‘The Divine Song’ by Abdourahman A. Waberi: An Excerpt

This roller-coaster of a novel takes us from the shores of Africa to the musician protagonist’s ancestors’ arrival in the Americas in the hold of the slave ships. From there, the characters journey from Tennessee—under the tutelage of Lili Williams, Sammy’s beloved African-born grandmother—to New York and the concert halls of Paris and Berlin, wherever blues and jazz find an enchanted audience. African tales, religious practices, segregation, the civil rights movement, addiction, and jail—Sammy’s life comes to encompass the whole of the African American experience.

Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball

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An Excerpt

If, like me, you had the privilege of knowing that great lady, Nina Little, you would have immediately noticed how important dogs were in her life. I won’t hide the fact that I’m not crazy about those plodding, stupid creatures. I often wonder what humans can possibly get from them. To me, they’re as dirty, noisy and incomprehensible as the demonstrators gathered in Zuccotti Park are to Wall Street traders. But every race has its mysteries and since I’m not a human being and still less a ruthless banker, I keep my reluctance to myself. I must admit, however, that Nina loves her dogs and it must be reciprocal. They are the object of her boundless love. Of her longing for maternity. They are her companions, her beloved children; they light up her existence. And it’s highly probable that it has been like that from the first day they met to their last sigh. If my memory is correct, Nina had fox terriers, a boxer, an incredibly clumsy spaniel, and two false twin Chihuahuas.

One day when I didn’t have much to do, I got the odd idea of following a dog in the street. For no particular reason. Just to see where it would take me. That dog was a short-legged Australian sheepdog with short ash-gray fur. Trailing him, I took the first street to the right as I came out of my house, then the street to the left, then right again and so on until the dog, who had not noticed my presence, stopped short in front of a gate that led down to the bowels of the earth.

Above this entrance, which didn’t look like much, a little sign with the word SUBWAY in white letters on a blue background. The dog rushes into the subway entrance. I follow him, my head swimming. From this day on, I take the subway with a light heart, trying to avoid the advertising posters and the trains that end up in Brooklyn.

Nina’s dogs are particularly classy. They’re clean, well combed, well dressed and they always have a courteous word in their mouths. At least that’s how she described them when we first met.

As for me, I was coming from the sewers. My fur was tousled, my nose snotty, and I was quick to use my claws. Uncontrollable spasms would make me double over. I won’t even try to describe the way I ate. Hardly was the dish put in front of me than I’d throw myself at it, dive into the sauce, wade into the gravy, and smear food all over my face. And for my final number, I’d let out three little belches before clearing off. Reaching out like Muhammed Ali, she’d grab me by the throat and make me sit down, gently.

“Hey! Little cat. Cool it!” she whispered the first time, and by the sheer power of her gaze she made me stand still.

I was wild and tried to escape again, but I hadn’t considered the elasticity of the lady’s forearm. I surrendered. And that day, in a calm but firm voice, Nina gave me my first lesson in manners.

Through patience, I learned how to sit at the table calmly, without rocking my chair, something that really annoyed Nina. I learned to put my napkin away in its ring and into the drawer, do the dishes, and above all, to appreciate the tasty food she can cook better than anyone. Her recipes were transmitted to her orally by her grandmother, who got them from her great-grandmother born in Macon, Georgia.

White rice, red or black beans, pork, pickled herring, corn flour, accra, shrimp fried in palm oil, sweet potatoes, and plantains—I can’t get enough of them. Pork was forbidden when I was called Farid and lived in the warm shadow of Islam. That’s all changed since my long stay in the sewers of New York. I embraced the change: I accepted it instead of erasing and forgetting it. I buried certain certainties. I used to think chaos was necessary for all forms of creation but now I know it’s not true. I am someone else now. I want to be a cat with no other rule in life than the rule of Love. I would add that I am neither from the East nor the West and I do think I’d even eat rhino meat just for its taste if I could find some easily on 125th Street. Don’t think I lost my faith—no, it’s just that I look at things a bit differently now and I’ve changed, like everybody else. You never swim twice in the same river, observed an old Greek philosopher. And the swimmer is never the same, say the followers of Buddhism. They understood everything, before all the others. From them, I have retained a little practical lesson: what we see is conditioned by our faculties of perception, which are quite limited. The more we accept that many things escape us and appearances are often deceiving, the less we make hasty judgments. That’s what brings calm into our carnal envelope, lowers the collective temperature and strongly encourages peace and tolerance. Since then, I’ve been feeling lighter.

I have always liked colored pencils and notebooks, book bindings and ink. Nina used to scold me when she caught me with my finger in the inkwell. You’re going to dirty up everything, she’d growl. I remained motionless with a blue paw up in the air and a little false tear in the corner of an eye. I would wait till she turned her back to stick my finger, blue with ink, into my mouth. I loved the bitter taste of India ink. I believe I played this little game to an advanced age. Nina was completely fooled. The times she found out what was going on, her features would instantly freeze and her face would turn the color of mercury. She would invariably pull me by the flexible skin of my neck, lift me off the ground, and lecture me. I was afraid of her wrath and yet I would do it again even more as soon as the muscular pain left my neck. The taste of ink was irresistible. As months went by, I learned my lesson, cajoled and tricked her more. Nina would compliment me, predicting that this time I’d go back to the straight and narrow, back to cleanliness and politeness. I was her little angel once again. Considerate and all. I still wonder today if she put blinders on or if she was pretending just to have some peace.

When you don’t have much to expect from life, some people, like Nina, will find the right to be indignant and the strength to ridicule the bitchiness of life deep in their guts. The blues was born from this soil in the plantation fields of the South before reaching the big cities of the North.

It’s very early in American history, around 1620, that African slaves land in Virginia. They are among the first immigrants—except that the Africans didn’t choose to embark on the slave ships. In the 1700s, there are only thirty thousand Blacks in the British colonies of the New World.

The machine to depopulate the African coasts is running full steam with the complicity of the local chiefs. In 1860, there are 3,800,000 slaves in the southern states. Those figures have risen dramatically through the development of tobacco, rice and cotton farming in Virginia, Mississippi, and Georgia, all the way to the edges of Texas. At the same time, black volunteers enlist in the Union Army, commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant, to go fight the slave-owning South. Nothing will be as it was before. The Civil War changed all that. It leaves behind it 650,000 dead and definitively ruins the economy of the South.

On December 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution puts an end to slavery. A posthumous victory for Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in April of the same year.

James Meredith enters history in 1962 as the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi. Hawaii, where the young Barack Obama was born one year earlier and where he grew up, shows a more tolerant, more cosmopolitan profile than the old slave-owning South.

Soldiers camp in front of James Meredith’s apartment to ensure his security. Every time he goes somewhere, a federal agent accompanies him. In New York and the big cities of the East and the North, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) begins its constant combat. Objective: nothing less than equality and justice. Nothing less than the emancipation of the black people by any means possible, as if to echo the slogan of Malcolm X. Artists, writers, and musicians like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and Ishmael Reed will raise BAM to the highest peaks. This is the soil in which Sammy Kamau-Williams plants his first seeds.

In 1974, he composes “Winter in America,” a hit played over and over in the ghettos. It makes you feel the long icy coat that covers America, the disorientation and death of all the healers imported from Africa. Gerald Ford succeeds Richard Nixon, weakened by scandals and the warning shots fired by the young people of America.

My last life had not yet begun. I didn’t know the Enchanter existed. And no one had yet tried to end my days by drowning me in a bucket of water sprinkled with bleach.

For a concert given on the campus of Lincoln University by The Last Poets, Sammy and his friend Harry Gibbs concoct a poetic and political medley. It’s an immediate hit, first on campus. The Midnight Band was born. Black music has now two new magi in its ranks. That’s when the media found a nickname for Sammy. They called him the “Black Bob Dylan.” There are worse compliments you could get from these white journalists who quickly run out of ideas.

My old mentor used to say that the nails that crucified Jesus Christ were called Ignorance, Selfishness, Hypocrisy, and Rumor. The journalists did a good job. They smeared Sammy’s reputation. Shame, anger, and resentment got the better of his unparalleled bravery. Drugs took over. They waited until alcohol had attacked his skeleton before taking hold of his soul. In the smoking-red clay of the Deep South, Papa Legba was waiting for him at the very first crossroads.

In his youth, Sammy was a robust boy, with long legs, a narrow waist, broad shoulders, and a light complexion. He sported an Afro and wore African shirts. Deep inside, he’s a child perched high on his legs, surprised by his new morphology (yes, the root of our billions of cells) that will henceforth accompany him like his shadow.

Providence endowed him with the biggest Adam’s apple on earth. As soon as he opens his mouth to talk or sing, that’s all you can see. The size of a child’s fist, it goes up and down his larynx with the regularity of a metronome. His Adam’s apple is accentuated by his large tuft of hair and his dark glasses: a jewel in a fine mahogany case. Girls have eyes only for him and men are jealous of the baritone voice surging up from his chest. That voice will not cease to wake the black people, to shake the world with revolutionary refrains and compassionate melodies.

Sammy was born with that gift. He’s a shaman who can turn chaos into order. A craftsman of the blues. A bluesologist, that’s what I am, that’s what every fiber of my being makes me, he repeats forcefully to the stupid reporters who describe him as the godfather of hip-hop. That predisposition was evident in him very early on, as soon as he was born. It is given to few people to keep that flame going, to believe in it truly and never to doubt it. And a very small minority knows how to use it, effortlessly—at least in appearance. The rest of life is only a long, patient apprenticeship to succeed in mastering that talent, to use that inner fire without risking one’s life. That gift of the gods has its good part and its bad part. Its magic is to be neither good nor bad but to be both at the same time. All the time. From the conflict with evil can come the aspiration to felicity. If evil disappears, even momentarily, the good vanishes. Every blues singer knows this and if he lights a candle it’s to cast a shadow, to create a little bit of night that will heal his stigmata. Night is his present and at the end of it, he will find a gleam of hope and the incandescence of the day.

The day is the right hand of the universe, the night, its left hand. Day and night can switch parts, create intermediate zones rich in fog. Getting lost in fog can last a long time. A whole lifetime.

In every way, Sammy is a son of the blues. Wandering poets, the blues singers from the Mississippi Delta carried with them from place to place the memory of the suffering of the slaves, mixing in with it biblical characters and the spirits of the African forests.

Their heartbreaking songs restore the vitality of characters larger than life. The Master of the Crossroads remains a recurring character in this repertory. He was born on the Slave Coast, in Africa. His other name is Papa Legba, from Haiti to Trinidad, from Cuba to Louisiana. In Brazil, he’s called Eshu but don’t be fooled: it’s the same spirit, half man, half god.

He’s represented as an emaciated old man smoking a pipe. He’s poorly dressed, with an old jute bag slung across his shoulder. He has a limp and walks leaning on a crutch. Children call him Broken-leg-Legba. Watch out, this goblin opens or closes the gate to the other world. He rules over roads and crossroads. He keeps under his beard the secrets of origins, the idioms, customs and animist mores of the deported Africans. He officiates at the crossing of roads and the smoke of his pipe gets the dying back on their feet again. You stiffen up at his view and then start to sing prayers to coax him. Sometimes he lets you through.

Papa Legba / Papa Legba l uvri bayè pu mwê / Papa Legba pu mwê pasé / Papa Legba

Papa Legba / Papa Legba, open the door, / Papa Legba, let me go through / Papa Legba