Mailbag: Muluqèn Mèllèssè and Paradise Lost

Reader JS – despite finding the Muluqèn Mèllèssè song I posted ‘nice but not memorable’ – pluckily set out for his local Ethiopian-manned newsstand to get some information on the mysterious singer. Here’s what transpired:

I wrote the name of the song and the singer on a sheet of paper and showed it to the Ethiopians at the newstand. As soon as they cast eyes upon it, the two Ethiopian guys behind the counter broke out in beatific smiles and launched into a duet rendition of the song in close harmony. It was like a real-life evocation of those moments in musical theater where people break into song without apparent premeditation, but unlike karaoke in that it was done by people with strong musical aptitudes who apparently had been preparing for this moment for a decade or so.  (Like the Beatles blackbird.) The singer is some kind of  legend in Ethiopian music, who produced this masterpiece more than 20 years ago, before he renounced “profane music” for sacred music. These days he lives in Washington D.C., pumping out spirituals. They offered me a CD of his profane music on the house, but they will have to root around in their house to find it. In any case, I am now a hit at the newstand just for knowing someone who likes the song, I suspect they will start singing it whenever I walk thru the door, and I may have to pressure them to take my money in exchange for newspapers. I like ethiopians. Now if I could just learn to like Ethiopian food.

So, there you have it: he’s now living in D.C. and singing church music. Thanks, JS!


Meanwhile, regarding yesterday’s post on quiet visualizations of evil, occasional guest-blogger and Milton scholar (no, really) Grandjoe provides some context for the image of Satan On His Throne:

Here are the lines that go with the wonderful illustration by John Martin of the infernal conclave in Paradise Lost. I’d never seen it –thanks.

High on a throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat . . .

Given that “sat’ must be the most undignified word in the language, Milton’s choice of it so close the gorgeous fanfare that starts with “High” plays a practical joke on Satan and on us as well, who started out impressed. There are many other places in the poem where Milton pulls the rug out. Why? Stanley Fish argues that Milton lures us into Satan’s point of view, so that he can then snap us out of it into a realization of our own sinful sympathies with evil. But that’s too moralistic for me. I think that Milton just takes pleasure in pulling off reversals and other kinds of surprises. It’s fun. Mozart enjoys springing surprises too. There must be artists also who trick us.

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