I usually listen to music in the car. So when my brother, (The World’s Best Uncle) died last year, it was in the car that I chose the music that was played at his funeral.
I did a lot of crying in the car too. It was the one of the few places where I could be absolutely uninhibited about how bad I felt about losing him. The route from my home to the hospital while he was dying, and later to his home, when I was packing up his things, was saturated with my tears. Lucky I knew it like the back of my hand. I drove very safely, even when wailing.
As with books, The World’s Best Uncle – TWBU – and I bonded over music. When we had money, we’d buy each other concert tickets for our birthdays, and go together to listen to the likes of Toumani Diabate, Tinariwen, and Salif Keita.
I’m not sure if I introduced him to African music or he just discovered it himself as a natural progression from the Blues, which was, without doubt, his favourite music genre. I know that he introduced me to Billie Holiday while I was still in my teens, although I never shared his excitement about the Blues in general.
Anyway, deciding on music for his funeral wasn’t that hard – I had plenty to choose from – and plenty of driving time in which to do it.
It was obvious that Blues music should play a big part, and as he had more CDs for Lightnin’ Hopkins than for any other artist, I started out by listening to them. I realised pretty quickly that I’d have to listen to a lot of his CDs before I found something that was suitable for your standard funeral three-piece: “Entrance into chapel”, “Reflection” or “Farewell”. I didn’t know enough about Hopkins to be able to head straight for the ‘perfect’ song, but I thought a compilation CD would be perfect as background music for viewing the body. It was.
Moving on from Lightnin’ Hopkins, I listened to lots and lots of tracks from different albums – most of it Blues but also several African musicians. Usually I could tell from the first few bars whether or not it was what I wanted. And although at first the process felt a bit overwhelming, it actually didn’t take very long for me to find my short-list. I ran the options past AM and DadaK, and here is what we agreed upon:
For the entrance into the chapel
The funeral director said it should be something that would really bring TWBU into people’s minds. This is a style he loved. And the words – well, they’re for a lover not a brother, but they say what I feel.
While this played we laid rusty orange and yellow freesias on the coffin. I know he loved this album. When I listen to it I can see him strolling towards me from a distance, his army surplus bag slung over his shoulder, stubbing out a cigarette before he gets up close. It’s laconic, complex, spacious, easy-going, like he was.
It seems appropriate that the album this track is from, Talking Timbuktu, was released in 1994, the year of the birth of AM, my ‘fusion’ baby. For me the fusion music of Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder symbolises TWBU’s enthusiastic embrace of the African culture, history and family that came into his life from the time I met DadaK. I can’t do justice to the depth of his love for and commitment to my extended bicultural family.
He developed his own relationships with them in addition to the times we shared together. He was the World’s Best Uncle not only to my son, but to DadaK’s other children, from the first time he met each of them until the night before he died, when they visited for the last time. Even then, stuck full of tubes, he was loving, gentle, upbeat, and explaining the medical apparatus to them (typically nurturing their scientific potential!)
For the farewell
The last concert we went to together was Hugh Masekela at the Sydney Opera House in late 2009. The World’s Best Uncle, my precious brother, had just received his cancer diagnosis. I knew how much he liked Masekela and was determined that we would go to that concert – in case it was the last one we went to together. It was. He loved it. I remember his excitement when he realised Masekela was starting his favourite piece: Coal Train (Stimela), with its percussive build and uncompromising vocals. I remember his enthusiasm before, during and after the concert as he talked to me about Masekela’s music.
Stimela is too long for a funeral. And it doesn’t really have the upbeat, joyous tone that is recommended for the third and final piece of music that plays as people leave the chapel. I haven’t linked to it because I couldn’t find a video link that did it justice. Instead, we chose Uptownship (above). DadaK liked how it starts with drums – identifying it very clearly as African music – and I love the sweet soaring of the trumpet – or is it flugelhorn? TWBU could have told me; he would have looked it up if he didn’t know.
It’s slow to start but Uptownship reaches the powerful, passionate and joyous heights that you need, as you are walking out the door of a funeral, to remind you that you will never lose the love you have for the person you’ve lost.
I’m not sure everyone heard it; the volume was low and the chapel emptied quickly. But AM’s brother Abrantie and I listened until the end, and then walked the coffin out to the hearse. It was a fitting farewell.