September 22, 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.
Spanning generations and continents, George Lerner's debut novel The Ambassadors is a perceptive and poignant account of war and family.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Debut novelist Lerner is a television producer and journalist who has covered the African genocides firsthand. His amazingly balanced insights into the continent's unceasing tribal wars, and his depiction of a couple whose great love is subverted by opposing worldviews has generated a page-turner."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I have to confess a lover's quarrel with music. Music had an integral role in my very existence by bringing together my violinist mother and pianist father years after each had abandoned hopes of performance careers. Whatever gifts that music had endowed upon my parents, however, did not extend to me. I lacked the slightest whisper of musical talent. As a ten-year-old playing the violin, I struggled with the flow of notes. My hands had little fluidity, and I loathed practicing. My father, a scholar of renaissance music history, never quite forgave me for quitting.
Music might not have been my calling, but it did exert a powerful pull over my debut novel, "The Ambassadors." The novel's central character is a Brooklyn man, Jacob Furman, whose regrets over dealing arms in an African civil war lead him to try to reconcile with the wife and son he had once betrayed. His grown son, Shalom, manages a band of West African salsa players, who adapted the sound of the great 1950s-60s Cuban bands to their own traditions. Shalom's struggles to promote this music among indifferent audiences in New York is emblematic of his tenuous relationship to Jacob and to the world in general. Jacob, the father, has his own unrequited relationship to music. As a U.S. soldier in post-World War II Bavaria, Jacob spots a magnificent grand piano in the home of a nefarious black marketer and suspects its previous owners had been deported to Auschwitz. He brings the Steinway back to Brooklyn, but the piano sits quiet for decades, until one of Shalom's gifted bandmates wrests a new, syncretic sound from its aged keys.
"Soldadi" - Orchestra Baobab
I could have picked a half-dozen cuts from Orchestra Baobab's transcendent album "Pirates Choice." This music is filled with joy and vision, a Cuban sound reinterpreted by Senegalese musicians, sung in a mélange of African and Western languages. Their sound served as the inspiration for the band in "The Ambassadors," in which Shalom books a group of West African salseros into a succession of wholly inappropriate venues.
"Ballade #4" – Frederic Chopin – Piano: Artur Rubinstein
I grew up watching the grand piano that my father, like Jacob, had acquired when serving in post-war Germany. I borrowed the idea of this piano, along with a few of my father's other army stories, for "The Ambassadors," but there aren't any real similarities between the character of Jacob Furman and my dad, a quiet man who never considered a concert piano career because of family opposition and the recognition that he simply didn't have the fire in him. My father stopped playing the piano altogether shortly after my birth. When he died, I found his annotated scores from the Chopin ballades, marked and referenced, performed at one time, but never for my ears.
"California Stars" – Music by Billy Bragg & Wilco, lyrics by Woody Guthrie
Off the first Mermaid Avenue album, this collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco put songs to some of Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics. The idea of words being rescued from a dark box served as a major theme of "The Ambassadors," where the characters reflect on the Holocaust and disagree over what can be restored from the abyss.
"Allah La Kananjon" - Keba Bobo Cissoko
The struggles of Keba Bobo Cissoko, a master of the kora, the 21-string West African harp, to secure a musical place in New York helped inform the resilience and persistence of the musicians in "The Ambassadors." I learned of Keba's journey, leaving his native Guinea-Bissau to cross the Atlantic, from his friend and collaborator Sylvain Leroux, who plays the West African Fula flute. A traditional griot, Keba died in 2003, before he could finish production on an album that brought together his griot/jeli storytelling with a rich modern sound. Keba's friends completed the album and released it posthumously.
"Kol Ha'Olam Kulo" – traditional Hassidic tune – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
A classic Hassidic song that repeats one line: "All the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid." The song crops up at a critical juncture of "The Ambassadors" and allows my characters to escape a tight spot, surrounded by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.
"Remote Control" - The Clash
Coming of age in punk rock, I spent my adolescence lost in the supermarket. Joe Strummer put voice to that sense of confinement, and disillusionment, but he also offered a way out, through music, through anger, and the refusal to simply be satisfied. Shalom also comes from this tradition, and so it feels natural for him to book the band into a punk line-up at CBGBs. The result is a clash of cultures that Shalom can't contend with.
"Ballaké" - Bembeya Jazz
The legendary Guinean band with a big horn section, sparkling guitar and dynamic vocals became a national treasure in the 1960s-70s, and were immortalized in thrilling television performances (available on youtube), but decades later, I met some of the surviving musicians in New York, playing before tiny audiences who had no idea of their history.
"Tennessee Blues" - Steve Earle
A song about departures, and crossing the mighty Hudson River to reach New York. Steve's journey was dramatically different from the African musicians described above, but his commitment to start anew had a common chord.
"Ritmo, Tambo, y Flores" – Celia Cruz
An early song from the Queen of Salsa, capturing her legendary dynamism, radiant stage presence and magnificent voice. Here was a sound of pure joy to draw in Shalom, and inspire his commitment to a band of Senegalese salseros.
"Animata" - Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal en La Habana
Los Afro-Salseros comprised an all star team of Senegalese musicians who traveled to Cuba to record an album in Havana. For many it was the fulfillment of a lifelong musical journey, as documented by the research of historian Richard M. Shain.
"Round Midnight" - Thelonious Monk
Sang Froid, the brilliant improvisational pianist in "The Ambassadors," plays along with the disparate musical styles that influence the band. Deep down though, he is a visionary, a Monk, and finds a partner for his art in a piano that carries a tragic history.
"Revelator" - Gillian Welch
Time opens up a window for Gillian Welch to compose elegies to a lost age of hard times, camptowns and mules. My fictional landscape is different, but the idea of singing to the past, to the dead, resonated deeply.
"Nakobala Te" - Kékélé
A significant part of "The Ambasadors" deals with Jacob's travels through Eastern Congo at the beginning of a terrible civil war. It was an era, President Joseph Mobutu's long reign, that I came to appreciate through grand masters of Congolese music like Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau. But it was the members of Kékélé, which formed as a throwback to traditional Congolese rumba, who taught me most about this period, its music and its struggles, when they sat with me for an interview on their 2004 U.S. tour.
"Jesus of Suburbia" - Green Day
Shalom wouldn't recognize suburbia, but sure could understand the alienation, the passion and the disillusionment, of Billie Joe Armstrong's "son of rage and love."
"Clay Pigeons" - Blaze Foley
For a musician whose studio records were lost, Blaze left a powerful legacy in songs of mourning and mischievousness, his spirit kept alive by musical compatriots who decades later still grieve over his murder.
"Virgo Prudentissima" - Heinrich Isaac
My father's life work as a scholar was to translate the manuscripts of Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac from its antique notation, unreadable to modern performers, into modern scores that can be played today. "Virgo Prudentissima" is a glorious piece of choral music, even if its title – "The Most Prudent Virgin" -- has lost something in the passage from the 15th to the 21st Century. My dad had an arcane vocation, difficult for me to understand during my childhood, but at 90, he was still transcribing, restoring lost notes to the world. My father died a few days before I submitted the final draft of my novel.
George Lerner and The Ambassadors links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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weekly music release lists