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Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.
Boutaiba S’ghir – Malgré Tout (Despite Everything) (1976-1978)
This song is full of bittersweetness. It’s a dented, dancing fanfare of horns, with a drum section falling over itself, S’ghir crooning in a supple, fumbling voice. “ Malgré tout,” the Algerian sings. “Despite everything,” he repeats. Lyrics in French and Arabic, reassurances for S’ghir’s community and his loved ones, for his wounded country. Algeria was torn apart by terrorism, by barbaric colonialism. There were too many injustices to count and there are still today injustices – injustices in Europe, North Africa and across the world, mistakes and miscarriages, systemic abuses punctuated by deliberate acts of cruelty. Human beings have a habit of betraying people they do not know – by selfishness, inaction, or with monstrous determination. In a week that offered 129 more reasons for fear, fury, grief, hope and hopelessness, I turn to music for a dauntless kind of respite. Give me a drumbeat I can count on to stop and start again; a dented, dancing fanfare, sad and happy as a wake; and a man who is singing, despite everything, “despite everything,” in two languages intertwined.
Daniel Romano – If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ (2015)
Or else give me country music. You listen to Patsy Cline or Glen Campbell or Daniel Romano and at once you’re someone else, somewhere else, the wallpaper all another colour. Here, Welland, Ontario’s Daniel Romano paints an encounter between a sex worker and her client. The song isn’t drab, it isn’t sad; the music’s all lit up in piano, guitars, accordion, pedal steel and beautifully ebullient bass. Still, at first it seems like a clichéd morality play. There’s a man who has fallen for his courtesan, a knight in shining armour who wants to help her quit the business. “Don’t let nobody tell you what you’re good for,” he begs, and at the same time: “Won’t you count for me a little slower?”
Eventually the john gets down to brass tacks: “Let’s use these bills to get you gone away / From the life that you’ve been trapped in.” But Romano isn’t anti-feminist Hank Williams, Jr.; in the words of Justin Trudeau and his PR team, “It’s 2015.” The twist of If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ isn’t that the sex worker elects to keep her line of her work; it’s that Romano, singing in her voice, makes that choice seem just and obvious. “Mister, I don’t even know your name,” she says, “[and] I’ve never said I’m looking to be saved.” Romano, charming as a GIF, modern as a safe injection site, offers an important reminder that presumptuous bozos ought to mind their own business.