Tonight l want to sing.
Melodies of pain.
Harmonies of heartache.
Songs of rage.
For I don’t have the words to speak, so all I can do is sing.
Come, my friend.
Is your mouth dry from sighing?
Are you as worn as I am?
Does your soul ache?
Are you afraid?
Let’s sit here outside, under this patch of sky that is momentarily ours before the clouds shuffle away to the homes of our neighbours.
Let me pour you a drink, something strong enough to bring tears to your eyes and a scratch to your voice. But first we must give our ancestors a sip. Don’t be stingy, a little more, after all they too need their tears diluted.
Are you comfortable?
Now let me sing.
I shall sing a Ghazal for Kenya, the music of melancholy that echoes along my lineage, from the shores of Veraval, accompanying my ancestors on the dhows across the Indian Ocean, leading them here, the first piece of soil in Kenya we have ever owned, where on Sunday nights, when dreams reign, my father scratches his beard and soaks his spirit in the sound of Jagjit, a ghazal maestro.
You must forgive me, for I am not accomplished in the specific poetic technique of the ghazal, but allow me to share its sentiment, as no other musical form quite captures the sweet pain of unrequited love. For it is only deep love that can birth a sorrow enduring enough to steal language. It is only the ghazal that can express the pain of separation and intensify it with the beauty of love for the thing we are separated from.
Let me re-fill your glass, for it is an insult to the host for ice to be exposed in its nakedness.
Take your shoes off, let the grass whisper the secrets of the land to your toes.
Before we start, I must tell you, like a ululation that must be answered, this ghazal is a response to the Blues sung by a sister, so that the singer may see she is not alone.
I wish her to know her voice is the solo that urges on the choir.
The first verse begins with a question.
When did we become so angry?
An earnest inquiry whispered between two friends sitting on a balcony overlooking the road, where in 1922 a woman whose torment possibly mirrors your own my friend, stood up to her oppressors, and they were so threatened by this woman expressing her rage by stripping in protest, they massacred two hundred people.
And there whilst the souls of the murdered sway to a dirge played on the natiti by a musician sitting under a tree, the friend answers.
I think it was 2007.
The first verse ends with another question.
Was that when the anger was birthed, or unearthed?
The second verse tells of remembrance.
A young man stands on stage. He joins a litany of silences breaking, of injustices voiced, of naming those that were murdered in 2007, in Garissa, in Mpketoni, in..in..in..It is radical, this act of not forgetting in a nation insistent on moving on, always opposed to reflecting back.
And as dust dances around his lit up figure, his voice rises then croaks, it whispers and breaks, it roars then sobs. Until his rage is exposed, naked and raw on stage and the audience shudders at our normally masked anger being performed in public.
The second verse leaves us shivering and outside on the road.
Let’s take a break to eat some goat trotter curry. It will line our stomachs, as the night will be long, and the song shall go on. Don’t be shy now, there is no shame in sucking the marrow, for the sound of slurping is the vocabulary of pleasure. As you lick the stickiness off your fingers, let me continue my ghazal.
The third verse sings of darkness.
On a city night, following a tail of red lights, a young woman determinedly shuts out the world. She closes her car windows and listens to the radio. The nonsense commentary coming from the speakers drowns out the sound of the pain of a nation. Inside she too can pretend. She sings. She laughs. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel.
Three men appear. Two go to the back of the car. One to the front. He bends down and shoves his hand under the car, shoving and pushing. Her hand presses down on the horn, hooting. Frantically screaming, something, nothing, anything. As the back door swings open and a man jumps in, grabbing her purse, she locks eyes with the man in front. In his eyes she glimpses hell.
The third verse ends with anguish for the too many whom hell has become intimate with.
The fourth verse circles around to the exact same location that the very first verse began, in the spot where enough once became enough.
A departure from the traditional ghazal in which the unrequited lover is resigned to their fate, but continues loving nevertheless, this is a verse swelling with hope and defiance. However to hear this tune of hope you have to listen deeply, beyond the words recited on stage, and instead focus on the heartbeat beneath the story being told. You have to submit to the rhythm washing over and cleansing your jaded spirit in the way only art can.
Two men sit across from each other on a stage that has become a dungeon. The one who makes a living out of killing holds a knife. As the words are spoken aloud about the unspeakable things we do to each other, people giggle. The laughing spreads. An infection of malaise. A reaction that reveals the resignation of a people who can’t cry anymore, so they laugh as a form of rebellion, of taking back power and control. And in the audience, someone wonders when our tears were robbed from us, unaware of the other theft that is soon to be revealed.
Later, a performer yells out his desire for freedom in Swahili, and the audience audibly bristles. Our word for freedom has been stolen. Someone wonders what happens to a nation’s spirit when we can’t call out in our language the thing we yearn for, because it has been hijacked to become something more loaded. Yet there in front of our eyes, in the energy vibrating within those walls, a new language of freedom starts to form in the hearts of those who have just glimpsed the injustice and courage, the protest and defiance captured in the stories of those who came before us, those who imagined a freedom whose shape is unrecognizable from the one we claim to have.
So the fourth verse circles around, reminding us that we are still here, in a place that looks too much like where we were before, but calling out to us to imagine a new place.
And so the fourth verse ends the ghazal not with resignation at our fate, but with determination to imagine a new future.
And that my friend, is my humble ghazal for Kenya offered with deep love.
You look tired. Come, let us open another bottle to rinse away the melancholy.
For the moon is still rising and the sun is still snoring.
Now it’s your turn to sing to me.
Songs of faith.
Melodies of possibility.
Harmonies of hope.
For I don’t have the words to speak it, so you will have to sing it for me.
Written in gratitude to:
Wandia Njoya for your determination to speak truths and reveal new ways of thinking.
Sitawa Namwalie for your courage in continuing to break silence and pushing boundaries.
The entire #TwoEarlyForBirds team for giving a gigantic shit and daring to care enough.
And all of you who resist the stealing of your humanity.
Photo Credit: Thank you Alice Wangui @alicekombani for responding to my call.