October 18, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Colleen van Niekerk's novel A Conspiracy of Mothers is a fierce and unforgettable debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"The fierce maternal instincts of an entire community of women drive this unforgettable debut novel. Van Niekerk paints a vivid portrait of how the political was personal, and often tangled to the point of rot, in this time and place. These characters, their resilience, and van Niekerk’s reverence for her native South Africa make for an unforgettable read."
Music has a certain mystery to me. I marvel at how people conceive of it and write it, at the technical complexities and how that’s blended with words and woven with emotion over the span of something measured in minutes. A great track is a deeply satisfying experience. For a couple characters in A Conspiracy of Mothers, music is woven into the story as a way for the reader to understand who they are and how they think. This is a round up of tracks that either got me in the zone to write, kept me there, describe Cape Town at a certain time, or are otherwise relevant to the story.
“Mannenberg is where it’s happening” by Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand (featuring Basil Coetzee)
This song is a quintessential example of Cape Jazz. More than that though, in its story and the story of the lives of the musicians who created it, you really have the entire experience of those from the Cape Flats who endured the ills of apartheid. There have been reissues and retitles and variations of this track, but you can play a clip of it to any Capetonian of a certain age and we’ll instantly know what it is. Manenberg (this is the correct spelling) is an actual suburb on the Cape Flats so is a physical place but also symbolic: forced relocations under the Group Areas Act saw people moved from the downtown core of Cape Town to Manenberg and many other suburbs that were deemed ‘coloured’ but were really human dumping grounds. Despite all that, the human spirit, and the capacity to weep, laugh and dance is a thread in this song and the lives of those whose story it is a part of.
“Weeping” by Bright Blue
This is a South African pop song from the '80s on which Basil Coetzee, a saxophonist originally from District Six, is also featured. It captures in so many ways what the eighties were like with the various states of unrest, and the anger on the streets at the actions of an ever more vicious “law and order” centred apartheid government. The lyrics convey the heart-rending state of existence during that period with an unmistakable Cape feel and sound.
“Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA
Ska ! The ire of the apartheid government ! This song had it all ! It’s kind of weird to look back on it now, but there were a number of books, records and films that were banned in South Africa under apartheid for obvious, subversive reasons. This song was probably #1 on the banned list and yet somehow it was just around, mostly on scratchy old mixtapes.
“Lirandzo” by Tananas
Gito Baloi, who died far too young, had a voice that touches the soul. He was the Mozambican vocalist and bassist for this band. This is such a pretty, joyful song. It makes me dance with arms wide open. Tananas was a unique and wonderful amalgam of the very best of southern Africa musically-speaking. I love their entire jazzy catalogue but this song is a special gem for me. Another brilliant song of theirs is Seven, different tone altogether and just plain groovy.
“YVR” by YoungstaCPT
I was watching the South African series Blood & Water on Netflix and heard this voice repeating ‘Young van Riebeeck’ over and over again at the end of an episode. It made me curious. Jan van Riebeeck was the first Dutch settler in the Cape so his settlement was the thin edge of the colonisation wedge in many ways. This track and everything this emcee does is great. He rhymes in Kaaps, which is the language or Afrikaans dialect endemic to the Cape Flats and has conscious lyrics that come from the tradition in the Cape of older hip hop crews like Black Noise, Brasse vannie Kaap, Prophets of da City and Godessa. Kaaps was and remains denigrated in many ways so I appreciate hearing it in various places and seeing it properly recognised (a dictionary is in the works).
“Scatterlings of Africa”by Johnny Clegg
I have this memory from childhood of Black choirs on TV on Sunday afternoons. These full, deep, sonorous voices that are so affecting and beautiful. I love this song for that reason. But being outside the country, I feel like a bit of scatterling at times too, but then you realise that African roots run deep and hold steady.
“It’s about Time” by Boom Shaka
The early '90s, when this novel was set, is when Kwaito really came up in South Africa and for a period on the radio there was no other band but Boom Shaka and no other song but this one. It has an optimistic feel to it that really captured the euphoria of the time as the country wore the mantle of the Rainbow Nation.
“Sheela-Na-Gig” by PJ Harvey
One of the characters in this novel, Ingrid, is coming of age as the story unfolds. Her musical tastes lean towards late '80s and '90s alternative and this song with that line of “Look at these, my ruby red, ruby lips” as well as the symbolism of the Sheela Na Gigs (they are a real thing), is emblematic in this novel of desire and sexuality, which is a part of her journey.
“Yes it's fucking political” by Skunk Anansie
This song kept surfacing for me as I wrote the novel and it recurred in my head over the last few years as the discourse of politics has become so polarised. The idea that the personal and the political are separate is false. The idea that we can police the personal through the political is so dangerous and problematic whether you’re talking about race, gender, reproductive rights, you name it. The lyrics don’t speak directly to either of these ideas necessarily but I just love the statement “Everything’s political” because man, it’s so true.
“Sleep 1” by Sigur Ros
Liminal Sleep is my go to album when trying to write while blocking out household noise. This is the first track off that album which I’ve probably listened to loads of times now. I can’t speak a lick of Icelandic so I don’t have to process what they’re saying and can just enjoy the warm, welcoming bath of sound that gets me into the zone.
“Exit” by U2
This song is referenced at a critical scene in the novel. It has these elements of a quietly menacing kind of tenderness that is appropriate to the action at that point in the story. The Joshua Tree ranks as one of my favourite albums, with tracks that have this big, spacious sound just like the landscape where the trees stand.
“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley
I grew up listening to a lot of roots reggae. There were a lot of common elements between the Black liberation movement in South Africa and Rastafarianism. While Peter Tosh was my favourite Wailer, there’s no getting around how this song from Bob just stands out. It’s plaintive and simple and yet somehow all encompassing of the road behind and the road ahead.
Colleen van Niekerk was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Vancouver, Canada. This is her debut novel.