Happy Birthday in A Major

With a mellow twist for a newbie guitarist

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Here’s how it goes if you ever feel like playing it, dear potential newbie guitarist. It only takes three very simple chords: A, E and D.

A                 E
Happy Birthday to you
E A
Happy Birthday to you
A D
Happy Birthday dear Rabih
A E A
Happy Birthday to you

Simple.

La simplicité fait la beauté, as we say around here. Nonetheless, there is a problem with the simplicity of this version: it is dull. Too sweet. Too optimistic, like a fairytale. Like everything is going to be OK. Like you’ll never stumble and fall. No illness, no hazards. No Coronavirus. No Sub primes. No war. No inflation.

Fake.

You can however add a chord to the last “Happy” to save the day: the B minor, or even better, the B minor 7th.

Bm7        E      A
Happy Birthday to you

This chord kind of breaks the happy path to which the birthday song was heading, making it more real. The B minor 7th does not sound happy, it does not sound sad either. It sounds, well, mellow, I guess. Nostalgic. Like a reminder from an old friend who’s been there before, that this new year on which you are about to embark will have its share of bliss but also its share of sadness. That you need to better manage your expectations and that time is flying. That today is gone forever, and tomorrow is not yet. That the past will always look brighter.

Trust your ear nevertheless, the chord is not sad. You can even notice an after taste. Something like Italian coffee with an orange peel. The story this chord will be telling you is one of hope. However rough, everything will be all right eventually.

In the end, when you find yourself playing the birthday song to your child or your parents, on the eve of leaving your home country to head back where you belong, it brings tears to your eyes and hope to your heart, hope for the impossible reunion, one day, with all the parents, siblings, friends, and memories you are about to leave again. That life will somehow bring us back together somehow, for good, in the country of our childhood.

Right now, on the plane back to Paris, I can hear the B minor 7th version of the birthday song resonating in my head, and I find myself hoping that the promise it seems to hold is as real as the mellowness of its sound.

To my parents who are celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.

To my child who is celebrating her birthday.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Why on Earth Would You Listen to Classical Music

Or why not actually. All it takes is the right hook.

A fellow author recently sent me an article about a musical experiment which took place in 2007, where a world-renowned violin virtuoso would pose as an ordinary busker in a metro station, playing well known classical pieces from Bach or Schubert on his 300 year-old 14 million dollar Stradivarius violin, hoping to get recognized, or at least get some attention from the crowds. Out of the 1097 people passing by during the 40 minutes this experiment lasted, 27 put money in his violin case, 7 took the time to listen to what he was playing for more than a few seconds and only one person recognized him.

How unfortunate might you think, but think again before you forsake your humanist ideals and embrace the claim that mediocrity is humanity’s common denominator. Why would have people stopped in the first place? Chances are they had already been through the ordeal of mediocre shows in their favorite metro station and they would not have stopped for what they though was one more, because that’s what it was supposed to look like on first sight, regardless of what it actually was. Or perhaps they were in a hurry, as most commuters are.

And what if classical music on its own is not enough to hook people? It is after all quite elaborate and can take inattentive people off guard. What if it needed something extra, like a hook? A twist to get their attention and slowly bring them to the inner circle? You see Bach’s music is classified as Baroque, a savant and sophisticated form of quite organized music, which could seem a bit rigid to the untrained ear, and boy are our ears untrained. Besides, your ears might recognize a classical piece of music they’ve heard before but still, you would struggle to put a name on it since most have cryptic names. Some of them, the happy few, end up being known by a moniker, like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Chopin’s Waterfall Etude or his Grande Valse Brillante, but most keep their original name, which sounds like Etude in C sharp major op 5 N° 12 for instance. A mouthful. A turnoff.

I bet however that a Paganini piece would have gathered more people around it, maybe not so much for the music itself but more for the show around it. Here you are, that’s your hook. You see, in his time Paganini was a violin virtuoso, as much a great showman as an astounding musician, whose strategy was to demonstrate his musical abilities through the most technically demanding compositions, awing his audience by speed, dexterity and showmanship even more than by music itself, which removes nothing of the intrinsic beauty of his compositions by the way, quite the contrary actually. Check Paganini’s Caprice N°5 being performed on stage, you will see what I am talking about.

Rock stars have always had a magnetizing effect on the crowds and Paganini was the Rock star of his era. Talking of rock stars, many centuries later, Yngwie Malmsteen would take Paganini’s style to the electric guitar through what some would later call neo classical metal, and carve a name for himself following the footsteps of the virtuoso violin master.

I credit him for putting a guitar on my lap 25 years ago. I also credit him for hooking me to classical music in a way. Him, and my dad. And a couple of years spent in Abu Dhabi, but that’s another story.

Let the board sound 

Rabih

On an encounter, somewhere in Paris

This story takes place somewhere in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, in an area delimited north by the Place d’Italie, and south by the Poterne des Peupliers.

An area less walked by tourists and typical Paris enthusiasts but not less interesting in my opinion. Nothing can illustrate it more than a walk down the typical Rue du Moulin des Prés to the Abbé Georges Hénocque Square and the lovely tiny little house-and-gardens leading to and surrounding it, then west through the Rue de la Colonie and the intersection with the Rue Tolbiac right at the Saint Anne church, and north through Rue Bobillot passing the municipal pool which waters are heated by the data center severs computing below it, up to the Butte aux Cailles and its many small restaurants and alternative bars, where you can finally take a stab at the escalope montagnarde, an institution in its own right courtesy of a cosy and casual dining room from Southwest France, right at the end of the walk. Worth a thousand words.

You will not be walking by famous iron towers or triumphal archs, and even less by paintings of mysterious half-smiling ladies from the Italian renaissance, but the area has a distinctive atmosphere which you can only feel by walking its streets.

Somewhere on this pathway lies a musical instruments shop, held by old school blues musicians, which meant there was no bling there, no fancy useless gimmicks, no lame talking. The guys used to cater for Hugue Aufrey’s guitars. That says it all. I was a regular customer of theirs.

This is where I met her, on a Saturday morning 13 years ago.

She was not thin, at least not in the traditional sense, and she had these shapes and curves which drove me crazy. A dark red belly-shaped maple top on a solid mahogany body, silver hardware, and no compromise on her beauty, even at the expense of ergonomics, especially at the expense of ergonomics actually. And the roar… a creamy roar sending shivers down the spine of whoever would pretend to tame her. She was a hard player, smooth to the touch, harsh on the back, not only because of the weight of the legendary names behind her kind like Jimmy Page, Les Paul or Neil Young, but also because of the 10 pounds of unchambered mahogany straining your shoulders, heavier than any of the other roaring hot rods out there.

I had been fantasizing about her since my early teens.

She was a 1994 Gibson Les Paul Standard in Red Wine finish. A guitar of legends, a roaring beauty. A Rock and Roll icon. The F50 of guitars, like an iconic car which few could tame at the speeds it was supposed to reach on track.

She would follow me to Paris, London, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, any place in which I lived or spent a significant amount of time and for years would be pretty much the only constant in a hectic life spent on roller coasters.

Until I met a girl with a sweet smile and a gentle creamy roar, somewhere in Paris, but that’s another story. Maybe for a later post?

Let the board sound

Rabih