July 6, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Maria Dahvana Headley's Magonia is one of the finest young adult novels I have read, deliciously quirky, smart, and moving.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"...Headley, who co-edited Unnatural Creatures with Neil Gaiman, riffs like an improv comic through the factoids of a Google age, giving her characters retentive memories and lightning search skills. Like the best improv, the first-person narration is funny, furious, and vulnerable..."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My new book, Magonia, is a combination of lots of things, maybe of everything I could think of. I was trying to write the kind of fantasy you read when you're a first reading, the kind that makes you wonder how the world really works, combined with talk of death and disaster, because hey, the world, any world, has pain in it. So, Magonia is about a teenage girl who mysteriously sick, with a disease so rare it's named after her. Very close to the beginning of the novel, she sees a ship in the sky calling her name. Soon after that, she's dying, and then she's dead. She wakes up on a sky ship full of female pirates, bird people, songbirds that live in her lungs, and a brewing war between the sky and earth. It's a crazy fantasy, but also full of real world things, that feeling that you're the only one like you, that you'll never find your place. We've all had it at some point. This is a book about being an alien, but also about love, death, pirates, kraken…all over the map basically. As is this playlist! I put in some shanties, some folk songs, some virtuoso uncategorizables…there was a period of my life during which I was way deep into traditional folk music, and so I dredged some of those songs up, but I'm also into people inventing new stories and sounds, sometimes riffing off of ancient ones, so those are in here too.
Feloche - "Silbo"
A whistled version of Spanish from the Canary Islands, Silbo Gomera is talked about in Magonia, and I listened to this a lot throughout the writing of the book. The canwr - or lung birds - in the book harmonize with their Magonian hosts, from inside their chests.This song is mostly in French, and contains only a little bit of Silbo, but I listened to it tons while I was writing, because it's a song about a very precise culture, and a song of appreciation for that. Silbo Gomera was used during the 40's and 50's as a secret language to help locals avoid Franco's police, so it's a political expression as well. I love that this beautiful thing has also been rebellion. Feloche is a good friend of my friend Sxip Shirey's, and Sxip introduced me to his gorgeous music. I'm lucky to be so surrounded by song.
Shakey Graves featuring Esme Patterson - "Dearly Departed"
A song about a relationship between a ghost and her beloved. This isn't precisely Magonia, given that we've got a not-ghost in the book, more of something else, but a big part of the book involves the loss of someone you love, and your memories of how particularly THEM they are. So, this is a fun, twisty love song with sad underneath.
You and I both know that this house is haunted
You and I both know that the ghost is me.
Moondog - "Bird's Lament"
When I was a little kid, I used to pick through my mom's 60's and 70's vinyl collection every few days, checking to see if anything new and magnificent had appeared. That's where I first heard Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Lambert Hendricks & Ross and more. Moondog's 1969 self-titled album was in there the whole time, but I didn't get it. I was, however, the kind of OCD child who, filled with nebulous fury, would listen to something she didn't understand until it colonized her soul. So now, Bird's Lament is part of my inbrain radio. It plays in the early mornings. Moondog himself could easily have been a Magonian dropped to earth. He was blinded by Kansas dynamite at the age of 16, and stood on the streets of NYC for nearly 30 years, playing invented instruments, in cape and helmet, making these exquisite songs. I see that Rikki DuCornet wrote about this song in her Deep Zoo playlist as well - she's one of my favorite writers, and inspires me all the time, so this is full circle.
Sxip Shirey & Michaela Davies - "Conjoined Breathing Duet with Beat Frequencies"
This one, you have to watch, because it's experimental music made by two musicians singing into each other's mouths with mics and beats. 1) This actually happens in Magonia, aboard the sky ships, a combination of voices equaling a completely different sound 2) It's pretty damn cool. It creates a sound that at first sounds completely human, and then buzzes into something like a swarm of song. My friend Sxip does cool stuff all the time, and I told him when I was writing Magonia that he'd love it, because it's all about experimental music. He did. Now he needs to make me a Magonia song.
David Coffin - "Roll The Old Chariot"
This is a bonafide sea shanty. David Coffin can sing like…I don't even. It's fucking amazing, this performance, him belting it out at a folk festival with a bunch of people. Also this song makes you want to sing, which of course is the point. Sing while you pull the hell out of ropes.
We'll be alright if the wind is in our sails
And we'll roll the old chariot along
and we'll all hang on behind
There's more to the song than this. Though it was sung by sailors for centuries, it was an African-American spiritual to begin with. (I hunted just now to see if I could find a non-solo version of a recording sung NOT by white people, and I couldn't, but I'd love to find one. Argh.) Many sea shanties originated this way for obvious reasons, slaving ships, another thing Magonia riffs on, though there it's slavery in a sky kingdom rather than one earth. Songs can travel in ways that history forgets. Here is an early version of Roll The Old Chariot, from the 1920's to give a better idea of the kind of song it was when it began, and in this case probably sung by an African-American singer, though anonymous. Multi-purpose worksong and raising of voices over the wind song.
Lady Lamb - "Atlas"
Lots of female singer songwriters, because of course. Aza narrates more than half this book, and she is a scripter of song after my own heart. This song speaks of the relationship between Aza and her best friend and soulmate Jason, two worlds, one massive connection between them. Even if one of you is an alien you can still promise everything to one another. Or at least you can in my version of love. I think my version of love is pretty much applicable to human love too, at least in my experience. Love is strange, shining, bloody magic.
"...And I do, I want to swim the length of this with you. I wanna swim the length of this life with you. And I undress, I undress, I undress like eyes upon an atlas."
Also Lady Lamb is a weirdo from my tribe. She has a very nice song about taxidermists.
Nic Jones - "Canadee-I-O"
This is a 1980 riff of a traditional ballad form the early 1800's, sometimes known as Caledonia or The Wearing of the Blue, in which a girl disguises herself as a boy to follow her lover, a sailor, out to sea. That's not what happens in Magonia, but this is a song about adventure, and how this girl's voyage almost ends in disaster, and instead ends in victory. There's a gorgeous reversal here: the ship's crew decides to kill her because she's bad luck, and the captain says fuck you all, she's staying onboard, dressed in her sailor's clothes. So she does, and eventually marries him.
I'll dress you up in sailor's clothes
your jacket shall be blue
you'll see that seaport town, called Canadee-I-O
Tanya Taqaq - "Uja" & "Umingmak"
Tagaq is an Inuit throat-singer from Canada. If you've never listened to throat singing, I suggest you sit down and listen. Also, watch. She is amazing. The songs in Magonia were actually based a little bit on throat singing, the way that multiple tones can be sung at once. There are birds called canwr that live in the chests of Magonians, singing with them, as they sing weather magic, and here, on some level, is an earthly version of the sounds I think of when I think of Magonia. This is Tagaq's performance at the 2014 Polaris Awards, singing with an amazing female chorus. Also, this form of throat singing was invented by women, and the original versions are basically dirty joke song battles. Dude, I love it so much.
Baby Dee - "As Morning Holds A Star"
Baby Dee should be a much bigger star than she is. She plays these completely virtuosic songs that draw on everything from madrigals to utterly ferocious modernity, by way of blues, experimental jazz, I mean, really, folks, holy shit!!! Watching her play live is a staggering experience, and one I hope to repeat over and over. This is another love song, but in this case, it's a song of redemption, of past sadness acknowledged and transformed into present. Also themed appropriately for Magonian skies.
And I'll hold you
As morning holds a star
If morning never held a star before
And I'll hold you
In grateful arms that sing
No more sad songs
No more night skies
I've got a sunrise
Sarah Alden - "Come Take A Trip on My Airship"
This is my dear friend Sarah singing a song she found in an old songbook and turned into her own. It's very literal, and very sweet. A boy drops out of the clouds and asks a girl to come kiss him on his airship. So she does. Clear Magonian themes here. And Sarah is fantastic, a Brooklyn-based fiddler and composer who, can make you sob when you see her play live. I heard this song for the first time played in my living room at a raucous party. It's a kind of a sweet shanty waltz.
Maria Dahvana Headley and Magonia links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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