In a dingy Viennese coffee house, the woman behind the bar isn’t just enjoying her playlist on the PA system – she is joining in, her grainy voice (Austrian accent fully Americanised) rising above the whoosh of the milk frother,
‘So rockabye, rockabye…’
I admire her for singing along like this…a joyful indulgence that contrasts with all that her city stands for in music tradition – where the central park is peopled by statues of great eighteenth and nineteenth century composers – Mozart, Schubert, Brahms…A city which houses the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls, hosting international performers each day of the week…performers whose art has been crafted through thousands of hours of practice…precision of tempo and pitch and dynamic…
As the verse lyric kicks in – the words (about a single mum wishing better on her little boy) are submerged beneath the boisterous instrumentation; the reprise of the punchy chorus gets her going again,
‘So rockabye, rockabye
I’m gonna rock you…’
Rockabye baby. I used to sing it to my children. I’m trying to analyse how my old English lullaby has become so ruthlessly upbeat – the original, gentle three-time tempo in a major key has been made four-time and minor, with electronic slides and grinds and a swinging dance-rhythm. The male rapper sounds Jamaican, and a quick Google search reveals that indeed he is; the lead female vocalist does too, and she’s a blond girl from Essex. Added to the mix, on this particular occasion, there is a woman (she is not a girl) joining in who wears a dirndl and serves people in Tyrolean hats.
This Rockabye is her escape – it connects her with everyone out there, far away from this fusty cafe. A World number one hit, it expresses things she cares about – cosmopolitanism; contemporaneity. And by actively taking part, she is signalling to anyone who might be listening (to me, at least) that she is alive and vigorous, that her voice can go beyond the dull world where she must earn a living, a world unchanged since her great grandparents’ generation.
As a string ensemble enters to play the coda, I look around, wondering if my co-coffee drinkers will appreciate the instrumentation – the old musical language of Mozart and Schubert. Their attention is fully occupied balancing strudel on their forks.