Some will fall in love with life and drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche comin’ down the mountain
- Pepper, The Butthole Surfers, Electriclarryland, 1996
People are equal. Writers, like cooks and singers and dancers and lovers, are not. That’s just how it is. Most writers offer little in the way of new concepts, or new ways of appreciating the world. We move through pages and screens. A little time passes. A little life is lost. Nothing much changes. But some people write new meaning into the world. They stop, even if for a moment, the squandering of life. They enable us to experience, inhabit and make sense of the world in new ways. They intervene in being.
Anyone who pays attention to these kinds of things knows that Bongani Madondo can write new meaning into the world. His liner notes for Busi Mhlongo’s final album, his extraordinary and – let’s not fuck around here – brilliant piece on Philip Tabane for Rolling Stone, and his account in the Mail & Guardian of his own family, the book-loving Madondos from Hammanskraal, are as good as anything anyone has written in South Africa in recent years. That’s just how it is.
In the first line of the introduction to his new book, Sigh the Beloved Country, Madondo poses a question, adapted from the opening line of a notoriously irreverent and ruthless, but not entirely dismissive, track-by-track review of a largely disappointing Bob Dylan album in 1970: “What is this shit?” His answer is that his book is an attempt to write in fidelity to the fullness and complexity of our reality.
“South Africa is exhausting. What we never say enough, though, is that South Africa is also enchanting, complex, beautiful, confident, unsure, insecure, and spirit-roiling. It is both a magical and crippling country. This is what this shit is about.”
Madondo’s book, an impressive material object, comes in at just more than 500 pages. It is a collection of essays, most previously unpublished, with an interview, an exchange of letters and – as if this were a gig rather than a book – a few guest appearances by other writers, including a great piece by Lewis Nkosi on James Baldwin first published in Transition in 1999. The points of departure for Madondo’s essays range from the author’s life to other people’s writing (from Chinua Achebe to literary and popular culture magazines), celebrities, race and Johannesburg. There’s also a little futuristic fiction. But it’s mostly about music.
There is a sustained driving desire to get to the heart of things. There is a consistent boldness that enables risks to be taken and new things to be said in fresh and often startling ways. There is an avalanche of names rushing through the book. There are lists and lists of names. Baldwin comes up right at the beginning and is a frequent presence through hundreds of pages of writing. Baldwin’s name is also there at the end of the book. It’s even there at end of the afterword. Johnny Cash and Miles Davis make regular appearances too. Dylan is also there, and so are Gabriel García Márquez, the Soul Brothers, Joy Division, Eduardo Galeano, Bloke Modisane, Angela Davis, Evelyn Waugh, Dolly Rathebe, Salman Rushdie, Langston Hughes, Johnny Dyani, Fela Kuti, Allen Touissant, Cesaria Evora, David Bowie, Prince, Ali (and Viuex) Farka Toure, Sello Twala, éVoid, Antonio Gramsci, Billy Idol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Janet Jackson, Chimamanda (elevated to the status of those who no longer require surnames – Toussaint, Saddam, Beyoncé), the Last Poets, Chris Abani, Marvin Gaye, Sisonke Msimang, Tricky, Gill Scott-Heron, Sembene Ousmane, the Roots, the Beatles, and a host of others. The vision here is large. It contains multitudes. It gushes like a river in flood. The commitment to cool respects no borders.
But this book is not an inchoate accumulation of cool shit. There’s a project here. The style, the particular character of the energy and verve, is punk. There’s a consistent disregard for the pieties of the day and a reaching towards authentic experience, towards what is real and true. On its own the rage against bullshit that drives punk can start with the slough but keep tearing until there’s nothing left but emptiness and nihilism. A punk aesthetic can become just another posture, another choice, another ready-made style in the catalogue. Madondo has a compass, though. You get the impression that if its true north, what he calls, with a little equivocation, a radical humanism committed to art and freedom, has a proper name, it is James Baldwin.
But this book is not an inchoate accumulation of cool shit. There’s a project here. The style, the particular character of the energy and verve, is punk
Early on, in what seems to be a sort of declaration of intent, a defense of his creative autonomy and his right to embrace art and freedom, from wherever it speaks to him, Madondo quotes Baldwin’s observation that as a black writer in the United States, he finds that “this country forces me to choose between the opposing attitudes of For and Against – and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain”. He also quotes Bessie Head’s explanation of how she came to be a writer of a certain kind: “I knew I could not cope with the liberatory struggle; a world of hot, bickering hate, jealousy, betrayal, and murder.”
Baldwin thought a lot about the question of truth. Sometimes he thought about it in relation to music. In 1961 he was interviewed in Chicago in the dead of winter. Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues was on the turntable. Referring to the song Baldwin began the interview by saying that “it is the way I wanted to write”. At the end of the interview, he was asked who he was. We know there was a long pause. We don’t know if Smith was still on the turntable. He may have taken a slow drag on a Lucky Strike. We’ve all seen enough photographs to be able to see, in black and white, the smoke curling around his head. There may have been a sip of coffee or whiskey – Johnny Walker Black on the rocks. Baldwin’s answer was this: “I want to be an honest man. And I want to be a good writer. I don’t know if one ever gets to be what one wants to be. You just have to play it by ear, and … pray for rain.”
In another interview, this time in Amherst in 1984, Baldwin returned to the question of truth. “I did not,” he said, “succumb to ideology … I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised, you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.”
In November 1987, he was interviewed in his farmhouse in St Paul de Vence, a medieval French hilltop village not too far from Nice. He was mortally ill and would be dead in two weeks. We have no further words from Baldwin after the record of this conversation. It begins with Baldwin recounting his first meeting with Davis. Towards the end of the conversation, he returns, again, to the question of truth: “The whole American optic in terms of reality is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable.”
When you can’t appear in the world on your own terms, writing yourself into the world takes on an existential urgency. In an essay on the apocalyptic currents in Aimé Césaire’s work, John Drabinski points to a scene in Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel School Days. A boy sees a chalk mark on a board erased in a moment. With a sense of rising panic, he realises that he could be erased from the world. “Pretending he wasn’t scared shitless … he began to copy out his first name a thousand times, in order to proliferate and avoid genocide.”
When you can’t appear in the world on your own terms, writing yourself into the world takes on an existential urgency
But how life and experience that has been denied or distorted is written into the world is not a simple matter. It can happen that, as Frantz Fanon notes: “To the lie of the colonial situation, the colonised replies with an equal lie.” Madondo is as aware as anyone that the wheel of history has turned in such as way that we are all fated to live and to write out of a festering wound. But he is not interested in affirming Fanon, Robert Sobukwe or Steve Biko in the manner that they often are – “their bones dusted up as some sort of ideological totems”. He is trying to reach beyond dogma and propaganda to some of the truth – banal, fucked-up and glorious – of what it means, and what it has meant, to live here.
In 1977, Baldwin wrote that “music … tells me that now is the moment, for me, to return to the eye of the hurricane”. Baldwin never shied away from the eye of the storm, but he didn’t only offer witness to the storm. As Drabinski shows, Baldwin’s “writerly voice is always attuned not just to forms of resistance … but also to how forms of life live alongside, against, or even wholly outside the sorts of abjection white America is able to produce for black people”.
Writing and music call Madondo into an affirmation of life. But music is his royal road into beauty, brokenness, elegance, impoverishment, genius, the ecstatic, the erotic and all the rest – an expansive, democratic embrace of music that is free of both anti-intellectualism and the equally stupid snobbery that scorns the popular.
Madondo’s book is mostly about music, and it’s mostly at its best when it’s about music. It always rings clear and true when it’s about music – even when it rushes into the terrain of the marvellous. At the outset he tell us that:
“music is the only truly elevated, democratic art form shared by slave and master, the dead and the living with equal vigour, and venom. It is also the one space I find the most intense of fears, joys, and desires are embedded, encoded, labelled, unravelled, wrapped, and stored. Better still, a (un)safe, a repository from which our fear could be released and we are free as the birds.”
The tired cliché that compares writing about music to dancing to architecture just doesn’t apply to writing as good as this. The first time I heard Philip Tabane live was at the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown. The music was transporting. So was the collective energy in that sweaty room. And I was well into my third or fourth quart of Castle Milk Stout. It’s possible there could have been a spliff involved, too. Suddenly, with a flash of startlingly lucid clarity, I felt that I was seeing the music and it looked like Picasso, the cubist Picasso. It was the first and only time in my life that I had the sensation of seeing music. Later on, at home with coffee, I also thought of Matisse.
I was a music critic at the time. I remember a few lines that I think I got right – like this one on Rage Against the Machine: “Their first album arrived with all the mystic fury of a Johannesburg hailstorm.” But how do you write what you’ve seen in the music? Madondo nails it like it’s nothing. “The overall sound is abstract and cubist in the manner Picasso and Matisse understood so well. Tabane’s playing plunges and probes the depths of dark human recesses. He plays as though he is painting.”
Madondo gives us music as rain, Baldwin’s rain. He gives us Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba and Moses Mololekwa and the Buena Vista Social Club. He gives us Johannesburg, London, Dakar, New York and Havana. He gives us Yeoville and Harlem. He gives us Gary, Indiana; KwaLanga, Cape Town, and Phumlani, outside King Wiliam’s Town. He gives us the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip and eKhaya, Sue Mabale’s place on Rockey Street. He gives us Drum and Vibe. This is a writer with no anxieties about centre and periphery. There’s something here of Pablo Neruda’s refusal of the weight of the name, an affirmation of “a generous, vast wholeness, a crackling, living fragrance”.
Madondo steps right out of the colonial logic in which real life is lived in the metropole and the modern is located in race, space and time
The political consequences of this exceed the point made by Gill Scott-Heron’s declaration that “Philly’s like Johannesburg, New York’s like Johannesburg … Detroit’s like Johannesburg”. By writing South Africa into the world and the world into South Africa, Madondo steps right out of the colonial logic in which real life is lived in the metropole and the modern is located in race, space and time. In case we’re not paying attention, in case we’re not seeing what is so plainly before us, at almost 300 pages in he throws in a quick bit of didacticism: “the modern world is, in fact, richly black”.
Madondo gives us Makeba’s worldliness, her beauty and style – her conviction that “style is life”. He gives us Zahara in “three-storey-high-and-rising velvet shoes”, affirming her love of country music and Hannah Montana, and remembering the days when cooking oil had to substitute for Vaseline. He gives us Zahara’s mother, MaMgocwa, reading from the book of Ezekiel. He gives us Busi Mhlongo dreaming “in surreal sonic layers”. He gives us Mhlongo checking out at 62 in a hotel room in Durban with a stash of rented DVDs of Jimi Hendrix and Simone gigs. He gives us Brenda Fassie, “a unique, erotic, singular soul”. He gives us Tabane declaring that you shouldn’t force yourself on to your guitar: “Guitars are like all that we cherish. They are like our children and our dogs. They talk with and talk back to the owners. All you need is to be alert when those strings start telling stories and the fretboard nods in agreement.” He gives us Tabane remembering a gig in Harlem. “I was on stage playing a slow riff when Miles walked up from the back of the stage. He was already blowing as he walked up, playing my song Foolish Fly with that mute of his on the horn. I couldn’t believe it. I lost it. I cried so much later.”
Madondo gives us the BLK JKS playing a rock’n’roll show in Soweto, and a shitty version of Folsom Prison Blues. He takes us back to that moment – that long, silent, empty moment – when the news of Moses Mololekwa’s passing first came through. He gives us Mololekwa as “the Beautiful One, who as per oracular wisdom would one day marry the sounds of jazz, hip-hop, kwaito and soul, and create a music that transcended age, taste and station”. He gives us the Buena Vista Social Club almost 20 years down the line – “the Wu-Tang Clan of world music” that inspired him to name his son Cuba and, less happily, others to develop “a cottage industry of saccharine Latino and Cuban ‘classics’, kitsch reissues, clubland remixes of salsa, danzón, and cha-cha-cha”. He gives us Ali Farke Touré’s “skin-crawling wondrous moments of beauty, lust, and insatiability for life”, and Orchestra Baobab, “moody in tone, lived-in, dusty and dusky in sensibility, no doubt due, in part, to the old Moorish-Islamic inflections; the slide guitar lines economical and shockingly emotive as a JM Coetzee sentence”.
This reader wasn’t moved by the fiction, though. There’s a trippy, dense accumulation of atmosphere that evokes Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’s Wizard of the Crow. But I felt that I was wading through rather than surfing the freewheeling mash-up of Nongqawuse, Helen Suzman, Mathang’a Ngulube – a politically connected overweight inyanga, MaoDiba Mulattos, Emperor ZumaZuma, the Chinese mafia, Nigerian media moguls, new plagues and old men cranking themselves up on ancient herbs to enjoy riotous sex. At the end, after the Brother Leader grinning from kanga wraps and speculation about Credo Mutwa’s aliens, after the recitation of Baldwin’s most famous lines – “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, but fire next time!” – I felt I’d been passing through a circling, kaleidoscopic hallucination that had become an end in itself rather than a means to illuminate reality in new ways.
The celebrity profiles are much easier reading, and the author’s gifts as a writer are often dazzling. But, unsurprisingly, the forays into the world of Kenny Kunene and Khanyi Mbau just don’t carry the weight of the work on music. There is a sense that, ultimately, the author just isn’t that interested in this dimension of our reality. The biographical work, and the work on writing – from the essay on Achebe to the work on magazines such as Drum, Transition and Vibe – is consistently superb.
Theodore Adorno was not wrong to insist that the writer “should never begrudge deletions”. It could be that this book would have been a more focused, powerful and enduring intervention if it had been just about music. It could be that bits of three or four books are collected here. But this book is here now, and that’s a damn fine thing. It’s a rushing, tumbling embrace of life – life as it has been lived and as it is being lived. Here. That’s what this shit is.
Featured photo by Tseliso Monaheng. Bongani Madondo in Grahamstown.