A playlist for The Girl in the Road.Posted: March 25, 2015
Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, who wrote “Awara” (see page 288 of The Girl in the Road). Photo by Fernando Elizalde.
I spend hours at my writing desk with my hands over my eyes, just listening to music and watching the blackness. Here is a list of songs that specifically inspired The Girl in the Road. Individual links and explanations are below (caution: spoilers!), and the full playlist is here on YouTube. Happy listening.
On page 1 of The Girl in the Road, Meena leaves home in a terrible hurry. This song is her, already self-justifying, making little admissions (“yeah, sometimes I love too much”) and repeating to herself the line: “I’m just a soul on the planet / try to do good, be good, feel good.” Meshell Ndegeocello’s music was always my guide in expressing Meena’s dark, angry, sensual spirit.
Mariama also leaves home suddenly. Her caravan heads to Senegal, whose music scene is heavily influenced by Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam. I hear this song as they pass through villages on their way to Dakar, and Mariama watches children running and women carrying bundles on their heads by the road, amazed at how much bigger the world is than she ever knew.
I listened to this song on repeat when first writing Meena’s scenes on the Trail. The melancholy in this melody is overwhelming, which makes the title ironic; of course, that’s also Meena’s problem. She’s deeply and irrevocably sad. But she doesn’t express it in the ways people often recognize. Her sadness is active, reckless, and destructive. This stillness is what lies beneath.
I heard this song in my head when writing the scene on page 82: “We were all quiet, all watching. The land was changing.” Here, the wonder Mariama feels deepens even further as they cross into true Sahara, and watch the sun rise over the dunes…and as she begins to imprint on Yemaya, the beautiful new stranger who joined their caravan in Dakar.
I listened to this song on repeat whenever I wanted to conjure Mohini, Meena’s lover, who was a connoisseur of classic Bollywood movies. Of course, in 2068, “classic” means what’s coming out now, including the film Bunty Aur Babli from 2005. (By the way, this music video illustrates both why Aishwarya Rai is one of the biggest stars on the planet, and why I think India will set global pop culture in the next century. I mean…watch it. I just did again. Four times.)
Out of all the Angelique Kidjo songs that Yemaya has on her sirius (a future smartphone), this is the song Mariama loves most. To her it symbolizes the new “family” that she’s constructed around her, with Yemaya as her mother and Francis as her father. On page 136, they sing it out loud together on the way to Agadez, and it puts everyone in a good mood.
Meena sings this mantra to herself on page 101. To her, it’s less of an explicitly religious devotion—she calls herself “a nominal Hindu”—than it is about comforting herself with something familiar. Meena grew up with this recording, specifically, which her Hindu grandfather played every morning.
On her Live from New York album, Swa talks about how when she was in Cuba, the land “gave” her songs directly. In my head, the connection made a few hops: from Cuba the country, to the practitioners of Yorùbá religion there, to the orisha Yemaya, goddess of the sea. This song always reminded me of my character Yemaya and her tortured soul-searching.
When I was in Ethiopia to do research in 2009, this was the unescapable single playing on every radio station in the country—in minibuses in Addis, in hotels in Debark, in storefronts in Gonder. I surmise that in 2026, it’s an old pop classic, which is why Francis uses it to teach Amharic to Mariama on page 133: “Tey fit ateshigne, afralehu”: “Don’t turn your back, I am afraid.” Though here, “afraid” means something more like “shy” or “nervous.” (I think Francis feels exactly that way about Yemaya!)
This is one of Meena’s love songs for Mohini. It’s both tender and deeply problematic, as it exposes ways that Meena fetishizes Mohini in ways she’s not entirely conscious of or responsible about: as a “Mary Magdalene” figure to whose beauty she is drawn, and of whose body she is possessive. Tell me I’m the only one.
As an adult in Addis in 2040, Mariama goes to an Ethiopian jazz listening party hosted by her handsome new Indian friend Gabriel, who collects old jazz vinyls. He plays Bezunesh Bekele, a hero of the Ethiopian musical renaissance that flourished just before the Derg took power. This song plays while they eat pakoras and thali on page 244.
This is the song that Gabriel plays on page 288, hence, the chapter title. I can’t listen to it without crying, now. To me it’s about how the world opens up in first love, and that no matter how tragically it may end (“awara” means “fickle”), nights like that are eternal. See? I’m crying right now, writing this entry. Dammit.
This might seem a strange song to end this playlist. But sometimes inspiration is like that: totally oblique to the source material. I was driving home late one night and how this song made me feel was exactly the feeling I wanted to capture when Mariama meets the woman she thinks is Yemaya, on page 300. As if everything in the world is put to right.