Kalaf Epalanga’s debut novel Whites Can Dance Too is a momentous and invigorating glance behind the curtain of one man and his love affair with music and rhythm.
Epalanga manages to intertwine difficult themes of love, freedom and the ever-encroaching harm of racism around the world, all to the beat of Kuduro, the techno-infused music of Angola and Epalanga himself. His novel follows three different voices as they live through their own stories and battle their own struggles, accompanied by music and dance.
We are thrust into the story as we are introduced to Epalanga mere hours before the most important performance of his life in Oslo, stuck at the border with improper documentation. He is detained under the suspicion of being an illegal immigrant and finds himself trapped in a waiting game with antagonising immigration officials. Writers are told all the time that the opening passage to their piece is one of, if not the most important part of writing, and Epalanga’s is a masterclass in setting the tone for the remainder of the novel. When we meet him, he seems to be a jumbled mix of emotions. He is, at once, optimistic and laid back, while also showing a bone-deep apprehension towards his fate, recognised by anyone who has found themselves in a foreign country where no one looks like you. This contrast is found throughout the novel as Epalanga bridges the gap between African and European cultures, putting the two into sharp focus with the uniting power of music.
As we delve deeper into his time in detention and the stories he tells of dance and Kuduro taking him and his friends all over the world, we become more and more aware of the underlying theme of “the Other”. The grey, lonely and oppressive walls of the detention facility Epalanga finds himself in are so starkly different to the bustling liveliness of Roque, the largest open-air store in Africa that a friend once took him to. There is a need for belonging that he sets up at the very beginning and throughout works to show his reader that you aren’t always going to find it everywhere you go.
To that point, however, I must include a lengthy quote from the middle of the novel (no spoilers!) that, I think, encapsulates another of the story’s key themes. Epalanga writes: “It looks like when you’re in the middle of the room, even if you seem to be only focused on your partner, there’s this whole collective choreography everyone seems to follow, a code of movement.” While Epalanga is detained and treated as “the Other” in one circumstance, there are many beautiful passages throughout the novel that proves dance and music and rhythm to be the universal voice across the globe. Epalanga’s music has taken him all over the world to perform, and it is music that is the common denominator throughout.
Overall, Whites Can Dance Too is a dazzling collage of culture and self-expression that is a testament to the author’s love of music and his talent for conveying it in written form. There are passages that could only have been written by a musician as they evoke a rhythm and movement that is hard to resist. I would recommend putting together a nice long playlist of songs from all over the world, and sitting back and reading Whites Can Dance Too this summer.
Whites Can Dance Too is available from 15th June from Faber.co.uk