An Odd Musical Journey

My friends and I play Pathfinder together multiple times per week, all remotely because we’re old nerds who have kids and we enjoy being social from a distance in our pajamas at night.

We finished up our previous campaign and began a new one a few weeks ago. We settled on Strength of Thousands, about a group of students in the Pathfinder world’s most prestigious magic school, the Magaambya. We’re not very far into the game but we’re all really into the setting and especially our characters. So I began to do a thing I like to do with every group of characters my group gets attached to: I start to pick out music to represent them. I usually default to metal, because it is the realm of magic and fantasy, but for this game I needed to do something different.

Pathfinder’s world, Golarion, is a kinda-sorta mirror of Earth, so it has regions that are equivalent to Europe, Asia, and so on. Strength of Thousands takes place in a region of Golarion’s “Africa” called the Mwangi Expanse. My usual power metal choices felt inappropriate, so I began looking for more region-appropriate music. I decided to begin perusing African music.

I was immediately overwhelmed.

My dumb white-boy ass apparently failed to remember that Africa is a huge continent with many countries and cultures. There is no “African music” in a single genre, despite how they get grouped together in music searches. Thankfully, Apple Music does a great job categorizing the many, many different offerings from around the continent, and that helped my search a little. A little.

When you begin searching musicians and music from other nations, you’d best have a frame of reference for what you’re looking for, otherwise you are going in completely blind (or deaf, in this case). I had no idea where to start. Musicians and songs went on in seemingly endless lists. I clicked here and there, hearing some pop music here or more traditional call-and-answer songs there, but still I was lost in a sea of sound.

I found refuge in a familiar harbor. Jazz. I was not expecting to find it in Ethiopia.

And now I’ve been on an Ethiopian jazz kick for the past month. That’s where the sound clicked for me. Mulatu Astatke’s marriage of traditional Ethopian music with jazz instrumentation made something that was, to my ear, otherworldly and ethereal and beautifully haunting. The Ethiopiques series of albums from the 90s rescued and revived the music from burial under a dictatorship and, to me, opened a realm of sound I didn’t know I needed to hear. I understand next to none of its lyrics, but thankfully music is a universal language. I have been moved and inspired from across the sea and across the years.

So yeah. That’s how I picked songs that represent my friends’ characters in our latest tabletop roleplaying game.

If you subscribe to a music service (I recommend Apple Music myself), do yourself a favor and take a blind trip to another musical destination far outside your comfort zone and familiarity. Click around randomly until you find something that snags your attention and hooks your ear. You may be surprised by what you find, and even more surprised by what finds you.