Despite the distance between Manila and Paris, the series of coordinated suicidal terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 130 innocent civilians last November 13, 2015 continues to disturb me to this day. I still cannot understand how one could do such terrible things in the name of God. Based on the reports of CNN, Fox News, and other global media outlets on global reactions from both world leaders and ordinary individuals, it appears I am not alone. Indeed, no less than our shared humanity with the 130 casualties from 21 countries was what was attacked in the concert hall, the coffee shops and the restaurants of Paris that Friday evening. And in the days that followed, I suspect I was not the only one who sought solace in music by way of songs like “Fragile” – the 1987 classic penned by Sting. After all, as Henry David Thoreau once realized: “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
If my suspicion is right, this is definitely not the first time that “Fragile” has done justice to Thoreau’s testament on the power of music to comfort and console. Sting himself observes that “This song seems to have lent itself to many situations thoughout its life. It was originally written in 1987, on the island of Montserrat during a weeklong tropical storm. The rain just kept falling and falling. I had read a newspaper report about a young man called Ben Linder, an American engineer working in Nicaragua, who was murdered by the Contras. Later, the song was informally adopted by the ecology movement as a hymn to the fragility of the planet, and by radio stations across the country as they struggled to find appropriate music to express the tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York. So many innocent lives were lost¸ including a friend of Trudie’s, Herman Sandler.” (Lyrics by Sting, p. 130)
The preceding should come as no surprise as “Fragile” is one song that effortlessly wraps itself around you like a ring to a finger. Its soothing samba-inspired melody line reminds you of how water coming from the falling rain could eventually seep into the pavement given enough time. Repeat plays do not grate on the ear. They draw you in. No wonder then that since 1987, it has been covered both by prominent vocalists and instrumentalists. Among the former are Stevie Wonder, Stacey Kent, Julio Iglesias, Cassandra Wilson and Julia Fordham. Some of the more famous music players who have uncovered its power as instrumental music include the 2Cellos from Europe and LAGQ from the U.S.
Perhaps cognizant of its niche as a signature composition, Sting himself has made several variations of its arrangement. There is the original found in “…Nothing like the Sun” (1987) and a 2001 quartet reimagining found in “All This Time.” Fairly recently, he uncovered yet hitherto undiscovered dimensions of the song through the orchestral treatment of “Symphonicities” (2010.) “Nada Como el Sol” (1988) boasts of two versions of the song. To wit: the Portuguese “Fragil” and the Spanish “Fragilidad.”
On a personal note, it was this song that made me want to pick up a guitar again and study finger style playing.
The lyrics of “Fragile,” however, is a study in contrast to its melody line. It offers neither solace nor comfort. On the contrary, it is almost a compelling diatribe and rebuke to those who believe that violence is the panacea to the atrocities that happen in the world today. At its core, “Fragile” argues “that nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could.”
To appreciate the preceding, consider what has happened and what will most likely happen, thus far. The terrorist group responsible for the deaths of the 130 casualties claimed that “it was in retaliation for French airstrikes on ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) targets in Syria and Iraq.” (The Guardian, November 14, 2015) In response, the French government mounted even bigger and more lethal airstrikes against ISIL. Given the ensuing public declarations by other leaders of the most powerful countries around the world to crush ISIL, these retaliatory responses are bound to continue in the months to come. There is now serious talk to complement the drone kills being surgically carried out in the U.S. by putting more “boots on the ground.” Taken to their logical conclusion, these pre-meditated dialogues of violence and counter-violence will eventually take us to what “Fragile” warns us about: nothingness. No less than Mahatma Gandhi has underscored what such nothingness would ultimately mean – “An eye for an eye will make the world go blind.”
Alas, the call to action offered by “Fragile” is not the most popular sentiment today. Volunteers to join the French Army went up in the weeks that followed the attacks. Most people you ask about what we should do to address radical Islamic terrorism want blood. And it is blood that is being shed and will continue to be shed from both sides as I write this.
It is precisely on that note that the first stanza of “Fragile” opens. After the bullets and the bombs have done their damage, the physical details may eventually be washed away by rain but the insight and the admonition that such violent acts evoke will persist. Like the signs that Martin Buber exhorts us to be sensitive to, they call on us to respond accordingly.
“If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
That insight and admonition may be expressed by the assertion that violence as response to violence is the road to our ultimate ruin. We are not above the violence. We are not invulnerable. We are not immortal.
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are”
That its chorus is comprised by four lines that mimic the falling rain as they repeat themselves could not have been more apt. It is as if the song is saying – if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, then you cannot afford not to open your hearts and minds to what the violence we do to each other is telling us. If you did not get it the first time, I will repeat it for you again and again. Nay, the rains will repeat it for you again and again.
“On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are”