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Music How Billie Holiday sounds halfway around the world

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Billie Holiday – Love For Sale (1954)

One of the curious parts of visiting Taiwan is how little local music I hear playing. There aren't many songs spilling out of apartment windows or over restaurant counters, nor from scooters zooming by. Most of what I hear floating from speakers at this time of year is Christmas carols – the limpest, twinkliest kind. Some of it sounds Asian-made but a lot of it's imported: languid, soft-rock Silent Night or an unasked-for jazz-flute interpretation of Ding Dong Merrily On High.

But there is other music, too. At two different teahouses this week, what was playing was Billie Holiday. Every detail of these spaces was refined and considered, from the wall hangings to the carafes of water to the perfect ceramic tea sets. Sitting down one afternoon, we were served snacks on tiny, tear-shaped plates: green pumpkin seeds, chips of dried mango, thumbnail-sized mung bean cakes. One plate carried just two raw almonds. We ordered oolong tea; we poured it from kettle to pot to decanter and finally into our cups, and slowly sipped, while Billie Holiday sang a song about prostitution.

Yes, a bit of me was disappointed to be hearing Love For Sale here, in Taipei, in 2016. I would have preferred something less familiar, on zither or Chinese woodwinds, or even a little Shanghai jazz. I would have preferred anything that I hadn't heard a million times at a million other cafés. As much as we benefit from international cultural exchange, learning from and about each other, there's a certain loss as well. When you travel halfway around the world, or even six hours down a highway, you hope to find yourself somewhere else.

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Still, Billie Holiday's crooked croon sounded great. It almost always sounds great. If your bones feel tired, or if your heart feels woozy, you can always put Holiday on the turntable. Her voice is one of history's most beautiful artifacts – a beauty acquired, in part, from its slight ugliness. This characteristic felt particularly acute in the teahouse above Dihua Street. In a room where we were the only English speakers, the power of Love For Sale had little to do with the content of its lyrics. The song was a cipher – a collection of empty sounds, syllables, lifting from a woman's lips and into the present. Love For Sale was no longer Cole Porter's portrait of a weary, watchful sex worker. Instead, it could have been a love song. It could have been a breakup song. What was wry or embittered became just teasing, alluring, like an opal gleaming in Holiday's décolletage. All this song seemed to say, with the words scrubbed out, was that something lovely was coming, and it wouldn't last.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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