Sunset descends like a dream in Kenya’s Lamu archipelago: Each evening, the channel separating the islands of Manda and Lamu is anointed in a hazy veil of golden light as dhows pirouette in the water, triangle sails billowing overhead. I gazed out over a carousel of boats from my perch on the deck of Taqwa, delighting in the snatches of American hip-hop, Afrobeats, and Bollywood bangers emanating from them as they passed by. At some point, Taqwa sailed in tandem with a smaller vessel boasting the best playlist on the water. As we floated together companionably, a romantic Swahili tune filled the air—and for a moment, the weather, landscape, and music came together in a sublime alchemy that left me breathless.
Several weeks later—and time zones away—that song continued to transfix me. At the time, I hadn’t thought to interrupt the mood by inquiring after its name, but now its notes began arriving unbidden as I rode the subway or browsed the grocery store—phonetic approximations of lyrics I didn’t know that had still managed to burrow into my subconscious. After countless attempts to plug them into Google (“baby ukosawana?” “sisimi?”), I finally struck gold: “Malaika” by Nyashinski. Now whenever I play it, I drift back to the gentle waves and sultry breezes of Lamu.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a trove of souvenirs from my travels: an abstract painting of Bosnia’s Stari Most bridge; a vase inscribed with Kufic calligraphy by a seventh-generation ceramicist in Tashkent; juniper wood trivets from an Estonian island; a Seychellois bowl shaped like a coco de mer; a neon-yellow pop art rendering of the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. But there is one thing that goes much farther to immortalize my most memorable trips: my playlists.
Each country has its own sights, flavors, and melodies, and the sounds that filter in from the periphery of cafés or open car windows, and nest neatly into your subconscious, can often define the destination as much as its skyline or cuisine. After a few days adrift in a new foreign musical vernacular, I start to pick up on some favorites. I’ll request Uber drivers in Durban to turn up the volume on their favorite Gqom tracks; I ask hair stylists in India to switch the salon playlist from Bieber to Bollywood; and I wave Siri around at restaurants in Samarkand to identify an Uzbek pop song.
These songs stay with me long after the trips end. A week in Egypt and Jordan revived my enthusiasm for Amr Diab’s earnest ballads. Road-tripping through Wyoming and Montana made a country music fan out of me. Tunisia is where I discovered an abiding passion for North African French hip-hop. And I may have resisted K-pop’s global spell for years, but one visit to Seoul changed that. These newfound musical preferences accompany me back on planes and across borders—indelible imprints from every place I visit.
Music is a souvenir that’s both portable and transportive, the kind that best lives up to the word’s origin. Souvenir, from the French word for “to remember,” and from the Latin subvenire, meaning “to come to mind.” When “Filamen” by Balti comes on, I’m 4,000 miles away on that Tunisian highway en route to the Sahara Desert. If I hear Paulina Rubio’s “Yo Sigo Aqui,” it’s suddenly spring break 2002 in Madrid. Spotify’s Ethio-Pop playlist has me swaying under crystal chandeliers at Addis Ababa’s Mama’s Kitchen. Anytime I hum along to “I Love This Bar,” I’m walking out of the Cody Stampede rodeo in Wyoming. I may be mid-plank in a New York gym when my trainer queues up David Carreira’s “Menta,” but my mind deposits me to a cobbled Lisbon street. And when Nyashinski belts “Malaika” into my Airpods, I’m back on Taqwa at sunset.
You can’t (legally) bring back the landmarks you visit or the delicious fruit you eat, but playlists are fair game. This isn’t about physical keepsakes, either—there are no CDs or bundles of vintage records jeopardizing my luggage allowance. And when I’m back home and capsizing in swells of jetlag and nostalgia, these playlists keep my trips afloat. Musical mementoes don’t just help me remember past trips, they transport me right back to them.