December 5, 2011

“His Name Is Luka.” Suzanne Vega’s Lesson on Compassion. ~ Elena Shlychkov, M.Ed.

Pedro Sousa

Every once in a while, a new music star comes along whose work resonates with the hearts and minds of a generation. Benny Goodman created his luminous jazz style in the midst of the Great Depression. Frank Sinatra’s tones were a favorite of America’s greatest generation and the prosperity of the post-war boom. Bob Dylan became synonymous with the rebellious ‘60s movement, while the sophisticated lyrics of the Beatles were associated with idealism during the cultural revolutions of this time period.

What was the “message in the bottle” that was so captivating about these stars?

Will the era of Michael Jackson be replaced with the era of Adele?

Many people aspire to become the face of a movement or phase, but I have always wondered how anyone achieved this feat. I gained a better understanding of this question after my recent meeting with Suzanne Vega. She used her experience to articulate compassion to an entire generation.

Suzanne Vega studied modern dance at La Guardia High School and graduated from Barnard College with a major in English Literature. Two of her songs reached the top 10 of various international chart listings: “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” The latter album was remade in 1990 as a dance track produced by the British dance production team DNA. As said on her website bio: “Bearing the stamp of a masterful storyteller who ‘observed the world with a clinically poetic eye,’ Suzanne’s songs have always tended to focus on city life, ordinary people and real world subjects.”

During my recent meeting with Suzanne, she told about her experience growing up in Spanish Harlem in a family run by her demanding Puerto Rican stepfather.

For her, playing the guitar was a great way to speak her mind without fear. Suzanne mentioned that she drew inspiration from Bob Dylan’s music and his ability to feel the pain or joy of others as his own. Later on when Suzanne wrote her song called ‘Luka,’ she blended the character of the song, a boy who is forbidden to talk about what he’s going through, with her learned skill to be attentive and compassionate at heart.

rebecca anne

On a 1987 Swedish television special, Vega said the following about her song: “A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song Luka on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child. In real life, I don’t think he was. I think he was just different.”

My name is Luka

I live on the second floor

I live upstairs from you

Yes I think you’ve seen me before

If you hear something late at night

Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight

Just don’t ask me what it was

I think it’s ’cause I’m clumsy

I try not to talk too loud

Maybe it’s because I’m crazy

I try not to act too proud

They only hit until you cry

Suzanne would have never guessed that ‘Luka’ would be “the hit.” The subject of the song was based on a real boy named Luka who lived in her apartment building. Later on, when Suzanne found that the name Luka in other cultures translates as “the one who suffers,” she was inspired. Following her intuition, Suzanne wrote a song about all little boys (and, I assume, girls too) in the world who might feel lonely, betrayed or bullied.

In her lyrics, Suzanne urges us to pay attention to both sides of this world: the happy one and the sad one so that we can exercise the greatest “muscle” of our bodies, our hearts.

bird ghosts

It takes courage to put away your distractions and keep your mind open so that the Lukas of the world don’t suffer. It requires empathy and time, though I assume a more conscious and compassionate society is worth the price.

After reflecting on Suzanne Vega’s message, I asked myself how we could bring it to classrooms, businesses and corporate communities.

The “lesson plan” that I came up with is easy to follow and does not require your bullhorns: Listen to the song in a circle of your favorite folks, in a car while elbowing your puzzled way out of the New Jersey Turnpike, in your apartment in your spare time; or during yoga practice. Recite the song, try to play it, or grab your favorite meditation pillow and concentrate on the lyrics. Draw the images that come to your mind, dance to the rhythm of the lyrics and bring all of your senses to into consciousness. There is nothing wrong with being creative. Do not be discouraged if you are struggling with poses, cannot draw, sing or play any instrument. This is a lesson on alignment to the greatest posture of all time – “asana of compassion and love.” Breathe, enjoy, and appreciate the moment of shared unity.


Elena Shlychkov has a master’s degree in education and she loves to teach her students how to read, write and behave. As a certified yoga instructor, Elena is an advocate for juvenile health, wellness and non-violence. Her educational model consists of sufficient physical health, mental health and emotional health in school-age students of New York City. In her spare time Elena practices yoga and meditation, reading and writing articles on various topics, sewing, skiing in Colorado, running or playing tennis with her family and friends in the Central Park. As a fresh juice and quality food addict she loves to try out a new recipe and browse through the fresh food and ethnic markets. Her mission is to promote, teach and encourage the practice of good health. She believes that, through mindful education, balanced nutrition and daily exercise many issues can be remedied. Elena resides in Manhattan.


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