I was recently a guest on Richard Holloway’s Sunday Morning programme, talking about my life and work and choosing three of my favourite musical tracks. It was like Desert Island Discs, but with more talk and less music. And since that’s the closest I will probably ever get to Desert Island Discs, I thought I might as well choose my own favourite eight tracks. Choosing three tracks for the Richard Holloway show was impossibly difficult, choosing eight has been barely any easier. There are dozens missing (Robert Johnson and Miles Davis, Anouar Brahem and Yasmin Levy, Nina Simone and Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin and Jimmi Hendrix, Bach’s Cantatas and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Rigoletto and Rhapsody in Blue…). I may have to find myself on a second desert island soon. But, anyway here goes with the first…
1 Mozart, ‘Ach, Ich Fühl’s’ from The Magic Flute
There is nothing more beautiful than the human voice, and no composer who better showcases the human voice than Mozart. This is Pamina’s aria, from Die Zauberflötte, her expression of heartache when Tamino refuses to speak to her, not knowing that he has taken a vow of silence to try to win her love. Achingly beautiful.
2 The Specials, A Message to You Rudi
The brass, the riff, the rhythm, the vocals, the attitude – perhaps the song of my youth, certainly one of the songs that defined my youth.
3 Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
Her voice may have been thin, her range limited, but, boy, could you feel Billie Holiday’s pain and sorrow. Strange Fruit was written for Billie Holiday, and few songs were better matched with a voice. Not just one of the great works of jazz vocal, but one of the most potent of protest songs.
4 Schubert, ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise
A piano, a voice, and magic. Schubert did not invent the lieder, but in no one’s hand does it sound more essential or sublime. And I can think of no Schubert lieder more heart-wrenching or haunting than the Winterreise, and no track more so than Der Leiermann, the last song.This is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s mesmerising version.
5 Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell
I cannot imagine a desert island – I can barely imagine a day – without Dylan. But which one? There is a whole universe of desert islands out there, each with a different Dylan song that I might have chosen. In the end I settled for one of his lesser-known, and barely-recognized, masterpieces, Blind Willie McTell. In fact even Dylan failed to recognise its worth. The track was left out of the 1983 album Infidels and eventually released eight years later in the Bootleg series. And only after it became a staple of the Band’s live repertoire did Dylan begin to play it on stage. But masterpiece it is. From the opening lines – Seen the arrow on the doorpost/saying ’This land is condemned’/all the way from New Orleans/to Jerusalem – this is a chilling, brooding composition, with a haunting melody line (with Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar), a song that harks back to the spare work of Dylan’s early years. Blind Willie McTell both acknowledges Dylan’s debt to the blues and provides an allegorical take on America’s history and its music.
6 Charles Mingus, Pithecanthropus Erectus
‘In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am’, Charles Mingus once observed. ‘The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.’ As his autobiography Beneath the Underdog reveals, there are few musicians, few writers even, who have better excavated the meanings of being black, of being a musician, of degradation and of identity. Pithecanthropus Erectus is not the greatest of jazz albums, not even the greatest of Mingus albums, but the title track in particular both expresses Mingus’ torment and pain and self-searching and has great personal meaning.
7 Pascal Dusapin, Invece
It is the most bewitching of musical instruments. I have been learning to play the cello, on and off, for a decade and more. I love the classical repertoire – Bach, Elgar, Rachmaninov, Dvorak. I love even more modern works for the cello – Xenakis, Part, Carter. Fractured and difficult where classical works are sensuous and beguiling, modernist cello works nevertheless reveal, often even more brilliantly, the beauty and essence of the instrument. This track is Invece by the French composer Pascal Dusapin; on the cello is Karolina Oehman.
8 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Segu Blue
It was out of the slave trade that the blues emerged, formed out of the traditional songs that slaves from west Africa and the Sahel brought with them to the Americas. Over the past few decades the influence has flowed in the opposite direction as American blues have travelled back across the Atlantic to shape the contemporary music of West Africa and the Sahel. And nowhere more so than in Mali, a nation that has in recent years produced an astonishing line-up of outstanding musicians. There are dozens of Malian albums and musicians that I would want on a desert island. But I am forced to settle for just one; Segu Blue is a wonderfully haunting, hypnotic track from Bassekou Kouyate, one of the great exponents of the ngoni, or Malian stringed instrument.