Music has provided a soundtrack to my life as far back as I can remember. Memories are defined by the music that was playing in the background, on the radio, on my Walkman/Discman/iPod (oh yes, I had each one of those) so much that I can tell what year the song was released by the events that my mind associates with it. I’d say that music holds as associative a power as smell does, and goes beyond defining a time to defining a place as well. It could be the club you danced the night away, or it could be an entire city that seemed to play it at every turn. Music has brought my travels to life.
At times the song triggers memories of a very specific place and time. Other times, it’ll be the country as a whole, or the journey. These 5 songs were all discoveries, some I brought with me from home, some I discovered at my destination. They have all become synonymous with that particular time and place. I’m not sure what made them stand out among all other songs that were playing at that time, but they stand out they did. Let’s just call them the soundtrack of my travel memories.
New Orleans, USA: Round The Globe – Nappy Roots
The travel bug has long resided within me, but I only fully mobilized in 2004, during my last year of University. My closest friend in Uni was my inspiration, having visited Australia twice in the last two years and briefly lived in Paris, so when she mentioned that she was considering going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I jumped at the chance to get my itchy feet wet.
The two of us with my sister rounded out a trio that road tripped from Montreal, across the border, through 8 states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Louisiana. I had heard this song from the Nappy Roots a few months before heading out so it went right onto my NOLA road trip mix CD (because, as the post title suggests, I like a good life soundtrack). We probably looped that CD over 50+ times, but this song sticks out because they were rapping about the places we were driving through. So meta, so awesome. This song takes me back to that long and winding road to New Orleans, with all the pit stops we made in various states along the way. No matter how far I travel, its message rings true: “The whole damn world is country!”
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Premier Gaou – Magic System
It was a trip that had come after a lifetime of groundwork laid by my parents, who were both born there. I knew the names of the neighbourhoods, shops, places with historic significance, now all I needed was the visual. Of course we had several family gatherings with the cousins, aunts, and uncles who still lived there, and it was at one of these gatherings – when my dance-centric family was cutting a rug – that this fun, danceable tune came on with a beat I could only identify as distinctly African. That was my first introduction to the group from the Ivory Coast but it was fortunate that I heard it often riding in the car from Addis Ababa to my cousins’ weekend homes in Langano to the traditional huts we stayed at in Arba Minch.
My love for Magic System continued long after this trip, but it’ll always be Premier Gaou that will take me back to the city where the sweet smell of chilli peppers roasting in the hot sun wafts through the air, the sun warms the people, and the coffee is lined along the roads to aid in cracking the tough exterior.
Hvar, Croatia: Ho Hey, The Lumineers
My first solo trip back in 2013 was one I spent listening to A LOT of music. Where there are several bus rides connecting several cities and a lot of self-imposed time alone, there is plenty of dead air to fill with the sounds of the land… and the songs on my iPhone. Dubrovnik and Split had a mix of crowds and enough sights to keep me content in my solitude, but by the time I got to Hvar, I was ready for something different. Or so I thought.
I landed at the beautiful Villa Skansi, which is the most posh hostel I’ve ever stayed at with the best views of the sunset… and is filled with 20-year-olds pub crawling through a town known for its wild parties. Normally, this would be fine, but I was a 31-year-old in need of some peace and quiet, despite any misgivings I may have had. From the overcrowded rocky beaches to the constant party vibes, Hvar and I were not vibrating on the same wavelength. It was one afternoon where I just padded around the hostel’s terrace that I heard the Lumineers’ familiar “Ho! Hey!” over the speakers. The melancholy yet oddly upbeat song reminded me of home and that was exactly what I needed. Suddenly the dark cloud that had come over me since I arrived in Hvar lifted and I got to see and appreciate the beauty that surrounded me.
Panama City, Panama: La Gozadera – Gente de Zone ft. Marc Anthony
The one-day layover started off with a blunder. As luck would have it, the hotel front desk staff was very understanding and accommodating, leaving me in a happy haze as I floated all the way up to my room. I connected to wifi for a quick check in with my parents and ended up scrolling through social media where I landed on a new video from Marc Anthony’s fan page. One click filled my ears with a party tune I can only describe as a latin American party anthem. Similar to the Nappy Roots, Gente de Zona travel through Central and South American countries, and of course Puerto Rico, all in the course of a 3 and a half minute song. I quickly bought the song off iTunes and head out to explore Casco Viejo.
The colourful buildings of Casco came to life and I strolled through the colonial neighbourhood, barely resisting the urge to dance it out to this insanely fun song. Gozadera actually means a good time, so my toe-tapping was actually as the song intended. I walked like this for a few hours, playing the song on repeat,
Paris, France: Cake by the Ocean – DNCE
Sitting on a sidewalk terrace in Paris’s 11ème arrondissement (the Bastille ‘hood) I realized I had heard this song every day that we had been in the City of Lights (it was a total of 6 at that point). The realization stuck with me until the following morning when I asked my sister and friend if they knew what it was called. They didn’t know either, but they both loved it. So did I, because that catchy hook will do as advertised: hook you right in until you’re humming it long after it stopped playing.
We heard DNCE’s Cake by the Ocean several more times before we left Paris. Admittedly, it’s about as far from a Parisian tune as you can get, but it will always by synonymous to Paris for me. I’d say it reminds me of the city as a whole, but mostly of that moment on the sidewalk terrace, the warmth of the patio heaters, the taste of steak tartare* and frites, the people watching and inadvertent eavesdropping on drunken conversations on the sidewalk. The lively Bastille was the place to be that night.
*Pro tip: always order your steak tartare préparé in Paris otherwise you will literally get a mise en place of mustard vinaigrette, chopped onions, and a slab of ground steak to mix on your own.
These 5 songs are only a few of my favourites that are, in one way or another, attached to travel. Click here for more of my favourite travel music!