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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley
Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford to be extravagant. Occasionally a perfectly ordinary, independently minded woman – such as a sexy ground hostess – will use their services.
From a little black book to a husband that vanishes into thin air is not such a literary leap of the imagination. The only tangible clues to the ‘disappeared properly’ man’s identity are the vinyl long playing records (LPs) carted into his current incarnation: Daniel de Luc, husband. A man who favours alternative rock, old circus music (think extravagant carnivalesque LP cover art), and African jazz is perhaps not going to be your average conventional spouse.
A voice for intensity
When Daniel de Luc barges into my novel with all his unpredictable here-now-gone-tomorrow energy he arrives together with cult band R.E.M. Their music is constantly playing in my car. The wickedly intelligent lyrics have the enigmatic aura of a Poe story.
Periodically Daniel withdraws from the world (and Paola, his wife) by listening to R.E.M. with its anti-establishment undertones. It is Daniel’s theme music; the friend he turns to when he has to figure things out.
The music of R.E.M. is ideal for Lady Limbo as a kind of activist male anthem. I feel as if I know Daniel as well as any real live man of my acquaintance when I listen to them. My first R.E.M. CD came from a male friend brought up in Europe; the opaque music brings this association with it too, helping me to give a voice to Daniel’s intensity and his foreign outlook.
The only R.E.M. song named in Lady Limbo is the mesmerising Nightswimming. There are echoes of the early party scene when Paola watches partygoers engage in open group sex in a night-lit swimming pool. But her immersion in Nightswimming has its own redemptive beauty and truth even while it suggests the foolishness of being human. The song that Chris Martin of ColdPlay once called ‘the best song ever written’ becomes a bittersweet tribute to relationships and feelings that can never be the way they once were.
It’s all in the night’s song: we are creatures of the night, skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections. In Lady Limbo it is the bright light of day with its criminal banality that comes to terrify Paola Dante, and the night’s deep-throated mystery that seduces her.
Music of ambivalence
From music of the night to nights at the circus.
Circus music, with its relentless glee, is the perfect music of ambivalence. It fills a gap between Paola and Daniel with its nostalgic evocation of a carnival atmosphere, and yet its excessive gaiety is strangely disturbing. In Lady Limbo the ghosts of death-defying acts plummet to the sawdust over and over again.
My research uncovers that the atmospheric circus music of yesteryear is for the most part produced by a calliope (steam whistles played by a keyboard) , a very special mechanical instrument. When Daniel hears the frenetic delight he, like The Beatles’ John Lennon who employed snippets of calliope music in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, is transported to a seat from where he can smell the sawdust on the big tent floor.
A circus music thematic appears; it expresses a magical interpretation of life and independence of spirit that is outside the norm, and somehow beyond society’s approval or control. Old time rumours about the circus as a haven for runaways, freaks, outcasts, and even baby abductors, add a mysterious resonance to Lady Limbo.
From nights at the circus to African jazz and Jamaican rebellion…
Youssou N’Dour (You to his fans) provides the cross-cultural musical bridge I need between Africa and Europe. N’Dour’s cosmopolitan nous absorbs the entire Senegalese musical spectrum, often filtered through the lens of the genre-defying mbalax sound, which takes traditional Wolof music and combines it with Islamic and Cuban influences. Daniel is as intrigued by N’Dour’s roots (a maternal line of griottes) as by his professional exploits. From my perspective, N’Dour’s tenor voice has an unusual prophetic quality that fills a car as it coasts along dark cliff top roads.
In Lady Limbo the past has been neglected, mishandled and deliberately avoided. Since Paola is as guilty as this of Daniel I have her mull over Daniel’s difficult boyhood in the hotel room darkness with Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff playing on the radio in the background.
Caught between reality and fiction Daniel is the flawed paradox at the centre of Lady Limbo’s complex mystery. Marley’s reggae anthem for justice, just a one-liner in Paola’s musings, pre-empts Daniel’s act of protection at the end of Lady Limbo. All of this the music reveals, and overlays and underlays. Only the music, capable of endless interpretation and re-interpretation, tells the truth.
Portrait by Dina Photography
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes novels, poems, essays, and short stories. Lady Limbo, a psycho-sexual mystery, is her second novel. She is working on book II in the limbo trilogy, due to come out next year. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide, now an ebook, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books. She is also a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Her Amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/consueloroland. Connect with her on Facebook and on her website. Tweet her @ConsueloRoland.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by journalist and novelist Catriona Troth @L1bCat
My novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry and Brixton in 1981. Around that time, young musicians from different communities were developing styles of music that melded sounds from their cultural roots with modern pop, and writing lyrics that expressed their anger and discontent. The music they produced played a vital part in taking me back to those times and in helping me identify with characters from three different communities.
Coventry in 1981 was the city of 2 Tone Records and Ska; it was also a city riven by conflict between skinheads and young Asians. The 2 Tone sound was essential to the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Ska has its origins in the West Indies, but by the time it stormed Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had a flavour all its own. The line-up of the bands on Coventry’s 2 Tone label – like The Specials and The Selecter – were a mix a black and white musicians, and the message of their songs was often explicitly anti-racist.
One of the characteristics of the 2 Tone sound was the use of a horn section, epitomised by Rico Rodriguez’s wailing trombone sole at the start of The Specials’ Ghost Town – surely one of the most haunting openings to a pop song ever written. Ghost Town inspired not only the title of my novel but underpins much of its mood.
That was the day that The Specials released Ghost Town. For days it keened from every radio, every jukebox, every stereo. Those stabbing horns and that eerie, wailing chorus became the soundtrack of their deaths.
Equally poignant is the voice of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter. Black’s voice slides from contralto (in Three Minute Hero) to soprano (in On My Radio) – dark and light all in one unforgettable package.
Tracks like these helped me to unlock memories and recapture the feel of those troubled times.
Down in Brixton, the defining sound for the young Black community was reggae. If 2 Tone drew me back into my own past, then reggae opened a doorway into a different world. Like most people, I knew a few Bob Marley tracks, but in writing the book, I explored others like Barrington Levy’s Shaolin Temple and King Tubby’s Flag Dub.
Most of the rioters had slipped away through the alleyways, back into the maze-like estates beyond. Behind the blank façade of the night, the sound of reggae spilt into the air. Brixton was celebrating.
At the same time, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson were performing live to a reggae backing beat. Highly political lyrics written in Jamaican dialect (such as LKJ’s New Crass Massahkah) capture the fury that led to the Brixton riots in a way that no amount of reportage could possibly convey.
Back in Coventry, the third element of my story lay among young British Asians, many of whom arrived in Coventry as children when their parents were expelled from East Africa.
Many young Asians identified with the 2 Tone sound, but they were also developing a sound of their own. It would be another two years before the first Bhangra records were pressed, but meanwhile, local bands were experimenting with blending the traditional sound of instruments like the dohl (drum) and the single-stringed tumbi with Western pop.
Most of us are familiar with Bhangra music now from films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, but back then it was new, exciting and a little bit dangerous. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings where the best bands were playing.
The stringed instrument opened by twanging out a melody and was answered by the seductive beat of the drum. The singer threw back his head and produced an ululating sound that formed a contrapuntal beat. The other instruments joined in one by one, weaving between the two rhythms … Feet tapped and bodies began to sway. A circle of dancers formed, energetic and sinuous –hands clapping, wrists twisting and shoulders shaking.
Those early bands were unrecorded, but you can catch something of their feel from listening to the earliest Bhangra stars, such as Malkit Singh, on Putt Sardaran Da or Alaap with Heera Group UK on Chamm Chamm Nachdi.
Listening to these three styles of music helped me get under the skin of the different characters, to absorb something of their rhythms and to switch from one ‘mode’ into another as I moved from scene to scene.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com.
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
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- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
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- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'