Sharda Patasar writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
The sudden death of Dolores O’Riordan last week came as a shock to many of my generation. Some categorised it as the end of an era, marked by the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince in preceding years. This remark is a lament not only of the passing of great artistry but as in O’Riordan’s case, it is also about the loss of a spirit that represented the courage to speak out against the senselessness of violence, a commentary that has resonance up to today.
The 1990s, the period that produced one of O’Riordan’s iconic songs Zombie was a time of significant changes in Trinidad as well. It was a period of political upheaval.
The coup of July 1990 shook the general population and had a long-lasting traumatic effect on some of those held hostage during those days. It was also the age of wider connectivity.
The internet had begun to make its way onto centre stage with e-mail addresses and chat rooms that were a craze for many of us. It was the age of cable television and CDs. MTV and VH1 exposed the public to a wider range of music and more importantly the music videos that added even deeper meanings to lyrics. For a nation like Trinidad, these provided musical models from which many musicians built a heritage. The world was making a shift and we were moving with it, branching outward on the cable lines and virtual space. But this movement outward created an equal movement inward, for with the opening up of the globe came the recognition that violence inhabited every space.
Zombie reflected the anger and disquiet produced by this awareness that continued to grow in years to come.
Headphones in ear, head banging at times whenever she felt like it, one classmate remains the face of the song for me. Sitting away from us all, alone on the border of the open partitions that could be pulled to separate the two form classrooms, predisposed to delightfully sarcastic remarks, she was the anger and struggle of many teenagers in the 90s. She also possessed the intelligence that made the struggle against authority and self even more profound for some. The physical position she chose fit her well. She is the individual who sits on the porous border between home and world, a condition with which our diaspora is all too familiar.
The portability of CD players and Walkmans were a salvation in this growing universal citizenship that had many adrift. Headphones kept emotions private, but provided the space for catharses that occurred inside our own heads. They were an introvert’s delight, simultaneously non-violent and violent because they lent to resistance without the noise.
They were the homes for the angry youth, refuge from authority, incubators into which she could rest and through the music in her head find a centre.
As I write this, headphones in my ear, the sound of O’Riordan’s voice in my head, I am plugged into the memory of the 90s. The ripples of those times have become even larger now. The energy of O’Riordan’s anger caught in the vocal range and heavy musical accompaniment that defined the iconic Zombie can easily be the anger of this age.
In the music video, children’s faces contorted into screams that remain silent under the heavy drums, find expression in the voice that gurgles upwards through gritted teeth, erupting in the refrain,
“In your head, in your head/Zombie.” We see in those faces, the image of a small body washed up on a beach, a journey towards hope, finding a tragic ending; small faces, tear-stained and dirty, amidst the rubble after a bomb has taken away their entire family. Echoes of Michael Jackson’s Heal the World filter in. The images in both videos are still the world’s breaking news. Their messages continue to resonate across cities of dead bodies created by senseless wars, fights carried on from generation to generation without actors in these scenes stopping to ask “What is this fight about? Is this still my fight?”
But, we thank the creative powers for those musicians and singers who act as mirrors, pulling us into the musical moment. It is a moment that permits us to stop and listen, the moment that reflects the emotions that many of us feel towards injustice. They are our tongues in times when words cease to be a powerful means of expression. Today Dolores O’Riordan’s voice joins those whose melodies and lyrics continue to reverberate as a counter-attack on acts of violence carried out in the name of some skewed sense of patriotism and devotion to God and people.