There are pop songs for war and there are pop songs against war, but there are few pop songs about war. "The Partisan" is a French folk song written during World War II that gained popularity in both Paris and London. It's written from the point of view of a French resister, a man who faces inevitable defeat but whose sense of nationalism and even personal pride prevents him from succumbing to the shame of death. "When they poured across the border/ I was cautioned to surrender/ This I could not do/ I took my gun and vanished," the song begins.
Leonard Cohen covered this folk song on his second album, Songs From a Room, released in 1969. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, mouth harp and, later, a small French chorus, Cohen sings the song plainly — no word stressed more than any other, just a story of death and accidental life, how it was and will forever be. "There were three of us this morning/ I'm the only one this evening/ But still I must go on," he sings with a lack of inflection that hides trauma and weariness that we pray our children will never know.
The bass line, strong and regular, opens the song like a heartbeat — DUH-duh DUH-duh DUH-duh, it pounds — before the rapidly fingerpicked guitar joins it. The bass' plods feel oversized for the song (so forceful, so loud) and almost mechanized (like a metronome), creating a relationship between the two of predator and prey: the guitar sounds as if it's fleeing the bass, its strings vibrating like legs pumping for escape.
Cohen is an extremely sympathetic narrator in "The Partisan." He's the reluctant warrior, a man pushed to limits that were previously unknown to him, a normal laborer presented with an impossible task. But unlike the action heroes of the cinema, this is cause not for celebration or even hope. It's another day in a long winter whose thaw may never come.
In comparison to Cohen, Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed sounds impossibly weak on "Tezeta," a song he recorded in Addis Ababa in the '70s. Ahmed is a wounded man. Within the context of "The Partisan," he would have been the sort to have hidden in an attic, abandoned his family and escaped notice. Surviving, but with the bodies of his wife and children draped across his shoulders, his decaying flesh and blood the yoke he must forever carry as he takes another tug from a bottle.
The word "tezeta" translates to bittersweet nostalgia; there isn't an appropriate English equivalency. In Ethiopian music, tezeta songs are essentially the blues, except that even when love has died and hearts are shattered, there are still hints of hope because the memory of the love — no matter how spoilt — exists, and for that there can be cautious rejoicing.
In "Tezeta," Ahmed mourns contentedly over slight organ sighs and bongo splatters, an easy gait earned by pain and memories that, however hard he may try, cannot be forgotten. Ahmed's voice wavers over each syllable, every one a struggle and another hit to his ego. These are no glancing blows. They leave him punchdrunk by a roadside, his life in tatters and his only possession these raw images of a past so immediate that it doubles as his future. But for us, the witnesses to his destruction, his songs of torment are guiltily invigorating, and try as we might, we cannot help but to listen again and again.