January 28, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's debut novel Dust is lyrically told and vividly captures both the people and the landscape of Kenya.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Owuor represents another shining talent among Africa’s young writers publishing in English. This searing novel, though informed by her Kenyan roots, should not be pigeonholed. These unforgettable characters and universal themes will speak to all readers who seek truth and beauty in their literature."
Water songs of the land sang by North Kenya camel herdsmen, lullabies a father might sing over a sleeping son, a dirge for a dead son and also for what fate has inscribed into his life; A nation's hymn expressing its secret hopes. These and others are woven into the story of Dust. The book's main soundtrack is, however, the unquiet land interspersed with the songs of secrets and silences: the sound of wind, assorted birds, creatures, and rustling leaves. It includes the things that restless citizens insert into the space like the ratatatatata of automatic rifle fire. Occasionally a fuulido (cupped hand whistle) calling honey-birds that also reply interferes. Other kinds of music: Ohangla, by Osogo Winyo, Pakruok Nyatiti music, by unsung artists like the late Omingli and Obwanda Wuod Alego, gritty mugithi by Mike Rua, but the text has taken liberties with his electric guitar and turned it into an accordion, regiment songs like Funga Safari that are now a texture of the landscape of the story. Chimerical music that leaps away from its origins to pick up nuances from the places it roams, and then presents itself as something else. The liminal Salvador de Bahia space where the story's key character gets entangled in the inner dark life of a music man melds music and inserts alchemical musician-writer Chico Buarque and places him next to Neguinho do Samba in an imagined space named Club Dorival, named, of course, for the eternal, delicious, spirit stirring singer-painter Dorival Caymmi of Saudade de Bahia fame. To ground episodes inside a time period, and to also insert light into a season of darkness, the story has one of the female characters retreat into the music of Patti Page (Autumn in Rome, Happiness is a thing called Joe, and Doggie in the window); Perry Como (Hot Diggity and Catch a Falling Star) while also listening to but resisting the music from her servants' quarters: (Lord Fleas' Shake Shake Sonora, Griff's Mambo and Machito's Kenya).
Franklin Boukaka's Le Boucheron (aka Aye Africa)
Nostalgia, pathos, that voice, the mystery of the songster's future disappearance. Everything in the song speaks of and to a fathomless, particularly African longing for a freedom that nothing in the world and its isms gives. The Manu Dibango Saxophone solo. Oh my.
Fela Kuti's No Agreement
Oh man. Fela! Everything surprises, shatters complacency urges discomfort, while the melody moves body soul spirit and something else. And words are hurled, barked, spat out and if listened to long enough rock the roots of the universe. Fela! Oh man!
Cesaria Evora, Um Pincelada, Yamore
Dust hearkens to a lost ideal, a season of longed for perfection and few sounds embody yearning as does Cesaria's voice, which found me in a music shop and ‘told' me where the story should go next. Um Pincelada summoned images and moments that are woven into the story. Yamore, like most of everything that includes Selif Keita, enters places of darkness to summon the lost being home. It showed up in the story where it was needed.
Les Wanyika, Sina Makosa; Mzee Ngala, Bango music
This song is such an East and Central African classic. There was no way I could write a book of East African spaces without it. In the same spirit there is no way the evergreen Mzee Ngala who offers the deceptively, mellow Saxophone-brewed ‘Bango' music can be left out—A rumba that moves, that takes its mood from the Swahili seas, even when the song is about loss.
O God of all creation/Ee Mungu Nguvu yetu, Kenya National Anthem
The book Dust is a contemplation of Kenya. This anthem and everything it contains—its music, its words, its plea, its lullaby origin, its three-drum roll summons, its majesty in a minor key, its double life as a prayer grabs the heart. Its seduction and promise keeps the characters bound to a dream even if that dream constantly wounds them. It is the song of Kenyan triumph too; it resounds at every major podium where track and field athletes compete, doesn't it?
Fundi Konde, Nalitupa Teke (aka Zum, Zum, Zum)
A Kenyan classic with a mischievous twist. The book, looking into nostalgia's realms, hauls in a few maestros of Kenya's musical past. This piece was elemental Fundi Konde.
I vow to thee my country, Cecil Spring Rice, Gustav Holst (music)
The compelling but unseen dream that imprisons the lover of country. What is the word for an excessive love of country? It was easy to conflate lands, and also make this about Kenya, since it is still sang in certain private schools in Kenya. The few lyrics I use are a place holder for the entire song which evokes a helpless loving of land and nation which the characters of Dust wrestle with, and not very successfully.
Fermín María Álvarez, Plegaria as sung by The Priests
This song is placed as an unexpected melody within a vast East African desert of immense silence. It spoke to the idea of the characters involved surprised by the strangeness of this and startled into coming to peace with the mystery and vastnesses of existence. Playing on the theme of the surprise of unexpected encounters, including that of meeting a Zaragozian prayer in a forgotten Kenyan desert place. How music even roams out of the confines of human imaginings.
Fadhili Williams (and the Black Shadows), Hakuna Mwingine
Dust signs off with a sweet, danceable love song. In the book there is no translation, but in essence it says: There is no one like you…I leave you my heart and love…. The genius of Fadhili Williams whose Malaika overshadowed his other equally amazing works. It gives the story a space of light to settle into, a promise of devoted love, no matter how bleak horizons look.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Dust links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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