Monday, June 1, 2009
If I haven't written in about five months, I guess I could say that I follow my muse, and she has been leading me to do other things beside sit in front of the computer and try to be deep or witty.
I have been keeping busy with school and music, my family's visit, and miscellany. Last week there was a fundraiser for small Peace Corps projects, and someone asked my help to find a salsa group. Since there really isn't one, and we couldn't have afforded it anyway, I answered "no problem". I invited a few cotonou musicians, rehearsed twice, and we played a set of jazz, and a set of jazz tunes played in a salsa style. It felt good to be on the bandstand playing jazz more or less on my terms.
Well folks, my time in Benin is almost up and I'm fixin to go to Belgium for a few months. I'm gonna play some shows with a Beninese group that does traditional rhythms and singing with bass, drums, perc, keyboard, 2 trumpets and (as of quite recently,) sax. They have one video and an album which hasn't been released yet, we're looking for the right people to help put it out. One day I'd like to play stateside with this group. You can check out some tunes on myspace
I'm looking forward to the luxury of playing my saxophone everyday and working a lot with the musicians. Actually, that has been one of the hardest things for me about being a volunteer-- not having enough time to play music. (Although I would say that about nearly any job)
I leave in three weeks and I should be back in Benin in September. Then I'll probably spend a few months wherever I have the most interesting possibilities for playing and studying (benin, mali or burkina faso, most likely)
Thursday, May 7, 2009
I have a friend who is working with an orphanage here in Benin. He manages the gardening and agricultural projects which aim to feed the 35 kids while teaching them how to effectively grow food (they also study carpentry, weaving, animal husbandry, theater, and other stuff, in addition to having regular classes). Many of the kids have been "trafficked", into a kind of modern indentured servitude, and this center represents a hope for starting a new life.
One of the main goals of the program is to reintegrate the children into society. They need $9,000 US to build a community Food Processing Center in which the children of CEFODEC will be trained and which will become a way to generate further income for the home.
If you are interested in making a donation, large or small, it would be appreciated.
Friday, January 2, 2009
Starting with the most obvious-it's frikkin dry here. That makes some things easy and others hard. Peeing, for example is a cinch--you can pee anywhere, since the pee evaporates before it hits the ground. Drinking, on the other hand, is tricky, since you must actually drink as you are filling your cup. Otherwise the water disappears before you can get it to your face.
I was just enjoying a breakfast of curried homefries, a fried egg, and fresh bread with REAL butter, loving the cool (dry) breeze on my friend's balcony, when I saw a Ouagadougan garbage truck and smiled that smile which illuminates the inside of my face at least once or twice a day. It's the "this is Africa" smile. While the street below flowed with bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, and small cars carrying well-dressed or raggedy city-dwellers, a donkey trudged along with a large scrappy metal box in tow, in front of which sat two old women wrapped in colorful, if faded, dresses and headwrappings. Ougadougou.
There are gardens here. They are spacious outdoor restaurants, full of green, tables scattered here and there, under trees and beside hedges, with a stage where a variety of groups play every single day. Coming from Benin, a land surprisingly starved of live music, I must say that it's an awesome luxury to saunter down any old night and catch some locally-flavored balafon and ngoni (kora-like traditional 10-string harp made from a large gourd and a big stick), or lilting, shimmering, guitar-based Tuareg desert grooves, or more pan-African orchestras playing classic Congolese dance hits. I have only tasted a smattering of groups, but if not mind-blowing, at least they are always different, and usually interesting.
I heard (and played) some interesting music in Bobo-Dioulasso, land of the Bobo and Dioula-speakers. The second-largest city in Burkina, five hours from Ouaga, quickly gives away the smallness of Burkina-it's quite unintimidating. Walking from the bus station to the hotel I had chosen in my handy travel guide, I passed a store-front with a number of young men lounging on benches in the shade. One hustled across the street to introduce himself and offer me musical lessons. We made plans to jam the following morning.
The next day, after a bawdy musical romp at the shop, we piled a bunch of sound gear into and onto their van, crawled in ourselves, and went to play a baptism celebration. We rolled up to a wide, dusty, dirt street, where men and boys were scattered about in groups in the shade of a few large trees. A stereo blared American R&B, while children ran around in circles. Men sat around small tables roughly according to age, drinking small glasses of tea, smoking cigarettes and throwing cards with bravado.
Our rag-tag group in flip-flops set up under a large portable awning in the middle of the street. Before playing, we were brought an enormous bowl of riz gras with a pitiful dallop of sauce on top and a few small pieces of goat. After washing our hands, we huddled around the rice and dug in. It wat HOT, yikes. I'm used to eating hot pate with my hand-I usually just spread the pate out a bit and let it cool, but this quantity of piping hot rice could have kept a small house warm through a winter's night if there were such a thing here. I suffered through some small but tasty handfuls, and ended up waiting till the others finished so I could spread my rice out and let it cool before squeezing it into sticky balls to pop in my mouth.
Like a train starting slow and gradually gaining speed, we joined one by one the groove started by the guitarist, who, although young, was the de-facto musical leader. There were bass, guitar, piano, drums, a bass drum, a djembe, and they had hired two female griots to sing. We played a couple intrumental songs to warm things up, and the men slowly disappeared: this party was for the ladies.
Slowly filing out from the courtyard of a house in the middle of the block, first came the young ladies. Freshly coifed, wearing colorful embroidered dresses of fine fabric, they emerged with a slow smiling dance, like a giant psychedelic centipede. Head finally met tail, and the dance continued in a circle until the ladies took their seats around a large clearing of dirt and waited for the matrons. If the young ladies were nicely put together, their mothers were decked out and imposing with their beautiful get-ups.
During this time, the griots began to work their charms, and it was soon clear they were the act and we were just backing them up. A simple song would last twenty minutes while the griots sang about the family, the attendees, and who knows what else in powerful, dizzying flourishes. The guitarist and I would take turns trying to peak our little heads out into the cracks to add a well-timed flourish of our own before falling in line behind the singer and playing some repetitive groovy line.
One by one, women would approach the griots or the mother of the baptised, seated in the center of the circle, to offer a gift of money. Every so often, the griots would pass back a bill or two which someone would stuff in the guitar case.
It was a long afternoon, and though tired, we weren't finished for the day. We headed straight to a city-owned theater and set up the sound gear for a soiree of peul music where some of the members of the group would play a short set of traditional balafon music with percussion and dancing. The Peuls, also known as Fulani, are traditionally nomadic cattle herders, a people who are widely dispersed across West Africa and although accepted and appreciated for the meat, milk and cheese, they are seen as outsiders, even in places where they make up the majority. They typically spurn the education put in place by colonialists, prefering their quite profitable traditional practice of cattle-raising.
Anyhow, what I like about the Peul is their style. Men are apt to wear foot-length robes and cool shoes and maybe wrap their heads. The women, though, stand out from a mile away. To get fancy, they wear sparkly shawls and the girls do up their hair somethin else. Apart from an unusual style of braiding, they tie in colorful beads and silver coins. On a normal day, the Peul women are colorful and intriguing, but for a fete, they are a sight to behold. I was too shy to go around taking pictures of everybody so I'm afraid you'll just have to use your imagination or check google images for 'Peul'.
So my friends played, pleasing the crowd with their wild, colorful costumes, acrobatics and theatrics, and intense drumming and balafon beating.
Balafon this, balafon that, what in tarnation is a balafon, you ask? A balafon is a mallet-struck idiophone, a more ear-pleasing precursor to the xylophone, with a gourd attached below each wooden key. The gourds have small holes cut in them, which are covered by a thin membrane that creates a beautiful and characteristic buzz. They are pentatonic, with five notes per octave covering four octaves to give ................(who here is a math whiz?)...........that's right, twenty notes!
It is the most characteristic instrument of Burkinabe traditional music, and Bobo is Balafon Central. In Bobo is a neighborhood especially known for traditional Balafon music, and would you be surprised to learn that I made a beeline for it at the first opportunity? Well, I did.
Upon setting foot in this famed neighborhood, my ears perked up to the blood-quickening call of a djembe. I followed my ears, and before arriving at the source I was stopped by a couple of men who asked what I was looking for. Explaining that I was a wandering musician in search of the famed music of their quartier, they told me that they, too, were musicians, and offered to give me a little tour. We had a few minutes only, for this was a late-afternoon scouting mission, but in thirty minutes we passed through a number of cabarets and met a bunch of people.
Cabarets are the social hubs of Bolomakote, courtyards where Chapalo is brewed and served. Talk about homey atmosphere, the courtyard is nestled in the middle of a large family household. Ground sorghum grains are mixed with water, boiled, and left to ferment for a few days in large oil-drums. The resulting home brew is sold by the liter and served at room temperature (aka 80-90 degrees) in calabash bowls to clients who sit around the courtyard in pockets of shade on long benches. It's truly a family affair from the production to the consumption. Old ladies and young sit around drinking. Men, of course, are there in droves. Children help to prepare and serve it, while others play. One of my new friends gave a healthy slug to a child who couldn't have been older than four. Ah, L'Afrique, who am I to judge? Our children are drunk on video games and stoned on television. At least these kids are running around, getting dirty, and learning quickly about what they will soon face as adults.
I made a date and came back a couple days later to play with my new friend Si ("see") and his brother Adama. In a small mud room, we drank chapalo at nine in the morning, ate tasty morsels of lamb with chili powder and started to play-they, two balafons, and me, my saxophone. They played in a different style from my other friends in centre-ville, but much was the same. Everything was in a rythmic cycle of three, or four, and the harmony is quite simple to hear, as five notes don't yeild too many harmonic possibilities. I would try to catch bits of the melodies they sang, or a part of the accompaniment part. Straining to imagine another possible accompaniment, I would try variations until something locked in and worked. As their parts kept shifting, so did I have to continually adjust to maintain a balanced whole.
Soloing was fun, although playing pentatonic music is a challenge to do more with less. Using five notes, plus a few more for color, means you have to seek other sorts of variation, mostly rhythmic. There were a few moments of intensity which make me consider the possibility of coming back for a time to work with these musicians.
Tomorrow at five am (haha, yeah right, we'll see about that) I will take a little 17-seat mini-bus back to Benin, back to the muggy heat of the coast, back to the 'yovo, yovo, bon soir'-ing of the more brazen Beninese children, back to 250 final exams which must be graded, back to my house, by now scattered with mouse droppings and likely claimed by the spiders, back to "what did you bring me from Burkina?" from everybody and their mother. Back to the real world.
Friday, December 12, 2008
I heard tell he had the great luck to be invited up north to a village near the togolese border for what he later described as "an unforgettable cultural experience--whose intensity nearly made me pee my pants."
Apparently young males engage in a yearly rite of passage in which they flog one another with whips of leather or, more traditionally, vines from the bush. "Fete de chicote", or "whipping fete" is a perennial favorite of volunteers who perhaps find in its raw intensity something quintessentially "African". There is hooting, hollering, drum-beating and chouk(millet beer) -drinking all night to give the young men sufficient courage. One who shows pain or fear on the field of "battle" will bring shame to himself, his family, and his neighborhood.
These are ogun, spirits of the Fon Vodoun tradiotion, gathered for the opening of a newly-renovated palace in my friends village. Closely "guarded" by men with sticks, they chase the spectators around or demand a gift of a few coins. Being a Yovo and sticking out like a sore thumb, I was of course hit up for some loose change. This is all accompanied by intense drumming and singing of course...
After the Ogun left, the couple hundred spectators were squeezed into to palace courtyard to listen to Alekpehanhou, the king of Zenli music, and maybe the most celebrated Beninese traditional musician. The dancing was great, as was the drumming and singing, although I think at least half of his appeal was lost on us Yovos. He improvised words for about two hours, weaving narratives with praise, allegory with humor, and captivating everybody. There was about thirty minutes of going around singing about the crowd, praising them and putting them on the spot for a contribution, not unlike what goes on in union square if you gather around the breakdancers.
I rehearse regularly with these guys. Sometimes we practice on the beach, too.
Last weekend I celebrated my birthday in style on the beach with a few friends. The boy cut us up some fresh coconuts. Afterwards I played next door in a beachfront "bar" with a group of a dozen or so percussionists and a few dancers. It was kind of pan-African, not exclusively Beninese, and they were pretty intense.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
My jewfro was making the most of the the salty air. This is next to the Cape Coast Castle, a slave export center almost as beautiful physically as it is sickening ethically.
Fourth of July welcoming posse awaiting the new trainees at the airport. We had a few drinks on the ambassador and provided a raucus reception for the travel-dazed newbies....and yes, I am wearing floral-embroidered pink linen--you got a problem with that?
This is an open-air buvette called Bon Pasteur, amusingly named after the church next door. They blast popular Ivoirian music and the DJ chatters incessantly about the clientelle, singing and carrying on. Once he saluted me as I arrived, saying Blache Niege est arrive...(Snow White is here). It was only the next day that I realized what he had called me...These kids did some insane acrobatics, and something tells me they figured their moves out on their own, no clown schools here...The blond head is attached to the rest of my friend Aaron, who often accompanies me in some of my more interesting adventures.
The one paved road in my village which is actually kind of a highway that goes all the way north. The bush taxi loaded with an impressive cargo is par for the course. My friend likes to tell me I have turned a truckstop into a quaint village, his way of saying "your village kind of sucks but you're too dumb to notice." Well, I think my village is great, and if he has a problem with that, he can stay in his own little mud-road village...
It's lovely how the uniforms match the walls, isn't it?
I promise even more pictures soon, maybe even video if the connection is fast enough...Oh, sorry, I lied about the nudity.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I feel the rentre breathing down my neck. It's an all-too-familiar melange of feelings, one which I have known and loved/hated since I was old enough to know better than to eat my own boogers. (Until I started attending school, my big brother Seth, an unabashed booger-eater, was my cheif role model and hence the arbiter of propriety--eek!)
It will be good to see my students again, and to try to accomplish something, but it is something of a daily grind, and the year is soooooooooo loooooong.
There are some new ideas on the drawing board and they involve--huge shock!--music. I am going to try to scrounge up some money, possibly through a grant, to buy three or four trumpets, maybe a trombone or two, and start working during what is my arch-nemisis in the Beninese education system, the three hour lunch break.
Kids often walk 30 min or even an hour each way before and after school, and to do so again in the middle of the day is, to use my fathers phrase, sheer lunacy. Granted, it is not for no reason--the only food they will find is what is being prepared at the house at midday, and many have chores to do--but still...it is the hugest waste of time (itself a concept all but lost on Beninese).
It is because of the three hour lunch that students finish school at 5pm or even 7 or 8, leaving little time for extracurriculars or even homework. I hope to be able to put together a group of enthusiastic young musicians who will work a couple times a week, and to leave the trumpets at school where they can sign them out to practice during lunch on other days.
I recently worked a week training new volunteers in Port Novo, and made some connections which has opened other opportunity to teach music. A man across the street from our house happened to be the drummer in a group which performs every saturday and sunday at an outdoor bar. They play interminable songs--mostly salsa and African dance hits and classics--and they feature a revolving cast of drummers, singers, percussionists, keyboardists, bassists and guitarists. They were quite happy to let me join them and fish around for a line or two I too could repeat indefinitely, and to solo a few times on each tune.
One thing I really appreciate about the group is their practice of praise-singing, at least that's what I imagine was going on. The singer would start dropping names, and was clearly singing for the benefit of some newly-arrived couple, or a group of dapper men around a table teeming with beer bottles. (Cultural note: At a Beninese buvette, bottles are left on the table until payed for, and it is a status symbol to have a table strewn with bottles. As a result, a group will often buy more than one beer each, letting the second get warm as they drink the first. They will often choose small bottles, too, instead of the more cost-effective large beers which are double the volume, but not double the price, a fact appreciated by most volunteers). After a minute or two, one of them would come up on stage, or approach the singer who was roving around the crowd, and place some money in his hand or against his forhead, the traditional way of honoring a performer.
Although the musicians could keep the songs going for impressive amounts of time, and the singing and drumming were not bad, on the whole I wasn't too impressed, although I was grateful for the chance to play. One young drummer stood out, though, and I made plans to go to his group's rehearsal at the Christian Celeste Church (which astute and dedicated readers will recognize as the Church with whom I went on a pilgrimage to the sea last Christmas).
The jam was awesome, a long-awaited chance to really stretch out and blow with no audience to make me self-conscious. The bassist, guitarist and drummer are all young and recent jazz converts, and it reminded me a bit of playing at the New School with new students. Playing on that level in New York, or the states is one thing, but to figure out how to play jazz in Benin with no real jazz mentors or learning aids is quite impressive. They invited me to come play in Cotonou where they have two weekly jams with some Cotonou based musicians.
The result is that I have a standing rehearsal (of which I have so far played about four) in Cotonou on Thursdays. I bring recordings, sheet music, and patterns and excercises for them to practice, and we play. (It existed before I showed up, but I aim to take over and run the show, which everybody seems to be cool with, and happy about). It is refreshing to teach music on a more advanced level than my piano or theory lessons in the village. Who knows, it could be a good chance to have some positive impact here.
Aside from these musicians, I also met others in the past two weeks, especially the many and very talented brothers of my friend who is himself maybe the best Beninese pianist. They are the pinnacle of the Beninese music scene, and I sat in on a rehearsal that shows why--they rehearse three hours straight every weekday, as if it were a job, albeit a fun one. Inspired by their playing, I spent the next two days serenading the Peace Corps bureau and neighborhood from the rooftop for hours a day. Through one brother, I also found out about another standing gig every Friday and Saturday in a new, swanky little bar. I played one time and aim to be semi-regular there.
So now, after a year, I am suddenly making a bunch of jazz contacts and finding new chances to play and teach. (And I didn't even mention the Dutch smooth-jazz guitarist I recently met). The only thing missing is to meet some musician with his head in the clouds and his feet firmly on the ground who wants help creating a music school.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Ghana is another world. A land of paved roads, billboards lit with bright lights, trimmed grass, totally foreign from Benin yet eerily familiar--Accra feels far more like a small American city than Cotonou 6 hours away. Most people dress in western clothes and many throw their trash in boxes or in the occasional actual trash can(!?!?!?!). Reggae oozes out of small bars and passing vehicles. You can buy fried rice in a styrofoam box (cringe) with fried chicken and cole slaw (drool). Their are relatively few motorcycles, and vehicles tend to stay in their lanes and obey traffic laws (applause).
Unaware of the cheaper, easier, more comfortable metro bus, my road-dog and I took a trotro (ubiquitous minibus taxi) to a parking lot where we sat in another trotro in the rain for four hours waiting for our little van to fill for the trip to Cape Coast. Sounds boring, but I assure you, we had a plenty of entertainment in the form of ambulant vendors. A steady stream of people passed the open door and windows hawking the wares on their heads in style.
“Did she just say ‘Yes, I love rice, wow!’ ?“ “I think its Jolof rice”.."oh”…
“Yeeeeeees, biscuits”…”Yeeeeeees yogurt..yeeeeeeeees boiled eggs..perfume, wow..umbrella, umbrella, wow…yeeeees toffee... We ate a five course meal in that ill-fated trotro, and I cracked up at every less and less enthusiastic "wow" .
Cape Coast is the old capital of Ghana, the country formerly known as the Gold Coast. An impressive castle was built there around 500 years ago and the city gradually expanded around it. Originally built by the Swedes (if my memory doesn't fail me) as a secure trading post, it passed through a few countries' hands and soon became the seat of government and a dungeon where slaves were held to wait to be loaded onto boats.
The building and nearby coast are very beautiful (pics to follow…), even if heinous barbarism was practiced there for centuries. I’ll spare you the details--most of us already realize the human potential for cruelty and indifference to suffering, here institutionalized for profit. I learned that of around 60 million captured people, only 20 million made it to the auction block abroad, many dying during the long walk to the coast, many during a 3-9 month wait in the dungeon, and many more during the actual passage. A full 1/3 went to Brazil, 1/3 to the Caribbean islands, and 1/3 to the rest of the Americas. A few went to Europe I suppose, too. Not a pleasant thing to think about, but it's a story that needs to be told, and those who suffered deserve to be remembered.
At a touristy beachside backpacker haven we were lucky to catch a goofy three-man acrobatics show starring a young boy who was quite good at being flung, a contortionist tumbler, and a man who stood on a stool on another stool on 4 upright beer bottles on a table and spun a large bowl on his finger while I nervously cringed, grimaced and flinched .
The canopy walk in nearby Kakum National Park was beautiful even if a single butterfly was the only “animal” I saw (you have to go just after sunrise to be lucky enough to see a far-off monkey swinging from tree to tree.) The highlight at Kakum, though, was the “nature walk” , a 30-minute stroll during which our charming guide shared some of the secrets of the forest.
He showed us a root which, if you cut it with a machete and utter the right words, blood flows out and you can kill a man by speaking his name. He warned us not to try it in the afternoon, though, because if your shadow falls on the root, you yourself will die. Placing a leaf of the same plant on the floor of someone’s room, if they step on it before they see it, you will know their secrets.
He pointed out large ebony trees--which are great to scratch your back on, if you happen to be an elephant—trees which make great boats but crappy furniture, trees which make great furniture but crappy boats, trees with great, flat, upright roots like walls which people bang on to communicate over kilometers (loud, i tell you). Even today, he said, women get lost in the forest collecting snails, and they bang till someone comes to find them . One tree had been sliced with a knife and rubber blood was dripping from the wound (cool, a rubber tree). It was nice just to be in a jungly rainforest, at least closer to my initial expectation of the African bush.
Other highlights of the trip include termite mounds made of dirt towering at ten or twelve feet tall (unfortunately, seen only from the bus), a thorough disorienting venture into an air-conditioned, full of yovos, American-style sports bar for mediocre burritos and margaritas (hey, we'll take what we can get…) where we watched two pretty young ghanaian prostitutes start flirting with some older, fat American guys and go sit with them (what in the world do they have to talk about?), 48 hours of learning drumming, gyll (W. African xylophone), and dance, and making quick friends with the wonderful people at the Dagara Cultural Center outside of Accra (I’ll DEFINITELY be back…)
It was fun finding common points with food and language that after a year in Benin feel like our own. Much easier, though, was pointing out the differences, all too often marveling how Ghana is cleaner, safer, more orderly, more sane. That said, even if there are aspects of Ghana that are enviable from a Beninese perspective, the truth is that were Benin to develop in those ways, they would pay a certain cultural price as more global influence would inevitably eclipse and bury certain stuff that makes Benin "Benin". A ubiquitous trade-off that needs to be carefully negotiated. Good night, and good luck.