[The below is an excerpt from Manes & Dandelions, A novella by Kevin Rigathi, available in 2020 from Will This Be A Problem]
I. Unexpected Trespasses
Nairobi City, in the year 1992
The first thing I learned about my master was not to question him, however tempting it might be, until it became absolutely necessary. You see, Master Zalo was an eccentric. He had cultivated a deep and intimate relationship with strangeness and it was best not to come between them. Questioning his behaviour was simply an invitation to get swept away in the bizarre. It was better to spare your questions, pick out the right one and deploy it at just the right moment to learn what you needed to.
It was for this reason that I said nothing when he woke me up in the middle of the night and demanded that I make myself presentable. I even held my tongue as I was bundled into the vehicle and throughout the long drive into the city. As we climbed onto the street outside the McMillan Memorial library, I will admit to a growing curiosity but I did not submit to it. I kept my questions in check, my will steeled and my patience sharp — but even I had my limits.
“Are you trying to break into the library?” I hissed, suddenly alarmed.
“That started like a question,” Master Zalo said while tugging at the lock, “but I would bet my left testicle that it was just an observation. And not even a good observation, just one of the obvious ones.”
“Why are we breaking into the library in the middle of the night?”
“As opposed to in the middle of the day?” He shook his head, “honestly Lihanda, What would be the point of that? It wouldn’t even be locked.”
“That’s not w…you’re just being evasive.”
“Another obvious observation,” he took a step back from the gate and motioned vaguely in my direction. “Behold, Lihanda the great observer, announcer of all in plain sight. Tremble ye with work on thy hands for his interruptions knoweth no end.”
I seethed but it brought me back to my senses. Asking anything now would do no good. Instead, I looked out for any passersby and wondered what this would look like if anyone actually showed up. A twelve year old boy standing awkwardly on the street and a truly peculiar old man who was now picking the lock to the gate. I made up half of this little spectacle and even I didn’t know what to make of it.
“Unbelievable,” Master Zalo clucked his tongue. “Someone actually used magic to get past here. How frivolous. Probably Omare, he was always impatient.”
My ears perked up at the mention of magic. My master spoke of it so rarely that it was easy to forget that he was one of the last Great Magic Keepers. Or so he claimed anyway. I believed him on most days but in truth, I had only seen him perform magic once and I had barely been six years old. It was hard not to question what a child’s eye had seen so long ago on such a traumatic day. And Master Zalo, well, he didn’t do much to inspire confidence in the idea that he was an agent of secret and ancient powers. Even looking at him now was enough to shake faith in that idea.
As always, he looked ridiculous. While the dark fabric of his suit was striking, with the embroidery on his waistcoat in particular being exceptionally fine, it was all poorly tailored. The sleeves were too big, the hem too long and it was far too tight around his extended belly. This was not an exception, every one of his suits was made of prime materials but was uniquely awful in its own way. I suspected that he had found a way to deeply and irreconcilably offend his tailor. His most striking feature though, was his hair. As was his habit, half of his great afro was combed and styled backwards while the other half had been left to its own devices. Today he had even dyed the unruly half into a rich black but had seemingly got bored with the process and just left the rest as its usual blend of grey and white.
“There we go,” whispered Master Zalo when the lock gave a satisfying click and popped open. He returned his lapel pin turned improvised lockpick, a lovely golden thing in the shape of a dandelion, to his blazer. It was one item he always wore and seemed to have endless uses for. “Step in boy, we’re already late.”
As I walked towards the building, Master Zalo placed a hand over my shoulder. “Now, as we go inside, I think it’s important for you to know why we’re here”
“Really?” I said not even trying to conceal my suspicion. “Just like that?”
“Of course. Do you think I would keep information away from you just for the sake of it?”
I gave him a flat stare.
“Fair enough,” he smirked, “ But there is a reason this time”
We stopped before the great doors of the library and he turned to face me.
“You are to be my apprentice but you are not yet a Keeper. I can speak secretly but…” Master Zalo pinched my earlobe, “your ears do not yet know how to hold information so that no one else can hear it.”
It would have sounded like his usual nonsense except that he actually seemed serious. “Here, I can speak openly. There are magics at work to hide my words from eavesdroppers.”
I could only think of one thing that could require this level of secrecy and excitement flickered to life in my chest. “Is this where you actually start teaching me magic?”
“No but also yes.”
“Don’t look at me like that; I’m not being evasive. No I will not teach you magic tonight but this is about you learning magic. So, yes, it is finally time.”
My master had taught me much but it had little to do with magic. My lessons had been on rhetoric, philosophy, history and music. Especially music. Everything from musical theory to obscure facts of trivia and the ability to play ten, soon to be eleven, instruments had been drilled into my head. I had always secretly resented all of it. I had wanted to believe that the wait was for a good reason but it had seemed too much like a way to keep me under control. Knowledge withheld simply because he knew I wanted it and would do what he wanted to get at it. But at least it seemed, the wait was now over.
“Finally,” I pushed a finger into his chest playfully. “I was beginning to think that this was all just a crazy plan to turn me into a musician.”
“That is not as far from the truth as you might think,” he chuckled. “The distance between magic and music is but a small one, a fact you will see in time.”
“I honestly can’t tell if you’re being serious or you’re just being odd.”
“More serious and more odd than you can guess. As for why we’re here. I have been preparing your mind for magical thinking but, before you can proceed to practical magic, there are forms that must be observed. I must seek permission. ”
“Permission? From who?” I could not imagine Master Zalo asking for permission from anyone. He generally did whatever he pleased regardless of what other people thought.
“Who else? The other Keepers. This is important enough that every single one of them must weigh in.”
I blinked. He had told me that magic was an endangered art and that few could do it. Including Master Zalo, there were only six Great Keepers left in Kenya. He used to say seven but some years ago, he changed it to six without explanation and ignored every question about it.
“Now you understand the secrecy. A gathering of the Keepers in one place can be a dangerous thing for us. So much can be lost so quickly.”
“So there are things that can threaten even the Keepers?”
Zalo frowned and I had to keep myself from stepping back as the grooves and wrinkles on his face twisted into a dark expression.
“A Keeper disappeared without a trace and so it would seem there are.” His face slowly inched away from the frown. “But that is a tale for another day. For now, we must complete the test and formalize your apprenticeship.”
I felt the prickling smell of kerosene and burnt rubber that always came with my anxiety and panic fill my nostrils. A test? What did I need to know? What if I failed? Were there consequences to knowing about magic if you failed? “You haven’t taught me anything. I don’t…”
“It’s not a test for you,” he laughed. “You know nothing worth testing for. The test is for me. I must prove that I have earned the right to teach you.”
“How can you not have the right? You’re one of the Great Keepers. Doesn’t that mean you can do whatever you want?”
“Whatever I want? Power does not mean that one should just do whatever they want Lihanda,” Zalo chastised. “In this case, doing magic only shows that I can learn it. I must show why I should be allowed to teach it. As you can imagine, a poor teacher can be a dangerous thing in this. I must prove that I don’t just do magic, I understand it. They expect me to demonstrate new magic…or lost magic. It must be a discovery. Something that can only be accomplished by tireless work and true understanding of the ways.”
“So you have to put on a magic show and wow them?”
“You actually manage to make that sound blasé. But yes, I have to wow them with magic, but it is not just magic. It is also control, it is presentation, it is character. It’s kind of like a job interview actually. ”
“That seems like a lot to go through every time someone wants to have an apprentice. Isn’t it a bit…much? What if there were a hundred or a thousand Great Keepers, they would all have to come?”
“Maybe this is why we don’t have a hundred Keepers in the first place,” Zalo smiled. “It is a necessary inconvenience. Magic can be a dangerous art and we have to make sure it is in the right hands. Because the students are young, and they can change who they are, the best way to be certain is to make sure the teacher is right. The teacher is often more important in determining the outcome than the student. ”
“Alright,” I said. “And what happens if you don’t pass then?”
Master Zalo smiled wickedly. “For your sake, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“For my sake? Not for yours?”
“I’m a Great Keeper. I can call upon the powers of Old Zimbabwe and the Kingdom of Benin at a whim,” he said opening the doors. “You on the other hand, are a prepubescent with the power to endlessly point out the obvious. In a pinch, I like my chances, yours….”
He trailed off and the walls of the library echoed and amplified his laughter.
II. A SemiCircle of Keepers
McMillan Library, in the year 1992
We were in an expansive room somewhere inside the library. Somebody had moved the shelves and shaped them in a large semi circle, spacing some wooden chairs to match the shape. The rest of the room had been left bare which only served to emphasize just how much space there was. The room was unsettlingly tall, almost like two rooms had been stacked upon each other, and ornate patterns were carved into the ceiling. Chandeliers hanging from fraying ropes dropped halfway down the too tall space and they glowed with the lustre and inconsistency of especially bright candles. Like the other Keepers, Master Zalo was already seated and I was standing behind him listening to his whispers.
“You see her? That’s Bibi Kivoi.” He nodded his head in the direction of the oldest person I had ever seen. I would never have believed that so many wrinkles could sit on a single face had I not seen it for myself. If her eyes were open, it was impossible to tell. “No one is brave enough to ask how old she is but I suspect she is the last of the true Keepers. Before much was lost.”
“That one is Sach Ooraan.” I tried to think of it more generously but in truth, this man looked homeless. His clothes were torn, more than a little dirty, and he seemed to be a few bad days from being malnourished. “If you speak to him he would prefer you not use any titles like mister or master or even sir. He hates that. It’s just Sach Ooraan. It means, where the two roads meet.”
Zalo paused and considered the man distastefully. “What a pretentious boob. You can’t pretend mister is too formal and then name yourself after a cryptic phrase. If you do speak to him, make sure you call him Master Sach Ooraan Sir.”
I stifled a laugh poorly and everyone turned to look at me. Master Zalo for his part looked as serious as he was capable of seeming, abandoning me to bear my shame alone.
“The woman is Madame Sita,” he continued when the room had settled again. She was a large, middle aged woman in an elegant blue and gold tunic dress. Every single one of her fingers held at least one golden ring. “Great woman, always good for a laugh, and she can drink anybody under the table. You’ll like her.”
Almost as if she could hear, Madame Sita smiled at him and shot a wink at me.
“The young man is Master Omare.” I had been interested in Master Omare because he was the youngest person in the room besides myself. He looked no older than thirty. “Youngest to attain the rank of Keeper in generations, they say he’s a prodigy, but I think he’s just impatient. I mean, look at him, even his shadow is restless.”
I had not noticed his shadow until now. What I saw had me holding onto Zalo’s chair to keep from falling over. The shadow was moving on it’s own. No, not just moving, it was trying to run away. It struggled against a thin chain around its neck that trailed across the floor and up the chair, where it stopped being a shadow, rising from the wooden surface as a black, wispy, half solid thing that Master Omare was gripping.
Zalo chuckled at my shock. “I would love to know what kind of magic would make your shadow try to flee from you. I’ve tried to chase mine away you know, and I’ve not yet cracked it. I wonder if he can make it do tricks.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?” I watched as the shadow stopped moving for a moment, turned and then ran in the opposite direction as far as the chain would let it. It did not seem to be sentient, everything about it was more like a wounded and frightened animal. I had been afraid of the thing at first but the more I watched the more I kind of felt sorry for it.
“He’s awfully secretive. Always has been, even when we were brothers.”
“He’s your brother?” This got me to look away from the shadow. “You have a brother?”
“Not brothers brothers but brothers. Apprentices who have the same master. He came to us when I was nearly already a full Keeper myself.”
I was about to ask where his master was but the look on his face made me think better of it. The seventh Great Keeper he never spoke of? Instead, I said “And who is the last one?”
“That is Laibon Mpesha. He is chairing the sitting of Keepers today. He’s the one we’re waiting for to start us off.”
Laibon Mpesha was a stern looking man and was the complete opposite of Master Zalo. He was bald, kept a precisely cut goatee and his suit was simple but a perfect fit. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be humming softly and holding a large leather case almost as tall as he was sitting down.
“Keepers,” he spoke without warning, his eyes still closed. His voice was low but it carried across the room with a distinct clarity. “It has been a long time since we have gathered. I hope the fates have been kind to you. May the echoes of the old songs find you.”
“And may your songs long carry echoes,” the Keepers said in unison.
“We do not meet lightly on this night, a matter of great import is before us. Master Zalo seeks to achieve the rank of teacher. He wishes to present new knowledge among us and plant the seed of a new keeper.”
“Boy,” Mpesha’s eyes opened suddenly already pointed in my direction. “Please share your name with those gathered here.”
One of his eyes was milky white and seemed to have a worm swimming in it. The creature was only visible for a few seconds before it disappeared into the whiteness. I was so taken aback by the sight and had not even been expecting to speak that, for a few seconds, I forgot that I had been addressed. Master Zalo cleared his throat.
“Li..Lihanda. Leonard Lihanda.” I managed to get out.
“Young master Lihanda, how did you come to be acquainted with Master Zalo?”
“I…I was a street child,” I said, wondering if they already knew or this was new information. I felt the smell of kerosene and burnt rubber rising again. “Master Zalo saved my life from…he saved me and he took me in.” I didn’t like talking about that day and quite frankly, even if these people were Keepers, they were still strangers. I would not share more than I had to.
“Lihanda, your Master does you great honour to bring you and propose that you join our order. I do not know if you understand the gravity of it but it is a vote of true belief in you. No matter what happens here, you must become worthy of the faith that has been shown in your person. Do you understand?”
I gulped and nodded respectfully.
Laibon Mpesha nodded back. “Before we begin, let us hear from the other Keepers. They shall express their desires and expectations for Zalo’s performance..”
“For what?” Zalo snorted. “I have considered and worked on this for months, and I know you don’t honestly expect me to alter it because of some opinions that you are just now voicing.”
“It is tradition,” said Mpesha.
“Why should we maintain a tradition if it serves no purpose?”
“Tradition,” said Mpesha, some steel creeping into his voice, “is never pointless; or it would not have become tradition.”
Zalo lifted his hands in mock surrender and Mpesha, accepting that it was the most concession he was likely to get, turned to the other Keepers inviting their opinions.
“From him,” croaked Bibi Kivoi after all the keepers had looked to her, “I expect something that I have not seen before. For one of Zalo’s potential, I will accept no less.”
“Old as time and she says she wants something she hasn’t seen.” He was complaining but even whispering I could hear the excitement in his voice. He thought he could do it.
“This humble one’s expectation is only this,” said Sach Ooraan. “Something that will fuel the desire in all of us gathered here to better ourselves.”
Zalo grumbled under his breath but I caught the words pretentious and codswallop in his silent rant.
“There’s magic and there’s magic,” Madame Sita shrugged. “I’m here to see magic and I’ll know it when I see it.”
She nodded at Zalo and he nodded back.
“I would like to see…”
“Something that can tame a shadow!” Zalo loudly interrupted Master Omare.
“No.” Omare expression did not change with the practiced patience of someone used to dealing with master Zalo. His shadow however was staring at Master Zalo and was now slowly inching towards him.
“Really?” said Zalo making a poor attempt at seeming put down. He held his hand out to the shadow, beckoning for it. “But I made this for you I thought you would really li…”
“Please treat this matter with some seriousness Master Zalo.” Mpesha sounded weary. “Try to remember that we are here at your request. Carry on Master Omare.”
“I would like to see purposeful magic,” said Omare. “No spectacle, no cheap extravaganza, magic with a clear and meaningful application to better the world. It is the only way for Keepers to avoid the traps of selfishness.”
“Taming a shadow you have to keep on a leash seems purposeful,” grumbled Zalo but not loud enough to carry beyond my hearing. “And what the hell kind of expectation is that? Talk about trying too hard. When did he become so boring.”
“Very well,” Laibon Mpesa stood and propped the large leather case beside him. “Zalo already knows what I expect from him in this matter.”
“I do,” said Zalo.
The worm reappeared in his eye and started spinning in a circle until it had formed the broken outline of an iris. “Then let us begin.”
III. The Making of A Song
McMillan Library, in the year 1992
From the very first time I laid my eyes on one, the kora spoke to something deep within me that I could not explain. Even Master Zalo, in one of his meandering drunken rants, had called it the greatest of all musical instruments and West Africa’s gift to the world. It was a beautiful, complicated thing that was punishing to learn but rewarding to master. And so it was with utter fascination that I watched as Mpesha opened his case and revealed the largest kora I had ever seen. The round soundboard alone would have almost made it almost to my waist.
“He keeps his in the original form,” whispered Zalo, admiration in his tone. “See how there are no pegs to tune the strings. It uses konso, those leather bands spaced along the neck, you move them to adjust tension. And he made it himself, you know.”
Zalo’s kora had been magnificent but Mpesha’s seemed to radiate with a grandess and dignity that could not be ignored. It emphasized one of my favourite things about the kora, how it’s form defied the easy categorization of the western instrument classes.
You see, it’s general shape was at first glance somewhat in line with a lute or a banjo. It was made from a large calabash gourd cut in half and wrapped tightly in antelope hide with a long hardwood neck rising from it. However, it’s twenty one strings were divided by a bridge into two ranks, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right, more reminiscent of a double harp. But also, because of the bridge and its relation to the strings, it had the properties of a bridge harp. And further — well, safe to say that it defied easy comparison. Academics had awkwardly classified it as a ‘double-bridge -harp-lute.’ In other words, the kora was the kora.
Laibon Mpesha motioned to the instrument and said, “As you requested, Master Zalo.”
“It’s for you?” I asked. “Is this part of the test?”
“I told you music and magic are more closely related than you’d imagine.”
“You’re going to do magic with a kora?” Feeling I had not adequately expressed my incredulity, I decided to add, “a kora?”
“Music is the greatest known conduit for magic and there are very few keepers whose craft is not founded on music.” Sensing my skepticism, he added. “ Music has always had power. The power to touch the soul, to move the heart, to lift the spirit and for those of us who know how, the power to transform the world itself. What is music but an attempt of man to imitate the language of gods?”
The idea of musician magicians was odd to me but Master Zalo was already standing before I could ask more questions. He carried his chair with him, placing it in the middle of the room before reaching for the instrument and holding it with great reverence.
“Thank you Laibon Mpesha. You can trust I will treat this with the seriousness it deserves.”
Laibon Mpesha nodded and stepped back. Zalo ignored the chair he had carried and sat on the floor, positioning the wide instrument between his knees. He trailed his fingers across the wood delicately before positioning his hands to play. The room fell silent and you could almost feel everyone’s attention falling onto Master Zalo and the kora.
Master Zalo’s fingers hovered over the strings and stopped. He breathed in deeply closing his eyes and then — there is no other way I can think to describe the feeling except — the silence came alive. It poured out from the kora, filling the room until it was suffocating. My body tensed and I dared not breathe or make even the slightest sound in the face of this overpowering silence. It felt like a warning. The silence had reserved itself for the music that was to come and it wanted us to know that we should not dare sully it with any other sound until then.
Finally, when it felt like I couldn’t stand it any longer, when the growing tension was unbearable, Zalo strummed with his left hand. The vibrations crossed into the silence and crashed into me, moving past like a wave in the ocean. His fingers carefully plucked at the strings and the notes fell all around us like sharp, melodic drops of rain.
It was like nothing I’d ever heard. The song twisted and flowed around me in ways that felt tangible and before I knew it, I was lost in it. I felt adrift in time unable to find my bearings between the seconds and minutes and finding that I didn’t care. I thought I’d heard music before but this was music. It was like listening to a child trying to learn words and thinking that was speech your whole life and then for the first time hearing a master orator speak. Learning the true depth of a thing when all you had ever known was a pale impression of it .
Master Zalo’s words echoed in my mind.
Music has always had power. The power to touch the soul, to move the heart, to lift the spirit..
I’d heard such sentiments before and accepted them, but now I felt them. You could not listen to Zalo’s song and doubt that you had a heart or spirit or soul because you could feel it as the music held and shook them.
…and for those of us who know how, the power to transform the world itself.
The sound stopped. Do not mistake me, the music continued to play but the sound disobeyed the laws of physics and stopped. Sounds normally started at a point and moved outwards fading the further they got away but not these ones. Zalos’s sounds stopped spreading further than the edge of the room, they did not fade, they simply lingered in the air. It is something that must be heard to be understood but I will try my best to put it into words. It was the auditory equivalent of seeing the flow of a river slow and still before your eyes. Motionless sound.
Master Zalo switched melodies and this had a strange effect on the song because the new sounds found older sounds waiting for them and they merged and compounded. With every addition, from strums to plucks to strikes of his palm on the soundboard, it was like a new artist was playing with him, each one a master musician. Some sounds he released and let fade replacing them with an improved version of what had previously seemed like a perfect tune, and I was staggered by his virtuosity.
It was like there were two opposite forces clashing and blending to form his performance. On one level he surrendered to the magic and the music and let them use him. He gave them his dedication and acted as a vessel. It was submission, it was devotion. But on another level, he was still in command. The magic submitted to him and obeyed his will. It served under his control. It was — domination. He was devoted to the magic and it was devoted to him in return, he dominated it and it dominated him. Control and surrender, domination and devotion, opposites and reflections circling back on each other to create.
Finally satisfied, Master Zalo stopped playing and adding layers to the beautiful tapestry of music he had created. For a moment, he enjoyed the music along with us, taking it all in without the burden of creating it. He nodded and smiled contentedly. Whatever combination he had been seeking, it seemed he had found it. With a slow beckoning motion, he gathered the sound to himself; the music moving and fading towards him…no, towards the chair in the middle of the room. I could hear the music now as if from a distance but I could tell that it had coalesced into something like a ball above the chair Zalo had placed there.
Zalo looked around at all our stunned faces, delight clear on his face. I was glad to know that I was not the only one bewildered by what we were witnessing…hearing…feeling. I had long lost track of what sense was being tugged at.
Making a whistling sound, Master Zalo plucked a single string on the kora and it felt like the ball of music popped. I know I did not blink, even with all that was going on, I can be certain of that. Even so, it felt like I had blinked and missed a precious second because there was now a woman sitting on the chair, staring at the rest of us with an amused expression on her face.
To be continued