I wrote the first draft of Muezzinland in 1998. At the time I was working at the University Of Luton, which had a very good library – I would spend an hour a day there researching the novel, and having great fun doing it. At home, I had a book by Jan Knappert called African Mythology, which was the perfect resource for the various African folk tales that the novel makes use of. Muezzinland takes place in the Africa of 2130 (Aphrica, as I called it), where the “cyberspace” of the world has advanced from a neutral version to one with its own cultural flavour. In this world it is possible for a locally relevant folk tale to co-opt an unwary traveller: as Gwyneth Jones memorably put it in her review, “like awful pop-up adverts that take over your screen.”
The other research I did was to listen to lots of African music. I was already a fan of this kind of music, particularly the Arab influenced music of North Africa, but I liked West African music too. In this guest blog I want to signpost six African albums that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years.
The first is Tres Tres Fort by Staff Benda Bilili. This group of paraplegic, wheelchair based Central African musicians have acquired exalted status in the last year or so because of their extraordinary story, but I bought the album when it came out, encouraged by the adulatory reviews. And it really is an incredible album, made by extraordinary people. All the members of the group effectively live as homeless people in Kinshasa, which is in the Democratic Republic Of Congo – a country beset by evils, as anybody who’s read Tim Butcher’s Blood River will know. But the band were “discovered” by Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, who went on to record the album in the vicinity of the Jardin Zoologique, where the group live, though there are a few overdubs recorded in somebody’s front room. The tracks are all joyous and wonderful, and I can’t recommend the album highly enough.
In 2008 a groundbreaking album was released by Toumani Diabaté, one of the acknowledged masters of the kora, the prime African stringed instrument. (I used the kora symbollically in chapter five of Muezzinland, played by the vodou-enhanced Baron Samedi.) Diabaté’s album was called The Mandé Variations, and it is a work played by the great man alone. Listening to it, I sometimes can’t believe this is one man playing one instrument, so fast and complex is the playing. It’s mesmerising, and makes for great listening.
Returning to Kinshasa and Crammed Discs, one of the albums I bought a while after it came out was Congotronics by Konono No1. The musicians on this album featured on Bjork’s Volta, and it was hearing her music, and reading the reviews of how Congotronics was recorded, that made me want to buy it. Konono No1 first appeared in the ‘seventies in the Bazombo region near the Congo/Angola border, but their debut had to wait until 2004 to get a release. Most of the musicians on the album use the African thumb piano, the likembe, elsewhere known as the mbira, and the music is full-on African trance, played and recorded through microphones and amplifiers scavenged from old equipment (including parts from ruined cars). It’s an astonishing sound world.
Travelling now to Saharan North Africa, one of the best known musical exports of that area is Tinariwen, whose politically charged desert-blues, as it has come to be known, is popular all over the Western world. The band play live and have recorded quite a few albums, one of the best being Aman Iman: Water Is Life, which takes their sound to new, electric levels. The band are seven in number but are often augmented by local singers, and they sing in their native Tamashek language, some of their work being rooted in the freedom struggle of the Touareg people. Other tracks exhort the Touareg to put aside tribal rivalries and unite to better cope with the modern world, or as with Izarharh Tenere to celebrate the beauty of the desert. The music is simply entrancing. The album was recorded in Bamako, Mali, a country that has for some time inspired my imagination, not least Timbuktu, where two central chapters of Muezzinland are set.
Also recorded in and around Bamako (on the Bamako Mobile Studio) was Mali Koura by Issa Bagayogo, a Malian who has brought the sound of the n’goni to the Western world. Released on the forward thinking Six Degrees record label, the album merges traditional Malian music and sounds with synthesizers and modern production techniques. It’s a great mixture. Sometimes, augmenting traditional music with Western sounds doesn’t work, but on this album the fusion is fabulous.
Finally on this brief tour I come to Fondo by Vieux Farka Touré, who is the son of world-famous Ali Farka Touré, the much loved musical maestro. Touré senior was globally feted, and worked with some major Western stars, not least Ry Cooder on the Grammy award-winning Talking Timbuktu. His son Vieux had very big boots to fill following Ali Farka’s death from bone cancer in 2006, but on Fondo he certainly does. He has a distinctive guitar sound, at once slender, slinky and soca-infused, that makes all the self-penned tracks on the album a delight to listen to. There’s also one traditional song, the Timbuktu classic Walé, and a guest appearance by Toumani Diabaté, so this album comes highly recommended from me.
I hope that this mini tour encourages you to explore the wonderful African music that is out there. You won’t regret it!
Muezzinland by Stephen Palmer
Life has changed in the mid 22nd century. The aether is a telepathic cyberspace. Biochips augment human brains. AIs, concepts, even symbols can be dangerous. Mnada is heir to the Ghanaian throne, yet something has been done to her brain that has made her insane, something to send her fleeing north across jungle and desert towards the mysterious place called Muezzinland.
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“…a tour de force in imagining possibilities that lie beyond our information age… If you enjoy the full immersion experience of neo-magic, you’ll [like] Muezzinland.”
– Gwyneth Jones, New York Review Of SF
“…succeeds when many other similar attempts to fuse the mythic and the modern fail… in Muezzinland, the hybrid thrives, creating a compelling and cohesive vision… It’s an unusual and successful combination.”
– Matrix magazine, BSFA
“While the plot can be read as a relatively straightforward thriller, the book as a whole is considerably more than this. It succeeds in integrating the elements of myth and high technology, producing something of a hybrid that feels right.”
– Vector magazine, BSFA