Friday, November 5, 2010

Nonsense: I Zimbra

Talking Heads: I Zimbra


I Zimbra led off Talking Heads third album, Fear of Music, and it was quite a departure from what had come before. The sound was denser, with overdubbed parts instead of the basic four- piece band sound the band had exhibited on their previous albums. The rhythm was complex. Soon enough, I would come to understand that this sound was influenced by African music. And the words made no sense, but the groove more than made up for it. Still, where did Talking Heads come up with a complete lyric of detailed nonsense? That turns out to be an interesting question.

The words to what Talking Heads called I Zimbra are by Hugo Ball, who the band properly credited. Ball was one of the founders of Dadaism. I have heard the term, but I never really knew what it was. So, for this post, I thought I had better find out. What follows is what I came to understand after a brief bit of research. Any mistakes are my own.

The art and poetry of the Victorian Era, and of the early 20th century are marked by extravagant beauty. In music, this period represented the flourishing of Romanticism. But World War I began to change that. Ball initially was an idealist and a patriot, and he volunteered for the German army at the beginning of the war. But, like so many others, he quickly became disillusioned, not only with the war but also with the culture that produced it. After the ugliness of the war, the beauty of prewar culture seemed absurd to Ball and his fellow Dadaists. Their work was meant to emphasize this absurdity by shattering the forms of prewar art, and also by using these forms but stripping them of meaning. The words that became I Zimbra were an example of the latter. Interestingly, the Dadaists were drawn to African and other native musics. They were considered primitive, and therefore less shaped by a culture that had no meaning. David Byrne’s lyrics for Talking Heads, even though they were in English, often had an absurd feel. I think Byrne may well have been reacting to the “deeply meaningful” lyrics of 1970s singer-songwriter’s by creating lyrics that meant nothing at all, or at least not very much. If so, it is easy to see what would have drawn him to the work of Hugo Ball.

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