South Africa is loud. Listen. Footsteps, engines, radio. The lazy buzzing heat and the singing laughing joy. The slap of palms when business strikes. The dance of it. The movement and the bustle, the spring of young and creaking of the old. The bars. Street corners. Schools. It has an energy in everything, a song all of its own. And it’s a song that only works with every part in place. Every discord pushing forward. Every rhythm. Every voice, including yours.
Every voice is different, its pitch and tone and intonation as distinct as the words we choose and how we wrap our mouths around them. But everybody has a voice, and everybody sings. Oh, we all do it differently. Some of us sing quietly, alone, only in the dead of night or in the shower. Some of us sing a cappella, and some stand on a stage beside a band and let the whole world share their song. Some of us, some of us don’t sing at all, like that. We sing with other instruments: There’s song in stories, and in art, and in getting up before the dawn and putting food onto the table. There are angry songs and sad songs and songs that make you want to dance. But everybody has a song to sing, their own personal story leaked into the world. And mine is one of love.
• • •
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.
Tonight is special.
Tonight the hosts of UmziRadio are here, in this little bar of ours, for us.
It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. Worth the sneaking and the boom-boom-boom fear of my heart as I walked the streets at night, one hand curled into a fist and waiting, just in case. Worth the endless all week talk from my best friend. Worth every moment that preceded it.
It started in a bar.
. . . Or perhaps it really started with the argument.
“Music isn’t realistic, Neo. Isn’t useful. You pick something else.” Old words, tired. Hammered out so many times I feel their indentations on my skin. And this—small and quiet as it is—is my rebellion.
And yes, I know you shouldn’t go into the dark alone. I know it isn’t safe. All the old words hammered out. But I didn’t mean to be alone. My bestbest friend was meant to be here too. It was her idea.
“We’ll show you what music is really,” she said, all excited, “the being there and being seen. Being part of something.”
“Being seen by who?” I smirked, but she stared right back at me, refused to be embarrassed.
“Yeah, well, all the better, hey?”
If you asked Janet, she would tell you how she’s made for Maximillius, that their futures were entwined, that he just didn’t know it yet. And tonight, Max was public property, right here on our ground.
It was going to be perfect. Max and music: Everybody’s happy. But I waited by the BigTall tree, and Janet never came. So tonight, the night it all begins, I sit alone, my back against the bar. And I
wonder where she is. Whether I should have waited or gone home. But I’m here, and slowly, as I sit, I let the safewarmfree of this place settle in my gut and the excitement build.
And there is excitement. Chatter. Bottles lifted, smiles and eyes and energy all shared and given free. And there’s a hush beneath it, the black-shirts working to make sure the mics are working and the lighting’s right. The desk, hidden in the shadows to the right side of the stage. All businesslike. So radio.
I should feel nervous. Terrified that somebody will see my schoolgirl aura and drag me homeward by the ear. I should feel bad. Rebellious. But all I feel is right.
Janet would be loving this.
“See?” she’d say. “Everyone is out tonight. It’s a night to remember.”
She’s right. It’s mostly bright young minds and music lovers. Umzi fans. But here and there the old guard stand among us. Shopkeepers and fixers, teachers and those men whose only job is to observe the world. We’re here together: a community.
Max is just there. Close. The golden voice of radio, right there, and his bright-and-chipper cohost, Sammi, too. Somewhere in the shadows of that desk they’re waiting to bring us the best of evenings.
Are they nervous?
No. Of course not. They’re professionals.
Will we see them? Or will they hide back there all night and let the music have the light?
I wonder whether I should leave my seat, slip closer through the crowds so I can see? Get close enough to see them move the dials on the mixing desk, see Max’s smile and give my best friend something to be jealous of. But here I get a wide view: stage and audience and ambience. Here, it’s music,
not just technicalities and fandom.
I settle in my seat, breathe in the hot stale happy air. And something shifts, like a movement just outside your vision or a silent hushing in your ear, and suddenly all eyes are on the stage.
You can see it, right? You can imagine? Staring out over the crowd, every single one of you together in the moment.
And then with one sharp crackle-buzz, it starts.
“Molweni!” Their voices sound strange, fill-you loud and not quite real, but close, inside you, none of the crackled distance of a radio.
“This is UmziRadio, and tonight in the very first of a new series, we are here to celebrate community. The same community that gave us our great leader, the community that birthed the Umzi legacy. We got promise in this place, and Umzi wants to share it. . . . Now across the series we’ll be traveling through Khayelitsha and surrounding areas, bringing you the best of your neighborhood. And tonight, fittingly, we’re starting with the music. We’re live in Site B, and just look at that crowd.”
“Ahh, yes. Look at all those beautiful faces out there.”
“So beautiful. And you know what else is beautiful?”
“Sunsets? Diamonds? Sunday-morning lie-ins?”
“Yes, yes, yes. More beautiful than that . . .”
He breathes a smile. “There’s only one thing I can think of—”
“Local talent,” Sammi cuts him off. “And let me tell you, I was listening to the sound checks earlier and some of these guys are ta-len-ted.”
“Right? Right. This is R-Talent with Sammi and Max, bringing talent home.”
“Ha-ha-ha, you know how many times we just said ‘talent’?”
“Sho’, and that’s one more. Let’s bring it, before we wreck this show. You all know how this goes, the musicians are out in force and—”
“Yeah . . . Please welcome our first and bravest: Tale and the Storytellers.”
My bestbest friend was right. This night is perfect. Even before the first band steps into view, I am in love. With everything. The thick, wet air, heavy with anticipation. The richness of voices. The clink and hum and body crush of a live audience so different from school events or Sunday-morning church. With the promise, from Umzi’s Mr. Sid to us: a handshake, a you-can-make-it. With the mine-ness of it all.
I’m in love with the night even before I’m in love with the girl.
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 an infinity for the song that makes you whole and breaks you and changes something every single time. All in one forever-second.
There she is. The girl.
She’s not even opened her mouth yet, just stands there waiting, fingers toying with the mic lead, teasing as she looks away and mutters something to the band, but the whole room is there with her, waiting.
And she knows. Draws it out, longer and longer until you’d think we’d all drop dead from breathlessness.
But if you watch, you see it coming: swelling inside her, pulling at her muscles, drawing her onto her tiptoes until she’s bouncing with anticipation.
Can you taste it in the air?
And then it comes. She turns, fluid, and her dreadlocks rattle out a brief applause against the mic. Her lips part in an easy smile.
And just as I think I’m going to topple right off of my stool into those arms, Tale opens her mouth wider and she sings.
There’s a story that my mother likes to tell of a girl who married for security. “A home over happiness,” she’d say. But she never stood beside a stage, looking up into eyes as deep and dark and dangerous as sticking mud. She never heard that voice.
Every note draws me closer. Every word pushes the world further away, until there’s nothing left but her. Her and me. The singer and the schoolgirl. Us. I’d like that.
In an instant, I can picture it, the two of us poring over old CDs on Sunday mornings, her putting discs into my hands and urging me to listen, change my world. Walking along the shore, arms wrapped around each other, her singing quietly into my ear—a whispered love song—as she leads the way across the sand. In an instant I map out our relationship, and I am hers.
Hers? I catch myself. She doesn’t even know me. And the world comes flooding back.
I glance at the crowd—all too close, too many—expecting torch and pitchforks. That girl, she is not right in the head. But the room is lit only by fairy lights and lanterns, and besides, all eyes are on the stage. Everyone is lost.
Tale winks as she picks up the pace, shimmying just ahead of the drummer, like water slipped right through his fingers.
Does he know? Is this how they rehearsed?
You can almost hear her taunting, Want me? Come and claim me. Pushing him to run.
Right? You hear it too?
Tell me you don’t want it.
The drummer chases, grinning madly at the crowd, but Tale is too quick and drives him faster, faster and wilder with every bar. And before I know it, I’m swept up and chasing too, with all my heart, and there’s laughter in Tale’s voice. She knows.
Brighter and louder she climbs with the song, and everybody in the room is right behind her, backs stretched to the heavens and lungs filled with a weightless joy. On and on she soars, higher and higher, until the whole room looks as though we could fly, and then she’s there, right at the top of the song, hovering, and the whole room holds its breath. And as she sings she smiles, and her voice warms, and she sweeps her gaze from left to right across the room and I know she’s meeting every person’s gaze. Every single one. Still singing that one note.
I can see her coming for me, and I want it so, so bad. I want to meet her eyes and smile back at her, tell her everything in that one wordless fraction of a second. But I’m not brave, not even a little, and right at the last moment, as I feel her eyes upon my face, I can’t. I twist away.
And I look back up immediately, wishing I could drag her back to me, yell, I’m sorry, Tale, I didn’t mean it, but she’s gone, continued on her way, and three seconds later it’s all over.
And foot-stamping applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen, did I tell you we had talent?”
“Smokin’ hot, guys, smokin’ hot.”
“Eish. Tale and the Storytellers. Wow.”
“She’s good, yah?” The bartender leans across the counter, close, so I can hear her.
I nod. “Yah.” One word is all I’ve got.
She slams the top off of a Green and holds it out to me. Beer is another of those things my mother would not understand, but the iron roof traps the essence of the crowd, all the heat and sweat and used-old-breath of it, and that sweet, sweet, bitter brew has been sitting in ice for hours. I take it gratefully, and lick the condensation from the rim before pouring half the bottle down my throat.
I turn back toward the stage, watch as Tale disappears into the crowd and the next act—a young boy with a bright-painted ramkiekie—steps up. He looks nervous and the crowd fidgets, on edge.
I close my eyes and press rewind, replay Tale’s last note in my head, over and over, wishing I could live right here wrapped up in it forever.
And it’s only when the applause rises and Sammi’s voice cuts through the air thanking the ramkiekie player that I realize I’ve completely missed his song.
• • •
The night closes out with wild applause, people waving empty bottles, less than steady, whoops and cheers and an impromptu chorus of our national anthem spreading out across the audience, proud-happy-infectious.
“That’s it, folks. And what a night it’s been.”
“What a night indeed.”
“Next week, we’ll be leaving the Friday music scene and bringing you the best of Cape Town’s township teachers, getting to the minds of children right when they are young.”
“Yah, the next generation’s where it’s at.”
“But for tonight, my beauties, we’ve been Max and Samantha—”
“—with R-Talent on UmziRadio. They’ve been fantastic. And here’s Wilma with the news.”
We stand there, stunned, “God bless Africa” still ringing in our ears, and then the crackle-buzzing ends and behind me the bartenders shift gears, all business and no small talk.
And then there’s stumbling and floating out into the night, arms around each other, full of love for everything that Khayelitsha holds.
• • •
Walking home felt like a dream. Music does that; I would often dawdle home to make it last, all calm and wide awake and bouncing-still, and music would be everywhere, in everything. I’d hear the rust gather in raindrops, bouncing hard-metallic off the earth; hear the way the wind played through the gaps in lean-to walls, slammed at shutters, whistled across every part of our discarded left-out-in-the-open lives and made it sing. I’d see marimbas and balafons in every sheet of corrugated iron. Every hollow tree or gutter pipe made up a world-sized organ waiting for a melody. Every washing line or power line: a string, taut and waiting for a bow. And I would wander through, imagining that I could reach out, play the landscape as I passed.
But this was different. I would never have admitted it back then, not even to myself, but my heart was lost; the night air felt like kisses on my skin and my thoughts were nothing but a mess of melodies and breathlessness.
I imagine walking through these streets with Tale by my side, slinking through the dark, our fingers interlaced. Or racing, chasing, reaching for each other like we’re back inside that song.
I weave dazed through the maze of shacks and washing lines,
ducking under night-damp sheets and crossing over shadows, as the private late-night melodies seep through walls into the darkness: the blare of someone’s television, music, laughter, anger, snoring, the clinking of bottles and groaning of beds.
Khayelitsha’s night song has a rhythm of its own, frenetic-still, lyrics full of secrets laid bare in the dark.
My mother, in her lectures about never wandering, would say that our true natures appear in the dark. That, sure, some of us nested with our prayers and loved ones, but Khayelitsha’s lost came out at night. And I would nod, remembering this night sound, but I never truly understood, not then. . . .
And so I stray, walking through the shadows, adding my own secret song into the chorus.
Does Tale hear the same sounds as she wanders home? Does she hear the movement of the people, of the trees, its own, old music? Does she linger in the quiet to sing along?
Does she hear the world at all? Perhaps the echoes of the stage ring in her ears: the closeness and the clamoring, or the buzz-quiet of the speakers as her last note left us stunned.
As I walk past crumbling homes of nailed-together dreams I imagine Tale, free and strong, climbing up into the branches of a tree and sleeping with the universe all at her feet.
And I stop just short of home, stand there wrapped up in the darkness, hold on to the evening for a moment more, and imagine Tale bidding me good night.