Do You Ever Ask Yourself “Were We Really There?”

Ever had a relationship that was so strange, you felt vaguely not yourself—so much so that you later wondered how it ever happened, or if it happened at all? The kind of relationship that seems, in retrospect, more like a dream than real life? That’s the mood of “Were We Really There?”

And it’s all about mood. Nothing dramatic happens here. No tension between rhythm section and lead instruments, no demands for me-time among solos. Drama requires conflict, and there is none. Like an affair that just goes along until it ends and no one’s quite sure why, it’s a tune that finds its zone and stays awhile.

True to its album title Conversations, Calima Shatiday’s 2012 release), the tune shifts back and forth between two chords (you say this, I say that) on electric piano. This comes over a late-‘70s synth bass and some slapping percussion, joined later by wah-wah guitar and a busy-bee synth darting between two notes. If your vague, strange relationship happened during the 1970s, you’ll be transported right back.

I’d like to hear what a vocalist might add to music like this. I have in mind someone like Erykah Badu or Nikka Costa. I could offer some lyrics:

Were we really there

(No, we were nowhere)

Was that me or you

(The past is never true)

That kind of thing. A bittersweet lilt, with the horns buoying her up. It would leave you feeling wistful, but probably not nostalgic. After all, what do you actually remember of that time, that person you were? Sometimes, life really is but a dream.

Jim Howard

Do Tell by Calima Shatiday

There’s a calm, hands-on energy in this track from Calima Shatiday’s 2009 release, Poolside II. It’s the kind of music that, yes, would work for the pool—a sunny day, a light breeze, a frosty drink in hand—but this one veers toward another kind of territory: the meditative space.

I’m not saying that your masseuse will be playing Do Tell amid the fragrant oils while leaning into that one spot by your shoulder blade where you always seem to carry some tension—although, should that happen, this music could help. The raspy, white-noisy electronic percussion and a couple of attention-grabbing synth breaks take it out of the “space music” category and off the massage therapy playlist. The music is more likely to leak in from the studio next door, where some centered somebody is painting or developing photos, or maybe even writing. I’m typing in time to it right now.

Part of what gives the tune that centered quality is the play of opposites between its slow-motion EDM groove (about 96 bpm) and the lead melody, which is less a melodic statement than a rhythmic game of catch, tossing notes here and there in triplets and other just-off-the-beat figures, an impressionist syncopation in a kalimba-like timbre. Somewhere in the middle, a jazz organ pulls out a stop or two. What feels meditative about all this is the lack of drama. The music stays true to its good, simple intentions.

Back to that “slow-motion EDM” reference: a listener can easily imagine (or perform) languid, frame-by-frame dance moves to this song. What Shatiday pulls off here is a transparency that lets you in. You can almost see through the music to the story the composer was telling himself as he created it.

That’s quite a feat of artistry.

Jim Howard