A week in books: The splendid sounds beneath their feet

Out of Africa, a new reward for writers
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THE LATE Sir Michael Caine, a canny patron of the Booker Prize for a quarter of a century, also took a lifelong interest in Africa. Indeed, the Booker plc chairman helped to create the vast Africa 95 festival of the continent's arts. At a party for sponsors, I asked a suave Swiss banker why his firm had put some cash behind a cause that seemed a long way from the balance-sheets of Berne. "Michael Caine wrote to us," he answered with an utterly stony face, "and my boss has always loved his movies."

No one ever quite believes that story, although I would swear to its truth on an ingot of Swiss bullion. Perhaps it would fare better in the rich African tradition of oral storytelling - the inspiration for the new Caine Prize for African Writing. Awarded for the first time in June 2000, the $15,000 prize will focus on English-language short stories and narrative poems: forms with deep roots in African narrative styles, but which lose out in the contests confined to novel-shaped fiction. Ben Okri chairs the first judging panel, and the Caine Prize council will be headed by Sir Michael's widow, Baroness Nicholson.

Effectively, an award for a full-length African novel in English already exists - the regional heat of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. This year, it went to the South African Marion Molteno's If You Can Walk, You Can Dance (Shola Books, pounds 9.99), an ambitious and gripping apartheid-era account of a white activist's self-discovery through the passion for music which lets her link the lost homeland of her youth with the Europe where she builds a new life in exile. Sometimes, Molteno's Gordimer- or Lessing- shaded chronicle of a young woman's pilgrimage through love and politics sits uneasily beside her eloquent exploration of what music can mean in a life. Yet that motif is handled with a zest that outshines most of this year's cacophony of musically-themed fictions.

Jennie, the narrator, falls for a charismatic Scottish composer in the course of bouncing penuriously around "alternative" 1970s London. He opens her ears to the complex kinship between the rhythms of the townships and the harmonies of the concert hall - between Africa and Europe. Neil, this moody Orpheus, has the curiosity, the eclecticism, the contempt for demarcation-lines, that mark most good musicians today. Strange to think that Molteno's convincing portrait shoud sneak out at a moment when one much-acclaimed novel features a player who mocks all new composition, and seems to think that real music stopped with Schubert.

Molteno persuasively portrays people who can fuse ancient and modern forms, "folk" and "art" music. She can blend the syncopations of mbira drums into the sonorities of viola or cello. In its own way, the Caine Prize will do a lot to stimulate such cross-border traffic. Its judges should just make sure that they hear freah voices from all over the continent - from the Cape to Cairo.