I am ever intrigued by the intersection between music and creative writing processes and products. For me, music is a backchannel to the raw emotions about people and events in the past that find their way into my literary fiction works. For stories I write that are set in the 80s, I turn to music by Franco Lwambo, Madilu System, Samba Mapangala, Sukuma Bin Ongaro, and bands such as Simba Wanyika, and Less Wanyika whose tunes often wafted from my late Father’s LP and Voice of Kenya (VOK) radio. Before I was adult enough to pick my own music taste, I was captive to the tastes pushed down my palate by the elderly male in my family – my father and two elder brothers – from late 80s and throughout the 90s. I do not necessarily feature the songs in my works but listening to them offers me a loop within which I tap into the emotions of my memories. And I don’t think I am alone.
I recently finished reading Chimeka Garrick’s “A Broken People’s Playlist” and marveled at the influence of music in the making of the short story collection. Chimeka does not only title the stories after songs; the section breaks in the text are also denoted by the G-clef symbols. When I reached him Chimeka acknowledged that music “pulled him out of a writing slump” and this birthed the collection. I was grabbed by two stories in this collection – “In the City” and “River” and curiously I Goggled the songs by Brymo and Leon Bridge, respectively. They were not the kind of music I would ordinarily Google, something Chimeka refers to as “music discovery angle” effect that his collection has had on readers. He delights when young readers thank him for helping them discover musicians such Nina Simone, the Eagles and Johnny Cash, or when a non-Nigerian tells him they listened to Bez or Brymo for the first time after reading the collection.
The grisly murders in “In the City” and “River” leaves one with a downcast aftertaste, and their corresponding YouTube videos are heavy with equally somber moods. I wondered whether music played at the background while Chimeka worked on the collection. It possibly did because, Chimeka regards music as “the Pied Piper to subconscious stories,” in his head, it “draws them out and makes them dance sometimes.” He says it sets the theme, tone, pace and even plot for some of his stories.
Stanley Gazemba, author of “Forbidden Fruit”, “Khama” and “Callused Hands” told me that he writes with rhumba playing softly at the background to wire himself to the right mood that his story requires and also shut off distractions around him. He finds this valuable during the rewriting and editing stages and the music he selects has to go with the kind of story he is doing. But this does not work for all writers. In an interview with Ebuka Obi-Chinedu on Black Box a year ago, Chimamanda Ngozi said that while she enjoys listening to music, it becomes noise while she is writing.
At the end of the writing continuum is the reader, who can also benefit from the infusion of music energy in creative writing works. Chimeka says he “wanted to give readers a full immersive and enjoyable reading experience by also bringing their ears into the stories.” In her short story titled “How Much is the Doggy in the Window” published in The White Review, Gloria Mwanige also aimed to achieve similar results with her readers. Her story was titled after a reggae song by Peter Broggs, which was quite a sensation in the late 90s. In an interview with Lucas Barasa, Director of Global Editorial Center Kenya, Mwanigae said she sets the story in the 90s to capture the 90s Zeitgeist for the reader.
You may then wonder what comes first in this case: the story or the song title. For Chimeka the stories came first, even though the music was there all through. In some stories, a song or lyric would trigger a dormant story in his subconscious; in others, they helped him to finish a story. If anything, each story was influenced by multiple songs and he would choose a title from one of the songs that “captured most of the story’s essence.”
The place of musical energy in creative writing is as good as the works birthed in the process. As Chimeka contends for long, “music is an important part of storytelling” considering the song elements in folktales and bedtime stories. He lauds film makers for appreciating the power of music in storytelling in their use of soundtracks and scores. This reiterates that for some creative writers’ music is an energy that bequeaths their work the force of realism that the works may present.
Nyasili Atetwe is a Kenyan-born storyteller. His mediums of expression include fiction, photography, and film. He was longlisted for the 2021 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children and the 2021 Kendeka Short Prize for African Writing. His short stories have appeared in Jalada, Equipoise and I am Listening anthologies. He participated in the Nairobi Short Story Masterclass facilitated by the University of East Anglia. His Grade 7 Reader, Extravaganza and Other Stories was recently published by StoryMoja.