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The Powell’s Playlist: Daniel Alarcón

The Powell's PlaylistWhen I was younger I was able to write with music playing in the background, but these days I can't. I find it distracting. Even when the music is just instrumental or has lyrics in a language I don't understand, the clash between the voices in my head and the song can be very disorienting. I need concentration and silence in order to work (a clean desk helps too), so when I was putting together this list, I was thinking primarily about the mood of the novel, a mix of songs that describe the atmosphere of At Night We Walk in Circles — not songs that inspired me directly so much as an imagined soundtrack to the book I'd already written. I thought a lot about my protagonist, Nelson, his generation, and his particular predicament: he's a bookish young man who believes at a very intuitive level in the power of art but who hasn't been particularly diligent about making that art. He hasn't really been very diligent about anything actually, and he's allowed himself to drift just a bit too long. By the time Nelson takes action, by the time he makes choices, it may be too late. Some of the songs are brooding. Some are angry. Some are just fun. Here goes.

1. "Joven Navegante" by Chicano Batman
I love everything about this band. Their sound is so laid back, such a throwback, and their live shows feel like a soothing sort of musical dream. Their sense of humor is sharp (see band name, for proof). I think of my protagonist, Nelson, as a jóven navegante — a young drifter — and on good days, this is the music that accompanies him on his wandering.

2. "Sin Oficio" by Systema Solar
Systema Solar deejayed a party we threw once in Cartagena, back in the first year of Radio Ambulante, and I've loved them ever since. Everything they do has a beat, a hook that makes you want to dance: in this case, a classic horn blast, looped, which becomes a real club banger by the end. Sin oficio means, basically, "careerless." Let me give you a rough translation of the lyrics: "I don't know how the hell anyone can get by in this country working as a..." followed by a long list of the oddest, most hilarious odd jobs you've ever heard, jobs instantly recognizable to anyone who knows Latin American cities, where people get by on creativity, determination, and humor. For the first season of Radio Ambulante, this track was our official song. I hear it and think of Lima, and a sentence from the end of Chapter Three: "A city settled by outcasts and opportunists, their cheerless toil redeemed by their barely sublimated willingness to throw it all away for a moment's pleasure." This is the city Nelson lives in, the city he belongs to so completely that he's scared to leave.

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3. "Cenizas" by Walter Goyburú
Walter, and his generation of criollo musicians, are absolute masters of the form. This song calls to mind the generation of Nelson's father — the men and women who spent time at places like the Wembley, the bar where Nelson and his father used to go, and where Nelson joins the members of Diciembre at the beginning of the novel. I chose Goyburú because I visited him once at his home in El Callao, and he played my wedding celebration in Lima in 2012. What can I say? I'm a fan.

4. "Vuelvo a Comenzar" by Los de Abajo
I'm a sucker for any band named after a work of literature. Los de Abajo take their name from Mariano Azuela's famous novel The Underdogs, and that says a lot about who they are and the music they make. They have a really special, eclectic sound, a broad array of influences from pop to ska to Mexican folklore. In this case, I love how they update a traditional sound, and the lyrics, about starting over, are particularly appropriate to the novel. I can see this song being played by Tania on a cold night at the beginning of the tour.

5. "El Preso" by Fruko
This is a classic from Fruko, the Colombian salsa legend. The song tells the story of an inmate, how much he misses his family, his life, and begins with the phrase "Te hablo desde la prisión." I'm speaking to you from prison. I hear this song and I think of the men inside Collectors, how much they long to be heard, and the loneliness they feel.

6. "Pithecanthropus Erectus" by Charles Mingus
This song is all about mood for me. There is something so beguiling, so intriguing about its gloom. Mingus was, of course, one of my early heroes. His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, is still one of my favorite examples of the impulse toward self-mythologizing. This track, with its slide into cacophony, is what I imagine Henry and Patalarga feeling as they leave T----, and head back to the city without Nelson.

7. "Waiting Room" by Fugazi
What I'm listening for here is anger, the unwillingness to remain trapped, rage against the helplessness of waiting. If Nelson begins his journey with a sense of playfulness, optimism, a laconic drifting, by the end of the novel, he's no longer okay with it. He's changed, just as the circumstances of his stasis have changed.

8. "Lover's Day" by TV on the Radio
This album just kills me, but the long instrumental tail to this track makes it my favorite track. I can feel Nelson's longing in that polyphony, in those deeply layered melodies, how much he hopes for Ixta to take him back. At 04:27, the interplay between the horns and the dropped bass note gets me every time.

÷ ÷ ÷

Daniel Alarcón is the author of War by Candlelight, a finalist for the 2006 PEN-Hemingway Award; Lost City Radio, named a Best Novel of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post; and At Night We Walk in Circles. His writing has appeared in McSweeney's, n+1, and Harper's, and he has been named one of the New Yorker's “20 under 40.” He lives in Oakland, California.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. War by Candlelight: Stories (P.S.) New Trade Paper $13.99
  2. Lost City Radio (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. At Night We Walk in Circles Used Hardcover $9.50
  4. Beneath the Underdog: His World as... Used Trade Paper $9.00
  5. The Underdogs New Trade Paper $9.25


Daniel Alarcon is the author of At Night We Walk in Circles

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