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Writing that connects

January 28, 2013

250px-bassekou_kouyate_photoSahara Soul was an explosion of sounds from Mali at the Barbican in London on Saturday 26 January. It was world music, pop, jazz and soul. It combined electric guitars, ngoni and calebasse. (In the You Tube clip, the calebasse is the percussion instrument that looks like a crash helmet and the ngoni is the cricket bat shaped guitar that appears after about 30 secs.)

The audience at the Barbican almost certainly included expatriot Malians, fans of the music who have never been to Africa and everyone else between. So the programme notes needed to deal with Mali and its current crisis in in a way that would come alive for those without personal experience of the country and help them to connect with the musicians. I think they succeeded.

The journalist Andy Morgan (who has lost his heart to Mali) wrote:

“When people discover that many of the songs by leading Touareg artists like Tamikrest … are about nostalgia, they’re often puzzled. Nostalgia for what exactly? Surely the black and barren hills of the southern Sahara, the scorpions, the 50C summer temperatures, the droughts, the political turmoil, the brittle harshness of sun-baked nature all amount to something godforsaken, unworthy of longing or nostalgia. And yet the love of a Touareg, a Songhai, a Moor or any of the other desert peoples for the sandy wilderness is every bit as strong as that of an Irishman for the mist covered mountains.”

Andy has introduced the characteristics of the desert as part of an observation that nostalgia is what we feel for the familiar; it doesn’t have to be logical or seem appealing to anyone else. He sneaks his description in without saying in so many words “This is what the Sahara is like”. The result, in my opinion, is that he paints a captivating word picture without being condescending to readers who already know all this.

I often encounter the need for this technique in business writing classes. It is not straightforward to write for audiences with different levels of background knowledge without being boring, but this is certainly one way of doing it.

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