BRAIN TUBA: Ozhjjhhbckckckckck, Rick Astley, and the Void

I returned from my travels refreshed and ready to continue the Work. This time of year is especially good for it, when the air thins to a delicate, sweet crispness, like some wafer-thin aperitif one encounters too infrequently. While I was gone, two small reservoirs had emerged in a small valley several passes over. Freshly birthed, the water tasted metallic, but we all said we liked it anyway, praising its full-bodiedness.

Something else happened while I was away, too. More, it happened while Ozhjjhhbckckckckck was away as well. He’d left about a month before me, to make a trip to an obscure, semi-urban province in China where an uncle had moved and never returned. Somehow, Ozhjjhhbckckckckck maintained a correspondence with this man, whose name—by tradition of familial deviation practices—was Ozhjjhhbkckckckckc. Eventually, the man urged Ozhjjhhbckckckckck to visit, and so Ozhjjhhbckckckckck set off, by foot, train, truck, bus, and several boats. Thinking himself urbane, Ozhjjhhbckckckckck decided that airplane travel would be too much.

He returned, also by foot, train, truck, bus, and several boats, thinking himself unchanged. Physiologically, this was true. Outwardly, though, there were small things that he made. One popular story he told about his trip involved an account of visiting the province’s zoo, where there was a large bird sanctuary in a very old habitat with as massive scalloped roof of green glass. In his telling, he imitated the trilling, violent kaws of a particular gaggle of sub-Asian birds, a sound unlike anything the village had heard. After then, the sound of the bird slipped into his laugh, perhaps unconsciously, a bit of currency he held onto.

Ozhjjhhbckckckckck was the older brother of a member of Kzzzknkh’s fppppo orchestra who occasionally filled in when his sibling couldn’t make it. He’d participated in various other musical practices in the village over the years, and was the possessor of several ouuuuubbbbi ouuuuubbbbi songs, numbers unique to their singers, though not all too many. (Kzzzknkh, by contrast, has nearly a dozen. I’m not a native, and I’ve already accumulated three.) Ozhjjhhbckckckckck, though, somehow returned to the village in possession of one thing: a small repertoire of Chinese karaoke staples.

Every night while staying with his uncle, it seems, Ozhjjhhbckckckckck would go out drinking and singing with his uncle and his friends, who sang, in some combination, the same six or seven songs every night, a combination of government-approved agit-pop, a few showstoppers from some big budget musical melodramas, and something that I think might have began life as a Rick Astley hit, though I’m not about to waste precious bandwidth to check. Ozhjjhhbckckckckck, of course, did not return with recordings of the songs—what technology would he use to play them back?—so much as the memory of how the songs went. And not only the melodies, but also the singers’ gestures — an obscene hand gesture here, its group response there.

At first, Ozhjjhhbckckckckck merely performed these songs for his Kzzzknkh and their mates, but the songs caught on, their turns of phrase, sung in a mutated, phonetic Cantonese, gathering their own strength. Ozhjjhhbckckckckck, likewise, has taught everybody the appropriate gestures, afraid that to leave them out would be a desecration to their culture of origin. This, too, has caught on. Ozhjjhhbckckckckck sees himself, now, as an ambassador of sorts.

The other night, it rained here, and I found myself caught on the wrong end of the village, and had to make myself back to my yurt through a steady, but not unpleasant downpour. (I also suspected that Fgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgerina would be waiting for me at the other end.) As I made my way past the yurts and huts, I could see villagers silhouetted by firelight, nearly all of them engaging in the stumbling dance steps Ozhjjhhbckckckckck had demonstrated to accompany one particular tune, which he called “Juuuk Hikkk.” Many were practicing their own music.

This strict allegiance, I noticed, had permeated every musical act I witnessed—probably several dozen over the course of the walk—and created a new effect in local music. A change. A genuine change. The performer and the audience were now separated, one acting as a leader to cause an effect in the other. This in a place where the music had almost always been completely of its surroundings, all participants equally part of the music as the place where it was being made. I remembered a song I had witnessed earlier in the village, and how I couldn’t place what seemed unfamiliar was about its performance.

It was this: the singer had waited for silence, had—with her actions—created a space between her and the people listening. It is a new space to fill here in the village, and it is spreading widely, gaping and a bit terrifying. I will think about it more. Fgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgerina, who was, as I suspected, waiting for me, doesn’t care about this void. Or, at the very least, I feel no compulsion to mention it when I see her.