It starts in a bar. One of ours, in the heart of Khayelitsha. Nothing special on the outside but inside, tonight, two hundred people cram together beneath the corrugated roof and wait, turned out in their Friday Bests, because everyone knows you have to look good for the radio (1).
Thanks to the great curating at my local public library, I stumbled onto this book totally by accident—intrigued by its cover and by the description on the inside flap. I had just seen the somewhat bland movie, Alex Strangelove, on Netflix and so I was intrigued by a coming out story set in a different country—with the love of music as a backdrop. What I wasn’t prepared for was to be sucked into a story that intrigued me, inspired me, but also pulled my heart out and stomped on it.
This is the story of Neo, a young woman from a township in Cape Town who loves music and wants music to be her life. However, her parents have other more practical plans for her education—she could open a beauty shop like her mother, go into accounting, or work in the tourist industry. She dreams of getting a job at UmziRadio, where her father works at the front desk, but her parents’ refrain is “Music is no life. You go to school, you get good grades, you listen. That’s your life.” On the surface, Neo obeys her parents but inside, she is constantly listening to the rhythms around her* and dreaming of a different future.
However, as the novel opens, things are about to change. Neo sneaks out of the house to meet her friend Janet and go to local bar where the hosts of UmziRadio will be hosting a series of live bands. However, Janet doesn’t show up at the arranged meeting place, so Neo screws up her courage and attends the event alone.
I should feel nervous. Terrified that somebody will see my schoolgirl aura and drag me home by the ear. I should feel bad. Rebellious. But all I feel is right (3).
And then the first band, Tale and the Storytellers, takes the stage and Neo sees the lead singer:
And the band steps up and there she is, and it feels like that moment when the CD player loads your favorite track, and you wait for an infinity for the song that makes you whole and breaks you and changes something every single time. All in one forever-second (5).
By the end of the evening Neo is hooked on the music and on Tale, even though she can barely acknowledge her own desires. These are desires that fly in the face of her upbringing and of her community; however, Neo is brave and as she takes slow hesitant steps toward her dreams, she finds a community and a first love. However, this is not a Hollywood movie or even a Netflix original; it’s real life and there are consequences for Neo’s choices.
CBR10 – Bingo Square – Underrepresented**
*As you might hope, the novel comes with a discography at the end!!!
**In researching the author (to find out if they were from South Africa), I found out a lot of interesting things about him.