No Ordinary Song

model_for_the_curtain_in_the_first_act_of_the_firebird_chagall_1

The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I remain human” or “I will stay human”), one of my favorite songs in the world.* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself. The music is by 1LIFE; the lyrics are by their guitarist, lead singer, and lyricist, Marcell Bajnai.

 

As with their other songs (for instance, “Kapcsolj ki!“), the words and music carry each other. The lilting, descending melody, wistful lyrics, and layers of sound (guitar, bass, drums, and piano or keyboard) make room for each other but also move tautly together; each detail holds the rest. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a boat, and you
you could be the river
you would never allow
me to sink in you

This is an image of possibility: two things that could exist in relation to each other–gracefully, strongly. The music seems to play it out; it is as if the lyrics were the boat, and the music the river. Yet none of this has happened yet; the scene plays out in a possible future.

The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. They suggest becoming and imagination.

The grammar helps to convey the relationship between the two things. The boat is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a boat (or ship), any boat, or an archetypal boat–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (Yet part of the initial pattern gets broken: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: patterns are detectable but not overdone, and they change at just the right time. “Kapcsolj ki!” is also outstanding in that way.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the boat sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the boat from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
I would never let us end
up as a downpour

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the boat and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested).

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
just tell me what else I could play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–boat and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I remain quiet, I remain human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I remain quiet, I remain human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. (It could even be a retort to U2’s “Invisible,” whose chorus has been translated into Hungarian as follows: “Több vagyok, mint akinek ismersz, több, mint aminek látsz. Nagyobb vagyok, mint akinek gondolsz. Testben élek. Most még nem, de egyszer majd meglátsz.“) Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a simple statement of truth. (I originally translated “maradok” as “I will stay”–but because it can also be understood in a present sense as well, I changed it to “I remain.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the boat
I was careful but all the same
you landed on the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

You were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
you said that all was well at last
you turned into a tempest

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the boat ends up on the shore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a tempest”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*Some background: One of the band members was my student (in a class that met once a week); he has now graduated. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it. It’s a magnificent song, and I am grateful for it.

Update: I have made edits to the piece, including the translation, as recently as July 23. Since writing it, I worked out a cello cover of the song, which I played in a little concert at school on April 29. On July 25 and 26 I played it again, this time at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Here is an excerpt from the July 26 performance (at the closing ceremony of the 2019 Summer Institute). The next day, 1LIFE played at East Fest Mezőtúr!

 

 

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