What’s in a song?: Emmanuel Jal – Yei

So, following on from last week; what are we to do? …Well if that isn’t a hypocritical statement then I don’t know what is. Why should we do anything? Other than to build the world in our image I can’t think of any reason that doesn’t drip questions of guilt and burdens. Maybe, just maybe we should allow others to help themselves. The way I have experienced it; the human psyche has an amazing capacity to take root among the ashes and to turn horror into cushions. The strength within us is insurmountable. Fear, now fear is something that will wreck you; but once you pass beyond fear you can achieve anything. No matter who you are. No matter your background.

©Jairo Crillio Photography                          Like the robot. The funky funky robot.

This is Emmanuel Jal. His particular background can barely be comprehended, but it’s probably best to let the cold words of Wikipedia give it a modicum of justice. His struggles and experiences dim our petty, softened lives. But to listen to his music; to listen to ‘Yei’ is to revel in a positivity of peace forged by the very factors that sought his destruction. Does anyone else think it utterly mind-boggling how one man deals with death, starvation and loss of innocence by dancing all over a sweet, sing-along beat. In fact, the stark tonal shift between poppy backing track and bleak imagery (“why are there so many dead people?”) raises this song way beyond it’s funky roots. The soft blows of his words give me shivers.

Now, I don’t really believe in looking backwards too much but you have to ask; why couldn’t Band Aid have included more African artists? The official line that the organisers sought to maximise charitable profit by packing the studio with bankable Western stars seems a little short sighted. People would have bought the single regardless, charity is the reason we can sleep at night. What the song needs is a genuinely fresh perspective on the problems faced from those who have experienced it. Artists like Emmanuel Jal could provide it. They could open our ears to the vibrancy of life and culture found throughout the African continent. They could have been beacons for good! Yet the burden remains; a shadow between the lines. Only we few can save mankind. No one else can be trusted.

                                 Not even Norwegians.

No, scrap that. I don’t believe it for a second. There is trust here. There is strength here. So much strength that I would follow willingly to Jal’s tune. Not because I pity him, nor because I reject my roots. I’d dance simply because the beat would arrest me and nothing else could matter. So, what are we to do? Maybe just recognise strength where we see only weakness. That’s probably the only path to follow.

Emmanuel Jal currently stars opposite Reese Witherspoon in ‘The Good Lie’. A damn fine film about the experiences of South-Sudanese refugees both during the civil war and after an American effort to patriate them to the States. It is beautifully shot and perfectly judged. I recommend highly. ‘Yei’ features on his new album, The Key. Buy a copy. It’s the most successful attempt at demolishing the ‘World Music’ stigma in years. This is music for everybody, regardless of creed. A very happy find.


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