‘Nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostos, meaning “return home” and algia, meaning pain or longing. Hence, nostalgia literally means “homesickness”.’
So says Janelle L. Wilson in Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning. Must nostalgia always constitute a painful experience? Is there anything redemptive to be found in nostalgia? What are the individual and social implications of dwelling on the past, which is often (and perhaps always) half- or mis-remembered? And how does nostalgia determine our relationship with music and art more generally?These were just some of the questions that Otis posed during his second residency event, Days Over Damson.
Music albums are not only containers of sound. They are containers of memory, capable of transporting us – instantly, viscerally – to a particular place and time in the past. Looking back at these memories can be a bittersweet experience. The pleasure of reflecting on a personally profound moment can prove energising; inspiring thought and action that positively shapes our future. It does not take much, however, for such pleasure to become the sharp pang of regret, rendering us morose, idle and inert. This was the thought that struck me as I looked at the front cover of Sean Paul’s Dutty Rock album anyway.
The inevitable bittersweet. Relishing in shadows of fruitful times past is an experience of remnants. Though there is a joy and meaning in reminiscence, we are above and beyond the improv theatre piece of yesterday and no such rendition can recreate the feeling identical. The future is waiting and it all begins with those Days over Damson but finding balance between letting go and holding on can be wearying.Otis Mensah, Days Over Damson
The central activity of this event was for passers-by to take up the blank CDs provided by Otis and write their most nostalgic album on the cut out coloured card inside, as well as the particular memory it conjured. A space was then provided for participants to express the emotions these memories produced. For me, Dutty Rock was the first album that came to mind. It encapsulates my relationship with my older cousin who, when I was 9 or 10, and he was 17, gave me his copy of the album after seeing how much I loved listening to him blare it out on our drives around Watford. My cousin has always been supremely kind, caring and generous towards me and Dutty Rock has always served as a symbol and reminder of that. To such an extent that when I watched him get married recently, it was thoughts of that moment which made me swell up with pride, happiness and, it must be said, an acute sense of sadness as I realised that – despite the clear weight of my emotion – I wasn’t so close to my cousin anymore. Was I looking to a return to my ten-year old self? Probably not. But a return to a time when I felt completely connected to my cousin? Absolutely.
Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement.Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
Listening to other people’s stories about nostalgic albums, it was interesting how many consisted of poignant car journeys with family members. And how many had come to encapsulate an entire relationship with another. For some, this meant – even if they hated the particular album – they felt an extreme sense of joy whenever they heard it. For others, it became unbearable to listen to what was once their favourite album. It took them back to a specific time or age and, in doing so, brought to the surface all the embarrassing memories, heart-wrenching emotions, and shameful sense of naivety and ignorance that tends to come when we look back at our younger selves. Maybe the notion that this was nostalgia was misplaced because there was definitely no desire to return to those times for these people.
What was truly special about this activity was discovering important and precious details about people’s lives that we would never normally have known, or thought to ask about. One participant, who worked on the Reception desk of the building we were situated in, revealed a former career in an internationally acclaimed orchestra that had performed the world over, including the Sydney Opera House. The joy (and pride) this memory seemed to conjure in being recalled was matched by our own joy in hearing it. Sharing this moment emphasised how music and memories of music specifically can create connection and community between completely different groups of people.
Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as a narrativeSusan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature
In the afternoon, Danae Wellington joined us to more critically discuss the social impact of nostalgia. We spoke at length about the way in which Britain’s nostalgia for a glorious past meant it refused to acknowledge, accept and address the fundamental role colonialism and racism played in both Britain’s past and its present. We discussed how this is reflected in school and university curriculum, which conveniently passes over this long and extensive period of history; choosing instead to focus on moments that buttress Britain’s warped and sanitised self-image as a brave and powerful leading force that protected rather than disempowered and exploited other nations and peoples. This led us to think about the future. How can we hope to dismantle systems of racial oppression and create a better society if Britain insists on dwelling in nostalgia? A systematic process of re-education seemed like a clear solution. This does not only have to come through formal education spaces but also art and culture. In fact, it seemed to us that Hip Hop has been playing this role for a long time now; doing its level best to correct false historical narratives that are produced by the media and other outlets. Yet another reason to love Hip Hop.