Sometimes it gets to me how quiet many of my friends’ and neighbors’ homes are. Maybe quiet’s not the right word- they’re not noiseless- but they lack that blend of sound on in the background- music, a pot simmering on the stoves, voices chattering and laughing- that I grew up with in Spain.
Even here, our house is bursting with volume, because we have three kids three years old and under, but also, I think, because I don’t shy away from that kind of music of life clattering, like the música of my infancia.
Day or night, if you walk past our house, you immediately sense signs of life — sounds, and often also music. I remember just a day after we moved into our new home, one of the little neighbor girls noticed we’d arrived in the neighborhood and called across our yard asking if I could teach her Spanish. She seemed to mean the entire language, in a session, maybe two.
I asked her if we could start with a song. A few options to consider: “El barquito de cáscara de nuez”, “La mona Jacinta”, “La canción de la vacuna.” She asked me what they were each about.
“Well, the barquito song is about a little mosquito that goes sailing on a nutshell boat, delivering drops of honey, in a terrible storm. The mona Jacinta song is about a poor but pretty monkey that makes her own fortune. Oh,” and I got really animada here, “And the vacuna song, that’s a really fun one, too. It’s about a doctor that comes riding into town on a motorized quad bike, with vaccines, and basically replaces the witch doctor.”
She looked back uncertainly at her parents, standing in the yard with her. Her dad nodded politely, trying to be convincing, “I know that one.” She tilted her head to the side. “Um. Is there a ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’ in Spanish?”
I thought for a minute, trying to remember one from my childhood. “No, I don’t really think so. Stars, no. Mosquitoes, monkeys, vaccines, yes.” A few weeks later, she was still thinking it over.
I never noticed how much culture music carries until we had kids. During those long bedtimes, I started singing songs I learned in Spain while my husband started singing ones he learned here, in the US, and we quickly noticed they differed in more than just language.
“What’s that you’re singing to the baby?” my husband asked one day, while I was rocking our younger daughter in my arms.
“Just a song I used to sing on the playground as a kid.”
“How does it go?” he asked.
“It loses something in the translation, but it’s about an assassination on 24th street.”
His eyes grew wide. “Is it… appropriate?”
I told him it was actually very peppy and then threw in that if he didn’t like it, I could sing another song about a boy soldier that doesn’t come home from the war.
“Why? What did you sing in preschool?” I asked.
As it turned out, songs like “The Eensy Weensy Spider,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Old McDonald”…
From my (biased) perspective, the songs my husband learned as a kid are overarchingly either about animals, routines, American history, or farm country. They’re certainly conducive to learning- after all, there’s lots of repetition, a fair amount of history, even some spelling- but, they’re pretty far from exciting. On the other hand, the songs I learned as a kid are exaggerated, absurd, and often simultaneously very sad and very hopeful. His are songs that get the job done, and mine are canciones of tragedia and magia. Each nod towards a different history, a different set of coping mechanisms used by each of our ancestors.
In the end, we each sing our own different songs and, after a while, start learning and singing each other’s. As long is our house is full of música; mientras seguimos cantando.
* this piece first appeared in a different version, under a different title on Literary Mama