Graceland – Out of tune

As suggested by the title of Chris Abani’s Graceland, the novel features a multitude of musical references. Within the very first paragraph a portable radio is introduced and, within that initial chapter, the first musical contrast is developed.

Elvis Oke attempts to listen to a familiar and modern tune; Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”, but “faster-tempoed highlife [music] distracted him”. This highlife music, defined by John Collins in his essay on “The early history of West African highlife music” as “emerging from Africa” , is a style that is somewhat closer to home than Marley. As attractive as Marley’s music is to Elvis, he discovers he “did not know all the words” and yet “knew the highlife tune well”, later admitting to “[a]bandoning Bob Marley” for the Nigerian, highlife tune “Ije Enu”.

This early moment in the novel can be considered as a metaphor for many of the scenes within Graceland. Elvis is attracted to modern, global ideas; he wants to earn money, he wants to dance, he has developed a strong vision of justice and injustice, and yet there is always something closer to home stopping him or pulling him back. Elvis, while often despising the fact, is so closely tied to (and controlled by) the traditions of his family, his hometown and his language, that he cannot move forward and fully embrace his modern aspirations or desires. This idea repeats in Chapter 3 when Elvis is working on the building site. We are told that “the younger workers wanted the [radio] stations that played Wham!, Sade, Duran Duran and Peter Tosh, and the older workers wanted more indigenous music”. There is a clear and revealing generational divide in musical tastes. By insisting on playing the traditional songs that emerged from within their country the older workers are displaying a form of resistance, even protest, to the ever-increasing globalisation of Nigeria.

Within Graceland there are several interesting references to music and radios being out of tune. On one level this represents the social and economic status of the main characters who cannot afford high quality radios. It may also suggest an idea of “pirate” radio, a message being broadcast illicitly. Yet this idea of being “out of tune” works closely alongside the contrasts of the music within the novel. The pairings of music; whether that be the modern with traditional, Beatrice listening to Elvis and then Edith Piaf, or Sunday listening to Jazz and then the Everly Brothers, are unusual and unfitting. Listened to together, they would sound rather misplaced and almost “out of tune” and yet this clashing of cultural references symbolizes much of the culture that Elvis, Beatrice, Sunday (and others) face.

Arguably, life for the characters in Graceland is distinctly “out of tune”; everyone is aware of the injustices – both small and colossal – that inform life within the Nigerian capital. Yet the narratives and experiences of injustice are interwoven with the everyday stories and anecdotes of the day, creating what Elvis might define as something “we just accept”. The characters appear to adopt the method used by the workmen and their radio; “a careful game of give-and-take”, highlighting both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of their lives to the reader.

Sophie Harrison

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