April 6, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for a Novel of Social Change has introduced me to several talented writers over the years, notably Gayle Brandeis, Hillary Jordan, and Heidi Durrow. Naomi Benaron is a worthy addition to that fine group.
Benaron's debut novel Running the Rift is a gripping coming of age story set in Rwanda before, during, and after the country's genocide. This tragic yet beautifully written and powerful book offers vivid insight into the country through the life of a young Tutsi boy who dreams of running in the Olympics, only to have his dreams deferred by civil war.
The Christian Science Monitor wrote of the book:
"This debut novel set against the backdrop of Rwanda's ethnic conflict is a powerful coming-of-age story that highlights the best and the worst of human nature."
Set foot in Rwanda, and you will understand immediately that it is a kaleidoscope of motion and color. The roads are crowded with women in bright wraps, basins overflowing with fruit or vegetables on their heads, children scurrying to class in blue school uniforms, men and boys pedaling heavy bicycles or pushing wooden carts balanced with hulking sacks of potatoes or grain. Although I cannot listen to music when I write—I need to fill my head with word and scene and nothing else—music did play an essential part in the creation of my novel Running the Rift, a coming of age tale that follows a young Tutsi boy through the years leading to the Rwandan genocide and beyond. I listened to music before I wrote, when I came up for air, on the drive to my favorite running spots, when I left the words behind for the day. In Rwanda, music is everywhere; it drifts from shops, plays on buses and car radios, infuses night and day with color and light. As my understanding of the language is rudimentary at best, I chose what I liked according to sound and cadence, to the feeling generated inside me. In a way, it is music at its purest: music as motion, as an instinctive and unavoidable firing of neurons propelling muscle fiber to respond, the instinct that in me corresponds to both the need for strenuous exercise and the need to write. I have chosen an eclectic mix based largely on emotion and kinetic energy, songs that bring back the taste, feel, and scent of the country and people I have come to love and the story that grew in my heart.
"Tarihinda" by Cécile Kayirebwa
You cannot think about Rwanda without thinking of Cécile Kayirebwa. Kayirebwa grew up surrounded by the traditional poetry, music, and dance of her country, and from an early age, she considered it her mission to preserve those traditions. Tarihinda is a praise song, extolling the virtues of the country's best performance artists. The word tarihinda is an invitation to "dance and have fun," and listening to this song, it is difficult not to heed the request. The music has a subtle, primeval beat, like a hand gently rocking a cradle. I have spent countless hours in the homes of my Rwandese friends, swaying barefoot across carpets and floors, moved to dance by the joy expressed in songs like this. I don't think it is possible to experience the music and not be compelled to move, to celebrate. You can hear the traditional instruments of Rwanda: ikembe (thumb piano), umuduri (flute), inaga (rtough zither) and ingoma (drum). Here is a you tube link to a "mama dancing" to the song:
Even in the kitchen, spatula in hand, you can't help having fun.
"African Sky Blue" by Johnny Clegg and Juluka
Johnny Clegg, "le Zulu blanc," is a white musician who grew up under apartheid in South Africa. An activist from an early age, he formed an interracial band, Juluka, which means sweat in Zulu. This was illegal under the country's Group Areas Act, which prohibited the mixing of races in public spaces, and by challenging the statute, Clegg risked arrest. Clegg is a master of Zulu dance, and attending a Clegg concert is like being present at a wild dance party, everyone dancing, leaping, and ululating in the aisles. This song is both joyful and a lament – joy and love for the natural beauty of the country and a lament that its people are forced to work at backbreaking jobs for the enrichment of the colonizers. In Rwanda, too, life seems a constant dance between uncontained joy and profound heartbreak. They lie curled together, inextricably intertwined.
"Them Belly Full (but We Hungry)" by Bob Marley
Mix social injustice, outrage, divine inspiration, the compelling need to move, and a little ganja and put to boil in a big pot over an open fire. Result: You can't sit still. Marley is big in Rwanda, his image emblazoned across chests, hung up in markets, plastered on walls. His music blasts from tinny speakers in busses, shops, and cabarets. This song always puts me in the mood to write or run. It's an integral part of the mix tape I play in my head for hard workouts, a driving beat to keep me pushing forward through the pain. Forget your troubles and dance.
"No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley
This song played in my head during a certain scene in my novel. From the moment I saw the scene unfold behind my eyes, which was close to the time I began writing the story, the music was woven into its fabric, a slow spiraling dance from Bujumbura to Boston. More than that I won't say; it would wreck everything. Everything.
Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi
This is my tribute to the genocide, a musical expression of all the complex mix of emotion that can never be put into words. The mass begins with the Requiem and Kyrie, whispered voices floating on a breath of strings, grief a gentle tremble between them. As the piece progresses, there is a constant interplay between grief—"the day is one of weeping"—and rage—"The day of wrath, that day/will dissolve the world in ashes"— culminating in Libere me (Deliver me), a crescendo of voice, brass, percussion, and string. In Terezín Concentration camp, a composer named Rafael Schächter gathered together a chorus of inmates to perform Verdi's Requiem. "We can sing to them [the Nazis] what we cannot say to them," he said, speaking of the day of vengeful justice foretold in the mass, "When Thou shalt come to judge the world/with fire." Performances honoring Schächter are now given internationally under the name "Defiant Requiem." When I think of the genocide in Rwanda, this same sense of defiance, of rising from the ashes despite all, is with me.
"Mubwire" by Meddy
When I went to Rwanda in 2010 for my unofficially adopted son's wedding, this song was all over the airwaves, and hearing it always brings that trip back to my eyes and my heart. Traveling in the groom's car to and from the church, we must have played it a million times. It was a large SUV, about ten or twelve of us crowded together, overflowing the seats, most of them little boys in shiny tuxedos and little girls in white chiffon dresses holding bouquets of red roses garnished with red ribbon. Mubwire means "tell her," and it is a song about the misunderstandings between a boy and a girl who are deeply in love. Of course there is love of exactly this type in Running the Rift, the misunderstandings identical. In the car, we sang along at the top of our lungs. There is a word in the song, ikiniga, and it means the kind of sorrow that hurts in the throat. This is how a broken heart feels, I think. But it is also the way profound joy feels, the kind that makes you weep. It's the feeling I had seeing the peace and happiness in my son's face after so many years of suffering.
"Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" by Shakira
My 2010 visit to Rwanda corresponded with the World Cup Games in South Africa. "Waka Waka" was the official FIFA World Cup Song, and it, too, was a constant presence. It is a song of triumph and pride, a song with a driving beat, both defiant and joyous, the ultimate recognition of Africa's role in the sport. "When you fall," the lyrics say, "get up," and this was the mood I finally felt in Rwanda. It was not just my son, but the entire country that was looking toward the future. Rwanda is a country of survivors, and they have done it largely on their own. They have risen from the ashes. They are rebuilding. Heads high, they are moving forward.
Naomi Benaron and Running the Rift links:
All Things Considered review
Chicago Tribune review
Christian Science Monitor review
Dallas Morning News review
Deseret News review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
Salisbury Post review
Washington Post review
Diane Prokop interview with the author
Female First interview with the author
Goodreads interview with the author
JM Tohline interview with the author
One True Thing interview with the author
School Library Journal interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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