Meher Baba’s Favorite Western Tune – “Begin the Beguine” (14 Jul 13)

I’ve been researching this song because I want to sing it in a little singalong occasion that I’m organizing for the elder community in which I live, and in the process of that, I came across this Introduction to it at a Sept 2012 Bombay Sahavas Program. This audio file is the clearest statement of what this song meant to Beloved Avatar Meher Baba that I have ever encountered, and it is clearly from the indigenous Indian verbal tradition about Meher Baba, I don’t think this has been written anywhere.

I know that this account is accurate, because I witnessed Eruch play this number from a horribly scratchy vinyl recording at Meher Baba’s Last Darshan in 1969, and he simply said that Meher Baba said that this song had great spiritual significance, and that he wanted us to listen to it. So he very reverently started the thoroughly distressed recording, and then he and the rest of the Mandali together with the entire assembly sat humbly on the ground, with their heads bowed, and their hands folded in their laps, following Meher Baba’s order.

What was clear to me even then, however, was that they just weren’t connecting with the cultural significance of this dance number. This is essentially a big band dance tune, intended to be performed to a ballroom full of enthusiastic dancers, and if you have any sense of the dance, this song done right makes you want to dance, and dance big, rather than to assume the asana of a passively hearing devotee. This song came in the period of the American celebration of our initial emergence as a great power, as a result of fighting and winning WWII. It is a big glorified statement of how great it is to overcome the Dark Side, and it is intended to be enacted as such. And the beguine is a specific Latin dance, with a precise rythm and choreography, which tends to convey that message, in a very clearly articulated and forceful way.

Cutting to the chase of the BomBay Sahavas 2012, the succeeding audio file of this number as it was actually performed was a disappointment, because the Indian community still hasn’t understood what this song is about. Once again, they did what Indians are good at, i.e., preserving the words of their Master, but they still haven’t penetrated to the meaning of the words. So this number was performed by an off-tune vocalist accompanied by a highly-trained but overheated and thoroughly subjective tabla player, and there was no trace left of the beautiful beguine rythm.

I also do not like the rendition of this number that is present on the “Meherabad Moments” page (link on the right sidebar). The artist in that is a world-class violinist, but she is neither a vocalist nor a dancer, and she tends to perform chamber music, that is, she really has no sense of a whole ballroom full of people who are listening for her nuanced rythm accents to keep in step with each other. But like all the performers on that page, and like the Meher Baba community in general, she is very sincere.

But I am also very sincere, and I am a dancer, and I know the power this number has when done right, and I think that Meher Baba intended to release that power in his community, and to that end, I would like to hear this done right. I was able to accomplish that in the program at Delhi in 2010, because my solo performance of this number was accompanied by a tabla player who understood that the vocalist, even if a lowly unknown gorah, is necessarily the guru in the performance, or there is simply no order and no sanity, so he was able to pick up the correct rythm from me. It really is not that difficult, but if you’re Indian, you have to LISTEN to get it right, because it’s from another culture. It’s one thing to listen to God, Indians have no problem with that. But listening to another human being who simply knows more is a whole other hairball for them.

So far the rendition of this tune that I like best that I have found is this one by Ella Fitzgerald (1956). This is not what I heard at Guruprasad in 1969, that was a male vocalist, and I think it was an older recording. But Ella really has the spirit and the rythm down, and she’s very clear.

You have to listen to the lyrics to understand this number. It’s like the journey of God, from Real Everything, to Real Nothing, to False Nothing, to False Everything, and then (by collapse of all the Falseness) back to Real Everything. And yet again, it’s like every love affair that has been brought to fruition, and it is also like every Hollywood plot. You could say that this song is about the deepest and most powerful emotional and existential paradigms of our lives, and that everything we experience is reflected here. And it’s entirely significant that this is a dance number. That continuous dance rythm is like the continuous horizontal line through the Devanigari script, which represents the Brahm Nad (the Divine Sound); without that continuous vibration there is no manifested power, and finally, no Manifestation of God in this world at all.

Shiva is the Lord of the Dance, which is to say, left their own devices, bhakta just never get this right, because they’re always cutting every available corner, “for the sake of love.” AS Meher Baba famously put it, “Love, when not at its height, always makes a mess,” and it has made a royal mess out of this beautiful dance number, for 44 years, in Meher Baba’s Indian community. So then, how do you get love to its height again? More love? No. You’ve already made the mess, and now all you will do by loving more, if left to your own devices, is simply to intensify that mess.

No, once the mess of insufficient love is there, the way to bring love back to its height is to listen to someone who knows more than you, because by listening to such a one, you can correct your error and heal your love. And I guarantee you that all the Dnyani, who by definition always know more than the bhakta can know, want nothing for the bhakta but the perfection of their love. For better or worse, that’s why we criticize.

Of course, nobody has to listen to us, and of all people, the bhakta are the first among those, and so be it. It is the rare bhakta who realizes the futility of all the whining and moaning, the seeking, the betrayal, the dashed hopes, the crushed dreams, the agony and the ectasy, the endless, unfullfilable and finally catastrophic desires, and the final futility of love, and with that realization, goes with heart in hands to someone who simply knows better, and that rare one is the purpose for which God has made this world and all the Paths that lead beyond it. That rare one is for whom God has at all times appointed five Qutubs in the midst of this vale of tears. And may all the bhakta wake up to this fact with all dispatch. And may all the Dnyani help them on their beautiful Path.

And may Bhau Kalchuri resign from the Kalchuri Dynasty,
And may Mehernath Kalchuri resign as a Trustee of AMBPPCT,
And may all beings be Enlightened in this very life,

By my vow,

Vishveshwar Bodhisattva, 18 Jul 13
Avatar Meher Baba ki Jai!

((editing on 20 Jul 13))

This Wikipedia article does a good job of recounting the history of this number. This is the beginning of the article:

“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (1891–1964). Porter composed the song between Kalabahi, Indonesia, and Fiji during a 1935 Pacific cruise aboard Cunard’s ocean liner Franconia. In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee, produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

A Beguine was originally a Christian lay woman of the 13th or 14th century living in a religious community without formal vows, but in the creole of the Caribbean, especially in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the term came to mean “white woman”, and then to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples’ dance. This combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance became popular in Paris and spread further abroad in the 1940s, largely due to the influence of the Porter song.

Based on the title dance, the song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical “standard” popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final “C2” section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form.

The slight differences in each of the “A” sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated “C2” section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”. …

The Wikipedia article goes on to list 56 known recordings of this number, from the ’30’s right down the present. This could easily be the most influential tune in 20th-century entertainment.

IMO, the reason that the composer himself could not perform this without the music in front of him is that it was inspired by God, i.e., this was neither an evolution of existing forms, either of music or of dance, nor was it a product of Cole Porter’s creativity. He heard this from God. I am the only person I know who can hear this tune all the way through before I start to sing, and I can sense and maintain the rythm to the point of being able to direct it. If I could do that with one Indian tabla player at Delhi in 2010, I could do it with a big jazz band or a full concert orchestra for that matter, and I could do it without written music.

But I am sure that my own idiosyncracies have crept into the project nevertheless, and it is clear to me that the only way we’re going to finally do this right at Meherabad, entraining the full participation and support of the music industry professionals who occasionally show up there, is to work directly from Cole Porter’s score.

And finally getting the music straight is only the beginning of the project, folks! We really need to dance this on Meherabad hill. Once the Indian community hears and sees what this looks like when danced, they’ll all be dancing it, and all of those tiny little tabla gurus who call it “chaotic,” and then systematically screw it up just to prove that, will simply have to learn it. Yes, it’s highly syncopated, but it’s still in four, that rythm is just as clear as the crack of doom, and that’s why Western musical wannabees at Meherabad keep trying to turn it into a tango, a ballad, or a subjective “New Age” phantasy; they just can’t deal with so much clarity, either in thier music or in thier perceptual minds altogether.

I was born in 1947, and I am sure that after my father returned from his wartime Army service in Germany, and got my mother pregnant with me, they danced together to this number when she was carrying me, and that’s how come I have such an attitude about what this is supposed to sound like.

Avatar Meher Baba ki Jai!
Vishveshwar, 20 Jul 13.

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