Bird Monk Seding: a novel
Deep South 2017
A jazz novel today, just to give Joy of Jazzed-out ears a rest. Reading is good too.
There’s no mystery about Seding in the title of Lesego Rampholokeng’s thirteenth outing. It’s the shortened form of Leseding (“place of light”), the small North West rural settlement to which the book’s narrator, Bavino Sekeng, moves on some kind of writing retreat “in the quest for Bosman’s ghost”. But Rampolokeng has always asserted that it’s about the words before anything else, so let’s not lose focus on three others that matter just as much: Bird, Monk, and ‘novel’.
Last first, because it might be tempting to read Bird Monk Seding as autobiography, since Papa Ramps gives us more of his own life story in one place here than you’ll otherwise find outside interviews. Bavino is a name the writer employs in books (https://www.amazon.com/Bavino-Sermons-Lesego-Rampolokeng/dp/1875011234 ) and on Facebook. But, as he told Mphutlane wa Bophelo ( https://www.thedailyvox.co.za/lesego-rampolokeng-vagabond-word-man/ ), it’s also a way of invoking Everyman: “About Bavino…if Zola-bound, I’d be Kau, elsewhere ntanga, or Bafoza, Magenge … my Orlando Western street-corner male endearment term.”
So seeking autobiography would be a mistake. Though his own story is the cloth he cuts from, Rampolokeng’s book is meticulously constructed of art and artifice to connect the physical and psychic violence before liberation to what persists and prevails now – so much so, that you might need to put heavy quote-marks around that l-word. Train-tracks at Phepheni in Soweto, and at the little station nearest Seding, facilitate travel between times as well as places: Soweto in the ‘80s; Seding today. “Jim comes to Joburg,” says Rampolokeng, “so Bavino goes to Marico.”
That’s where Eshu-Elegba comes in: the Yoruba trickster god. Because those intersecting railroad tracks are where Eshu lives, presiding over language and communication, mediating between the mundane and the divine, the ancestors and the present, the revered and the downright rude. That’s what writers do too. The connection to Eshu, they say, is traditionally established through hearing, playing and dancing to certain rhythms. Enter Bird and Monk.
Bird Monk Seding is on these pages because it’s a jazz novel. In this case, not because it’s about jazz – though often it is – but because the music of its words, patterns, rhythms, breaks and improvisatory excursions call up and echo the jazz it describes.
Thelonious “Sphere” Monk: his music born from the blues but précised through meticulous craft to the point where it sounds wholly new. “Monk’s radical idea,” said Robin Kelley, “was not to add more notes to chords but rather take them away, creating much more dissonance.” A bit like this, perhaps? “Expensive dressed in poor veneer. The face slum, the core bourgeois. Bars, restaurants, bookshops where upward mobility gets its chops.”
Charles “Bird” Parker: master of what John Fordham summed up as “the ability to move far away from a tune’s ‘home’ key and back without losing the thread.” “The base was there before me. Solid. I stand my pen on it. And the paper winces/ while I wait for the blood/ (…)Step. ‘the melody’s more important than the navigation.’ And motif is/ trampoline in this. Bounce on it/ only to take off and then back again…on the one!”
The book is also a tribute to Mafika Gwala, who died in 2014, and there are multiple explicit praises for the poet’s work, and shared, echoed allusions, for example to Phillip Tabane. But the real homage is embedded in that music of words, because that was Gwala’s voice too:
“If we are not saints/ They’ll try to make us devils;/ If we refuse to be devils/ They’ll want to turn us into robots./ When criminal investigators/ are becoming salesmen/ When saints are ceasing to be saints/ When devils are running back to Hell/ It’s the Moment of Rise or Crawl/ When this place becomes Mpumalanga/ With the sun refusing to rise/ When we fear our blackness/ When we shun our anger/ When we hate our virtues/ When we don’t trust our smiles./ one and two/ three and four/ bonk’abajahile” (from Bonk’abajahile published in Jol’iinkomo, 1977)
Within Bird Monk Seding’s polyphony of true and trickster voices, it is clear which parts are true, and irrelevant which are autobiographical and which are not. This much is the important truth: we have failed to deal with racism and violence and racially-structured degradation and so they poison today, when former liberation fighters join former SADF killers – some of them farmers just outside Groot Marico – on the gravy-train. But grasp Eshun’s hand and he can also link us to another level of existence, where music accesses the sublime and good people still live. The two worlds exist at the same time, side by side, sometimes colliding or intertwining: jazz cannot erase desolation, but nor can desolation erase the freedom and beauty of jazz, and so Bird lives, and so we are able to breathe as well.
Poet Lorenzo Thomas said some similar things, in another voice tracking the swoops, flurries and soaring of Parker’s music:
“According to my records, there was something/ More. There was space. Seeking. And mind/ Bringing African control on the corny times/ Of the tunes he would play. There was Space/ And the Sun and the Stars he saw in his head/ In the sky on the streets and the ceilings/ Of nightclubs and lounges as we sought to/ Actually lounge trapped in the dull asylum/ Of our own enslavements. But Bird was a junkie!”
(from Historiography by Lorenzo Thomas)
There are new things in this book. The personal voice is not so relentlessly a voice of disgust as it has sometimes been. Though the shifts between affectionate memory and visceral horror still happen fast enough to feel like a punch in the guts, there are more of the former than there used to be. There’s nobility, fortitude and love in the lives of people such as Seding’s Pogisho and Mmaphefo, risking everything to protect their son. Other things about Rampolokeng don’t change. The writing is as meticulously crafted as ever, mashing up memoir, reportage, movie script, music and verse with his customary forensic scalpel. “BUNIONS ON MY FINGERS/ I put in a lot of work on the pen…” “I celebrate the minds fashioning us on more than just a couple of dimensions. Death to literary apartheid and art-ghettos,” Rampolokeng told wa Bophelo. And, in the book: “The idea though is to take it/away from the inherited form. Make a new dream./ Four-pronged attack,/ channeled through one. Mafika, Bird, Monk and me.”
In short, Bird Monk Seding is about as autobiographical as Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog. Mingus – who was never a pimp, and, in Mingus Speaks (https://www.amazon.com/Mingus-Speaks-John-F-Goodman/dp/0520275233 ), shows a somewhat different character – rode on pimp-style boasts and repellent sexism to throw racist stereotypes back at their architects and more generally, Eshu-like, mess with his readers’ heads.
That’s the strategy Rampolokeng’s brew of bitter truth and baroque imagining also employs. It declares it’s a novel. Believe it. In one legend, Shangu, the Yoruba thunder-god, asks Eshu: “Why don’t you ever speak straightforwardly?”
The trickster replies: “I never do…I like to make people think”