January 24, 2014
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Okey Ndimbe's novel Foreign Gods, Inc. is a stunning debut, both lyrical and enlightening about the West's allure to Africa (and vice versa).
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"Unforgettable ... Ndibe seems to have a boundless ear for the lyrical turns of phrase of the working people of rural Nigeria... The wooden deity 'has character, an audacious personality,' says one non-African who sees it. So does Ndibe's novel, a page-turning allegory about the globalized world."
My longstanding daydream was to be a musician. I'm never abashed to make that confession. If I had my way (and the talent), I'd exchange my gig as a prose writer for a vocation in music any day!
Music or—let me try for greater aptness—a sense of the sonic is at the core of my creative work. A frustrated music man, I'm ever attentive to the ubiquitousness of music in literature and life. Writing Foreign Gods, Inc., I had to fall back on music as one of the tools for accentuating the protagonist's shifting emotions.
As a young man in college in Nigeria, I was drawn to the music of Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the dean of reggae, Bob Marley. Both men were not merely musicians, they did not only refine musical genres; they were also cult figures who loomed over, defined their times. Something about their rebellious temperament, their countercultural pose, and their musical genius appealed to my irreverent, youthful instincts.
Fela had frequent clashes with Nigeria's military juntas, with trigger-happy soldiers and police. Wherever he resided or played, he constructed a Mecca of holy chaos, veritable shrines haunted by devotees of his music, admirers of his freewheeling, anarchic lifestyle. Inevitably, the state (a military dictatorship, to boot!) pushed back, sought to repress him. The clashes helped fuel Fela's fame, spread his appeal, and lent a vital, raunchy urgency to his music.
Years later, as a fledging journalist, my path and Fela's crossed. It was 1984. A stern, inflexible military regime had accused Fela of violating a currency trafficking decree. Many considered the charges spurious. Yet, we all watched as a judge (handpicked by the junta) jailed the musician. I interviewed many sources, including Fela's younger brother and kindred spirit, Beko, a medical doctor—and wrote a cover story for a weekly magazine. Twenty months later, Fela's uniformed tormentors were upstaged in a near-palace coup d'etat. The new regime freed Fela, earning itself great popular applause. Beko called and invited me to a "victory party," telling me that Fela had read and treasured my cover story on his travails. The musician and I struck up a friendship that earned me unfettered access to his home (which, at any rate, he left open to all kinds of adventure-seeking wanderers) and free passes to his nightclub in Ikeja, a bustling section of Lagos. When I relocated to the US to edit African Commentary, an international magazine founded by the novelist Chinua Achebe and others, I convinced Fela to sign on as a columnist. Despite many promises and (I believe) his best efforts, he never managed to submit a column. But our friendship thrived, and I enjoyed backroom access to him when he played concerts in Amherst and Northampton (MA) and Woodstock (NY).
"Shakara" by Fela Kuti
It's no surprise that Fela's "Shakara" is the first piece of music to appear in Foreign Gods, Inc. It was one of the earliest of Fela's numerous hits that I encountered. In its time, it was something of an anthem. "Shakara" satirizes female affectation of aloofness to male amorous advances, a poseur playing hard to get. The song struck me as a perfect signature for my protagonist's askew life as an unhappy New York City cab driver on the verge of doing something terribly transgressive—even unthinkable: to steal and vend the statue of his community's once-dreaded war deity.
"Vulindlela" by Brenda Fassie
The first time I heard Brenda Fassie's "Vulindlela," at a Nigerian party in Newark, NJ, I was blown away. The late South African musician had a plangent voice, a delivery that sounded like a long, heady wail. I rose to my feet as if in panic, and started dancing. Later, I searched youtube for any videos of the artist performing the song. I watched one in which she jumps off the stage and preens around Nelson Mandela, who needed little urging to stand up and dance in his regal fashion, a sway accompanied by measured movements of the hands and shoulders. Since I've long considered Mandela the major ethical figure of our time, I elevated "Vulindlela" to a pantheon of songs that embody the spirit of South Africa's epic, ongoing drama of becoming. That trope of transformation, I decided, was pertinent to Ike's extraordinary treacherous journey.
"Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley
Bob Marley's music has no "play" in my novel, but I was very much thinking about the reggae star, especially his song "Three Little Birds," as I wrote the scene where Ike (on the eve of his trip to Nigeria) visits his Jamaican neighbors for a feast of curry goat and rice. The huge posters of Marley and Jimmy Cliff may be silent on the walls, but they had great emotional power for me. In a sense, Marley, especially, inspirited the work. His plaintive songs, particularly those that focused on oppression and the cultural denudation of Africans, shaped the interior, subtle landscapes of the story.
On my protagonist's arrival in Lagos, he spends the night in a hotel which trembles with the clamorous notes of Fuji music. The fact that Ike finds the hotel's nightclub and its blaring music at once jarring and alluring mirrors his emotional conflictedness. On the very first stop of his journey home, the reader realizes that the demons that plagued Ike in New York are very much present in Nigeria—and that his adventure is not going to be an easy affair.
"Joromi" by Victor Uwaifo
Victor Uwaifo may not be well known these days in the US and Europe, but it's difficult to find a more carelessly gifted strummer of the guitar anywhere. In a cab headed for his hometown, the scene of his unusual heist, Ike asks for Uwaifo's "Joromi." The air-conditioned car pulsates with the song's thrilling rhythm, alternating between slow and soaring notes, the musician's deft fingers working their magic until the music sweeps Ike up, utterly possesses him. The way "Joromi" enters the protagonist's body, seduces him, helps to signal a heightening of the narrative drama. The song functions, I suggest, as emotional point and counterpoint. On the one hand, Ike wants to surrender to the sheer enchantment; on the other, he desires to free himself from it, to flee!
Ultimately, the greatest reservoir of sonic (or, more broadly, sensual) richness in my novel lies in the natural world. When Ike revisits Uvunu, a stream where many of his childhood love dreams and adventures are embedded, he finds it to offer "a rich banquet of colors, varied scents, and seductive music."
Okey Ndibe and Foreign Gods, Inc. links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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