I’m an intellectual through and through. I love postulations and pontification with no external raison d’etre. I read intellectual books, watch intellectual movies, and — when it comes to music — tend to dismiss (too) many songs for not being clever or creative enough. I get upset to the point of arguing when an anti-intellectual voice is raised, because I believe in a dichotomy (one of few I actively and cognitively accept) in which intellectualism is good for society and anti-intellectualism is bad for society. Or, at least, I enforce my views to the best of my ability because I believe in that dichotomy inasmuch as it applies to the society I want to live in, and I want to make the society that I live in the society I want to live in.
As other voices unafraid to dissent with the opinion that “a commitment to the intellectual life necessitates the forsaking of the body,” as Eileen Joy so eloquently puts it in her essay “You Must Change Your Life: Woody Allen’s Another Woman," I do not accept in any way that there is any necessary segregation between the things we consider “physical” and those we consider “cerebral.” Instead, we can have activities that are exclusively one or the other, as in “mindless work” or “brainstorming” and activities that mesh them together like a net, tying perpendicular, opposed strings together to create a cooperative tool.
With the example of a net, one could say that as one string weakens, it compromises its dependent strings, placing strain and responsibility ubiquitously across the workspace. I would argue, however, that the opposite is also true. The strengthening of one string strengthens the whole net. The strengthening of one suit benefits the others. Some have believed in this to such an extent that they have applied it to a logic of defending forced labor: “There was a belief, at a time, that labor was good for you,” explains Elgin Mental Health Center administrative assistant Dolly Scanlan to James Bronner in the 2006 documentary Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. The conversation briefly skirts across the concept of manual labor as a rehabilitative instrument for mental patients.
Skip to 35:57 for the referenced conversation.
While I lend no support to the notion that forced labor is good for society whatsoever (willing labor, in contrast, is essential), I often exercise mental refortification via not-a-though-whatsoever, happy work. Gardening and house chores like washing dishes and folding laundry are perfect for me, but so are more intense activities like running or carrying furniture for a moving friend.
Sometimes the mind needs refreshing but won’t stop long enough to recover. In these frustrating situations, a channel can be imperative. Most of the time, I go directly to music to accomplish this mental redirection. The music has to be right, though. Bands like Mars Volta and The Dillinger Escape Plan stand almost no chance of being picked by me when I’m trying to calm my storming mind. Brian Eno is a frequent choice, as are sludge and doom metal bands like Pallbearer or Black Sheep Wall.
But what if the music that will most channel the body’s energy into a restorative rhythm needs to have strong, singing vocals while the mind needs empty itself of words? That’s when I turn to foreign music, like that of Habib Koité. Leading musicians in Bamada, Senegalese singer and guitar player Koité coordinates boppy jams that, fortunately for me, aren’t in any language I recognize. Why is this important? Because the vocals are relegated strictly to the territory of instruments. There is no way for me, being unable to recognize the phonemes joining the music, to intellectualize the words. For the same reason I love not being able to understand almost any of Tommy Rogers’ vocals in Between the Buried and Me, there is something centering about being able to enjoy the voice as a sonic experience, distinct from linguistic interpretation.
I could guess what “I Ka Barra” and its lyrics mean. I could guess that “ja ja ja” means “yeah yeah yeah,” and that “i ka barra” is equivalent to the second half of the song’s title and means “your work.” But I’m not looking it up, because then I would start working through it as a mental exercise. And when I want to listen to Koité, I want to put my hands to work and let my mind take a nap. I can sing along with the song in phonetic approximations without any concern about what I would be interpreted as saying by someone who speaks the language.
I can put my head down and work for myself, which is what I choose to believe this song is all about.