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January 18, 2013

Book Notes - Emily Raboteau "Searching for Zion"

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

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, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Emily Raboteau's Searching for Zion is as thought-provoking a book as I have read in many years, a memoir that dares to tackle big issues while also illuminating both the writer's and her subjects' lives.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"No quest for home is ever limited to a simple place, and the author evokes that reality beautifully by focusing on the spiritual aspect of the search for many of African descent…An excellent choice for readers interested in religion, philosophy and the elusive concept of home."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Emily Raboteau's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora:


Searching for Zion examines what Zionism means in the African diaspora (as opposed to the Jewish one). My research carried me across five nations to visit black utopian communities that had left home, out of feelings of dispossession, to seek the "Promised Land." I grew up hearing about such a place in slave songs, gospel music, the speeches of Martin Luther King and in reggae lyrics. Music, in particular, suggested to me that Zion was for black folks, a shifting and elusive metaphor for freedom.


"Go Down Moses," Roland Hayes

When Israel was in Egypt land…

I have many Jewish friends who sing this old Negro spiritual at Passover seder. It may be the most obvious example of the kinship slaves in the American South felt with the slaves of the Hebrew bible. Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong also recorded wonderful versions of this song, but I'm sharing Hayes's 1922 recording because it's closer to the source. Born in Georgia to former slaves, he was a Fisk Jubilee Singer who went on to have a successful solo career.


"Wade in the Water," Sweet Honey in the Rock

They must be the children of the Israelites…

A stirring a cappella version of another slave song. The lyrics refer to crossing the river Jordan in the book of Exodus where the Israelites push on toward Canaan.


"Follow the Drinking Gourd," Richie Havens

For the old man is waiting
For to carry you to freedom…

This song is a coded map of geographical points along the Underground Railroad, the resistance movement that helped slaves escape the South to freedom in northern states and Canada. The "drinking gourd" of the title is the big dipper.


"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," Della Reese

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home…

This song, also referencing the Underground Railroad, resurged during the Civil Rights era folk revival. Both Joan Baez and Etta James recorded other excellent versions in that period.


"Promised Land," Chuck Berry

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana…

I love how Chuck Berry carried the dusty freedom metaphor into the age of rock n' roll and made it fun. He wrote the song's lyrics while doing time in prison for sexual involvement with a minor, and it was the first single he released after getting out. The song, more or less a list of Southern cities, poses California as the Promised Land. Supposedly, he borrowed a road atlas from the prison library to plot the lyrics. Though Elvis's cover is the one that hit the charts, it can't hold a candle to the original.


"Rivers of Babylon," The Melodians

Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity…

An interpolation of Psalm 137, this tune was included on the 1972 soundtrack to Jamaican film classic The Harder They Come. It alludes to the yearnings of Jews in exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Relating to the Israelites in this story, Rastafarians yearn for Africa as their lost home and refer to Babylon as a state or system of oppression.


"The Israelites," Desmond Dekker and the Aces

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir...

Also included on The Harder they Come Soundtrack, this was one of the first international ska hits to come out of Jamaica. It universalizes the Israelite experience as one of hardship and suffering, but remains lively and upbeat.


"Iron Lion Zion," Bob Marley and the Wailers

I'm gonna be iron, like a lion, in Zion!

In the Rastafarian faith, Zion is Babylon's opposite realm – a utopian ideal of freedom, unity and peace. Most Rastas believe Zion is located in Africa, and more specifically, in Ethiopia. Many perceive themselves as modern Israelites and wish to return to an African Zion. The "Lion of Judah" is their term for Ethiopia's former emperor Haile Selassie, who they worship as an incarnation of Christ.


"Rastaman Chant," Bob Marley and the Wailers

Babylon your throne gone down, gone down…

Quoting from the hymn, "I'll Fly Away," Marley replaces heaven with Zion as the realm to which man will return on that "bright morning" when work is over. When I traveled to Shashemene, Ethiopia, where a community of Rasta has emigrated, I got to hear a four-hour version of this song performed at the Nyabinghi Temple in celebration of Haile Selassie's birthday. I was most impressed by the trance of the drums.


"Forward Unto Zion," Abyssinians

Send us home to Zion, beautiful Zion…

Taking repatriation as its theme, this song is a plea for return, acknowledging that slavery was abolished long ago, yet still calling "upon the leaders of this time … to free the children out of captivity." Rastas I met at the Twelve Tribes Headquarters in Kingston Jamaica had petitioned the Queen of England to finance such a return. They were waiting for her response.


"Til I'm Laid to Rest," Buju Banton

Oh what a beauty my eyesight behold
Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold…

Part anthem for African unity, part love song for Ethiopia, this song contrasts the imagined prosperity and freedom of the East with the degradation and tyranny of the West.


"Tezeta," Mulatu Astatke (Instrumental)
From the album Ethiopiques Vol.4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974

Tezeta is an Ethiopian term for nostalgia, a longing for the past. It's also a musical mode in a bluesy key. I heard a song played in this mode by a saxophonist in Israel during the 2006 war with Lebanon. He was an Ethiopian Jew who explained that in Ethiopia, Jews used this mode to express their longing for Jerusalem. For those who had emigrated to Israel, however, it was more often used to express their nostalgia for Ethiopia. This irony struck me as an example of how Zion seems always just out of reach.


Emily Raboteau and Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at The Believer)
excerpt from the book (at Salon)

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus Reviews review
Slate review

Haaretz interview with the author
She Writes interview with the author
Slate interview with the author
Tablet interview with the author
Transition Magazine essay by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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


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