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August 23, 2016

Book Notes - Imbolo Mbue "Behold the Dreamers"

Behold the Dreamers

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Imbolo Mbue's compelling and empathetic novel Behold the Dreamers is one of the year's finest debuts.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters, this is a special book."

In her own words, here is Imbolo Mbue's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Behold the Dreamers:

Most of the music I listened to while growing up in Cameroon was in languages I didn't understand—over 200 languages are spoken in my homeland and though English and French are widely spoken, our pop music, makossa, is sung in Duala, a language spoken by only a fraction of the population. That, however, didn't stop me and my fellow Cameroonians from standing up and dancing every time a makossa song came over the radio. Because what we heard was the love, joy, and pain expressed in the voices of the musicians. We heard the rhythms, which compelled us to dance. We heard a celebration of life and its perplexities. Whatever the singer was saying was irrelevant: it was all about us, the listeners and dancers—we heard what we wanted to hear and danced till we sweated.

I remember listening to a song by a Zimbabwean musician a few years after I arrived in America. I was completely feeling the song, eyes closed, shaking my head and nodding, when an American friend asked me what the song meant. When I told him I had no idea (the lyrics were in Shona), he asked how I could feel the song so deeply if I didn't understand the lyrics. I thought it a strange question, until I realized that for my friend, music was very much about the lyrics. Born in a country where virtually everyone spoke the same language, and song lyrics were in this language, he'd come to appreciate music mostly through their lyrics, unless of course there were no lyrics, in which case the song was then open to interpretation. But that is not the case for me, and it probably explains my ability to love any heartfelt song from anywhere in the world—the lyrics are secondary.

The songs in this playlist are a combination of songs featured in my novel, songs by musicians mentioned in the novel, as well as songs which inspired me during the writing. One of the beauties of a Cameroonian childhood in the '80s and '90s was how much we were exposed to music from all over Africa. There was a great sense of Pan-Africanism in my childhood, a belief that we were not just Cameroonians but Africans, too. We took pride in the successes and achievements of our fellow Africans, which is why some of the songs below are by musicians beloved across much of the continent. And being that my novel is about two New York City families—one Cameroonian and working class, the other American and upper class—this playlist also represents a celebration of my two very different homelands.

Charlotte Mbango & Tom Yoms: "Sengat To"

This makossa song is in Duala, a language I don't understand, but judging from the music video, it appears to be about lost love. To me, though, it is a celebration of Cameroon through the voices of two legendary Cameroonian musicians. The first time I listened to this song in America, years after leaving Cameroon, I hit replay about a dozen times. It took me back to a beautiful, warm day in my hometown.

Ray Charles: "America the Beautiful"

This song has been rendered by so many greats, in every which way, but Ray Charles's version just fills with so much love for my adopted country. America. What a country. What a beautiful country. What an exceedingly complex country.

Eboa Lotin: "Ngon'a Mulato"

Another legendary Cameroonian musician. Another song which I have no clue what the musician is saying, but the song just crushes me because I remember listening to it on the drive to the airport the last time I was in Cameroon, returning to America after a couple of weeks in my hometown. It represents to me that moment when you're torn between your past and your future; the moment when you consider what you're leaving behind and what you're moving towards.

Miriam Makeba: "Malaika"

What hasn't South Africa given the world? It has given us heroes whose last names include Mandela, Tutu, Tambo and Biko. It has given us stories of a nation's resilience, and great literature (Cry, the Beloved Country remains one of my favorite novels). And let's not forget the music that wonderful country has given us. Miriam Makeba, anyone? This love song, Malaika, with lyrics in Swahili, is beloved across Africa, and listening to Miriam Makeba, a giant of African music, singing it, is simply sublime.

Brenda Fassie: "Ngohlala Nginje"

And while we're talking about South Africa, we must talk about Brenda Fassie, whose "Vulindlela" was played at virtually every African party I attended in the early to mid-2000s. Great as that song was, though, "Ngohlala Nginje" remains my favorite of all her songs.

Léo Delibes: "The Flower Duet" from the opera Lakmé

Listening to this duet in college made me fall in love with opera music. A friend who was an opera buff put his headphones over my ears and I remember this sensation of weightlessness, floating in the clouds. Perhaps that is why British Airways used it their commercials—don't we all sometimes wish we could float in the clouds?

Koffi Olomide: "Effrakata"

Koffi Olomide. Papa Wemba. Awilo Longomba. Diblo Dibala. Name any soukous star from the 90s and there's a chance their music was big in Cameroon, and probably in much of Africa. Sung in Lingala (a lingua franca of the Democratic Republic of Congo), it is the kind of music that gets everyone at African parties on their feet.

P-Square: "Chop my Money"

And speaking of African parties, this song, by the Nigerian duo P-Square, was played at virtually every African party I attended while I was writing this novel—watching party-goers dancing to it was a thrill and an inspiration every time.

Tata Kinge: "Yaya"

The Cameroonian family depicted in my novel is from the Bakweri tribe, of which I am also a member. "Yaya," by the Bakweri musician Tata Kinge, is to me a celebration of our tribe, and our elegant tribal dance which involves rotating our shoulders.

Frank Sinatra: "New York, New York"

New York. New York. Need I say more? If there is a more wonderful city on earth, well…

Bob Dylan: "Blowin' in the Wind"

One of my favorite New York experiences, in my first days in the city, was listening to renditions of American classics by subway musicians. This song, a rendition of which is featured in my novel, moves me every time, no matter how it is rendered, no matter who does the rendition.

Nguea La Route: "Ebonga Londo"

Another song that showcases a magnificent voice from my country. It reminds me of a lovely day in my hometown of Limbe, the same town the Cameroonian characters in my novel left to seek a better life in America.

Johann Strauss: "Voices of Spring"

Like me, one of my characters loves classical music and in a moment of hopefulness, I imagine her listening to this gorgeous waltz. The title says it all: Voices of spring. Winter is over. Flowers are blooming, temperatures rising. Happier days will soon be here.

Meiway: "200% Zoblazo"

One of the biggest hits during my teenage years in Cameroon was this song by the Ivorian musician Meiway; it is also featured in my novel. The chorus of the song includes the phrase "On a gagné! On a gagné!" which means "We have won! We have won!" in French. Whenever this song comes up at parties, I imagine that the dancers, no matter their circumstances, fervently believe that they, too, are winners.

Henri Njoh: "Idiba"

Whenever I reflect on the final scene in my novel, this song is always playing in the background of my mind. I can't think of a more fitting song for that final scene.

Imbolo Mbue and Behold the Dreamers links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Newsday review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Toronto Star review
Washington Post review

Elle Australia essay by the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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