Author Interview: Zakes Mda – Wayfarers’ Hymns Or Faro And Away

December 16, 2021

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Zakes Mda’s new novel Wayfarers’ Hymns moves from Lesotho’s Mountain Kingdom to the City of Gold through the history of famo. Famo music was born in the drinking dens of migrant mineworkers in Lesotho, where the men would sing to unwind after work, accompanied by the accordion, a drum and sometimes a bass. Kheleke, a wandering musician, is a weaver of songs, and his own story is intertwined with the true social history of the music, including the wars of the famo gangs, and the battle for control of illegal mines.

Mda adds to the introduction:

I was at a festival commemorating my ‘last novel’, and I genuinely thought that was the last, but then I heard of violence in Lesotho because of the colours people were wearing, where someone was mistaken for being part of another group, and it struck me that this kind of music and the musicians who play it are popular there. I used to invite some of those musicians to speak to my students when I was teaching university classes there. I knew the music and some of the musicians, but the gangs and the killings and the colours systems where all new. It reminded me of US rap – East Coast versus West Coast music and turf wars – but even more deadly. Every weekend there are funerals in Mafeteng, burying a musician or one of their followers. I thought, ‘There’s a story here.’ It didn’t leave me alone. It had to be told. It told me, ‘Narrate me’. It also told me how to tell it.


It can be the case that musicians come to believe the perspectives they create as a kind of philosophy, regardless of what’s going on in reality. Is that the case for the protagonist in this story?

At first, it was about who was the best musician, poet or hymn singer. There might be a song that can also have a hymn in it – the poetry part – where the hymn will be about the singers praising themselves, their families, the land, or their chief. That’s always been the tradition, and many of these singers became very famous, always on TV. The record companies often robbed them of what they were due; illiterate artists not knowing what was in documents they were signing. Some of them, though, became smart to the industry and became rich best-sellers. Those artists them began fighting for resources and followers, and those groups morphed into gangs, each with their own traditions. In my stories, the main characters are always fictional. If your story is driven by a historical character, the reader always knows what is going to happen.


This book is an immersion in Basotho culture – definitely fascinating, but possibly, if you’re not familiar with it, also alienating?

An outsider’s alienation is not my problem. The story tells me how to tell you the story. Even if it is in English, it can still also be in its original language – Sesotho proverbs and idioms. So this one is written in Sesotho … in English. The story is also told through the lyrics of songs – real songs – but the reader may not know the distinction between the lyrics and the story. There are no quotation marks or italics. It’s all the same story, not: ‘This is dialogue’, or ‘These are lyrics’. And there are different media – music that is sung; poetry that is recited; narrative that is narrated.


Writing cinematically is relatively common. Writing musically – communicating its impact and effects – is quite different. Was it difficult?

The music and the lyrics drive this story. Someone who read it tweeted me and said, “This made me cry.” He recognised himself in the words, as they were singing a song that was personal to him. The narration is also informed by these lyrics, so in a way the whole book becomes a lyric.


You have crossover characters – like Toloki, who first appeared in Ways Of Dying. What makes a creation worthy of this kind of continued investment?

Ways Of Dying was the first novel. You don’t think about using a character elsewhere when you start. I thought I’d invented this profession! So did Toloki, and he was very proud of doing that. Then, people from other countries started getting in touch, commenting on their cultures of professional mourning. And I started it as theatre of the absurd! Then an American colleague had an idea: “Have you ever thought of taking Toloki and transplanting him in another culture – maybe in New Orleans?” So that’s what happened in my book Cion. People then kept talking of the ‘Toloki books’, even though they had nothing to do with each other. When I researched the Lesotho cults – the gangs led by musicians and the illegal mines they ran – there was all this death involved, and I thought, ‘Toloki can come into this context.’ This story fits between the other two chronologically, but it also happens today. So I have to account for a kind of magical timeline. Someone will see it, but it doesn’t really matter.


Keeping a society threatened by prejudice together sometimes involves cultural practices that can, ironically, cause rifts between related communities.

With the Basotho, things like circumcision and initiation schools are not as big an issue as with Xhosa people, for example. Lesotho’s people have been very Christianised, so many of those practices have fallen away. Now, many people look down on traditions like that. But some of the initiation schools are owned by the cults, so going to one might put you in good stead with cult leaders.


Traditional practices now exist side by side with ‘woke’ phenomena like attitudes towards same-sex relationships or skipping circumcision rituals: do you feel this is for good or for worse?

Choosing to skip initiation is normal in Lesotho. You’re more likely to be left out if you’re not circumcised in a Xhosa situation. It’s only a minority in the urban areas who still do it. It’s not necessarily a loss. All cultures are dynamic and syncretic, merging with others. What is worth keeping will stay. This is how culture operates throughout the world.

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