I have never written a book of poetry or fiction that I would call healing. I have half-jokingly said that my writing leaves me with PTSD. But writing this novel about four Ethiopian musicians competing to see who can sing the best Tizita meant that I spent three or four years immersed in African beauty.
In a sense, the narrator, who undertakes the journey, mirrors my journey that started when I heard a Tizita song in 2001. I became obsessed with this song – the decades-long journey culminated in this novel.
The Tizita is often described as Ethiopian blues, but as the Corporal says, it is a song that carries a 2,000-year archive of human emotion that carries that first loss of life, the mourning of it, to that first love and its celebration and everything in between.
… the West is incidental to the plot
Most of my writing following my life is set in the US and Kenya. This is my first piece of writing where the West is incidental to the plot. Here, the main character, a tabloid journalist, travels from Kenya to Ethiopia to understand what it is about the Tizita that moved him. It was important to me not to centre my imagination in the West in my quest for African aesthetics, the beautiful.
It was only fitting that the novel was published by the Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press – they immediately understood that this journey was not just about music but about creating a new lexicon to talk about African beauty.
The four Tizita musicians understand the song from their different imaginative corners. It is a meditation on beauty. The scene below takes place close to the novel’s beginning and captures the first competition in a seedy club that used to be a boxing ring on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Excerpt from Unbury Our Dead With Song
We were still hungry. We were getting hungrier. They were feeding us appetisers and not the whole honey-roasted goat. We wanted more. “And now our very own Miriam,” Mr Selassie yelled.
That was a surprise – nobody, least of all me, knew she could sing, let alone compete with the best of Tizita singers. But soon, it started making sense without any logic behind it. It seemed fitting that she, too, would be on that boxing ring-cum-music stage.
She started looking around, one hand over her eyes, until she spotted me. She beckoned, and I walked over and helped her onto the stage – she felt light and frail. After she sat down, she blew me a kiss, looked up at the microphone hanging down and pulled it down so it was within her range.
She took a deep breath, almost a sigh, into the silence that had followed her every move. At that point, we, her crowd of loyal customers, came to life and started cheering her on. She raised her left eyebrow and put her right arm out, and we quieted – recognising her usual signal for when one was in danger of being cut off.
She started singing her Tizita acapella like she did every day – in the shower, humming it as she served drinks, singing it as she went about living. For the Diva, the Corporal and the Taliban Man, their voices, in their unique way, contained an explosive power that had to be held within the vulnerable Tizita – and their Tizita seemed to work to the extent they were able to contain their powerful range within the melody of the song. This melody did not require one to hit impossibly high notes.
She winked at me. “This once,” she said in English. And she bent her voice low and joined the masenko:
When I dream of happy days, oh Tizita,
Wake me, so I can find you once again
I fear so much that you too will leave me, and I will forget
this pain that carries my love.
And Tizita, if I forget those I loved,
how can I remember who I am?
One day, I will be dead and gone, my grave untended
date of birth and death
on my gravestone from centuries past
And only my Tizita will remain,
Only you will remain.
Tizita, What I fear the most
is that I will forget
this pain that carries my love
Unbury Our Dead With Song is published by Cassava Republic Press.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownership, the novels Mrs Shaw, Black Star Nairobi, Nairobi Heat, and two books of poetry, Logotherapy and Hurling Words at Consciousness. He co-founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and was co-director of the Global South Project – Cornell.
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