Connecting with Vega

Connecting with Vega

Can you have a lifelong relationship with someone you don't personally know?

That was the question that went through my mind as I watched American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega in concert at The Esplanade last week.

Onstage she was her usual chatty self and was telling the story of how she came to write Gypsy, one of the oldest songs in her catalogue. As a teenager, Vega had met a British boy one summer at a camp where she taught girls how to "write folk music and disco dance" and fell briefly in love.

I listened in that knowing way of an old friend who has heard the story told at many parties and gatherings before, and laughed gamely along with the audience at all the old jokes.

This may not have been the first time I heard the story, but still, it was the best re-telling yet. And I couldn't help but think back to the first time I had heard the song in 1987.

Amid the electronic clatter of pop bands like A-ha, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, my secondary school friends and I had discovered the hushed acoustic sound of singers such as Vega and Tracy Chapman.

We would sit at the back of the classroom reciting by heart the lengthy but poetic lyrics of Vega songs such as Solitude Standing and The Queen And The Soldier. As young literature students, we were impressed both by the expansiveness of Vega's imagery and the pinpoint precision of the words she used to describe the world around her.

The singer was in her late 20s then. We knew from her songs that she grew up in New York City, amid the hookers, and the street markets that were a part of her Hispanic neighbourhood.

When she was nine, Vega found out that her Latino dad wasn't her biological father. That was when she finally realised why she looked a little different from her brothers and the other kids in the area.

Around the time I discovered her music, she went on her own quest of discovery - to find her birth father in California. She wrote a song about this, of course - Daddy Is White - but released it only many years later; and that was how I came to hear about it as well.

Anyway, long after we graduated and my friends and I went our separate ways, I continued to listen to Vega. Her subsequent albums were more infrequent and unsuccessful, but no less skilful and distinctive.

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