May the Bird of Paradise Rest in Your Armpit

The man with the 70’s hangover—big stache, wide lapels, swooping toupee—assigned to teach my fifth grade class regularly heaped this wish upon us: ‘May the bird of paradise rest in your armpit.’

What this meant, and why it should happen to us, was never made clear. It was only, mysteriously, repeated. This was a 1982-83, parochial CT education, and likely the man was a refugee from more respectable opportunities owing to uncontrolled, recurrent experiences (i.e. flashbacks) from the previous decade. He vied for our attention with the likes of Billy Squire, Van Halen, and Toto. His mysterious epithet did the trick.

All this came rushing back to me this morning as I made pancakes and listened to NPR’s Lulu-Garcia Navarro interview Toto’s David Paich and Steve Lukather, set to release a 40-year anniversary album. (Album. Sheesh!)

Their biggest hit, Africa, plays on repeat loops of early memories from childhood, the very drums that echo through the rural African night.

How would I know I’d be sent to Malawi as a Peace Corps Volunteer a decade and a half later? How would I know that for myself and my sister the song would elicit anticipation of her visit to my home amid the tea fields of Mulanje? How would I know that the experience was to be so life-altering as to introduce me to my wife, yet another ‘aid-type worker,’ just like the characters in the song? (Paich romanticized the love story in Africa because of his own interest to travel to the region. “He was looking for salvation and he found it in his companion,” he says of the song’s character).

I was stunned to learn the band nearly left Africa off Toto IV. Given its prominence in my own life’s soundtrack, I was amazed to hear them disparage the song, if lovingly, as absurd and senseless.

“I was the guy who said, ‘I’ll run naked down Hollywood Boulevard if this song’s a hit record,'” Lukather says of the band’s most famous track.”

Reading the lyrics now, I take their point. And it brings me one step closer to understanding what my fifth grade teacher meant when he said, ‘May the bird of paradise rest in your armpit.’

I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She’s coming in, 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”
It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become
It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you
It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa

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4 thoughts on “May the Bird of Paradise Rest in Your Armpit

  1. I will NEVER be able to hear the song Africa without vividly remembering and picturing sitting beside the Zambezi River at night in the rain. Amazing memories. Incredible song. Can you IMAGINE if they had left this song off the album?

    Happy Birthday Brother🎈

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zambezi rain was a heavy favorite. I remember drinking from the Zambezi. I remember Gram’s reaction to the white water video: ‘Ei-leen, could you hear the music?’

    Like

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