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Flying Down to Rio

Fred A. Reed

One fine morning in Montréal I was passing through the lobby of la Maison de Radio-Canada on Dorchester Boulevard, as they called it. Βack then. On my way to meet my producer, the inimitable Jane Lewis, for another recording session of an Ideas series I was working on. Βack then.

I’ll soon broach the subject, which was translation. But that’s not my main concern.

It is this: As I transited the lobby my ear caught a most peculiar and particular sound: a hoarse, throaty voice half-singing, half-muttering ‘Dancing, dancing, da di da da, dancing.’ Those were the words to the refrain from the eponymous song by Paolo Conte, to whom my introduction came with a furious rush.

You know, of course, when music—whatever music—seizes you and penetrates your systems, rendering you haplessly receptive, captured by its particular rhythm, melody and harmony (those used to be the three crucial elements of any musical composition until Alban Berg and his twelve tone system and then Steve Reich who, one might argue, cares little for any tonality at all). Well, this particular piece swept over me like the seventh wave at Zuma Beach, north of Malibu, where our parents would take us of a weekend during my long and lazy Southern California childhood.

Several decades later, after then-president James Carter granted ‘amnesty’ to American draft refusers—having committed no crime, people like me wanted no part of the criminal US regime’s amnesty—we took our own children to Zuma Beach. I’d just bought a used soprano saxophone in L.A., and was eager to try it out. Although my second musical career never went anywhere, I could manage such left-wing trade-unionist standards as Bella Ciao and Solidarity Forever. So when I put horn to mouth and began to blow, seagulls swooped down and stood around us on the sand, heads cocked curiously to one side.

The thing about that seventh wave: it could drag you out to sea. Paolo Conte, in a manner of speaking, did drag me far offshore, into waters both uncharted and yet familiar. But where the Pacific off Malibu could be treacherous and kelp could entwine your ankles, everything about Conte’s music had a strangely calming and simultaneously unsettling effect.

So, on the day I was waylaid by Paolo Conte at Radio-Canada, I completed the recording session in which I provided continuity narration and linkage between two capital interviews. One was with David Homel, who brought the air alive with his pithy and witty observations; the other, with Georges Steiner, author of After Babel, whom I’d travelled to meet in Geneva several weeks previously.

Having arrived that morning from Paris on the TGV, I knocked at his door at the appointed hour.

“So sorry,” he told me. “Something has come up and I won’t be able to talk to you.”

“But Monsieur Steiner,” I protested, “I’ve come from Montréal precisely to talk with you about translation!”

He thought the situation over for a minute or two. It wouldn’t look good if he stood me up. He knew a quiet café just down the street; we decamped there, sat down at a table overlooking the lake, and I pulled out my recording equipment. In the three hours that followed, Steiner, who was grievously disfigured, so enchanted me by the art and fluency of his speech that his infirmity had vanished. Thus it was that he bestowed upon me a magisterial discourse on the art and method of translation, whose patron is Hermes, the ancient Greek demigod of commerce and deception.

“Translation is an art that can only be compared, in its complexities and multiplicity of voices, with a string quartet,” Steiner told me. I flew home happy.

So, where were we? Ah yes, having purchased and heard in its entirety the twelve-inch vinyl record that featured Dancing I rushed to assimilate the Contean ‘oeuvre’, if I may call it that. He was, as it turned out, two years my senior, and had—as his music testified—a powerful attraction to the kind of music played by 1930s dance bands, particularly those with a Latin flavour.

The kind of bands whose members wore sequined tuxedos; the saxophone players, hair glistening with brilliantine, swivelled from side to side in perfect unison in front of their monogrammed music stands. Conte had located or trained musicians who could produce the grunts and burps and growls of baritone saxes operating under a full head of steam as they did in Dancing.

That Latin touch was apparent in songs like Sud America, Blue Tango, and, most and best of all, Aquaplano. A seaplane is flying low over an unspecified land- or seascape. Enjoying my sovereign right to interpretation, I imagine the musician/narrator heading south, over the broad estuary of the Rio de la Plata, towards Buenos Aires, home of the tango. The aircraft would have been a Boeing flying boat, of the kind operated by Pan Am in the late thirties. These huge aircraft could take off from and touch down only on water, which made them ideal for travel between cities with no proper airport facilities. Back in the day, of course.

Such an aircraft would have been the kind in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would have embarked to film their sui-generis epic that serves as the title of this essay, even though the film was made five years before the Boeing 314 Clippers went into service. In the film, Astaire and Rogers set the floor ablaze with their tap-dance routines, and even manage to dance forehead to forehead. To top that climax, showgirls dance and cavort on the upper wing of a biplane as it circles over the city. Astounded spectators stare skyward and wave; the young ladies wave back.

But in my memory, fragmented as it has become, Astaire and Rogers’ trip to Rio has become intimately associated with the Pan Am Clipper, as has Paolo Conte’s suavely imagined Sud America seen from the cockpit of his Aquaplano. And, if Conte had known what I know, he would have worked in showgirls dancing on the wings as his seaplane swooped low over the Rio de la Plata estuary.

“Gira, piloto…” (Pilot, turn back…)

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