May 20, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rahul Bhattacharya has been likened to a young V.S. Naipul in several reviews of his novel The Sly Company of People Who Care. One of the year's most powerful debuts, the book transports the reader effortlessly into modern Guyana with its authentic dialects and cast of colorful characters.
The New York Times wrote of the novel:
"In the opening paragraph of Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, “The Sly Company of People Who Care," the unnamed narrator, a former cricket journalist from India, declares his intentions for his life, and thus his story — to be a wanderer, or in his words, “a slow ramblin' stranger.” That rambling, through the forests of Guyana; the ruined streets of its capital, Georgetown; and out to the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, constitutes the novel's central action. But its heart lies in the exuberant and often arresting observations of a man plunging himself into a world full of beauty, violence and cultural strife. "
I wrote this book in very noisy circumstances from a small flat in Delhi. Its front was a wall of sliding doors, which opened the house to sound: of vendors, of quarrelers, of backfiring vehicles. Over the back wall lived the landlord's servant's family, raging with domestic squabbles and crying babies. Right beside the house, cheek by jowl, an entire building was razed down and a new one twice its height was made, so for two years it was like writing at a construction site. I was writing about a world far removed from mine, Guyana in the Caribbean. To escape the cement mixer and the wailing babies and the Delhi fights over car-parking, and to enter the world I was writing about, I would put on my headphones.
I would have done so anyway. Music penetrates deepest into Caribbean reality. It catches everything, the brutalities of the tortured past, the casual violence of the present, the wit and comedy of the street, the politics and politricks of high office, the reveries of carnival, rum and ganja, and the gorgeous vulgarity, the duttiness and slackness of daily life. My affection for Caribbean music, classic reggae especially, predated the book, but my immersion grew with it. I let it surround me: ska, reggae, chutney, calypso, soca, steelpan, junkanoo, rake-n-scrape, dub, dancehall. I wrote to music and read about music. I wrote scenes around music and music into scenes. Sometimes I wrote lyrics. I obsessively collected versions of the songs I loved. For all it gave me I can only offer the music a homage via the book.
There are, I think, about forty songs invoked in one way or another in Sly Company. Within a few minutes I had that many more for a playlist. One way to limit this craziness was to make a rule to pick only one song per artiste. Toots and the Maytals appear twice, but in the first instance on a collaborated version, and the second instance a cover version, so two halves make one. Another trick was to start writing about the songs and simply stop when I reached a certain number. This I did after fifteen.
"Bam Bam" – Toots and the Maytals (with Shaggy)
On the morning I left India for Guyana I heard this version of the mighty "Bam Bam" over and over loud in my room. I had no plans, and I remember the emptiness of the room when the suitcase that had been lying open on the floor was packed and stood up straight. And I remember Toots' humming, floating wail, both rousing and soothing, which somehow seemed to say 'nuh worry, is life'.
"Maga Dog" – Peter Tosh
There was a time when I was keen to title this book "Maga Dog." 'Sorry fi maga dog, him a go turn around bite you': bite the hand that feeds you. The theme of betrayal is a central theme of the book. I seem to have eleven versions of the song and its spinoffs. And its writer and singer, the great Pete Tosh, was himself murdered by his one-time protégé.
"Nora Darling" – Guyana Male Police Choir
No song evoked Guyana for me like this choir-rendered folk tune. It has a timeless sound, of a gang of workers singing in a forest clearing, or by the canefield trenches, making culture, celebrating life and living. 'Me go give you cement bed gal, me go give you mini skirt gal.' You can see the entire world around a line like that.
"007, Shanty Town" – Desmond Dekker
I will never tire of this classic rocksteady. It is a simple song. The situation is simple: rudeboys versus police. The riddim is simple. The tension, as with the finest reggae, is between the violence of the situation and the sweetness of the riddim, in this instance heightened by Dekker's angelic falsetto. There's a smokin hot version on Mos Dub, a mashup of Mos Def with reggae.
"Woman on the Bass" – Neal and Massy Steel Pan Orchestra
A gentle shake-ass three-minute soca is turned into eleven minutes of operatic, orchestral pandemonium. Steel Pan, developed by the poor of Trinidad from discarded biscuit tins and oil drums, is the ultimate celebration of Caribbean artistry created from desperation of circumstance. I was reminded of this spirit every time the pan coursed through my bones.
"Thunder Road" – Bruce Springsteen
I adored Springsteen in childhood, Dylan in adolescence, and in adulthood I find myself returning to the Boss. I love most his songs of road and attempted love and attempted escape. I found echoes of these themes in a relationship in Sly Company. In the book, "Thunder Road" causes a fight between the boy and girl.
"Lotay La" – Sonny Mann
Chutney is what happened when the folksongs of peasant India encountered the Caribbean. There is a tradition of overt 'rum' chutneys, but the mad drunkenness, the collapse of senses, is most clamorously created in this song about an affair between a wife and brother-in-law. The lyrics are in Bhojpuri, the instrumentation is Trinidadian-Bhojpuri. In one drunken line it links the plains of Gangetic India to plantations of the Caribbean.
"Suhani Raat" – Mohammad Rafi (singer)
I often went to old Hindi songs which mellifluously, melodramatically, capture the desires and futilities of the Indian heart like nothing else can. "Suhani Raat" is an exquisitely written and achingly rendered song about waiting for a beloved. Obscure in India, it is known in Guyana as the national anthem of the countryside, after a popular radio host used it as the theme for his show.
"Lester's Mood" – The Skatalites
The Skatalites were trained at a school in Kingston run by nuns for 'wayward boys'. There they learnt a different horn each, mastered them, and created a dazzling, intricate weave of ska and jazz that was tight as a corset on a free-motion West Indian waist. This arrangement, a tribute, I think to the American trumpeter Lester Bowie, has a mellow majesty that makes me forget all pettiness and tells me to work hard to create something worthwhile.
"What A Botheration" – Lee Perry
'Times are funny / I can't get no money'. A simple line like that, and in it the lightness and heaviness of the world. Scratch Perry is a madman and a genius who once burned down his studio to rid it of bad vibrations. A legendary producer, who supplied the edge to the Wailers' early, pathbreaking work, he was also himself a wicked singer-songwriter.
"Duppy Conqueror" – Bob Marley
How terrible to narrow the giant to a single song, but given the self-imposition, "Duppy Conqueror" is my choice. If reggae is the response to slavery, then this is the emancipatory call. 'The bars could not hold me / Force could not control me'. Beautiful words and a beautiful bassline.
"Funky Hi-life" – CK Mann
To get behind the reggae, one goes to Africa, the mama of all rhythm. Mann's Ghanian highlife piece is sexy and sophisticated, yet raw and rough as though plucked clean from the earth. I managed to also score a fourteen-minute version of this song: you ascend its layers with an ecstasy that makes you sweat.
"No Crime, No Law" – Lord Commander
A good calypso contains the most brilliant writing in the Caribbean, and the Fifties were a very fertile time in Trinidad. 'If somebody don't bust somebody face / How the policeman going to make a case?', asks the forgotten Lord Commander in his rapid, vivid, forceful and hilarious composition. It swells, like the best satire, from the individual to the social, and it seemed an uncanny commentary on the political-criminal situation in contemporary Guyana.
"You Never Know" – Rupee
Soca is the sound of the Caribbean party. But I pick this one also because it's a tribute to dead musicians. As Rupee signs off, 'For real, man, yo, the reality of the situation is that some of the people jumpin in this band today might not be here next year man, so you got to give thanks, man, you never know, yo, I got to go, I got to go.'
"Let Down" – Radiohead / Toots and the Maytals
As it starts with Toots, so it finishes. I needed to be in a particular mood for the end of the book. Only this song could provide it, and I heard both the Radiohead and the Toots versions on loop. 'One day I'm going to grow wings,' it says. It is a lie, and he knows it. Everyone knows it.
Rahul Bhattacharya and The Sly Company of People Who Care links:
Akhond of Swat review
Calcutta Telegraph review
Howard County Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Repeating Islands review
Seeing the World Through Books review
The Tossed Salad Pune review
Wall Street Journal review
Words Uttered in Haste review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists