body, filling me with warmth. Without even thinking, I cry out—“Yeah!” or “All right!” or something—and I marvel at the way that music, after all these years, can still surprise me.
The guy next to me just goes on munching his cheeseburger. But something special has happened, even if I’m the only one who knows it. The band on the radio are most likely second- or third-generation Puerto Ricans who were raised uptown, way uptown—in the Bronx—in a different world from me. But through the music, they’ve connected with an Englishman way downtown, in a way that would otherwise never happen.
A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage