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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 attorney-turned aid worker and novelist Ted Oswald @Because_We_Are
Haitian culture is intoxicating, a blend of influences transmuted into something utterly unique and notable. Haitian music is no different.
Serving as the perfect fuel for the writing of my first book, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti – a murder mystery set against the backdrop of modern-day Port-au-Prince – I often drew upon an amazing library of past and contemporary music for inspiration. Here’s the book’s trailer since it fills in a lot of the back story. For those unable to watch, in 2010, I was a law student and interned in Haiti months after the earthquake. The story is set in the community in which I worked, a notorious slum called Cité Soleil, and follows two unlikely detectives—children: brash Libète and brilliant Jak—as they try to solve the mystery behind a murdered mother and her infant child. But more than that, it’s a story about bigger themes: friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community, faith and doubt in light of tragedy, and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty.
During the drafting and revision stages, completed primarily in the US, I relied upon particular albums and songs to snap me right back to Haiti; to again feel the unrelenting sun baking my skin, to get lost in a sea of spoken Kreyol, to recall hours spent walking vibrant city streets. But beyond a cheap return trip, the music often helped to define my characters and themes.
Special mention is reserved for the track used in my book trailer, a song entitled Nibo. This version is inspired by a piece written by Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe, the original recording of which was captured by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax during a trip to Haiti. Martha Jean-Claude recorded a version with lyrics in the 70s that immediately captured my imagination. More recently, Nibo has been given new life as a choral piece, Gede Nibo, by composer Sten Kellman. Every time I hear the song’s melody — whether brought to life by a plinking piano or a 40-person acapella ensemble — it powerfully captures the mood, tone, and mystery of Because We Are.
Vodou and rock
But I didn’t just listen to this song on repeat. Konpa is a modern-day mérengue played by prominent Haitian artists like Djakout #1, T-Vice, and sometimes Wyclef Jean (of The Fugees fame). Along with MizikRasin (roots music) which blends folk Vodou elements and rock (of which Boukman Eksperyans is one notable group), acts like these could be heard emanating from countless radios across Port-au-Prince. I was particularly moved by Atis Indepandan’s folk album from the mid-70s called Ki-Sa Pou-N Fe? or What is to be Done?. Listening to any of these strains of Haitian music helped to capture the manic intensity, humor, romance, suffering, piety, resilience, ribaldry, pain, joy, and sadness that so often comingle day-to-day.
Lastly, Because We Are is a story of protest. When volunteering in Cite Soleil, I taught a regular English class for young men using socially-conscious rap and hip-hop songs. Though they weren’t Haitian, artists like Talib Kweli (The Beautiful Struggle), Mos Def (New World Water), and The Roots (Dear God 2.0) capture a view of the world from the bottom up, reflecting the lived experience of my characters Libète and Jak and the young men I taught. I often found myself coming back to these artists and songs for inspiration along the way.
While scratching only the surface, I truly hope my Undercover Soundtrack might lead you to explore some new music and delve deeper into the amazing depths of Haitian music and culture.
Ted Oswald is a public interest attorney living in Philadelphia with his wife Katharine. Written while living in Haiti, after taking the bar exam, and before beginning his new job as a lawyer, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti is Ted’s first foray into fiction. The book is published by Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. It’s available on audiobook here. Follow updates about the book and its mission as a ‘nonprofit novel’ on Twitter and Facebook. Ted can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Fasten your seatbelts for a trip to Haiti. My guest this week was inspired to write his first novel by a spell as a volunteer after the 2010 earthquake. When he returned to the US he began to write a story of friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty. To recreate that distinctive place and define his characters, he returned to the music he heard pouring out of the radios in Port-au-Prince – folk, rock, rap and hip-hop. He says his work is a protest novel and so he’s donating the proceeds to aid organisations he worked with to help further education, advocacy, justice reform and prosecute human rights abuses. The novel is Because We Are; he is Ted Oswald and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is award-winning bestselling author, indie champion and women’s advocate Melissa Foster @Melissa_Foster
Thank you, Roz, for sharing your virtual space with me today. I love what you are doing with this series, and I have a feeling that many of your followers will find my musical selections odd, lame, or just plain telling-of-my-age. Here goes…
I’m a music fanatic, but not in the normal sense of the term. I cannot write in silence. I need the beat of a good tune to be able to feel my stories, and the particular beat doesn’t matter. It’s not uncommon to find me with F.M. Hot 99.5 playing so loud that I cannot hear anyone speaking to me. It’s also not uncommon to find me listening to an iTunes mash-up of Michael Jackson, Kelly Clarkson, Darius Rucker, Glee (yes, I am almost 46 years old, and this is my guilty pleasure). Even Madonna and Katy Perry make an appearance. The difference between me and most music fanatics is that I rarely know who is singing the songs I listen to, and often, I can’t tell you the title.
When I was writing Chasing Amanda, my typical mash-up wasn’t quite working. I found my inspiration on my iPod, which my stepdaughter had filled with songs when she was about 15 years old, ranging from head-banging heavy metal to rap and top 40 hits. I gravitated toward three songs that pulled me through the manuscript — I was a runner at the time, and these songs were played over and over during my runs as I worked through the storyline of each character: How to Save A Life by The Fray, I Write Sins Not Tragedies, by Panic! At The Disco, and Buttons, by the Pussycat Dolls.
Each song helped me to see Molly Tanner, the main character, a little more clearly. She’s a bundle of strength and emotions wrapped up in sensitive skin. The lyrics embodied all of her. Buttons helped bring out the fun side of Molly, which is so easily lost in stressful situations. Buttons inspired the sexier side of Molly, it was a gentle reminder that she was feminine, though strong, helping me grasp her vulnerability when she was searching for the abductor, alone at night. Sins helped me to remember that she was on a very powerful hunt, where she could lose everything, and Life, well, it’s pretty clear. Molly valued her life, but because she had unknowingly witnessed an abduction, and then the little girl’s body was found, when Tracey went missing, she was willing to forgo her own life to save another.
I drew from the song How To Save A Life on many levels. That particular song carried over to many of the characters. It exposed the search for Tracey as something much deeper than simply a simple search mission. The song is made of passion and longing, which brought life to Hannah Slate’s forgotten past. Hannah Slate, Pastor Lett, and Newton Carr each had deep-rooted secrets that could have crushed them as individuals, but they drew strength from one another, just as the song talks about staying up all night, each of them had been there at all hours for each others. The love that blossomed from their friendship carried them forward through lives of deceit. I didn’t watch the video when I wrote the book, and I’m glad that I didn’t. I found different meaning in the words each time I listened.
A softer side
Molly’s husband, Cole, was a doctor, and a very serious one, who believed in tangible facts rather than Molly’s clairvoyance. Buttons helped me to find his softer, sexier side, and think of him as a man rather than just a husband and physician, and by doing so, allowed another layer of the story to form.
Music enhances my senses and tempts me to reach beyond characters’ looks and the way they move. Music draws me in to think about their emotional state in each scene, and as you can see from my musical choices, there is no rhyme or reason to the tunes that I choose. Music does so much more than just inspire me, it is woven into the fabric of my life, enabling me to see most things in life more clearly, and to remain in a place of light. If you visit me, you’ll find an intercom system that plays music in every room, all day long. Music, even when it has sad lyrics, makes me happy.
What does music do for you?
Award-winning, bestselling author Melissa Foster is a touchstone for the indie publishing community and a tireless advocate for women. Her novels are Megan’s Way, Chasing Amanda and Come Back to Me. She is the founder of the World Literary Café, Fostering Success, and The Women’s Nest. Melissa writes emotionally-driven contemporary fiction and suspense with passionate characters that remain with the reader long after they’ve read the last words. Melissa is a friend, mentor, brownie connoisseur, and book fiend. Connect with her on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter @Melissa_Foster
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2020. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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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'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- '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'