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Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels in Toronto on Nov. 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)
Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels in Toronto on Nov. 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week Add to ...

Gasper Nali – A Bale Ndikuwuzeni (2010)

In 2010, someone recorded a video of a musician playing on the shores of Lake Malawi. The musician’s name is Gasper Nali. He is small and strong, shirtless with blue jeans. He is kicking a bass-drum with his foot and playing something else with his hands: it looks like a three-metre-long banjo. It’s not a banjo – it’s a babatoni, a gigantic homemade instrument assembled from wood, cowskin and a big mortar well. Nali tunes the babatoni’s single string and hammers it like a dulcimer, banging with a drumstick, generating a buzzy, overdriven bass-tone that sounds a little like punk-rock and a little like the way I imagine a crocodile would, if that crocodile had a band, riffs echoing through a sewer grate.

Nali also sings. It’s the singing that keeps A Bale Ndikuwuzeni from becoming Nkhata Bay’s answer to the Stooges. He sings like a man in love. Clear-hearted and confident, he sings a melody that seems to glitter in the sun, fly out across the waves. And so despite the muddy, thumping instrumentation, A Bale Ndikuwuzeni feels like bright and joyful pop.

It isn’t. Two weeks after Nali’s music came sailing to me over the Internet, I discovered that this is a song of hellfire. Nali’s not in love, he’s not full of gladness: in fact, he’s terrified. He’s worried for the state of his fellow citizen’s souls. “My friends, I want to tell you, I want to preach everything today,” Nali sings in Chichewa. “I’m so upset about what I’m seeing [here].” He’s upset about drunk pastors and child marriage, broken families and domestic abuse. “Seeing the whole Malawi / seeing the whole Africa / our destination is fire!”

I won’t comment on Nali’s theological expertise. But I was grateful for the reminder that music has a way of changing before our ears. We think we know it; then we don’t. We hear old beats in new ways. The next time I listen to A Bale Ndikuwuzeni, in 10 minutes or 10 years, maybe it will have changed again. There’s no telling what any song will become.

Simon and Garfunkel – America (1968)

I’d always figured that revolution would have to be led by the kids. Capitalism isn’t going to overthrow itself, and it’s the punks and young people, Occupy’s occupiers, that would take the fight to the streets, socialism to the Capitol.

Now I’m not so sure. This month, the would-be U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders began airing ads soundtracked by Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Sanders, 74, is a socialist. And as the ads go viral, it’s almost as if the baby-boomers are harkening back to when they were brave, mortgage-free, and listening to Bookends. Maybe they’re waking up. I’m doubtful that Sanders can defeat the moneyed interests behind Hillary Clinton and the status quo. But maybe he, Paul and Art can stir something up. Maybe there’s a chance yet – for the kids and their parents to marry their fortunes together.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

Editor's note: Paul Simon is a member of Simon and Garfunkel. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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