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The Music in My Head
Mark Hudson

The Music in My Head
Mark Hudson
Jonathan Cape
London 1998

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‘Litch’ Litchfield, the narrator of Mark Hudson’s novel of African popular music, has an irritating way of addressing his gentle reader as ‘man’ – in a groove, post-gig, ligging kind of way. For the better part of four hundred pages, the man is detestable company, speaking in every cliché of the rainbow as he immerses himself in ‘real Africa’ and boasts at hideous length about the arcane expenses of his record collection. The question is, to what extent the implied Hudson is directing an ironic response to Litch.

Having been the myth-making, moving and shaking force behind the ‘World Music’ explosion of the late eighties, Litch considers that he has spawned a monster, vilifying the jumpers of his own bandwagon, he returns to the west African state where it all began in search of street sounds and old comrades…..and, in search of the living legend, ‘Africa’s greatest musician’ (a Litch label Litch now ironises and groans at), the great Sajar Jopp. His old mate Sajar is one ungrateful mutha, and immediately accuses him of all kinds of music business abuses, dunning him for a cool £25, 000 into the bargain. Even after all these years, Litch is still unprepared for the intoxicating chaos of Africa, and a succession of grade-A shambleses ensue. The last third of the novel is pay and entertaining: Litch does runners from posh hotels, disgraces himself by dancing badly at a Jopp stadium concert, is beaten up by riot police, and finally cools his heels in a stinking prison as civil unrest explodes during a Moslem festival.

One has the feeling that the long intense descriptions of music are the sections of the novel for which Hudson, himself a heavyweight among lovers of African music, most ardently seeks admiration. That these descriptions are thick with overwriting and underediting, doesn’t actually stop them from being quite exciting. Hudson’s prose throughout is densely adjectival and often indiscriminate. He is fond of colours: voices are purple, smells are yellow, in a tumbling mass of cod synaesthesia. Likewise the people, surprising for someone who clearly knows and loves Africa – young women are big hipped, young men are loose-limbed. It is almost staggering that the narrator actually refers to his ex-wife as ‘She’ and ‘Her’. Someone – whether Litch or Hudson I’m genuinely unsure – is quite immune to cliché:

All the time the rhythm’s been building, and meaning, if there was any I wasn’t imagining, is lost in a spiralling ithyphallic onomatopoeia of names, fragments of phrases used by griots to praise the virginal blood, the hymeneal flow of consummation, the tumbling shards of pure rhythm, bumping headlong over each other in careering patterns that have the squealing women leaping in pure delight.

There is no economy in this style – none. ‘Yeah, but this is Africa, man…’

Litch can be observant and funny about the awkward angst of white Europeans in Africa, but he lapses into this very condition with some regularity, and knows he does. It takes a couple of hundred pages for the ironic design to become apparent, as the extent of his paranoid vanity begins to dawn on Litch. The end of the novel relates musical obsessiveness to masculinity, and moves towards a crude gender opposition between driven trainspotting man and patient-but-exasperated woman.

Notable among the guilty white liberal’s who get on the narrator’s nerves is Michael Heaven, a hilariously demonised version of Peter Gabriel. It saddens me, and would no doubt exasperate Hudson, that while he may honestly and fiercely believe that Youssou N’dour or Salif Keita were better left alone by Western producers, this book reads like the literary equivalent of Gabriel or Sting: ‘colourful’, multi-layered, horribly over-produced and slick. Bummer.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw


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