Soul Sisters

This week two internationally celebrated singers who, besides their fame and talent, shared a lot in common were lost to the world of music. Nina Simone, at the ripe old age of 70, passed into that great jazz club in the sky and Sinéad O’ Connor turned her back on a musical career which, incredibly, has already spanned twenty years. Whilst the world mourned the loss of Simone, who right up until the end had continued to perform live, O’Connor’s announcement caused but a ripple of interest from a public long familiar with her pattern of outlandish statements and subsequent disavowal. One can hardly blame them; this, in fact, will be the third retirement of O’Connor’s career. In 1992, disillusioned with the commercialism of the music industry and the battering she was receiving at the hands of the press, O’ Connor announced that she would finish her career with occasional performances as an opera singer. Again in 1998, just prior to the flurry of publicity surrounding her ordination as a Tridentine priest, she once more declared that she wasn’t "making any more f**king records". However, the new statement posted quietly on her website seems ominously measured and firm and, if borne out by the march of years, would mean a loss to the world, no less than that of Simone.

There are those who would say that after only five albums (only three of original material), O’Connor does not stand comparison with a legend of Simone’s calibre. But the two singers shared much more than the moniker of priestess. Beyond her fame as a bona fides soul diva, Simone was renowned as a political agitator. Her legendary ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and her odes to Martin Luther King became rallying cries of the black rights movement. O’Connor’s work had a no less sharp political edge. Her stunning acoustic piece, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ dealt with the bleak injustice of 1980s Britain and the indifferent western reaction to the murder of the students in Tianammen Square: ‘Margaret Thatcher on TV, shocked by the deaths that that took place in Beijing/It seems strange that she should be offended, the same orders are given by her’.

For Simone, the stage often doubled as a pulpit from which to declaim her own brand of black power. She would react waspishly to audiences members who she felt were not paying attention properly, occasionally appearing merely to outstare intransigent hecklers. Back in her tabloid heyday, O’ Connor employed similar tactics. Faced with a hostile crowd at the infamous Bob Dylan concert in Madison Square Garden, she silenced the band, fixed the raucous crowd with a steely stare for five whole minutes, before launching into a venomous acapella version of Bob Marley’s ‘War’. Her tirades against the Catholic Church have made her a figure of fun but her message, that the Church not only perpetrated abuse of children, but also created a national environment in which such abuse was acquiesced to, has been stoutly vindicated by subsequent revelations. At what may have been her final Dublin concert, she cocked a snoot at the Church, dedicating a ferocious version of her paean against child abuse, ‘Fire on Babylon’ to Cardinal Connell.

But their talents raised them above the controversies and torn photographs. Whilst both were gifted as songwriters in their own rights, it was as ‘vocal interpreters’ of other people’s songs that they achieved lasting fame. Simone first came to prominence with her gorgeous rendition of ‘I loves you Porgy’ from the opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. Shading in the notes with her moody alto voice, Simone gave a litany of life’s sorrows with her Devil-may-care worldliness. Incorporating influences from Jazz and Classical music, she bruised ‘Every time we say Goodbye’ and ‘Ne me Quitte Pas’ with passion. Similarly eclectic, even as a fifteen year old lyricist, O’Connor appropriated elements of rock, punk and traditional Irish music on her cult debut, ‘the Lion and the Cobra’. But it was as a shaven headed waif with the dark, haunted eyes singing Prince’s cast off tale of love lost that she was launched into the Grammy winning superstardom from which she never recovered. Like Simone, she too was often at her most effective when accompanied by a pared down, spare arrangement which showcased her multi-octave range. An operatic high note could become a venomous snarl, as on one her masterpieces, ‘3 Babies’: ‘No longer wild like a horse, I’m still wild but not lost from the thing that I’ve chosen to be…’.

One prays that she is not lost, for in O’Connor, we have a visual icon, a political maverick and a musical genius. Latterly, she has gone back to where all the ladders start with stunningly earthy reworkings of Sean Nos standards. (And what is Sean Nos after all, but the Irish blues?) She has always claimed that pain, when sung, could have a healing effect on the singer, that it was like a prayer to the ghosts of the past for redemption. No amount of digital remastering will bring Nina back, but I can hope that O’Connor’s healers wherever they are, reach out to her, because in these secular times, we need our priestesses.

by Donal Lynch from "Sunday Independent" (Ireland)