March 30, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Caroline Brothers' novel Hinterland is an elegantly told yet powerful portrait of two young Afghani brothers crossing Europe on their own in search of a better life. Brothers' empathy for her characters is always evident in this affecting debut.
The Daily Mail wrote of the book:
"This short but heart-wrenching book presents us with the tragic reality behind the words 'refugee' and 'asylum-seeker' and brings home the terrible human consequences of war. Caroline Brothers's stark, unsentimental novel is one everyone should read."
There is almost no music I can listen to while I write. I am always drawn into the lyrics, even in music I know very well, or into the arrangements if it's instrumental work… which simply means that music is what happens in my breaks. I find its mood-changing powers so irresistible that when I'm writing intensively I have to be careful what I listen to. At the same time, though, when my writing time is fragmented, I will use a particular piece of music to carry me back into the frame of mind that I need for a particular passage. If it strikes a chord in that way then it can be a tremendous ally.
I didn't have a playlist, as such, while I set out to write Hinterland. But many of the pieces I've chosen here came to be associated with Hinterland in the way I thought about the text when I couldn't actually be working on it, or in my mood as I was setting the words down, or in the way I later felt about some sections. So the playlist I've put together is very eclectic, and ranges from heavily played pop tunes to a piece very few people have ever heard since it was specially composed for a series of photographs of the lost boys of Afghanistan, which is the subject of my novel. And since Europe is so rich in influences from every continent, there seems to be music here from nearly all of them.
1) Song for the journey
"Somewhere Only We Know," from Hopes and Fears, by Keane
I must have heard this track by this English band beforehand, but I think I only really took note of it while I was writing Hinterland, and for a while it became one of those mood-bridges. I remember overhearing it in a bar somewhere in Paris, and fragments of the lyrics suddenly caught my attention – something about a journey, and a river, and feeling the earth beneath one's feet, and the need for something to rely on. All that seemed to echo the closeness to nature, and the need for bearings that my characters too were seeking – two Afghan kids who when you first meet them are crossing a river on one of the borders of Europe. For me, the choirboy vocals of this song echoed the youthfulness of my main characters, of Aryan in particular, whose voice is only just breaking in the novel, and of his younger brother Kabir.
2) Theme song from Titanic
"My Heart Will Go on," from the soundtrack from the movie Titanic, by Celine Dion
I debated whether or not to list this piece, but finally realized that to do this authentically I would have to include the title track from the movie "Titanic," which means something completely different in Afghanistan from what it means elsewhere. I include it because, surprisingly enough, "Titanic" became something of a cult film in Afghanistan when Aryan still lived there. During the early part of his childhood, the Taliban banned all music altogether, even at weddings, and films like this were absolutely outlawed. Video and cassette tapes were gutted and destroyed and it was extremely dangerous to be caught watching such a film. Despite that, contraband copies of "Titanic" still circulated and it won a huge following – boys even got their hair cut in "Titanic" hair styles -- which presumably means like Leonardo di Caprio's. Perhaps it had such resonance because it was a forbidden film about impossible love, which is another big theme in that part of the world. At any rate, the film's title track serves as a link to that time in the late 1990s that had had such a fateful influence on the lives of Hinterland's protagonists; the boys make a couple of references to the film along their journey.
3) Song for Kabir
"Take Care," from the album Teen Dream, by Beach House
To my mind this is Aryan's song for Kabir. It makes me think of the two kids sitting in the park in Athens after Aryan thinks he has lost his younger brother and failed a second time to take care of him. Or when Aryan carries him on his back when his blisters hurt or when they have to hide in the sand dunes. There are moments when Aryan, who is sometimes fed up with having Kabir tag along with him everywhere, becomes aware of how precious Kabir is to him, and this song seems to capture that. The voice of Victoria Legrand, the French vocalist in this Baltimore-based duo, is gorgeous throughout the album but especially on this track; it just lifts and lifts until it practically takes off.
4) Aryan's song
"When You're Sleeping," from the album Counting Down the Days, by Natalie Imbruglia
Sung by the Australian vocalist Natalie Imbruglia, this song reminds me of how Aryan, always the worrier, is so often awake and vigilant throughout the journey. On their first night on the farm in Greece, when Kabir falls sick, when they bed down on the pebble beach in Nice, Aryan is almost always the restless one, the one who watches, the one who lies awake thinking, while Kabir gives in to his exhaustion because he knows Aryan will keep him safe. And the album's title is evocative too, because Aryan and his friend Hamid both worry about time, about getting too old to go to school, and on the farm in Greece Aryan literally notches up the days in his notebook, counting them down.
5) Immigrant's song
"Doxandeme," by Cheikh Lo, from the album Ne La Thiass
Aryan and Kabir stumble through the dawn into the northern Italian city of Genoa and wander through its medieval streets till they end up on the waterfront. There they come across a group of African migrants who sell trinkets and fake designer handbags to tourists. Sensing that these men are foreigners like them and might be able to help, they ask for directions, and one later takes them to the railway station. While much wilier than the naieve Afghan boys, the street-sellers themselves are trying to hang on in Italy, dodging the police and the possibility of deportation.
This song is titled "The Immigrant" in Wolof (the album's title means "In an Instant") and in it Cheikh Lo, who worked for a while as a session musician in Paris, sings about the life of Senegalese migrants in Europe. It's the sort of piece these guys might listen to on a battered old radio somewhere. Lo's music is a fabulous fusion of African and Cuban-influenced Latin rhythms, mixed with accents of jazz, and this album, produced with the Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour, encapsulates for me the various worlds these migrants have moved through.
6) Aryan's love song
"You're Beautiful" by James Blunt, from his album Back to Bedlam
There were just too many parallels in this greatly overplayed hit for me to leave it out … This happened to Aryan: he fell in love on a train with a girl who was with someone else. He is 14 years old and growing up on the road and he finds himself in a carriage on an overnight train with a beautiful, exotic-looking girl who is listening to music with her boyfriend, but flirting with him in the reflection of the windows. Aryan is filled with longing and confusion and helplessness in the face of her inaccessibility, and this song seemed to capture something of what he was feeling.
7) Song for the sea
"Bom Feeling" by Sara Tavares, from her album Balance
I could imagine this piece playing in the background on the day Aryan and Kabir wind up on an Italian beach. It's the first time these two Afghan kids have ever seen the sea, except for a glimpse in Genoa, and they decide it tastes terrible but that the sand is a great place for wrestling. It is one of the few times we see Aryan, who is always having to be responsible and make decisions for the two of them, letting go and fooling around like the kid he hasn't had a chance to be, and I wanted him especially to have this moment of happiness on the journey. It is written and performed by Sara Tavares, who comes from the islands of Capo Verde, off the coast of Africa, though she later moved to Lisbon. She sings in Portuguese and a mixture of English and French, mingling her African and European roots. This is a very light, sweet song that just radiates joy.
8) Song for Africa
"Nabou," by Ismael Lo, from his album Iso
When Aryan and Kabir make it to the northern French port Calais they climb over a gate and encounter a group of young African migrants, mostly from Somalia and Eritrea, who let them stay the night in an old sawmill complex. In the morning they sit around a campfire with Jonah, a Somali lad who has befriended them, trying to warm up and listening to music on a mobile phone. I wanted to include this song, even though it comes from West rather than East Africa, because it is so expressive of departures and separations, and because Ismael Lo's vocals are so stunning on this album. In this track he sings about a young man and his family who miss his sister when she leaves home to get married. It describes her brother's sense of loss as he goes to her empty room, and I include it because it is a way of talking about the families the guys in Calais left behind to gamble their lives, like Aryan and Kabir are doing, on a future in a faraway place.
9) Song for Hamid
"Kathleen," by David Gray, from his album Draw the Line
The lyrics to this song seem written for Hamid, the friend Aryan and Kabir are separated from in Greece, and who makes his own way across Europe clinging to the undercarriage of semi-trailers. The worn-out shoes, and the description of a red ghost seen in the tail-light gleam of the trucks as they roar past, perfectly captures his experience for me. I love the rolling piano rhythms like the rhythms of the road in this song, and its poetic imagery. In the lyrics, as they are performed by the British singer songwriter David Gray, I can so easily picture Hamid being left on the side of the road in some foreign country, like someone who didn't exist.
10) Long distance song
"Kataghani," by Homayun Sakhi, from the album, Music of Central Asia Vol 3: Homayun Sakhi - The Art of the Afghan Rubab
At one point in Calais, Aryan decides to phone his uncle in Tehran. He has Kabir beside him and while he is waiting on the line he thinks about what they will say to their cousins, to Masood and his sister Zohra, who Aryan was close to when they were growing up. They haven't spoken for the best part of a year. I imagine him thinking of the last time the family was together, and the music that was banned in Afghanistan but which they could listen to when they were living in Iran. This instrumental piece, whose title I believe means simply Afghan song, is played by the exiled rubab master Homayun Saki, who fled Afghanistan for California in the Taliban era. The rubab is a type of fretted lute that originated in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is played throughout the region. Though it's unlikely Aryan would have heard this exact piece, I find it very evocative of his origins.
11) Song for Calais
"Tears Inside," by Tim Finn, from his album Tim Finn
This song is for all those who have ever become entangled in the intractable struggles of the French port of Calais – from the police rotated through it to the volunteers on the food lines to the migrants themselves who are trying to stow away on the trucks and ferryboats. This song is by the New Zealand singer songwriter Tim Finn, of Split Enz fame, who also wrote some of the songs for Crowded House. The rolling rhythms of this track make me think of the roiling sea as the ferries slide out of the port and the trucks shunt endlessly through the parking lots and onto the boats and trains; the howling wind and roaring tide of the lyrics conjure up that coastline and the powerful emotions associated with it really vividly.
12) Song for Hinterland
This piece of music is the original score for a slideshow that I was working on with a photographer called Ed Alcock on the Afghan boys I'd been talking to in Paris.
Ed Hyde, who is a composer in the U.K., got inspired by the story of their journeys and wrote this piece to go with the pictures that were being published on the Web site of a British newspaper. His brief was to capture something of the feeling of Afghanistan, and something of the feeling of Paris; he also had to avoid falling into any ersatz or generic ethnicity. He used pared-back arrangements to accompany the photographs since the score had to be sympathetic to them and not too obtrusive... I love the way he avoided being tragic or sentimental about the subject, because the kids I'd been interviewing, like the kids in Hinterland, didn't see themselves in a tragic or sentimental light.
Caroline Brothers and Hinterland links:
The Bookbag review
Daily Mail review
Fan the Pages review
Financial Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
New Zealand Herald review
Publishers Weekly review
We Love This Book review
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