Saturday, April 15, 2017

Whose Blues?

This appeared in today's Indian Express.


Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, believed that sound waves never completely die away. As Hari Kunzru writes in his new novel, White Tears: “They persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to the sound of ancient times.” White Tears takes this fascinating premise and links it to American blues music to explore modern-day questions of authenticity and the suppression of marginalised voices.

On the face of it, this is the story of Seth, an out-of-place young man and audiophile, whose life changes when he meets Carter, a wealthy, privileged fellow-student in an East Coast liberal arts college: “Blond dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn’t hesitate to use to further the cause of maximum good times.” The two bond over an obsession with recording and reproducing music. An early sign of the novel’s concerns is when Seth informs us that Carter “listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” The misplaced quest for such fidelity will prove to have unsettling consequences.

Seth and Carter open a recording studio in Brooklyn, billing themselves as “artisans of analog”, a facility that quickly becomes popular among singers and producers. There’s a pleasing specificity to the prose here, with attention to instruments, equipment and effects: “This organ. That handclap. Put the guitar in a cave and the vocal raw and breathy, right up front. Add surface noise, a hint of needles plowing through static, throw the whole thing back in time.”

Carter, though, becomes increasingly more eccentric and fixated on a blues lyric sung by an elusive black youth whom Seth had once recorded, almost in passing, during a perambulation in Washington Square Park. This obsession leads directly to the book’s second half, where things turn nightmarish and even ghostly, thus justifying the moments of foreshadowing from the start: “The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster.”

Seth’s path crosses and then starts to intersect with another blues enthusiast from an earlier generation, one who also spent time with a mentor tracking down rare recordings. This earlier-in-time tale, starting as a counterpoint, merges with and takes over the narrative. The source of the magnetic blues lyric comes to light, along with revelations of the brutal silencing of voices of the powerless. As W.C. Handy, called the “Father of the Blues”, once wrote, in what could well have been an epigraph for this novel, “Bad luck and trouble are always present in the blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and downtrodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over.”

It must be said, though, that there are times, especially during the latter half, when one feels Kunzru’s foot too firmly on the pedal of his theme. There is deftness, however, in the way he combines the warp of the past with the weft of the present to create an elegiac story of obsession and subjugation. One wonders what the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, to mention just two who owe so much to the blues, would make of this contribution to our time’s passionate debate over questions of cultural appropriation.