Friday, July 18, 2008

Return visit

Joan picture by Lara Nettelfield

Folk singer Joan Baez tells a reverse-Hillary story about her last visit to Bosnia, in 1992.

This was at the height of the fighting and there were no flights into Sarajevo for singing pacifists, as she tells the story, so she resolved to drive in some 10 hours by Jeep from Zagreb. By luck they found out about a military transport bringing in a general and they hitched a ride. That story has taken on the proportions of myth, she says, and she was stunned to hear someone introducing her and describing how she'd dropped into the war-torn city by parachute.

Fifty years after she broke into show business at age 17, Baez still puts on an awesome concert. The critics talk about her weakened voice and it's true she sips a soothing drink or spritzes throat spray between numbers, but it's also true that she has the same willowy figure I used to long to have when I saw her in the 70s and the same flair for silver bangles and dangling earrings.

Her repeat concert in Sarajevo was terrific, including an unaccompanied solo of Swing Low Sweet Chariot in honor of those who lived through the siege and those who didn't that made people tear up. At one point, the guy made famous by a poster picturing him playing his cello in the burned out hulk of the National Library tottered up to the edge of the stage in his trademark leather cowboy hat and chaps. He's become something of a nut since the war days. He was swinging a beer and offered it to the singer. Mid-song she reached down and swallowed a long draft -- another echo of Hillary.

Audiences here are not so polite -- or policed -- as in the west. They chatted on cells phones and discussed her performance as she performed. She indulged it. When a long-haired teenagers hopped on stage and grabbed her in a bear hug, she shook him off and laughed. When a man walked up -- again in the middle of the show -- handed up a huge bouquet and a record album to sign, she signed, then told the audience -- "The flowers were a bribe."

Two or three songs later she motioned the autograph hound back up to the stage and told him to quiet down the women seated next to him. She has a lot of class and obviously has been handling crowds for decades.

This was a great concert. My favorite moment might have been when she twisted the word a bit to a Steve Miller Band standard and asked the audience to sing along to words that went:

I won't let no hate turn me 'round, turn me 'round, turn me 'round.

This audience couldn't sustain the chorus, either because they didn't' know the words, or because they didn't get it.

But at this point the call to prayers began so Baez silenced her musicians and stood in respect. Again, it wasn't clear that the audience got it, perhaps because they so seldom pay much attention to the five-times-a-day call.

But they DID get it and cheered when she untaped a piece of paper from a table near her mike and read out: "SUPER STE. VOLIM VAS!" which means, "You're great. I love you."

The closing of her third ovation number was also perfect for Sarajevo: Imagine.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

(To see Baez's first visit to Sarajevo and her first encounter with the cellist:

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