Reading Binyavanga III

First always
comes the ability to believe, and then the need to.
—Carl Phillips, “All it Takes”

atmospheres are sonically saturated
—Gayle Wald, “Soul Vibrations”

Despite the uncertainty that runs through One Day I Will Write about This Place, the final sentence suggests something of the accomplishment of the bildung: “We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning” (253). At the end of One Day, the insistent, fissured “I” that runs through the narrative has dissolved, through benga, into a collective “we.” And the individual has been folded into the sound of independent dissonance: “Right at the beginning, in our first popular Independence music, before the flag was up, Kenyans had already found a coherent platform to carry our diversity and complexity in sound” (253). This is because, “Any good benga guitarist can mimic the architecture and musical rhythms and verbal sounds of any Kenyan language. Stripped down, that is the intent of benga” (253). At the end of One Day, Kenyan-ness becomes available as a shared cultural property, available through the soundings of benga. How might one engage this turn to sound as suture or as what Matt Hart terms “vernacular glue” (Nations of Nothing, 34)? More broadly, how does sound function in One Day?

When a mutual friend asked me to describe what I found compelling about One Day, I mentioned sound. It is a work suffused by sound, often confounding the line between the written and the aural.


One bee does not sound like a swarm of bees. The world is divided into the sounds of onethings and the sounds of manythings. Water from the showerhead streaming onto a shampooed head is manything splinters of falling glass, ting ting ting.

All together, they are: shhhhhhhhhhh

Shhhhh is made up of many many tinny tiny ting ting tings, so small that clanking glass sounds become soft whispers; like when everybody at the school parade is talking all at once, it is different from when one person is talking. Frying sausages sound like rain on a tin roof, which sounds like a crowd.

Kimay is the talking jazz trumpet: sneering skewing sounds, squeaks and strains, heavy sweat, and giant puffed-up cheeks, hot and sweating; bursting to say something, and then not saying anything at all; the hemming and hawing clarinet. Kimay is yodeling Gikuyu women, Scottish square dancing to the accordion-playing man who wears a hat with a feather. It is a neon man called Jimmy, who has a screaming guitar and a giant Afro. It is ululating Gikuyu women crying around Kenyatta’s body on television. Gurgling Maasai men jumping up and down. Luo men in feathers and Kenyatta bears, nyatittying. Congo men speaking like women.
. . .
Ki-may is the accordion, the fiddle, the bagpipe, the trumpet. All those spongy sounds.

And my favorite:

(I find a note I think I wrote: “this book feels too close to the present of our memories, and that makes it hard to read and react.”)

Sorry, my favorite:

Hot sun city. There is a large industrial park—a slum—surrounding us, a flat plain of corrugated iron sheeting.

Take the sun—give it a ten thousand corrugated iron roofs—ask it, just for the sake of asking, to give the roofs all it can give the roofs and the roofs start to blur; they snap and crackle in agitation.

Corrugated iron roofs are cantankerous creatures; they groan and squeak the whole day; as they are lacerated by sunlight, their bodies swollen with heat and light, they threaten to shatter into shards of metal light. They fail, held back by the crucifixion of nails.

To read One Day, one must be what Alex W. Black describes as “a reader who has an eye for sound” (“Abolitionism’s Resonant Bodies,” 619). Music is only one part of the rich soundscapes One Day encounters and records: though it does more than “record”; it immerses. One is plunged into sound—cast into the center of “manythings” that do not coalesce (or fissure) into music or speech, but render, instead, the vibrations that resonate in and through bodies. One Day asks how attending to shared quotidian soundings—the sound of bees, the crack of corrugated roofs—might offer strategies for plotting belonging. What might it mean to share the experience of sound, to be lost in its multiplicity, to vibrate to shared frequencies?

I want to stay in the neighborhood of music for a bit, even as I am interested in the broader soundscapes of Binyavanga’s work—the bees, the corrugated roofs, the shower water. Writing on scat, perhaps the closest approximation to Binyavanga’s “ting ting ting,” Brent Edwards asks, “Does such phonetic material, the ground of scat, involve an absence of meaning or, on the contrary, an excess of meaning—even a troubling or transporting excess of meaning, a shifting possibility of a multitude of meanings?” (“Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat,” 624) Put otherwise, what are the possibilities of cacophony as a range of different actors takes it up and as Binyavanga renders it on the page? When he writes “ting ting ting” I hear not only the corrugated roofs he suggests but also the particular plunking sound of Gikuyu guitars and the sharp-edged patois that transforms “thing” into “t’ing.” Cultural and historical contexts multiply and coalesce into a “manything,” a “soundthing” of impossible chord/cord formations—strings, musical notes, muscles, and the promiscuous histories of all these. (Cord is mukwa, and a Gikuyu woman’s reshaped skull, an association.)

Scholars of African American sound have described the systems of value that distinguish between “noise” and “music.” I am interested in the “gaps” between “noise” and “music” in One Day, before it gets to the “resolution” of benga. This interest makes thinking a little more complicated, as most scholarship I have found on sound focuses on music or on what inclines toward music. I am wary of terming “ting ting ting” and the other sounds in One Day music, though they are in the same neighborhood. Despite my love for dissonant music that strains at the edge of lyricism, I’d like to reserve a place for sound that is related to, but is not music, this because I worry about music’s place as what sound (or poetry) aspires to, as the edge of meaning-making. Other sounds saturate our spaces and it is these I’d like to note, if not elaborate on. In a sense, then, I am interested in the resemblance between the incoherence of kimay and the “vernacular glue” created by other sounds. (This, perhaps, more in the nature of a promissory note for future work.) I am also interested in how sound in Binyavanga’s text is not simply “background” or “distraction” from the urgencies of narrative, but an intervention into how we conceive of narrative movement in Kenyan (and more broadly African) writing.

I want to press a little on Joyce Nyairo’s wonderful scholarship on music that has privileged lyrics at the expense of other forms of sounding. With Nyairo I am interested in how popular music produces memory aslant to that sanctioned by the state, and also how it registers ongoing ambivalent encounters with modernity in its hybrid and syncretic forms. However, I am also interested in thinking about a space between music, as one form of meaning-making and collectivity-gathering, on the one hand, and languages like Kiswahili and Sheng, which are presumed as “what we have in common,” even in One Day. Other forms of soundings are shared—the challenge is how to think what sharing them might mean.

Before this post becomes unmanageably long, let me turn to benga.

In the 1950s, John Low argues, “guitarists” in Kenya “were often viewed by the authorities as trouble-makers, debauchees, and rebels.” They “represented a threatening kind of change” (“History of Kenyan Guitar Music,” 26). Part of this threat arose from the multiple traditions guitarists, in the fifties and beyond, drew from and combined: musical styles from South America, South Africa, Malawi, Zaire, Nigeria, all routed through various ethnic soundings—the drum, the horn, the nyatiti. From one perspective, guitar music represents the most syncretic of all Kenyan musical forms. At a time when various ethno-nationalisms were taking root in Kenya, guitarists presented alternative soundscapes, offering proliferating dissent as the state tried to create a lined up Kenyan-ness.

As one of these syncretic manifestations of dissent, benga created multiple opportunities for engagement. Rooted in nyatiti soundings (those Binyavanga fears early in One Day), it localizes a cosmopolitan practice (guitar playing), creating a rooted cosmopolitanism, to adapt Appiah’s language. (I am slightly wary of Nyairo and Ogude’s “cosmopolitan nativism,” this because I understand nativism primarily through U.S. histories of exclusion.) As it circulates away from communities who understand the languages it’s produced in, it assumes a different role, as its rhythms, its soundings (as opposed to its lyrics), enable creative forms of movement in the form of dance. Differentially hued spaces are created within similar soundscapes. Tellingly, Binyavanga is interested in the sound of benga: how it renders language both legible and irrelevant.

I do not mean to suggest that One Day is naïve about benga’s potential. As Alexander Weheliye explains in another context,

Focusing on the sonic does not intimate privileging another mode of discursivity as the preferred figure for the articulation of subjectivity over the linguistic. Instead, it opens up possibilities for thinking, hearing, seeing, apprehending the subject in a number of different arenas that do not insist on monocausality. Still, we should not hastily rush to the sonic as a preconscious, open, fragmented, and fluid sphere that sounds in strict opposition to the visual and/or language, because music does not rely on meaning making in the same way as language. (“‘I Am I Be’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-Modernity,” 104; my emphasis)

Feeling is crucial to how music functions.

Listen to Binyavanga:

In a moment of watery patriotism the day after the [2010] referendum [on the Kenyan constitution], I buy a benga compilation, done by Kerebul Studios. It comes with a booklet on the history of benga, and a documentary and CD. I am afraid to watch and find I still hate benga music. Everybody now is saying it is the true music of Kenya. Maybe in my heart I am a little Anglo-Kenyan, unable to appreciate benga. (251)

Here, Binyavanga anticipates (perhaps inevitably) my own experiences of benga. In writing this, I have been trying to listen to different benga artists—there are a surprising number of recordings on youtube—and I experience no pleasure. Instead, I turn (back) to Bettye LaVette and Nina Simone. Yet, the absence of pleasure in benga has little to do with the force of its vibrations (to use Gayle Wald’s terms), which continue to resonate even when I turn it off.

Soundscapes are persistent and that persistence suggests the possibilities One Day sees in benga.

(I had vowed to post this on Sunday; please forgive the ragged conclusion that follows.)

I have yet to address the first epigraph to this post, taken from Carl Phillips’s The Rest of Love. As the first paragraph to this post might suggest, I am not sure how to read the final line of One Day: “We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning.” It is a difficult line, perhaps an impossible one, as it moves from belief to knowledge to possibility. I get snared (and scared) thinking about how it means. I have been reading Carl Phillips over the past few weeks and he returns, in volume after volume, to the relationship between “ability” and “need” in the sphere of belief; or, more concretely, he returns over and over to “belief.”

One Day is tethered to the promise—“I decide that one day I will write books” (54); “One day, I will write about this place” (164). Consequently, it is probably not unusual to see an argument made for “belief,” even as Phillips’s terms keep nagging at me: ability and need. If there is a bildung structure to One Day, it is in how ability and need become anchored in the person of Binyavanga. His possibilities, hard-won, suggest, as they must, something about Kenya’s possibilities. I wince as I write this because it sounds too flat: not easy, but I wanted something sexier. Perhaps to say: in One Day belief is a “manything.”

3 thoughts on “Reading Binyavanga III

  1. Twenty-some years ago Okatch Biggy Biggy is playing somewhere in Kondele, in Kisumu town. (Kondele is where Raphael Tuju, or Rapho, if you like, got stoned by Raila supporters). He used to be Okatch Biggy Biggy, but he got bigger—so they added another Biggy to his name.

    Okatch Biggy Biggy.

    He plays benga. My father listens to Okatch. The lyrics are mostly about big butts, bigger butts, and even bigger. And women with big sultry eyes. Everything is biggy biggy. And I hate benga: what’s with the pauses between lines in the lyrics?

    But benga is all around me. Benga, I’m told in whispers and side glances, makes so and so’s wife go to such and such a bar to dance and later get laid by someone else. And not just her, but Mama so and so, and that woman from House no.7. Biggy Biggy benga makes people get laid.

    And people are dying: Aids.


    You are right: One Day gives us sound not as background, but as part of most of what’s happening. It’s something I miss here in America: sound. America is so “sanitized”. It doesn’t smell much (except for artificial smells); doesn’t sound much (except the drone of construction or transportation, which is unlike sound of street and market vendors and matatus blaring music). I’m sure America (and I’m using extremely broad strokes) has its own sounds, maybe ones that I am not yet or probably will never be attuned to.

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