BY ARTYV K
There is a woman on the airwaves. They announce her as Nouon, an eclectic stage name that sounds more quantum physics than folksy. She had sprung from a little-known indie label and took over the radio when no one was looking—why was no one looking?—we don’t know where she’s from or what she’s singing about, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t enamored by her.
In the absence of truth, there are rumors aplenty to fill the void. Who is Nouon? Where’s she from? Is it true she comes from a tribal sect forbidden to speak from birth? Is she the first of her mute kind, singing in a dialect so ancient that her voice has the capacity to rattle souls in their vessels? Her arrival on the charts has repercussions. The orthodox of the community forbid radios and internet in their homes, claiming her to be a pagan, to have a cursed tongue, and decree that to hear her songs is to court disaster.
For someone who doesn’t speak the known, there is much discussion and deliberation on Nouon’s unknown. Was she a Sphinx reborn to walk this earth, here to task us with riddling songspeak? A bird broken free from its cage? A fish that has learned how to fly but has trouble persuading others to flight? I don’t know. But I profess her songs have an ethereal quality, a haunting familiarity to them. They want me to be alone, away from the hubbub of society, urging me to seek out a place—which place?—a place I can barely form into words.
The tai chi practitioners swaying to their morning rituals in the early hours of Grenswood Park say she is stealing “chi” from her listeners. Reiki masters hold a different view and call her their protégé, that her songs speak to all the chakras better than their moonstones, sunstones, and carnelians could ever do. Some speculate she is singing nonsensical palindromes much like her name. Others say it’s the same word spoken in a thousand different ways, much like the poet’s blackbird. Riddling. Intriguing. Like herself.
Language was meant to be spoken, to be roared, to be whispered, giggled, threatened, to be lost in, and most importantly, to be understood. Nouon harbors no such intentions. She uses no instruments except for a meditative hum to accompany the lilt of her voice and those alien words of hers. Religious institutions feel threatened by her popularity—churches, temples, and madrasas scorn her music and proclaim her blasphemous. The most peculiar thing about Nouon is the fact that no one— neither her fans nor her detractors—can ever remember the words to any of her songs. Rewind. Forward. Start again. Listen. Stop. Still nothing. Her cult of fans and admirers have tried mumbling along, but it’s never the same. No two people are Nouon. No two words are the same.
She gives no interviews, appears on no front-page covers.
Nouon’s debut album has just Side A and four tracks with five-second interludes in between. The four tracks sound the same: her voice, the humming. Yet everyone knows the four songs aren’t the same, and to suggest so was a sacrilege of the highest order.
Some speculate it’s just one immersive song with interludes in between. That the words are not as important as the interstitial spaces between them. Never has a blank space seemed so fraught with meaning—what does it mean?—a news report breaks out from a rehabilitation center that her songs are potent, having the capacity to wean addicts from cannabis, cocaine, and even opium.
What is she now? A psychic or a psychedelic?
Was it she or the language of her ancestors?
Was Nouon a deity incarnated or a projection of us?
Her influence grows. Wanderers lose their wanderlust, overwhelmed by an urge to set roots. Those given to anger, prone to shaking fists at every traffic light, find themselves at the same lights, feet off the accelerator and the brake. They get out of their cars, leave the engines to sputter down and die; then, they walk away. Nouon is branded as a travel hazard; her songs banned from radio and from in-flight entertainments. There are now thousands of cars abandoned on the streets, airports running empty. There is the stoic banker who’s dancing on a subway platform, decked in his suit and tie. Babes cry for mothers who’ve forgotten to feed their young in their yearning to be children again. Nouon, goes the chant.—Nouon, Nouon—Scholars leave their academic pursuits, crawl out of their ivory towers and sit on the leaves of grass. Joined by industrialists, futurists, they look around, recognizing the place for the first time. It’s a mass hysteria without the masses and the hysteria.
On a bus ride to work, I discover the answer for myself. My ears are plugged, and I have her singing into my inner ear, worming into my being, when I’m overcome by an urge. The terrible urge to get down from the bus, to climb over the highway fencing and to head for the trees.
It’s because her songs, her undecipherable words are from the womb, the cradle we all come from. They have no meaning because the infant knows no meaning. While we’ve all forgotten what that cradle was and how it sounded like, Nouon still remembers. And there’s nothing more powerful than the voice of that cradle, calling on us to return to its cove and to teach us how to breathe again.
I follow that voice out.
I get down from the bus and let my lungs fill for the first time in ages.