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July 10, 2017

Book Notes - Madison Smartt Bell "Behind the Moon"

Behind the Moon

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Madison Smartt Bell's novel Behind the Moon is ambitious and lyrical.

Chapter 16 wrote of the book:

" is described on its title page as 'A Fever Dream,' and it operates on dream logic that favors emotional effect and coherence over linear storytelling. . . . It's a fascinating, unsettling journey."

In his own words, here is Madison Smartt Bell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Behind the Moon:

In my checkered career as a musician, I have had the undeserved good fortune to have a couple of records (co-written with Wyn Cooper) produced by Don Dixon, who said at one of the sessions, with a certain frustration: "Remember when records had sides?"

Behind the Moon is a novel in which a linear narrative struggles with a nonlinear one. The nonlinear element is about fracturing a story line and also fracturing the human experience behind it. One of the ideas is to create for the reader a direct experience of the shamanic journey, where pilgrims see their ordinary identities shatter and dissolve. The ego-driven personality, with its strict story lines, disappears for a time, and the person is opened to transformation, often by way of spirit possession.

So this playlist has two sides: one sacred, trance-inducing music and the other pure moonshine.

Side 1

Moonlight on Vermont

Where better to begin than with the great musical anarchist Captain Beefheart? This track from the crazed masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (created in a long, strange and taxing trip for the whole band) shakes up your brainstem with its gonzo percussion and choppy guitar lines, defeating expectations for the blues that it also sort of is. The brief "Come out to show them" chant is an allusion to Steve Reich's early experiments in disintegrating the sense of sound.

Moondance/My Funny Valentine

A Night in San Francisco is my favorite live show ever. In most of the tracks, as here, Van Morrison scrambles his best and best-known numbers with one or more of their influences, with improvisational gestures underwritten by superb musical logic.

Drunk Moon Falling

Alcohol too is a mind-altering substance. What if you're so drunk the moon is drunk with you? Props to Lisa Howarth, author of Flying Shoes, for turning me on to this Jim Mize track.

Pink Moon

No such thing, right? The moon can come in several colors—seldom pink. But never say never. Nick Drake's moon is an actor, not an observer or reflection (the more usual roles for the moon in song and story). Pink moon's gonna have us all, as it finally did have Nick Drake.

Blue Moon Revisited

This one put the Cowboy Junkies on the map, and goes to show how the best recombinations can be almost naively simple—surprising and inevitable all at the same time.

Blame It On The Moon

You can't have a good blend of moonshine without the inimitable Ned Sublette, genius musicologist and possibly the most startlingly original performer on the planet. If you've got the moon and if you've got Ned, what more do you want?

Shoot the Moon

Early Norah Jones might just be the best Norah Jones. If the first phase of her career was about exceeding expectations, this song is about real disappointment. The simplicity of its twist of a familiar turn of phrase leads to a seductive poignance.

Slow Like Honey

…heavy with moon. Need I say more? I used to listen to this song for the sheer sensory pleasure of the music, and found myself admiring it a whole lot more when I realized what was going on in the lyric. Don't want to spoil that experience for you.

Yellow Moon

I might be projecting but I feel a pulse of Louisiana hoodoo behind this Neville Brothers number, as if the jealous, love struck singer is turning to a demi-god for information and help.

Side 2

The first side's group of songs are worldly in their way. Like lyric poetry, they emerge from personal concerns of the singer/songwriter. Most of them seek healing through some kind of sublimation, and that can be shared, which is why we listen.

What follows on the second side is essentially sacred music, much of it with intentional hypnotic effects. Most of the world's religions have a spirit possession component in them somewhere. One of the ideas behind is that prehistoric cave paintings played a part in prehistoric religious practice – a sort of ur-shamanism which if we could recover it (not easy or obvious, that part!) would be the origin of all the religions we know today.

The Moon Will Be Bleeding

Possibly the purest single voice of the 1960s folk revival, Hedy West vanished with very few traces, taking a lot of her best recordings with her. (If anybody out there knows what dumpster Larkspur Records ended up in, please shoot me an email). She specialized in very old ballads, refined by passing through thousands of voices over hundreds of years. Most of them have a fat story line, but there's no story here at all, just a haunting fusion of prayer and prophecy—the Book of Revelation made simple.

Qui Sedes, Domine

This track is the only one directly referred in the novel; a character, Marissa, uses the recording to support her practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which are themselves based on hypnotic induction. I first heard the track in the 1970s, sung by the monks of Encalcat in France. Actually singing this material, for hours on end, would of course be a much more powerful experience than just listening to it, but listening's not bad, and recorded Gregorian chant is commonly used in various meditative practices today.

You who are seated, Lord, above the Cherubim, stir up your power and come forth…

It's very clear that this chant is an invocation, imploring a spirit to gather its forces and come… and even to enter the person of the singer.

Ogou Wa dè Zanj

Also an invocation, this song is similar in intent but infinitely more private. The singer, Mimerose Beaubrun, is author of Nan Domi, the only book I know of in any language about the inner practice of Vodou. The Haitian lwa come in infinite variety, and each named spirit has many avatars—some beneficent, others not so much. Ogoun (King of the Angels here) is something like Ares in the Greek Pantheon, but much more complicated. This song includes call and response; the singer asks Ogoun for help with a problem that threatens to consume her, and Ogoun replies, essentially, Child, don't worry, I will take care of that for you.

Namn Nou Nan Boutey

With her husband Lolo Beaubrun and other friends and family members, Mimerose founded a group called Boukman Eksperyans, part of the Mizik Rasin (Roots Music) movement that crested in the early nineties. Heavily influenced by Bob Marley, Rasin players produced a political music with a deep religious base—so politically potent that most of the groups were driven into temporary exile with President Aristide in 1991. The music marries rock guitar to Vodou drumming and often incorporates traditional Vodou songs. Performances are more than a little like ceremonies, sometimes inducing possessions in audience members. The language, Haitian Kreyol, is extremely fertile for double meanings, so that the songs deliver messages that are disguised but also clearly intelligible. This one, Soul in a Bottle, is about being colonized by alien culture, forced to be what you are not. In the deep background, the bottling of souls is an integral part of Haitian religious practice.

Moise Dezo

A traditional Vodou song, performed by Eddy François. Here the spirit, Moses of the Waters, speaks directly to the human audience through the singer. M'ap pote dlo pa kiye pou plen kanari mwen (I'm carrying water with a spoon to fill my jug) always seemed to me to capture the essence of the Haitian experience. Mimerose explained to me that a kanari can be any vessel which carries a message, for example a book, or the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain. Kanari are also the vessels used to bottle souls.

Kalfou Danjere

The crossroads (kalfou) in Haitian and African culture, is where the spiritual and material worlds intersect. When the barrier between them is punctured, Sa Nou Pa We Yo (the Invisible Ones) emerge to join the community of souls still inhabiting their bodies, and a whole lot of energy is released. This music is a way of making that happen, and the song is revolutionary too—calling corrupt governors to the crossroads which is also a place of judgment.

Carte Postale d'Ayiti

Dunno if it's cheating to sneak this one in, but I can honestly call it a Bell & Cooper homage to the Misik Rasin movement. The base is a Haitian traditional, Twa Fey, the coda for this track. I sent Wyn (who has never been to Haiti) a translation of the Kreyol quatrain and nothing more; he gave me back a surreally accurate version of my own experience in the Haitian world. The great Kenny Vaughan is featured on guitar, and it's Jim Brock's percussion, shakers especially, that will take you into the parallel universe.

Bolo Bolo

This one's a straight ahead invocation of Shiva, traditional in Hindu religion. I spent a couple of months learning how to sing it myself. I wouldn't claim to do it well, but the energy it pulls through you is amazing.

Gul Huyi Jaati Hain

Abida Parveen, a mystical Sufi singer, with a musical setting of a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It is the sort of Sufi love poem that doubles infatuation with the beloved with yearning toward the divine (best I can figure from puzzling it over a translation). It's the pure musicality that gets me with this one. Abida is known for putting herself in an altered state when she performs and this track might very well take you there too.

Tout lè n'ap rete bonoye

I first heard Azor blasting from the sound system of a tiny bar in Port-au-Prince and started chasing his music right away. Years later I heard him live in a Petionville hotel. A Frenchwoman in our party remarked before the show, Cet homme est chevauché! meaning possessed, in the sense of being ridden. He performed solo, with voice and single drum. If recordings exist of his solo performances, I can't find them. I shook hands with him afterward, which was like grasping a chunk of cast iron. Azor had lived hard and died not long after. This long track is something like a whole ceremony in condensed form. Very potent—best not to listen while driving.

Madison Smartt Bell and Behind the Moon links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Chapter 16 review
JMWW review
Kirkus review

Paris Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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