In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Myriam J. A. Chancy’s novel What Storm, What Thunder is powerful and compelling.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Extraordinary. . . . lyrical. . . . dazzling. . . . Each of the voices entrances, thanks to Chancy’s beautiful prose and rich themes. This is not to be missed.”
I’m the daughter of an accountant and of a musician, so, for much of my life, I sought to flee numbers and music. Fleeing numbers brought me debt, until my mother taught me some basic principles of financing, such as pay yourself first (savings), and always give what you can afford to lose. I thought that fleeing music would be easy once I left home: no more piano and singing rehearsals interrupting my every thought. But once I found myself in my graduate housing at age nineteen, the first thing I bought was one of those boomboxes that had detachable speakers, an FM radio, and a tape cassette player. The silence, like poverty or debt, didn’t help my creativity.
If you happen to spend time in my house, you’ll find that music animates every part of my life. I have soundtracks for cooking, and I can’t fall asleep without it. The same is true for writing, and for every book I work on, there develops, over time, a different soundtrack, music that somehow dovetails and buoys the writing, that feeds the process and stays on replay until the work is done, right through to the end of the revision process.
For What Storm, What Thunder, a fictionalized story in 10 voices of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, certain pieces of music stayed with me. Some works inspired the writing while others worked themselves into the fabric of the story itself, flavoring some sections of the text like peppers in a soup, providing cultural texture to the words. Here, I’d like to share some of both, those pieces that provide the cultural soundtrack to the novel, as well as those pieces that lifted my spirits through the writing or that gave me just the kind of inspiration, I needed to uplift the voices of my characters, to give them form, or, at times, a place to rest. I think, in the end, this is what music does for me: it provides me with a resting place that regenerates my creativity.
“Bring Me Home” by Sade
I have a special place in my heart for the music of Sade, which I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager. Some people may find it strange that I consider Sade an influence on my aspirations as a writer but I like the idea of only putting out work when it is ready, as she does, even if this means there are large gaps between offerings.
In 2010, Sade released the album, Soldier of Love, which contains the single “Bring Me Home.” The song begins with the following words:
“The ground is full of broken stones
The last leaf has fallen
I have nowhere to turn now
Nor east nor west, north or south
And all that’s ahead of me
Everything I know
I know nothing so
So bring me home”
These words reflect how I felt after the 2010 earthquake, as if there was nowhere to turn, no east, west, north or south. My homeland was broken and yet all I wanted to do was return, go home. I didn’t do that, of course, as returnees were the last thing that people on the ground needed as this would have diminished and deflected available resources from those who needed it most. This song served as a touchstone during the period when return was not advisable and comforted me throughout the writing of the novel.
“Timatant nan wout,” “Lakou Trankil,” by BélO
While writing the novel, I listened to several albums by Haitian musician BélO. The ones I kept on repeat were his 2005 album, Lakou Trankil, which contains both the singles, “Lakou trankil,” about the “lakou” or yard space which serves as a gathering or community space for Haitians (“trankil” meaning “quiet” or “peaceful”) and “Timatant nan wout” (“little auntie on the road”) which speaks of Haitian women who have to go out to make their way in the dark, on uncertain roads, to go to work, as market women or in other lines of work, to make a living, put food on the table, despite any and all dangers they might have to face. The song is written like a dance track but when one listens to the lyrics, which are in Kreyol, one finds that they are imbued with great respect and awe for these women who risk everything to better the worlds of their loved ones.
“Gadé Moun Yo,” by Ra Ra De Léogane
While writing WS, WT, I listened to a lot of traditional Haitian music, especially Rara and folk music. Rara is a form of street music used in public demonstrations and festival processions that originated with enslaved Africans with many improvised instruments made of recycled materials such as discarded coffee cans and metal bells. “Gadé Moun Yo” also known as “Kote Moun Yo” [Look at the people or Where are the people] is a Rara traditional sung in Haitian Kreyol that speaks of someone escaping gossip, walking towards the good while leaving behind the bad.
“The Water,” “Wading Through,” “In Time of Need” by Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will, an instrumental jazz album responding to Hurricane Katrina’s passage through New Orleans puts into musical form the sorrow and grief of the calamity. It echoed my own feelings and that of the characters in WS, WT, connecting one tragedy to another, yet, also doing so with hope of healing.
“You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, appeared in 2016, when I was still writing the main draft of the novel. Cohen’s voice on this album is as deep a baritone as it has ever been and the lyrics of the songs reflect on reckoning with one’s own mortality as well as humanity’s. The single, “You Want It Darker,” reflects in its lyrics some of the quandaries of the characters in WS, WT: “A million candles burning/ For the help that never came” or “I struggle with some demons/ They were middle class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission/ To murder and to maim.”
“Reflektor” & “Here comes the night time” by Arcade Fire
One of Arcade Fire’s lead singers, Régine Chassagne, is Haitian-Canadian. Some of the rhythms and concepts of Haiti infuse the work of Arcade Fire. The group put out Reflektor in 2013, inspired by exchanges with Haitian RaRa musicians, some of whom appear on the album. In both of the songs I’ve chosen here, the band invokes concepts proper to vodou, the “loko miroir” or crossroads between the world of the living and dead, which is reflected in a doubling mirror. “Will I see you on the other side,” says “Reflecktor” (with guest appearance from David Bowie on the original track), while in “Here comes the night,” the nighttime invokes the potential of crossing over. The latter song also critiques missionaries, and the irony of proselytizing to a people so imbued with spiritual belief and knowledge:
“And the missionaries
They tell us we will be left behind
Been left behind
A thousand times, a thousand times
If you want to be righteous
If you want to be righteous, get in line
‘Cause here comes the night time”
In 2011, with Dominique Anglade, both of whose parents, Georges Anglade, a writer and geographer, and Mireille Neptune Anglade, a woman’s rights activist, died in the earthquake, founded the organization Kanpe.org to collect funds to support communities in Haiti in their bid for autonomy (“kanpe” in Kreyol means “stand up”). The organization continues to this day.
“Autumn Leaves,” by Cannonball Adderley; “Dream a little dream of me,” “Tenderly,” Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; “Let’s Do it (Let’s Fall in Love)” by Ella Fitzgerald; “Ne me Quitte Pas,” Nina Simone; “Dance Me to The End of Love,” “I’m All Right,” “Smile” by Madeleine Peyroux; « Ev’ry We Say Goodbye,” “Sophisticated Lady” Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett; “I Loves You Porgy” Nina Simone; New Directions 63, John Coltrane
I listened to a great deal of Jazz while writing this novel because the music lent itself to the sense of urgency I felt many of the characters lived with; the great jazz songbook also voices the frustrations and hopes of many of the characters whose lives are irrevocably altered by the earthquake and alters, for some, their sense of duty, love, and the possible, particularly in Olivier’s section of the book.
“Redemption Song,” “Sun is Shining,” Bob Marley & The Wailers
“Leaving the Table,” by Leonard Cohen
Olivier is an accountant and young father who loses his children in the earthquake, a fact that leads him to question his ability to protect and provide for his family. In his section of the text, he recounts his courtship of Sara, his wife, and for that courtship, I imagined Olivier listening to Bob Marley.
His despair after the earthquake is well summed up by the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Leaving the Table”:
“I don’t need a reason
For what I became
I’ve got these excuses
They’re tired and lame
I don’t need a pardon, no, no, no, no, no
There’s no one left to blame
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game”
Olivier & Sara’s Song:
“By Your Side,” a single from Sade’s Lover’s Rock album (2000) begins in this way:
“You think I’d leave your side, baby
You know me better than that
You think I’d leave you down
When you’re down on your knees
I wouldn’t do that
I’ll tell you you’re right when you want
And if only you could see into me”
I think of “By Your Side,” as the theme song for two married characters of the novel, Sara and Olivier, who would never have imagined that anything would separate them, until the earthquake does in ways that neither could have foreseen.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock with you,” “Stranger in Moscow,” Michael Jackson
“Mozart: Requiem in D Minor,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (various interpretations)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Víkingur Ólafsonn
“Flight of the Bumblebee” [Rimksy-Korsakov; arranged by Rachmaninoff], interpreted by Micheline Laudun Denis [Haitian classical pianist]
One character, Leopold, a trafficker attempting to better his life, sees his life flash before his eyes while trapped in an elevator as the earthquake brings down the hotel in which he is staying. During the time he awaits rescue, he also remembers his life musically, from the classical music he has just recently started to listen to (Bach, Rachminanoff, Mozart), to the music of Michael Jackson, whom he recalls having died the summer prior.
Taffia & Didier’s Songs:
“Sensation (Bidi Bidi Bam Bam)”, “Gason Makome,” “Moun Sa You,” by T-Vice
“Ce konsa ce konsa,” by Tabou Combo SuperStars
Haitian classical music & interpreters:
“Suite No. 1: Yanvalloux,” Frantz Casseus; Gide Nibo [Variations on compositions by Ludovic Lamothe], David Bontemps
Taffia and Didier are brother and sister. Taffia is a teenager at the time of the earthquake and resides in Haiti, while Didier, a musician, having left five years earlier, is eking out a living in Boston driving cabs clandestinely. Didier attempts to keep a connection to Taffia by sending her prerecorded vintage Haitian music on an old iPod he found in one of the cabs.
“Konpa” is a distinctive genre of Haitian popular music derived from a fusion of jazz, big band, and afrobeat rhythms, among other forms, to create a danceable, beat-driven music with often humorous lyrics. (Tabou Combo SuperStars, Haiti’s first internationally recognized konpa band also happens to have been founded by two of my uncles so I grew up with their music.)
Lesser known, perhaps, is Haiti’s classical music with composers and interpreters of high calibre like Laudin. Composers, Casseus and Lamothe created classical music infusing African and Vodou beats into their compositions, beats that can only be understood or detected by an educated ear.
Philip Glass: Piano works, Víkingur Ólafsonn
In 2016, I saw the English National Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in London. The opera tells the story of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten who was known for abandoning Egypt’s polytheism for a monotheistic tradition of his invention. Glass also depicts him as having an ambiguous sexual identity. Moreover, one character in the production, was depicted, to my surprise, as Baron Samedi, Haiti’s “god of death.” The brief appearance of this character on stage informed Sonia’s vision of Baron Samedi in the hotel from which she and another character, Dieudonné, who like her, define themselves as “M” (meaning “queer” in the Haitian context), escape death.
Ma Lou’s Songs:
“Lè ma monte chwal mwen,” “Lasirèn la balèn,” “Legba na konsole,” by Melissa Laveaux
“Here comes the Sun,” Nina Simone
Ma Lou is the market woman whose presence and wisdom is the glue which holds the community and families of What Storm, What Thunder together; she sees all from her vantage point in the market. She also embraces Vodou, a legacy from her late husband, as a life force for the future.
When I was working on revisions to the novel in 2018, Melissa Laveaux, a Haitian-Canadian singer living in France released Radyo Siwel, her personal re-interpretation of traditional Haitian folk songs. Giving voice to a new generation, I imagined Laveaux’s interpretations animating Ma Lou’s world and her relationship to her granddaughter, Anne, who has had to leave the island.
Finally, Nina Simone’s interpretation of “Here Comes the Sun” encapsulates the hope that Ma Lou has for herself and all survivors of the earthquake.
It also summarizes how I hope readers of the novel will feel when they close the book on the story, carrying the characters with them back into the world.
Myriam J. A. Chancy is the author most recently of the novel What Storm, What Thunder (Tin House).