we’re eating dinner at Miguel Martins’ house. Imagine the
wine is extraordinary. Miguel has brought me to Portugal to play three
concerts, and I end up playing four —a real treat. Béchir
Saade, the woodwind improviser from Beirut is in town. We’ve just
played with Ernesto and Guilherme Rodrigues and now we’re dining
Imagine Guilherme comments on the curious relationship that color has
always had with music. Miguel mentions synesthesia, the peculiar tendency
to see specific colors in one’s mind’s eye when hearing music.
Ernesto recalls Scriabin’s famous color organ, and Wade says that,
personally, he prefers the parody that French author and trumpeter, Boris
Vian, makes of it in L’automne à Pekin, where one of the
characters invents a piano that prepares a different cocktail each time
you play it.
Somebody brings up the idea of color in musical groups: Black Sabbath,
Deep Purple, Yellowjackets, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers… Miguel
mentions the Blue Devils, with which jazz trumpet prodigy, Clifford Brown,
made his first recording. And of course, there are the Blues, an entire
genre of music named after a color.
Then we get onto song titles: Blue Moon, Blue Velvet, The Blue Danube,
White Christmas, Nights in White Satin, Yellow River, Yellow was the Color
of my True Love’s Hair; Green Grow the Rushes –Oh; The Red,
White and Blue Forever; Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini;
Black, Brown and Beige Suite; The Purple People Eater; There’s a
Red House Over Yonder —there was even a hit in Spain in the nineteen
sixties called Black is Black (I want my baby back…).
That’s when we realize there’s something missing. Un hunh,
that’s right. There’s no orange! Béchir says: “What
about Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue?” — a fantastic
Mingus composition. Everybody nods their head, but nobody can think of
anything else, not one more song, not one more group, not one more album
with the word “orange.”
Wade points out its very special status in English: it’s the word
nothing rhymes with! Songwriters avoid it like the plague because it just
sits there, waiting. Even Plato couldn’t mate it with anything!
He had to cut it in half and then posit it’s possible reunification
in order to use it as a metaphor for any sort of linkage at all.
Now imagine we’re having dinner at Ernesto’s house. His wife,
Cristina, is always wonderfully generous with us, and she and Ernesto
have put on a great spread. Imagine how good the wine is! Somebody asks
Ernesto where the word “Portugal” comes from. He says most
etymologist trace it to Portus Cale, a combination of the Latin word (“Portus”)
for port and the Greek one (“Calle”) for beautiful. This links
Portugal to the Greco-Roman tradition to which much of “cultured”
Europe likes to trace its origin: Praxitiles, Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras,
Pliny the Elder, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Virgil, Plutarch, Laertes;
the list is seemingly endless. Of course, historically, the Iberian Peninsula
was a part of the Roman Empire, as well as a home to the Carthaginians
and the Phoenicians, not to mention a considerable cast of Goths, Vandals,
Visigoths and other barbarians from the North.
“What about the South?” asks Béchir. That’s right:
Iberia underwent almost eight centuries of Arab occupation. Eight centuries;
a very long occupation by one of the most culturally and scientifically
advanced civilizations in the world at that time. By the year 940, the
Arab-ruled city of Córdoba had a public library with over 440,000
books! And there were 69 other public libraries in the same city at that
time, not to mention streetlights, 300 public baths and numerous other
modern conveniences sadly lacking on the other side of the Pyrenees then,
and even much later. As Dr. Abdullah Mohammad Sindi —with whom Béchir
could have studied at the London School of Economics, but didn’t—
points out, the first street light in London didn’t appear until
seven hundred years later. Still, despite the fundamental importance of
Arab inventions like algebra, trigonometry, the clock, the zero, the decimal
system or algorithms, even today, many Iberian Europeans tend to look
almost exclusively to Greco-Roman culture to explain their cultural origins.
Imagine Wade points out that the star fruit of Iberia is, of course, the
Orange —a visual metaphor for the Iberian sun that draws summer
visitors from all over Northern Europe. Its name comes from the ancient
Sanskrit narangah, traveling through Persian and Arabic to reach the Portuguese
laranja —not so very far from the original Sanskrit.
Then Béchir pulls it all together, telling us that one of the Arab
words for sweet orange is: bourtoughal, which is at least as close to
“Portugal” as “Portus Cale.” Oranges are in season
in January in Lisbon, and they are so sweet and delicious that we each
have one for desert after every meal. Imagine these were our conversations
while contemplating Apollo’s fruit, peeled and open, spilling its
juices onto plates as white as Lisbon’s white winter light. Imagine.
Matthews, March 2006, Madrid