Home Again – Michael Kiwanuka: Round 110, Steve’s choice

kiwanukaIt was almost a year since we last met, although I was not present that night, back then in 2019. So much has happened recently; Nick’s son’s cancer diagnosis (see last post) and now also the threat of COVID-19. Given the timings of the meeting, mid pandemic and lockdown in the UK, we met electronically. Having grappled the tech, we agreed that a possible theme may be music that spoke of the ‘sign of the times’. I picked this album simply because one of the tracks, ‘I’m Getting Ready’, had made me cry while leaving the pharmacy on the night that Boris Johnson had announced that we were closing pubs, restaurants, and curbing a large number of freedoms that we take for granted. Not that I am advocating that we don’t adhere to these new restrictions. I was more driven to tears because  we had now reached a point in history, within my lifetime, within the early lifetime of my children, where we can’t say with certainty what is going to happen in the world. Nor can we say what the world will look like in the future, certainly not the same as it was before this crisis, and certainly never the same again. What I can say, and what I did say to one of my kids was that I’ve never had to live through anything like this before. I didn’t have to face this as a child. With all these fears, mainly for them, running round my head and revolving into a maelstrom of doubt these words came through the loudspeakers in my car:

“Oh my
I didn’t know how hard it would be
Oh my
I didn’t know how hard it would be

But if I hold on tight, is it true?
Would You take care of all that I do?

Oh Lord, I’m getting ready to believe”

At that moment, coming out of the pharmacy, getting in my car, and hearing a song of hope “Then we’ll be waving hands singing freely. Singing standing tall it’s now coming easy” juxtaposed with the lines “I didn’t know how hard it would be” just broke me. Can we really get ready now to believe? It’s the hope that kills you after all isn’t it?

Michael Kiwanuka, was born and raised in Muswell Hill in London, and is the son of Ugandan parents. He appears, on his debut (released in 2012), to have drawn in influences from the British folk scene (Nick Drake, John Martyn) as well as the often cited Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye etc. While his most recent release – last year’s Kiwanuka – draws on themes of Pan-Africanism, there is a distinctly, almost pastoral ‘folksy’ feeling to this album. It is not lyrically sophisticated, but in these times of trouble I feel platitudes and simple sentiments have a strong role to play. Musically, combined with incredible guitar playing, this album is definitely more sophisticated than one might initially think – at least that’s what I think reviewers failed to see when this album was first released (tepid reviews to say the least). But albums can grow in stature, and become more apposite as time goes by.

The album begins with “Tell Me a Tale”. It’s all too easy to reference songs against something horrific happening in your life. I can only remember all too vividly how every song spoke to my heartache when I was going through separation and divorce nearly 20 years ago. Now, with COVID-19, everything, even this review, is referenced against the unfolding crisis. It’s hard to turn a corner and not be faced with it. Although tragedy has not yet hit my nearest and dearest I feel like I’m awaking under a sword of Damocles. Only in my dreams am I released….

“Show me some strength that I can use
Give me a sound that I won’t refuse
Tell me a story that I can read
Tell me a story that I can believe.”

Need I (or he) say more? What to believe in the present post-truth times? Has Coronavirus forced truth, or does it just expose the lies of the world we live in? I am beginning to reach my limit, physically and mentally, to the volume of information and statistics that we are being constantly bombarded with. I long for stories that take me away from all of this, for something I can truly believe in to give me strength to cope with what is happening. So, Michael sings well within my experience right now. Perhaps it is that simplicity of the lyrics that manages to form a panacea of experience around my heart. Comforting me in times of trouble.

We only played half the album, but the stand-out track is the title track “Home Again”. Here Kiwanuka is stripped back, mainly just him and a guitar. If we have to deal with the present, we have to look to the past

“So I close my eyes
Look behind
Moving on, moving on”

Coping with life is never easy, especially if you’ve had to deal with major difficulties. I never really write about my son’s autism, mainly because I find it too hard to do that. Even to talk about it is sometimes difficult, but suffice to say that it has knocked our family for six. It’s part of our lives right now, but you can’t help wanting to look behind, turn back the clock on his life – to give him a better chance. Yet my wife and I know that all we can do is affect the future in the present time by helping him deal with the world and how it presents itself to him. In other words to move on. What is so unsettling about the coronavirus is that we seem so powerless, even for those in power, to stop its spread, to prevent the suffering in the present time. Even in the moment of our lives all we can do is sit and wait for it all to unfold….

The last track we played on the album was “Bones”, which has all the hallmarks of a 1950s/60s black spiritual. When I first heard it conjured images of New Orleans for me. As a frequent professional visitor to the ‘Big Easy’ I am deeply saddened to hear that the very highest rates of infection are now being reported from there. That city has had its fair share of suffering. The massacre of 1866 of black republicans by white democrats, the depression, Hurricane Katrina… yet, out of all of that suffering comes great hope. If you go there you sense it, hear it in the music and the lived in faces of its residents. Funerals begin solemnly marching down the street, but end with joyful processions being led by the chorus “Oh when the Saints, go marching in”. Often from the point of most oppression, from the place of most suffering, can come the songs of greatest hope. We need spirituals, Gospels, folk, common musical languages of love and hope right now in this crisis. What doesn’t divide us joins us together in harmony. This album goes some way to do that with a simple warmth expressed in deep humanity.

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