UNBURY OUR DEAD WITH SONG
By Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Cassava Republic Press. 253 pages. £11.99. ISBN 978-1-911115-98-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Let me say that, before I read this novel, I had no idea what “Tizita” is. It’s a form of music from Ethiopia which expresses the history, dreams, ambitions and tragedies of the country and its people. Or that’s what I understand it to be. But it goes beyond that and, as characters in the book frequently remind the narrator, it has something undefinable about it that can only be felt. This doesn’t preclude anyone outside the Ethiopian experience from ever sharing the feelings expressed by Tizita. They are often universal in their application and, it is suggested, everyone has their own Tizita. Some comparisons are drawn between it and the blues. But perhaps it’s useful to quote the description that is given in the novel:
“The Tizita was not just a popular traditional Ethiopian song: it was a song that was life itself. It had been sung for generations, through wars, marriages, deaths, divorces and childbirths. For musicians and listeners exiled in Kenya, the US and Europe, or trying to claim a home in Israel as Ethiopian Jews, the Tizita was like a national anthem to the soul, for better and worse”.
Telling the story is a Kenyan journalist. John Thandi Manfredi. He works for a publication called The National Inquisitor, a tabloid that largely specialises in gossip, innuendo, exaggerations, and even lies if they help to sell the paper. Manfredi also has his own demons, in that his parents are part of the ruling elite in Nairobi and he’s conscious of the fact, with his good education and comfortable life, he’s been a beneficiary of the corruption his family may have been involved in.
There are Ethiopians living in Nairobi, and Manfredi visits a seedy club in a run-down area of the city and listens to four Tizita performers. Intrigued by their music, he determines to find out more about it by interviewing and writing about them: The Diva, The Taliban Man, The Corporal, and Miriam, who is the barmaid at the club. What happens as he carries out the interviews, and talks to other people to collect information, becomes, in effect, something of a potted history of Ethiopia, as well as a chronicle of individual lives. The Diva, for example, can attract large crowds to her well-organised concerts and comes across as flamboyant in her costumes and gestures, but when she appears in the club it is as Kidane and she offers a quieter personality as she works alongside other musicians to provide a convincing Tizita performance. She has to persuade a more-discerning audience to recognise the sincerity of her singing.
The Taliban Man, with his stock of “weed” and cocaine, seems destined for popularity and is careful to cultivate an image – “youth, looks and self-possession all rolled into one” - that will capture the crowd. As for The Corporal, he has a shady background, having served in the war against Eritrea and, if some accounts are to be believed, he had been a ruthless and even sadistic fighter. And there is Miriam, who makes it clear to Manfredi that he will never be able to appreciate Tizita unless he visits Ethiopia: “You cannot know a river by drinking its water from a glass”.
The combination of the journalist’s own story and those of the Tizita artists is tidily handled, and it shows how he is searching for answers to his own doubts, as well as trying to learn about Tizita. When he goes to a party he observes the young people there – the children of affluent parents and themselves well-educated and in successful careers – and comments: “I had never seen so much talent and promise in one room. Feeling less optimistic than I had yesterday, I could not help but wonder, through the fog of my unfolding brain, how much of this talent was going to eventually go to waste – overdoses, alcoholism, drug addiction, the occasional suicide and, even worse, being co-opted into corrupt governance”.
There is much to be gained from reading this novel, not only in terms of its capable storytelling in which one can envisage not only the Tizita performers, but also many of the minor characters who crop up in the bars and on the streets. There are comments that provoke: “Bob Geldoff, and much later, Bono, had pulled a number on the world; they had redefined the image of a whole continent to one that was always holding a beggar’s bowl – a black hand stretched out for blessings from a white hand – with the help from African leaders for whom suffering immediately translated into dollars and pounds”.
And there is the music that is central to the story. Tizita takes the key role, but there are references to American blues artists, country and western singers, jazzmen, Michael Jackson, and more. Pianos, guitars, accordions, saxophones, and trumpets are there, but alongside them local instruments like the masenko (a one-string item played with a bow) and the krar, a “five or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre". The music is often improvised in an atmosphere similar to that of jazz jam sessions.
There are examples of Tizita music easily available on YouTube, some of it by singers and musicians named in the novel. Of particular interest is the “plaintive and celebratory”, song “Malaika”, “composed and sung by Fadhili William, who was to die penniless in a tenement slum in New Jersey while others made millions off the song”. It isn’t exactly claimed to be Tizita and relates more to Manfredi’s Kenyan upbringing. When I googled it, the Wikipedia entry said that William didn’t compose “Malaika” and it was written in Swahili by the Tanzanian singer Adam Salim in 1945. Well, American blues likewise often had convoluted composer credits, and it’s a lovely song whoever originated it.