Saturday, December 22, 2007

Joyeuse Tabaski

I have about two more months in West Africa, and they will be packed. Things are already beginning to accelerate. Last Sunday night was the peak of my Mali experience to date, I think. At a private dinner for the Ambassador of Denmark, Mali's best musicians, most of whom I've met or interviewed by now, were invited to play, and the director of the program asked if I wanted to come and play something, too. Egad. I was finally able to hear Bassekou Kouyate, the renowned blues ngoni player, perform. And I played two numbers with him and traded fours. It was kind of ridiculous and the whole trombone thing drove the elite European audience wild. I had a good time. Habib Koite was there, too, and won over the audience with a few solo pieces. Then there was Line Stern, the wife of jazz guitarist Mike Stern (who has played with Miles Davis), and she plays a mean, wailing blues guitar herself, complete with distortion and facial expressions. I spent a long time watching her, with her white-blond hair and knit cap and tattoos. She lives in New York. What a life. Also, Cheick Tidiane Seck, a wonderful blues-funk-jazz keyboard player came later on and announced with his bent synthesizer notes that the tradition was just a riff and he was going to change it up. I had met him a few weeks ago and we got along well, so another meeting long in the making came to pass that night. It was ridiculous: no ceiling on the interaction and volume and interpolations. As the crowd thinned out, Bassekou and Habib went home and Cheick, Line, an electric kora player, and I settled into the first serious jazz jam I have attended in months. So refreshing. Not just the style, but the attitude of possibility and freedom. I had really been craving that, I realized. Hallelujah strike up the jazz band and let it all hang out. I had delayed my flight to Dakar for this business, and it's a durned good thing I did. It gave me some rebellious closure on my stint in Bamako.

So I left Bamako on Tuesday afternoon, leaving some sad faces behind, and looking forward to meeting my host family in Bamako. Karim, a boyfriend of a Watson fellow who is currently in Morocco (!), picked me up from the airport. A portrait: chin-length blonding dreads, huge sunglasses, big rasta smile, slightly loping walk, puttering scooter. I think he's probably crazy. But he found me a lovely, welcoming family complete with children (aged 11, 6, and 3) who are alternately terrible and adorable. They eat together twice a day, rice and fish on the ground from a huge platter which everyone digs into with their own fork or spoon. This is my communal remedy for my isolation. Yesterday was the festival of Tabaski, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, which commemorates God's gift of the ram to Abraham in place of Isaac; so each family buys a sheep and slaughters it on the morning of Tabaski and eats mutton until their eyes fall out. I think I've decided to become a vegetarian. But the kids look forward to it like it is Christmas and get all dressed up and parade around the neighborhood looking at everyone's outfits. It is a little like Halloween, what with the costumes and blood, but in what feels like springtime to me, and with a house that it seems will NEVER stop smelling like meat. Another result of Tabaski is that everything has been closed for the past three days. I found this internet cafe after a long, long walk.

But I've been dutifully going out to see music here, too. The scene in Dakar is enormous. It feels like Paris or New York or something. There is jazz and afro and salsa and reggae any night of the week, and this leads to some difficult choices. Thursday night I sat in with a reggae group called the Timshel Band. Normally I avoid reggae like tinned meat, but this was pretty funky and they had a really good trumpet player who teamed up with me to make some sweet horn backings. There are more horn players here than in Bamako, but mostly sax players. Last night I had the incredible fortune to go see the Orchestre Baobab live and play two tunes with them. Egad. They have tenor and alto saxes and we had a lot of fun together. Their tenor player seems especially steeped in avant jazz and waltzed amid the dancers playing fills and honking at people. This made me very happy. The guitarist - maybe Boubacar Traore, I'm not sure - is also really creative and always takes the long way around his melodies and is majorly into the chromatic possibilities of Latin music. There is salsa in Bamako, but it is not slick like it is here. I could have a good time here, I think, except that the taxi drivers don't speak French (only Wolof) and I get woken up in the morning by crying children. Joe is coming to visit after Christmas, and that will be a nice change of pace, I think. They have beautiful beaches here, and there are nice places to kayak and ride bikes... Life could be worse.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Something to Write Home About

Over the past few weeks, I have gotten to interview some of the best musicians in Bamako. This has been honestly quite an undertaking, as Mali's top tier musicians are in a social and economic class of their own. When I arrived, I started in the middle (or the bottom?) with the working musicians in Bamako, mostly salsa players from Guinea, Senegal, and Benin. They are living a tough life.

But with Toumani Diabate, it is a different story. He is a griot, meaning he was born into a family of 71 generations of kora players, just like him. In traditional Malian society, the griots are a social caste just below royalty. Toumani himself is a genius of a musician and has enjoyed international success. He speaks English like an American, slurring his consonants together casually; when he's ready to go he says, suprisingly, in the middle of a stream of Bambara, “Sarah, let's get out of here.” Two British journalists came to interview him to publicize the release of his two new albums, In the Heart of the Moon, which is a solo album, and Symmetric Orchestra Part Deux.

Toumani is, in so many ways, not your typical kora player. He is from a generation in Africa that grew up after independence. He explained listed the musical influences of his childhood: Pink Floyd, James Brown, The Super Rail Band, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company. And Malian traditional kora music. After independence, the president of the Republic of Mali charged Toumani's parents with the creation of a national orchestra to celebrate traditional music.

He explained that he sees the griot's job in the 21st century as an extension of his traditional roles as communicator and peacemaker. The best thing, he said, that a griot can do today is to go out into the world and be a musical diplomat, making peace between Africa and the West. It struck me how comfortable Toumani is with talking about his music in a Western context; the market is different there, he said. He plans to introduce African music to Western audiences bit by bit. Otherwise, they will stop listening and put it in the world music bin. Toumani also told us about playing with Bjork live, in front of 100,000 people. Where no kora has gone before.

After playing with the Rail Band a few weeks ago, I finally had the chance to spend some time with their incredible guitarist, Djelimady Tounkara. He lives in a humble house in a central Bamako neighborhood with his entire extended family, which includes several grown sons and daughters and many more nephews – all griots in their own right. We got down to business right away with guitar and trombone, and he set me straight on a few things about Mandingue music. If you think about it, the history of Mali is written in the history of its music. People migrated from the north, across the Sahara, so the music in northern Mali is much older than the music in the south, which has more in common with the music in Guinea and Senegal. You could almost draw the sedimentary layers on a map, each increment of latitude marking the progression of another few centuries of music.

But the most amazing things Djelimady showed me addressed some of my projects big questions about the relationship between American jazz and traditional music in West Africa. He is the first person I've found in West Africa who has been able to explain this entire story to me, from the beginning of the 1200s, when the griot tradition rose in the Mandingue empire, until December 2007 with the Rail Band of Bamako playing rehashed blue-jazz a la malienne.

Warning: Music geek discussion follows. A lot of Mandingue music goes back and forth between two harmonic centers, a major third apart (Coltrane, anyone?), always landing back on the tonic, although sometimes with an unexpected or delayed rhythmic placement, which ends up sounding like a musical pun. The second tonal center, the major third above, means that they play a lot over the Phrygian mode, with b9 and b13. They will often add a flat five to this scale, which gives you a Locrian mode, based on the seventh degree of the major scale – which in this case is the four chord in the original tonality, which may be one way of hearing Mandingue music as quartally based. But that flat five on the Phrygian is also the b7 of the major tonality, a serious blue note and node of Afro-American culturo-tonal consciousness. So to play in the key of C, Mandingue musicians will often play in E Phrygian with a flat five, emphasizing the half step between E and F to give a kind of eastern sound to a line. But can you even call a line eastern? This is for another time.

It occurs to me that Djelimady is really unusual, as someone who is so talented musically, but more as someone who has traveled the world extensively and brought it all home to Mali, and knows this ancient story in its worldly context. That is his job, after all, as a griot musician: to know the tradition and to tell the stories. An American journalist-musician spent six months with Djelimady and wrote a book about him, called In Griot Time, which you should read, because it will be a healthy long while before I am in the neighborhood of a Borders outlet.

In between project activities, I have been living what seems now to be a relatively hum-drum life in my tiny quartier, practicing, reading, writing. Most of the (non-trivial) practical shocks of moving, sleeping, eating, breathing in West Africa have by now worn off. I watch soccer on TV with our whole block. I buy produce – bananas, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons – on the side of the road and bring it home to my adopted family of bartenders and hoteliers where we wash it and eat it. There is always rice. Or fried bananas, called loko, which is one of my favorites. I have been getting a rush out of teaching English to my friend Maurice, who haunts this place when he has nowhere else to go. He is in his last year of university, but the professors are on strike at the moment, protesting their inadequate salaries and nonexistent benefits. So there are a lot of bored Malian students bumming around, along with several American SIT students who have just finished their semester. We have a good time.

Below, photographed, are my most trusted advisers, from left, Mohammed, Simione, and George Miguelito.

Outside my window, there was a plant watching the sun set. I caught him here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


My experience in Mali has become, I think, nearly as varied as the people and cultures that spread across its vast territory. Every once in a while I experience a huge high, like last night at this huge world photography exhibition put on by the Centre Culturel Francais. There were four or five rooms of a warehouse with the kind of classy, artsy displays you would expect to see in Paris or Philadelphia or Seattle or something. The photos were mostly of Malian traditional life, some after dark of traditional religion and spirit worship and things, and others of women and children and just a lot of empathy for the way people live and experience life. Photographers from all around the world came to this exhibition; I met people from France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, China, America, Brazil... I've decided that I like photographers.

So that was the setting for this fantastic concert that followed with the Super Rail Band, which is probably Bamako's oldest and best African jazz ensemble. They've been together since the 1970s and they rarely get back together to play unless they are on tour somewhere in the world. But they played last night and I played with them, along with Lina, the saxophonist from Sweden, and Michelle, a trumpet player and arts advocate from Boston(!) who was there for the exhibition. People danced and yelled and we were quite a sight, three white female horn players with an African jazz band. But we kicked that band. Michelle didn't bring her trumpet with her, so I used my connections with George and his friend Simione to borrow a trumpet from a Protestant school in Kalaban for her to play. (The school has a big closet full of instruments sent by Americans that none of the kids have time to play. Maybe one of the reasons we don't see a lot of brass players in Bamako...) We took off at the end to see a salsa band from Sweden that Lina told us about. George is really into salsa, so he wasn't going to miss this. I played some more with the salsa group, but I liked the Super Rail Band better. I'm supposed to get together with their guitarist tomorrow to trade stories and play a little bit.

Tourism is a grand, tumbling behemoth of an industry here, so most people are accustomed to seeing Westerners; but they are really only accustomed to seeing Westerners with money. For the past ten years or so, there has also been a robust stream of musicologist types pouring into the country to investigate, formally or otherwise, Mali's legendary blues and roots music. The result is that there is actually a highly developed market for research-facilitator-guides – people who are actually incredibly knowledgeable about Mali's history and culture who offer to arrange your comprehensive practical and theoretical needs for the duration of your stay. This made me uncomfortable at first, because I realized that this could easily have dramatic (possibly negative) effects on the direction and scope of my project. But I succumbed like all the rest. I suppose in retrospect I see it for what it is: a service for a price. It has been sort of relentlessly and willfully ignorant of the Western influence on Malian music, kind of as a constant defense of the authenticity of Mali's culture as a treasure that attracts tourists. Things do not change quickly here. These are very old, very strong cultures here.

In many ways, I am finding that the return of Afro-American music to Africa is a sort of neutral biproduct of the much more destructive effects of cultural colonization. This transition is strikingly less advanced in Mali, compared to the cities on the coast in Ghana and Benin, for one thing because the European colonists didn't really set up cities here; they just exported slaves. The result is that traditional music is even stronger in Mali than I found it was in Benin. This has gotten me thinking a lot about what is lost and what is gained with Westernization. They still have a genuine culture of preservation here, where old traditions are respected simply because of their age. This resonates with the philosophies of the world's oldest, most mystical civilizations, Egypt and Israel; the Saharan part of Mali carries connotations of an entirely different culture filled with turbans and Arabs and pharaohs and mummies and the movie Aladdin. Sometimes I sing “Arabian Nights” to myself before I fall asleep. I think Timbuktu, where the oldest Islamic university used to be, is really interesting monument to this historical intellectualism, and the connection with the Middle East. Thinking of the world with Africa as the center of it has totally changed the way I think about history. I spent a long time the other night just looking at the map of the world. It's amazing me to experience the reality of musical geography; it really is true that the further north you travel in Africa, the more the music begins to take on the characteristics of Middle Eastern and even Indian music.

One benefit of my research facilitator was that I got the entire history of Mali told to me in an afternoon. There are already 23 different musico-cultural traditions in Mali, the largest being the Mandingue in the south, the Wassoulou in the west, the Bambara and the Peuhl in the center, and the Tuareg and the Dogon in the north. Each has their own language, and a different relationship to diaspora music. The Mandingue have probably the closest associations with jazz – they have the griot tradition and they play instruments like the 21-stringed kora and the traditional African guitar. Ali Farka Toure's famous blues comes out of the music of the Peuhl. The Festival in the Desert in January (I'm coming back) is mainly a celebration of Tuareg groups. All of these groups and styles appear in some form in Bamako, so this city is already a complicated web of cultural recombination, even without foreign influences like jazz, rap, rock, reggae, and salsa. I think the Super Rail Band, which is where Salif Keita got his start, is probably my favorite example so far of a globally-minded Malian group.

I am continually astounded by the apparent hospitality of Malians. I went out late at night to try to buy cell phone credits so I could call Andy back. The only person on the street was a guy about my age hanging out on the steps of a closed storefront. He told me to wait there while he walked up the street to buy me credits, and I could just pay him back when he got back. This kind of help always makes me a little suspicious, and in the U.S. I would not be talking to strangers in the middle of the night. But there I was. And lo and behold he came back in five minutes with a phone card. Things like this happen routinely. I ask where the patisserie is; the guy I ask gives me a ride there and back. I experienced nothing like this in Ghana or Benin.

More frequently people see me as a walking bank, which makes me really uncomfortable. There is poverty here, and a lot of musicians are among the poorest. More than a few times, I have gotten mired in a web of suspicious and jealousy among struggling musicians. I am constantly fielding requests for money from musicians of all types who tell stories of sickness, unemployment, and homelessness. When I won't give them money, they demand, persistently that I stay in Mali and marry them. It is mentally and emotionally very tiring to weigh each situation with compassion and try to decide how my meager allotment of time and money can best make a difference here. Everyone wants a piece of what they imagine to be the grand and infinite well of wealth I have to offer, an attitude which has already started arguments among musicians as to who has the right to take advantage of me.

I came here wanting to explode my cultural stereotypes, to know people and things through direct experience; I walk when I can and take the minibuses instead of taxis to see more of people's lives. I am staying in a neighborhood far away from the touristy center of Bamako. I spend hours listening to people and learning to speak Bambara and learning about people's families. And yet I am often stereotyped myself as nothing but a toubabu - a white female - to exploit. How many of their stereotypes about me are true? Am I not being compassionate enough in my understanding of their situation? Is it too much to ask to be treated as an individual rather than a type? One result has been that I have become extremely careful about who I trust here. I am beginning to sense a kind of hardness in myself, something that has come from being self-reliant and on the move for so long. I think this is actually a kind of strength, but it is at the same time a little unnerving to watch myself change like that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Secret to Life is Written on Your Eyelids

In many ways, the story of my project in Benin was a very old story indeed: that of the Western researcher who goes into the forest to find the shaman to study his wisdom, only to find that the old man has died, or has transformed himself into a tree to evade his enemies, or has sought political asylum in an unkown location, or has taken a vow of silence, or has given up his practice altogether for the love of modern science... I think I experienced all of these things, in one form or another, at some point.

Mali is looking to be an entirely different endeavor. There is a well-traveled tourist trail here, and what's more, the trail is signposted for the musically inclined, thanks to a steady stream of folks anxious to experience the Malian blues phenomenon. So it my interest in the significance and history of the music here is most often seen as natural, perhaps even common. Which isn't to say I'm not receiving a fair amount of attention. I have been getting the star treatment since arriving in Bamako, for starters thanks to contact with George Miguelito, a guitarist from Benin who has been living in Mali for the past nine years. He has a salsa group that plays regularly at the French cultural center and at Le Cite des Flamboyants, a combination restaurant- performance space-hotel under construction, which is where I'm staying. There was a whole fiasco with negotiating the price of the room, because George is friends with the owner and the manager and everyone was trying to use their influence to get the best of the situation... Finally I put my foot down and made a written agreement with the owner myself. This was a good lesson for me, and I'm really glad I decided to stay here; I have air conditioning, good cheap food, a kind of limitless stream of interesting people coming through the restaurant from the surrounding Kalaban Coura, and a place to play every Saturday night.

Thursday night I went to the French cultural center with George to see his salsa group Los Maestros, and met SO many people. Bamako is progressively displaying itself like the opening petals of a flower, blooming continuously. For example, I met a Swedish woman who plays saxophone and has come here to work and marry her Malian fiance. She wants to do some gigs together while I'm here. There is an old man who plays some serious Latin flute and studied for several years at the conservatory in Cuba (another part of the story). One of the percussionist-singers toured with Salif Keita and says he will arrange for me to meet him.

There was also a soul singer who sat in, a Nigerian, and he threw the band into a sort of blues mode that stuck around for the rest of the night. That's music that I know really well, so I immediately felt comfortable. The strange thing is that there are no trombonists to be found on the scene in Bamako, so people really paid attention when I played. It's probably something to do with the white female thing, too. The manager of the cultural center basically explained my project to me (in English) before I could say two words to him. He said: “Yeah, what I see you doing is bringing this American jazz-blues sound, which is in your blood anyway, back to Africa to see what's going on with the interaction of the modern and the traditional.” Uh-huh.

Friday George was in the studio starting recording on his third album (we will add horns later), so Mohammed, the manager at Les Flamboyants, took charge of me for the day. We toured Bamako on his motorcycle, checking out the market in the center of town and finding cheap restaurants where I can buy rice when I'm hungry. I also got to see the Niger River, which has totally enthralled me with its beauty. It is so green, and so blue, and mostly just incredibly mystical. This thought occurred to me that it is so appropriate to have a river going through Bamako because it somehow parallels the way the Mississippi goes through New Orleans and the significance of rivers and river imagery in American (blues) culture. I think the Niger clinched it for me. Bamako has some things to show me, musically, spiritually, historically. Something good led me to this place.

Friday night Mohammed and I left Les Flamboyants late (it was his wife's birthday – we made milkshakes) to go see the master kora player Toumani Diabate play at Le Hogon, a greenly lit bar and cultural center on the edge of town. We arrived by motorcycle after midnight, and things were already in full swing, a mammoth traditional group (eight percussionists, four guitarists, kora, traditional Malian guitar, talking drum) playing for a crowd of all shapes, colors, and dispositions. Toumani was nowhere in sight, however. I played a few solos with the group, struggling to be heard in the middle of the saturated sound. It was not until two a.m. that Toumani arrived and took the stage. I stayed to play a long number with them – suddenly the balance got much better. The groove seemed to have limitless sections and variations on the same cyclical rhythm, starting and stopping, continuing for another person to take a solo. Everything was blues-ified pentatonic and I threw myself into the fray. After twenty minutes of this, I snuck out, exhausted, and decided to head home. Flying through the cold desert night, I buried my face in Mohammed's hood and stole occasional, conspiratorial glances at the Niger, brimful and drifting silently beneath us.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sitting Here in Limbo (But I Know It Won't Be Long)

I left Benin on Friday morning, expecting to pass the night in Ouagadougou in a room at the Catholic Cathedral and leave Saturday for Bamako. All went as planned. Except it's Sunday, and I'm still in Ouaga.

So... Burkina Faso was not really on the itinerary. It turns out they are tearing up the runway in Mali, so they cancelled the flight. They promised it will be finished by the end of this week. Yesterday I spent five hours at the Ouaga airport trying to get them to give me another ticket and find me a hotel.

The up-side: I had company. The Ouagadougou airport is officially my new favorite place for meeting new and interesting people. My favorites included a playwright from Cape Town, South Africa, who was flying to Dakar for a film festival. He is working on a play about the life of Fela Kuti, the founder of the Afro-Beat phenomenon, and yes, hero of my Nigerian colleague Funsho who I worked with in Ghana. My new South African friend is running a performing arts festival in February, when I arrive in Cape Town. Things work in circles, I am discovering.

My other friend-in-waiting was a real godsend, an English guy (James) who has been living in Ouagadougou with his Portuguese wife (Anna) and two children (Sarah, 6, and Joanna [aka Joey], 4) for the past three years. When the airline wouldn't give me any help with a hotel, he said that I should come and stay with his family in Ouaga for the week until they finish the runway in Bamako. I can't make this stuff up. So I slept here last night and stayed up late talking to James about theology and volunteerism and the state of the world. We swam in their pool this morning. They have a driver and a maid and a guard. I took a hot shower. Praise the Lord. James works for an NGO in Ouaga, and Anna does something diplomatic here, I'm not quite sure what. In any case, I have officially been extraordinarily blessed and will enjoy the time to explore Ouaga, which is low-key and safe, especially compared to Cotonou. James left for Nairobi this morning, and asked me to stay just in case Anna needs help with something.

My last week in Benin was hectic and wonderful. It was hard to say goodbye to Rock and Didie. I realized that we went through a lot together and became really good friends. A farewell to Benin photo gallery:
Nathan, with alto trombone

Drummers at funeral in Porto Novo (visions of New Orleans)

Vodoun priest giving sacrifices to fetishes

Sign pointing the way to a Christianisme Celeste church

Fa devination ritual with kola nuts

The last king of Abomey is said to have turned himself into this tree to evade foreign intruders.

Statue of the last king of Abomey, who when the French arrived asking him to sign his territory over in a treaty, ordered his men to open fire. A symbol of Benin's resistance to European political and cultural control. In the photo are Rock, Jacques, and two local boys.

Closeup of inscription: "I will never accept to sign any treaty that could threaten independence in the land of my integrity." Cbehanzin King of Dahomey.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No Turning Back

Here are the photos I promised you. Above is the Door of No Return in Ouidah, which departing slaves walked through, maybe knowing that there was no going back - that slavery would change them, and their culture forever. This story made an impression on me, because it is also the story of jazz and Afro-American culture in their relation to Africa today. The resonance is always there. Down the road from the Door of No Return in Ouidah is the Door of Return, which commemorates the return of freed slaves to Africa, along with their culture (I'm thinking about James Brown, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, et al, plus all the Caribbean music and instruments that have made the return journey.)
Above are some of the musicians who show up at Le Repaire de Bacchus of a Thursday late-night. The saxophonist here is really interesting and spent a lot of time in Chicago playing jazz and speaks English like an American and French like a Parisian. So we picked each other's brains. He likes Poncho Sanchez a lot. He's also a really lean, mean sax player - he plays like there is no ceiling.

Something weird happened with my vodoun pictures - it's like they put a virus on my computer or something. I've heard people talk about stuff like this before, where their videos and photos of vodoun ceremonies don't record or won't transfer to the computer. My Western rationalism is looking kind of like Swiss cheese these days, shot full of holes.

Pictured below are Rock, my friend and all-purpose guide; yours truly; Bianca, who is one year old; and Latisha, Bianca's mom. We are eating lunch in the shade at Rock's family's compound.

This is me with my hair braided, the day after I turned 23.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Have You Been In Benin: Ouidah, Abomey

I've taken some photos and videos but it takes forever to upload here. When the wireless starts working again, you will be able to bask in multimedia delight.

This is a long one. Stick with me.

I spent the beginning of last week giving lessons to a few brass players in the national police band. I wasn't sure how this would go at first, not wanting to appear condescending, making the stereotypical white-might missteps. But it went fine. There is a trombonist named Florent who has really taken my lessons on as a challenge; he listens intently to everything I say (in my flawed French) and writes it down and goes home and practices it. I told him I am thinking of writing a book about African music, and he smiled and asked if I could write something about him. We are working on technique, air, articulation – and he also asked me to help him start learning to improvise. Like he doesn't know already. This is a little bit too much of a mind-bend for me; I never imagined I would be teaching a Beninois how to play the blues! He can sing all these crazy native melodies which are all improvised but he hasn't had anyone sit down with him and the trombone and make a strategy for how to develop that material on the horn.

Benin has no music schools. The Awanginou family is the closest thing there is, and most of the brothers are too busy with touring and recording and family to take on very many students. Then, for some reason, there is also a little bit of a stimulus attached to teaching jazz here; a lot of times, the people who have learned this music by traveling in Europe or America are very protective of the secrets they have procured. So I have been spending whatever time I can with whoever is interested. I taught two sixteen-year-old trombonists, a girl and a boy, the other night at the Christianisme Celeste church. I am really enjoying teaching. I think it makes me feel like I have something to give, which allows me entrance to the community in an important way.

I've also started taking percussion lessons on the sakra, a small hand drum that is related to the talking drums of Nigeria. You can change the pitch by putting more or less pressure on the back of the drum with your thumb. My teacher, Simone, explains rhythms to me in Yoruba first, because the rhythms are based in that language. Then I try to figure out how to match the cadence on the drum. It's pretty challenging, and I can only play basic things right now, but it is a really good thing to be able to relate to. I get really excited whenever I see someone performing on sakra in church or at a funeral, and I go sit behind them and watch what they are doing.

Last week Rock and I also spent some time digging up some authentic vodoun ceremonies. We drove by motorcycle out to a village about 30 minutes away from Porto Novo where Rock knows a vodoun priest. There was a Christian cross above the door to the house, and everyone stopped there and prayed in Yoruba or Goun before entering. There were about eight young men waiting for us there in the yard, and they received us uneasily. Rock explained to me that they were worried about summoning the vodoun fetishes without first consulting the elders of the village, and if they consulted the elders, this would cost more money. They said that if they summoned the fetishes anyway, the elders would sense this and come running to see what the fuss was about. The fetish is a spiritual force, intangible, but powerful enough to be evident once it arrives. It has the tendency to put people into trance, possessing them and inspiring them to dance. Rock is consistently warning me about the dangers of vodoun. He spent some years as a vodoun adept, going to Nigeria to seek out a vodoun priest, and coming back and practicing in Benin. But he left everything and became a Christian a few years ago. He says that there is a beneficial side to vodoun, with protection and meditation and everything – but in order to reach this level, the white level, you must first pass through the red and the black, which involve murder and treachery. So he says the entire religion has hidden roots in sorcery and he no longer wants anything to do with it. That's enough for me to know. My interest in vodoun, I remind Rock daily, is in connection with its sacred rhythms which became the basis for Afro-American music in the U.S. For me, it is really important to know the historical connection between this music and spirituality, even when that spirituality is pre-Christian.

We saw all the stuff I've read about, starting with sacrifices of animal blood, sugar, and liquor to Legba, the god of doorways and thresholds and transitions – I saw them consult the Fa oracle with the kola nuts so they would know what sacrifices to give. They had me eat a kola nut (twice) as part of the ritual. If someone offers you a kola nut a highly charged ritual, and even if you think it might be a nice gesture of cultural acceptance, do not eat it. It tastes like death. And death is not food.

Thursday was a little bit of a disaster. My neighbor hadn't paid her electricity bill, so Wednesday night they cut off the power to the whole building. It was really hot and humid, and, without a fan, I stared at the ceiling all night. I had plans to have my hair braided and run errands in Cotonou during the day, but it was just not going to happen. Rock's wife Latisha came over with her little girl Bianca to do my hair, but it was all so rushed and Bianca started going through all of my stuff that we started getting really frustrated. Rock came over and told us that he didn't like the way the braids looked and we had to start over. Now, maybe I was just overtired, but this started to get intolerable at a certain point. So we bagged the whole plan and I took a nap.

But I woke up with a fever. I knew in a flash it was malaria again – the cold, the sweats, the bitter taste in my mouth. Fun, fun, fun. And we had plans to leave for Ouidah on Friday. And the power was still off. Aaron came over around dinner and told me that the fever was in my head and I should get myself out of it and go play at le Repaire de Bacchus that night. I couldn't think of a worse idea. But he convinced me to at least go sleep at Mattieu's house where there was a fan, so I could get a good night's rest.

I left Friday for Ouidah anyway with Rock and his chauffeur friend Jacques, because we'd already rented a car, and bought me some more Alaxin to take care of the malaria. This actually worked out fine in the end; it was SO GOOD to get out of Porto Novo for a while and see something different. So we had a little touristy weekend, researching the slave trade and the Point of No Return and vodoun culture in Ouidah. I like Ouidah a lot. They have really hung on to a lot of the old traditions there, and are very proud. The coolest thing is the sense of connection with the diaspora – the knowledge that these beliefs and practices have gone out, been changed and developed, and come back. I think what interests me so much about vodoun is not the fetish worship or the sacrifices, but the parallels with the music – the way culture travels in cycles back and forth across the Atlantic and the way music and spirituality always travel together. At the Portuguese museum in Ouidah, the guide showed us a tam-tam drum that is Beninois-style but which comes from Cuba, brought back by an ex-slave. Rock told the guide that I am 50 percent African and that this is what is happening with my trip, too. I don't know why he insists on telling people I have mixed ancestry. It's not true. But if it gets people to tell me more, I suppose I can't protest.

Ali, the trombonist from Ghana, just gave me a call to see how I'm doing. Some of these friends are real keepers. I'm going to have to stay in touch with the Awanginous when I leave, too. Didie spent the other night showing me how he harmonizes traditional vodoun melodies on piano – all in fourths, which ends up sounding like Herbie Hancock (who Didie adores) or McCoy Tyner or something. There is a Beninois guitarist in Herbie's band right now. We watched a fantastic DVD recorded a few years ago with their group – the bassist is one of Coltrane's sons. It's stories like that that make this project worthwhile.

So after Ouidah we drove three hours north to Abomey, the city of kings, where the weather is drier. I liked it a lot there, too. (Coming back to the coastal humidity of Porto Novo last night was kind of awful. I'll be glad when I get to Mali, just to have a different kind of heat, I guess.) Abomey is home to the biggest museum in Benin, and the tour is really fascinating – the history of the Dahomey people and this region. It's been very bloody, for one thing – so peace is a blessing to be thankful for. The other thing that is stunning is the authenticity of the culture in Abomey. In Porto Novo, Cotonou, and Ouidah, there is a lot of foreign and colonial influence – Portuguese, French, Yoruba, etc. But in Abomey, that is real Beninois territory – the kingdom of Dahomey.

One of Rock's cousins invited us to a funeral party in Abomey, so we went and listened and danced. It was one of the more festive funeral parties I've seen, with some really good dancers and fantastic set drummers and percussionists in the band. We sat in and played a few numbers, which was good for me, because I was starting to miss playing for people. One of the strange things that has happened with my project in Benin is that it has become unusually skewed toward the traditional, perhaps for good reason. Most musicians here, even the jazz musicians, are absolutely determined to incorporate native Beninois music into whatever they do. The tradition is strong. That is why, Rock explained to me, the Gangbe brass band members won't move to Europe. They want to stay close to the real roots. Angelique Kidjo has a house here, on the road to Ouidah, but evidently she spends most of her time in the U.S. But the end result of all the traditional research, and the malaria and my lips, is that I haven't been playing as much trombone. I have two more weeks here, so I'm hoping to slowly make my way back into Cotonou to compare notes with the jazz folks there.

It's good to be home, even though home has minimal furniture and more than a few inconveniences. I cleaned the apartment last night, which made me feel good. Today I went into Cotonou and see what Aaron and Jeremie were doing in the studio. Amazing. Jeremie through-composes these hugely intricate parts over African 6/8 on the form of "All the Things You Are." I think that just about sums it up. This is the music of the revolution. They said avant-garde trombonist Roswell Rudd visited two years ago, when they started working on the album, and he cried when he heard it, and said it was the most joy he'd had in a long time. Things can't be that bad for that long. Clear skies ahead.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pushing through

At least my lips are recovering, so thank God for that. I have been able to play for the past five days or so and things are rapidly improving. I have spent two days talking to the trombonist Aaron about life, the universe, and the trombone, and this has been immensely wonderful. We share a lot of angst. It is important to have someone to share angst with, I've found, especially on a trip like mine. There are Sisyphan aspects to the entire endeavor, and it's nice to have some company while pushing that rock up the mountain again and again.

I have found myself defending the holism of the Watson project a number of times since I have been in Benin. This is not a conversation I like having, because there are times when I'm not so convinced of the program's philosophy myself. Something of the absurdity of my situation hit home this week, I think. I have chosen to adopt some sort of internal cynicism that keeps me going. But I am not fully formed, they will tell me. I must stay in the fire longer before I am fully ready. The Watson is a riddle, like a Zen koan. The search for meaning in itself contains a lesson.

Sundays I go to two churches, one a Methodist church with hymns sung in the native language, Goun, but with familiar melodies, and the sermon in French. I had communion for the first time in a while this week. That was nice. They introduced me to the congregation and I explained why I am in Benin and told them that I like their church. After the service, they fed me some sweet white soup which was very good.

Then we move on to the Eglise Christianisme Celeste, which is a sort of cultish Christian church based on traditional Yoruba religion and a divine prophecy that was revealed in 1947. Everyone dresses in white and the women have to cover their heads to enter the church and everyone has to take off their shoes. They don't eat pork or drink alcohol. The music is fantastic. The drumming is constant. Worship is happening there, let there be no doubt about it.

Pictures next time. I found wireless internet. Score.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Porto Novo

A lot has happened in the past week. I moved into my apartment in Porto Novo, which has a kitchen, bathroom, living room, and two bedrooms, only one of which has me in it. I spent several days struggling with swollen and dry lips, and I stopped playing for a while and saw a doctor, who prescribed some heavy-duty anti-inflammatory meds that kind of scared me. So I self-medicated with vitamin E solution and ibuprofen. This seems to be working, but I still have a swollen lip and my embouchure is more than a little confused.

The Ahouandjinou brothers have been very kind to me since I have moved out to Porto. Rock has become my ever-present companion, and every day we undertake what he calls "la recherche culturelle," which generally entails finding traditional musicians who play vodoun music and listening to them play and talking to them. Today we saw a group called Sato play and dance and I danced with them which made them like me I think. I asked Rock about his journey from vodoun to Christianity in his life, and he said, "Vodoun is still part of my life as a Beninois, but that is not what saved my soul." I also had my first drum lesson today. I think the drum I bought is called the akaka, and it is related to the talking drums of Nigeria, but it will fit in my suitcase. You hold the drum sideways on your knee and play it with a fat stick and push your thumb on the skin to change the pitch. I will put up some videos as soon as I can figure out a way to get my computer hooked up to the Net.

My French is getting better and better, and it seems strange to write and talk in English when the occasion arises. As Andy put it, "It sounds like your mouth is used to making French sounds." That is true. Being caught between two languages, speaking neither so fluently at the moment, makes me feel farther away than ever. The only language that doesn't feel foreign is music. Often when I stop playing, I start speaking English, because that's the most natural language next to music, my instincts tell me, and am surprised to find no one understands me. So I look for opportunities to play and not speak, because then I can say what I mean.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The palm wine drinkard

Aunt MK says I should write about the boring stuff that happens here, too, not just the exciting parts. I think part of my coping mechanism here has been making an effort to weave my experiences into some kind of cohesive narrative, in part just to make it make sense to myself. These are the stories we tell ourselves. If I connect the dots from one high point to the next, I can make some sense out of my journey. But down in the valleys in between, the landscape has a tendency to disappear from sight.

A lot of this past week felt like I was facing Robin Williams' fate in Jumanji: "In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight." I was waiting for Didie or one of his brothers to come and take me out to Porto Novo, but this took the better part of three days to arrange. So I spent a fair amout of time in my hotel room intermittently practicing, watching the fan blow hot air at me, wishing for some relief from the heat, and answering the phone to hear one engagement canceled after the other. It is so frustrating sometimes to be just learning my way around and to be so reliant on others in order for my day to be outwardly productive.

Friday, though, Didie's trombonist brother Aaron came to Cotonou to take me to Porto Novo. What an amazing family. Eight brothers, all musicians, and mostly trumpet and trombone players. They all have different interests. Some are in the Gangbe brass band, like the trombonist Martial, and left on Wednesday for a European tour. Another has a home recording studio, and one, Christien, is a gospel singer and sociologist. Another brother, Rock, has studied vodoun culture extensively, along with the story of African music in the diaspora. It's so incredible to hear a Beninois musician talk at such length about the influence of the music from the Dahomean region on music in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans. That is an old and spiritual story, and Rock is fully cognizant of Benin and Nigeria's place at the root of it all. Aaron and Didie are very wary of the vodoun system, but Rock sees it, for better or for worse, as the original source of most traditional rhythms. The thing is that now, those rhythms are being taken out of the cult context and appearing in church services and popular music. The brothers have a brass band together and they record their own compositions incorporating jazz and traditional vodoun rhythms. I asked Didie if anyone else has done anything like this before, and he said, "No. We are the revolutionaries."

Everyone is adamant that I get out of Cotonou to experience Beninois culture as it really is. I have to agree. So Friday Rock took me on a motorcycle tour of Porto Novo and we found a cheap apartment for me to rent, with three huge rooms and a kitchen. I can borrow some furniture from Rock's family while I am here. I will move there today. It will be nice to be living close to friends and to be away from the pollution and noise of Cotonou for a while. We also stopped to talk to this old man who wanted me to try palm wine, which is famous for its mystical qualities. I tried a little and really didn't like it; it is really dry and makes your whole mouth feel like it is going to evaporate. So I slyly passed it to Rock to drink, not wanting to offend the gentleman. He turned back to see the empty glass in my hand, and I made a face like I had drunk the whole thing. He laughed and laughed. He knew exactly what had happened. I think I met a trickster, the crossroads kind. We didn't really get into it.

There was an summit of African leaders going on in Washington, D.C. this week and the president of Zimbabwe (ironically, himself a dictator) spoke out against Bush's regime, and specifically his lack of attention to Africa. People in Benin are saying that the U.S. doesn't want to help them because they are francophone, and would rather help a former British colony like Ghana. So I try not to tell people I am American, or make it very clear that I am not a Bush supporter. Besides being true, I hope this will save me from some ill will.

Yesterday, we played at Didie's church, an "evangelical" one with a roof and no walls. This lady stood up to PREACH (in English) and tore the HOUSE down. She said, "If I am offending you by preaching as a woman, then I profoundly apologize," and raising her voice to a full-throated cry, "but I am on my way to the promised land." I found out she is an American expat married to a Togolese man and she has been living in Africa for the past 30 odd years. She has a prep school in Cotonou and is looking for teachers. She wants me to go and teach English and/or music there someday. So she was the guest preacher. The leader of this church is called "The Prophet" and he has the gift of foresight, which some people call prophecy. I have to say I was initially extremely skeptical, but then they had a reception at his house and he started speaking in tongues and talking about seeing children learning and being fed and well-taken care of and maybe there is something to that kind of vision. I don't know. It offends my Western rationalism, that's for sure. I have believed so long without seeing that to see and believe makes me uneasy.

Then last night I went to the Centre Culturel Francais for a concert by a Beninois-Burkinabe-Ghanaian-Parisien bassist, Patrick, who I met at the Tramway Saturday night. This was a fantastic show, with many different musics and peoples and cultures represented. The wood-flutist from Burkina Faso played crazy pentatonic lines in different rhythms and screamed immediately after each phrase and sometimes while he was playing. I could only think of Roland Kirk. The percussionist Camarou is Beninois and played for some dancers who came up on stage and put money on his head to appease the spirit. A little girl came on stage and put money on Patrick's head. Set drummer Jean-Baptiste is Togolais-Parisien and keeps a seriously fat beat and is always messing with where 1 is. The dancers love this, and follow right along. The guitarist and saxophonist are French and seem to be having a great time in Benin. Another guitarist and sound engineer is Vietnamese-Parisien... World music. There's a lot of great stuff going on at the Centre Culturel this month, and I met some radio journalists there who are kindred spirits. Not a bad showing. This was a high point, from which I can make connections into other times and places. Now I go back down into the valley and start climbing the next mountain.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Afro Blue

I washed my laundry by hand today, and hung it up to dry on my window blinds. This was an interesting exercise. In what, I haven't figured out yet. I was supposed to go see the Gangbe rehearse thsi morning, but they rescheduled for tomorrow. Another trombonist and I tried to connect, but missed each other by minutes. So it was a quiet day for practicing and visiting bookstores and trying to read in French. I don't want to leave town quite yet, because the Gangbe go on tour on Wednesday. Soon I will go check out Ouidah and Porto Novo.

But first, let me tell you about this amazing weekend. Thursday night we went down to Bacchus, which is this crawy oasis down the street from my place that is air-conditioned and has good French food and wine and sweet ambiance. I was so happy to see what looked like civilization that I ordered food, which I never do when I go out to play. The band was incredibly tight and clean and played standards but without getting bored at all. Didier, my friend, plays some serious piano, and then I met this guitarist Gobi who is a mixed race Frenchman and can burn through bebop and funk and African 6/8 and everything. We had a great time - and played Horace Sliver's "The Preacher" with a South African kind of rhythmic joy and lots of other tunes I knew well. We ended with "Afro Blue" in 12/8, which I initially couldn't play anything on, because the rhythm gave me too much to think about, but then I tried again and finally felt it.

At one point, Didier was taking a particularly incredible solo, and this guy came up behind him and put his hand on his back as he was playing, like he was praying over him, feeling some spirit that was inside him. Then he threw a 1000 CFA (local currency) bill onto the keyboard, as an offering to the spirit, it seemed, and danced around the room. The same thing happened to me at a club on Saturday night (where we'd heard a jump blues screamer the night before), when I played a really hot solo and this guy came up and put a bill on my head and let it fall onto my horn. I think I was anointed or something.

Everybody here wants to know my story. Am I Canadian? How do I speak French so well? Am I on vacation? Do I have African blood in me? I had a long conversation with Gobi about this. He's convinced that I have come back to my roots. I don't know about this, but it seems to make him want to play with me more, so ok. But most of the time I would rather talk about them and about vodoun. Didie says he's determined not to imitate American jazz, and he's always looking for ways to incorporate vodoun melodies into his solos. Friday night we played a traditional Beninois tune that is based on an odd pentatonic scale, and if you depart from those notes it's very seriously frowned upon.

This is what draws me to Benin, I think, is the connection between music and spirituality. Benin is strange, in a way, because there are a lot of very rich French people here who change the audience and really reinforce the European influence. Then the African influence is still there, kind of chilling out and mediating all the different forces that are coming through its territory, picking and choosing and playing as it pleases.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ghanaba, Cotonou

My malaria symptoms started to disappear quickly, and I was soon well enough to make one last trip out to Kofi Ghanaba's house in Midie. His house is on the edge of the village, at the very end of a dirt road with a sign that says "Kofi Ghanaba/NYU Archive Project," and American and Ghanaian flags. He heard me coming and came out to greet me. We had spoken on the phone, and agreed that the eccentric drummer would allow me to browse his collection of photos and records for 20 dollars, and take a lesson for 100 dollars more. We talked for about an hour about his experience in the States playing with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. He says his goal was to infuse American jazz with an awareness of its African roots, but he was ahead of his time. Nobody was ready for that kind of thing in the '40s. But it started something; Art Blakey came to Nigeria, and then the '60s brought more Afro-centrism with Coltrane and Roland Kirk and especially some free musicians. That's Ghanaba's world, and I was welcomed into it. He's a packrat, and now in his 80s, has kept photos and articles from his entire career. He took me to see his library, full of books on African music, American jazz, Kwame Nkrumah, and other African countries. He worked as a journalist in Ghana for several years before going to the States.

Finally, as the sun set outside, we began to play. He plays a self-invented set of six fontomfrom drums, like a jazz drumset, but the drums are huge and resonant and fill the whole room. We played some free improvisations, playing off each other's rhythms and colors, and then we played C-Jam Blues in 6/8 and Autumn Leaves out of time - which I thought was the best. When we finished, Ghanaba kissed each drum as if putting a child to sleep, and came over and gave me a big hug. I realized it was the first time I'd been hugged in a while, and it just seemed appropriate. There is a connection there.

Then spent a few days packing and goodby-ing, which was hard. Everyone wants me to come back. But we move on.

Arrived in Cotonou late Tuesday night. The flight was one hour from Accra, really beautiful to see these cities lit up at night from the sky. But in between, very dark a lot of the time. After changing some money into CFAs, I trusted myself to take a taxi from the airport to my hotel. My room is on the second floor and overlooks the busy street below. There is no hot water, and the electricity goes out everyday at some point.

Yesterday I went out and found some food (French bread, where have you been all my life?) and took moto-taxis everywhere, which is crazy. These little motorcycles with their drivers in yellow jerseys whiz everyone around town. There is hardly any other traffic, because most people don't own cars.

Then I met up with my pianist contact ( Ali's friend) and it turns out his older brother is the trombonist in the Gangbe brass band! So we went to see him last night and sat around and listened to trombone groups and talked about George Lewis and Roswell Rudd and watched French league soccer on TV. A kind of heaven for me. Tonight we will all go down to the Repaire de Bacchus and jam. Also met another trombonist today who just got back from Belgium, where he was giving master classes on drumming and trombone and Beninese culture. So many brass players in Benin...

Friday, September 14, 2007

I no fi shout

We recorded Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Sunday was a late night and I slept in a hotel – missing a dose on my anti-malarial. We were determined to finish on Monday. We arrived at the studio at 6 p.m., and the power was off. So we sat around and slept and applied mosquito repellent and annoyed each other and waited for the lights to come back on, which they did, at 10. We got down some of the best takes of the weekend – good solos and everything. I'm really proud of what we did. I'm starting to pick up the sound of Nigerian pidgin English, which I find really interesting. The joke of the weekend was the repeated, grinning utterance of “I no fi shout,” which translated is “I (or you) don't have to shout,” or “I understand you, I feel what you are saying.” Another way of saying the same thing is “I no fi go kill myself,” or “I (you) don't have to go and kill my (your)self,” or “Don't hurt yourself. I hear what you're saying.”

Photo credits go to Guillaume Ananda, this French singer who I let play around with my camera.

So we finished the recording late, like 3 a.m. But then we still had to do overdubs, against which I protested by curling up on the floor with some blanket-like materials over me. I woke up at 6 to see everyone leaving, so I got up to go and felt my brain move inside my head and my body complain about the conditions of employment... Long John, one of the trumpeters, looked at me and said, “Musician's life like soldier. No sleep.” So I went home by tro-tro across town and collapsed into my bed to catch up on sleep.

I woke up with a fever and a cold, and thought it was just fatigue. Yesterday the cold went away but the fever stayed stubbornly on, and started to feel kind of ominous. So this morning I went in to the hospital, run by a church down the street, a truly marvelous, though crowded place that has so much compassion they have to rent storage space for it. My favorite part of this adventure was that, when I first got there, I accidentally waited for about an hour in the room for pregnant women. After clearing that up, and waiting for another few hours in the right waiting room, they did a blood test, and surprise, surprise, I have malaria. So now I am medicated and feeling a little bit better, though not completely myself. I had to cancel an appointment with master drummer Kofi Ghanaba this afternoon, which was frustrating. But resting is ok. I've been listening to all of the jazz and soul I have on my computer, which makes me feel both more and less homesick. So many things would be easier in the States, I realize; like filling a prescription, or eating a healthy diet, or getting or giving information, or taking care of babies.

I think I am mentally just about ready to leave Ghana now. I'm going to miss a lot of these folks, especially the musicians I've become close to. But most of the things that have gone well here are things that I stumbled across and pursued, so it could easily happen again. And again.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


One of the major frustrations of traveling in West Africa as a Watson Fellow, especially as a musician, has been the State Department warning in Nigeria. On Tuesday Ali brought me to a rehearsal with a group of Afro-jazz musicians from Nigeria, led by composer-keyboardist Funsho Ogundipe, who came to Accra to make a recording with one of Ghana's leading recording engineers, a man named Panje whose skin is the color of creamed coffee and went to university in Cairo and is always answering his cell phone in different languages. I realized as soon as they started playing that this was a kind of music I could understand, play, and communicate with, and that I had unintentionally stumbled across one of the chief forces that drew me to this region. I couldn't go to Nigeria, but Nigeria has been able to come to me, I told myself. This realization gave me a heady rush, and charged every minute with importance. Initially I was extremely intimidated by Funsho, who is a Nigerian expat working as a lawyer in London, is probably seven feet tall, and gets quietly pissed off when people don't play his music right.

He is using a mixture of Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian musicians on this recording – bass, drums, congas, and a big horn section – two trumpets, two trombones, and tenor sax. Funsho taught us our parts by ear from the keyboard, and I was surprised at how quickly I picked things up. I think all of the sitting in I have been doing has required my ears to sharpen. Funsho's tunes are really exciting – funky and full of horn lines and back and forth, with this kind of ambiguous use of the dorian mode that I've read about in Afro music. He has a song already recorded called “Our Man is Gone” which he wrote for Fela Kuti. A lot of people across West Africa have been very influenced by Fela's music, and the Nigerian trumpeter Mooiye in the band played with Fela, and so did our Ghanaian set drummer. There is a serious connection here. We started getting our own individual parts worked out; Funsho wants each person to have a part that fits their own sound. He has a whole-tone tune that is really wild, and he keeps pushing me to solo on it and we take things kind of far out.

We rehearsed every day last week in Panje's back yard under a palm tree canopy, preparing about five songs for the recording on Saturday. Sometimes we had to wait several hours for equipment to arrive, or sometimes it would start raining and we would have to pack up and go in, or the power would go out. One day I had to take Ali to the hospital because he was coming down with malaria; they gave him an injection and he got better that day. Each time something of this sort would happen, people would stop playing, look at each other, sigh and say, “Ai, Africa.” I got to know the horn players really well, and we sound really tight together. Thursday night we went out to a jam and played a kind of short set of the tunes we'd been rehearsing. It was good just to hang out with people and talk. Funsho says his idol is Miles Davis and thinks that is where he wants to start with his music, and take it further. He also likes Thelonious Monk a lot, which you can definitely hear in his playing. He says he is tired of bebop licks and hates it when people play them in their solos - he wants more of a sparse, note choice kind of approach - studiously random. Funsho is intense is a kind of frightening way; he is so confident in himself and in his music – and is determined to make art out of it. We had a discussion about what it means to find out who you are and what happens when you do. He says you never go back – like the Road to Damascus.

Panje said something interesting to me about the influence of Afro-American music here – that early highlife was very jazz influenced, but there is an even stronger influence of Afro-Carribbean music here, because conditions were better for slaves in the Carribbean, so the music is closer to the African tradition, more recognizable, and made the return journey much earlier than jazz, which went through a long and convoluted transition before it came back home. He also said that he thinks Africans recognize the African elements in the diaspora musics, which is what draws them to it and tends to be what they take from it. It is a little like looking in the mirror, and highlights the definitive qualities and brings them out. It occurred to me, too, that it also creates an environment for other musical influences to mix with each other, i.e. the Afro-Caribbean and the Afro-American – the calypso and the blues. Yesterday morning, Panje also gave me an African history lesson, about the dispersion of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the migration of people over the African continent, into Ghana, which (because there is no C in the native languages here) is an approximation of Cana or Canaan, meaning “the land of the spiritual people.”

Yesterday was the first day of recording, but they spent most of the day setting up, so we sat around and practiced and talked. Mooiye says his father is a priest and hated having jazz music in the house, so he had to do all of his musical study without the support of his parents, but he wanted to do it so bad, he was playing with Fela when he was 19. By the end of the day, we got two takes of one song recorded, and by then everyone was so tired that we decided to wait until today to do any more.

The more time I spend here, the more I realize what a powerful musical force is residing in Nigeria – in the Yoruba people and in their complications and conflicts and turbulent lifestyle – in their spirituality and in the sheer population of the place. I will have to go there at some point in my life. Not now. But someday.

Plus the Nigerian U-17 soccer team just won the world championships.

Challenges: When to leave for Benin. Things are going well here and are comfortable. And in Benin I have to start over and probably be lonely and alienated for a while. I was really lucky to meet Ali here. We look out for each other. But I have to go. I know that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


I have added pictures to the Ghana album.

I am riding high. Back from a journey, I am surrounded by love and safety, though soon I must venture out again...

Friday was the first night in a while when I allowed myself to be swept up into the night-heart of Accra and took off on an adventure. I left the house around dinner time (forgetting to eat) and went to the bar of a beach hotel, where I knew from weeks past there was a highlife band playing that had some jazz sympathies. So I drank my first bottle of Star Beer (a point of local pride) and sat in with the band. We played a highlife number and then “Autumn Leaves,” for my benefit, I think.

Then it was off to meet Ali for a jam session he'd invited me to. He had to wait a long time though, because the acquaintance I was with was unfortunately stubborn and bad with directions. But we arrived nonetheless and walked through the winding roads of Osu to a glittering club with a very funky highlife band playing inside. This is Accra's trendiest neighborhood – and the clientele was upper-echelon – educated, curious – a listening crowd. The band was led by the guitarist, who seemed to invent highlife licks and riffs with no effort at all... After eye contact with the drummer and keyboardist, and encouragement from Ali, I got out my horn and played a solo, and then another, and another. It was a jam band, really, but they were so tight that it was very easy to play with them. I would put the bass player in the category of funky mofo.

All in all a very good night, though we ended late and it rained on the walking bit of the trip home, which is what I think led to THE COLD. Saturday I rested and practiced and exercised – and sniffled. Sunday I had promised to sit in with the church choir, but was feeling so awful by the morning that I thought about not going. But I was convinced to go and sneezed through the entire service – which may have been the best thing, as that choir did not really need any horn accompaniment. They were carrying their own sound right on up to the heavenly sensibilities.

The service was outside and a huge celebration for a newly ordained priest from the parish. People came from every region of Ghana to congratulate him and be blessed by him. It was pretty amazing – kind of like a meeting of nations, like all the different peoples in Star Wars coming together for an intergalactic council, or all of the pirate lords in Pirates of the Caribbean convening for a debate over “the code.” My favorite were the people from northern Ghana, who played a combination of small, hand-held copper-pieces, which clanged together in syncopated rhythm; long, tapered, sideways bamboo flutes, whose pitch was changed by putting one's fingers over the end or its various holes; and some more recorder-like, high-pitched, wooden instruments. And they danced – high-stepping and grinning the whole time. They made me feel a little bit better about having to sneeze through a Catholic mass in the hot sun.

In the end, I was glad I went, but I started to get really sick that afternoon and had to take some serious rest. There is nothing that will make you more homesick, I've found, than being sick in that kind of helpless way and not having people to take care of you in the way you are used to. I wanted to send my mom to buy ginger ale at Big Y in Holden, Massachusetts and watch the Lord of the Rings on our leather couch in our living room on Bullard Street. But instead I slept fitfully in my room in southern Ghana, and wondered melodramatically if I would live to tell the world of my strange tropical disease.

Monday my host brother was going back to school at Kumasi, and I'd planned to go along to see another part of the country, and to get out of Accra for a while. I was surprised that when I woke up in the morning, I felt well enough to go. We took a five hour bus ride up to Ghana's second largest city – on “luxury” state transport, meaning, essentially, that the bus is air conditioned. When we arrived in Kumasi, the bus parked on the side of the road, jammed up against a dirt embankment, and proceeded to unload the cargo bay in the most chaotic manner possible, with much angry yelling and pushing as taxi drivers joined the fray, trying to pick up customers – all in a tightly squeezed passageway between bus and red dirt. Having no luggage, I removed myself from the situation by climbing the embankment, and waited for my brother. Several others took my lead, only to be pushed back by police, indicating they were not cross over. Those people yelled that they had let an obroni (white person) over so why should they not be allowed. Hearing this, I disappeared quietly over the other side of the hill. I met my brother on the other side and we caught a taxi.

I called the guitarist Koonimo, to whom John Collins had referred me, and he very kindly sent someone down to bring me to his office. I would later know this person as George, who teaches music technology and recording at the university. He is a guitarist himself, and has a lot to say about the fusion of jazz and African musical forms. Koonimo, who at 70 is retired but still lectures for the university, received me and asked me to explain my project. His first reaction: he kind of smiled and said, “I am an old man.” He explained that he is a preservationist and has chosen to resist the influence of most Western music, devoting his life to playing traditional palmwine music. When I talked to him the next day, he admitted to loving jazz and having studied it at one point in his life, but maintains that palmwine music is tied to his identity and finds his calling in continuing the tradition and passing it on.

So I spent Tuesday morning interviewing Koonimo and talking to George and some of Koonimo's guitar students. This was the first place in Ghana where I have found such incredible positive energy surrounding this music. They have a jazz night every Friday and they put together small combos and play for each other. Amazingly, most of the musicians are majors in science and math, but then spend all of their free time practicing guitar and listening to highlife and jazz. They could sit around the piano laboratory for days, watching videos of American and European guitarists. They are hooked. And they were totally interested in my project, in life as a jazz musician in the States, in current trends on the scene. We talked about Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the whole front edge of that movement; and about elitism in academic music and preservation and innovation and fusion and recombination. (David told me today that I am in the middle of what the postmodernists (he called them pocos... a reference that escaped me) like to call an environment of hybridity – but no one here would think to call it that. They just live it.)

George showed me a song he recorded with Oshame Kwame, a leading Ghanaian hip-life artist; the song is called “Kwame Ghana,” and the chorus translates as “Mother Ghana, help me, I am dying” and then the verses talk about all of the different things that are going on in Ghana – crime and materialism and disorganization and everything – and asking what is happening to our country.. This album is due out soon, but there is a copyright battle going on over who will release it first. The style is easy, acoustic highlife for most of the song, and the rap works in smoothly with no bass and no hip-hop beat for almost four minutes; it is not until the very end of the song that the hip-life groove kicks in. “This is what the youth understand,” said George. “And will help us to reach that audience.” The song strikes me as a perfect example of how Ghana's different musical styles – traditional, highlife, popular, contemporary – can combine to express something about what is going on in the country today – and to uplift people who are in the midst of trials.

There is a traditional symbol in Ghanaian culture which is a figure with one leg pointed backward and one forward, representing the ways in which a person must learn about the lessons of the past, deeply feel the present moment, and use these two things to cast a shadow onto the future, taking the best of what has come before along into the next phase. One student suggested to me that this is a good model for the progression of Ghanaian music, that they must take the best of the traditional music, and the best of the outside influences coming through their culture, and use these things to strengthen their performance practice and the power of their music to reach the people. The analogy can be extended to many transitions, I realize.

I have been receiving constant encouragement from family and friends and even the Watson folks, all of which has been wonderful, and keeps me going when things get tough. I feel like there are times when I want to say, “Really, guys; you can't be serious. Look at me. Are you sure this is all part of the plan? Because right now it seems like I am disorganized and lovesick and a little bit helpless. Whose idea was this again?” But then I end up in somewhere like Kumasi where the weather is cool and the trees are green and the people are beautiful and that all disappears.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Forward motion

Things have been picking up rapidly this week. If I go two places in a day, I am exhausted by the end, because getting around town involves catching shared minivans called tro-tros and sitting in hot traffic for about an hour between destinations. It's worth it, but I have to make a conscious decision to rest occasionally.

Things I like about Accra (that need explaining):

Reggae music on a packed tro-tro = delapidated minivan seating as many people as possible; the cheapest, if not the fastest, way around town – tro-tros often bear the saying “No Condition is Permanent” - a nice reminder when you are sitting in hours of traffic

Fanmilk = creamy frozen yogurt shrink-wrapped and sold on the street for 50 pesewas; comes in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry

The Arts Center = section of market stalls where kente cloth, African clothing, artifacts, jewelry are sold for touristy prices; people will actually grab your arm and pull you into their shop, insisting, “Looking is for free.”

I spent Tuesday morning shedding with Ali, a Ghanaian trombonist I sat in with at a club last weekend. Trombonists look out for each other, and I have been so blessed to be able to spend some time with Ali. We shared warm-ups and exercises and played some blues, walking bass lines for each other. Later in the week, I would sit in with Ali's brass band and meet his wife – a trumpet player!

I rehearsed with Bibie Bruhe's Ghanaian soul band – quite a trip. We learned Curtis Mayfield's “Move On Up” off the record, horn lines and all, and then Africanized it. We also played some Stevie Wonder tunes - “Have a Talk With God” etc. They definitely have their own thing and are rehearsing for live shows in Ghana and a European tour.

Wednesday I met up with Professor John Collins, a Brit who has been living in Ghana since the 1970s, and is a published expert on highlife music. The fact that I could talk to a British academic about popular music in Ghana was kind of awesome on its own. He has some very interesting theories about the ways that music travels from one place to another, across the Atlantic ocean and back, how people take one thing, copy it for a while, and then gradually fuse it with their own music and start to innovate.

This weekend I went to my first jazz jam and met the owner of the club, who is from Georgia, U.S.A.; a sharp Ghanaian pianist named Victor (playing both keys and bass), who goes to Berklee in Boston; Victor's taxi driver friend Mohammed who is from Burkina Faso; and WATSON FELLOW SIGHTING #1 – a singer from Colorado doing a project on jazz in different places across the world. We didn't even know that we were both Fellows when we started playing together – but then we started to explain in that slightly tired way: “I just graduated. I'm doing a year of independent study...” And then the look of recognition, as if to say, “You too, endure this madness?” What a thrill to hear about others out there who are also taking on the world...

Today I went to the beach and felt like a tourist again. I have been slowly getting used to Ghanaian food. I like fried plaintains (I don't know anybody who doesn't) and red beans and spicy kebabs and papaya (which they call paw-paw, pronounced “po-po”) and red snapper and all the other things that come out of the ocean.

Some things are starting to fall into place; some folks have contacted me with homestays in my next destinations, but there is still a lot left to be figured out when I get there. Some musicians here know people in Benin, so I will have some contacts to start with when I get there. I am feeling good about my time here; I have stopped worrying if I should be here, and now I just am here – ups, downs, and all.

A note on religion in Ghana: it seems that every person you meet is some variety of Christian – Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian... The names of small business have names like “Divine Providence,” “He is Risen,” “Good Shepherd.” There is a shop down the street that is simply called “Well Done Jesus.” I think this sums it up nicely.

Monday, August 13, 2007


For pictures, go here.

Today was a slow day. I woke up early and ate breakfast. My host father has an elder brother who is a pastor in Ghana and lived in the U.S. for seven years during the 1970s. Sometimes he talks like the country hasn't changed since he was there. But that's ok. I didn't mind the '70s. In fact, I should have been born then. I was able to practice a lot, although it's been humid, which makes me lethargic. I got scolded today for not going into town, even though my plans fell through. Ah well, summer can't last forever.

I crave familiar things, the people I love, regular schedules, fresh milk, pancakes.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


Something I keep forgetting to mention: the lights go out every 48 hours for 12 hours at a time because there is not enough power to go around the country. The dam on Lake Volta is just not cutting it.

Brainy and Footsy?

I have been finding more and more music and musicians – lots of highlife, old and new, though still have yet to take in any self-advertised “jazz,” per se, though have found some venues. I sat in Sunday night with a band at the Ghanaian Village restaurant – a wonderful band with five percussionists, guitar, alto and tenor sax, and a great male singer. They were very welcoming. They told me, “We could play 'Fly Me To the Moon,' but we will play it the African way,” which means in 6/8 instead of 4/4, so they maintain constant tension between the subdivided three and the larger two in which the melody stretches out polyrhythmically. That was a challenge. They played everything: John Lennon's “Imagine,” some Santana repertoire, and old highlife numbers – which they thought I wouldn't be able to play, but were actually my favorite. Something about that rhythm grabs you and won't let you go. I was like, “I shouldn't be able to dance to this, but somehow I am.”

The days have been slow. There has been a constant tease of going to a rehearsal with Parisian singer-artiste Bebe in Achimota. We actually made it out to her house one day, but the rehearsal had been canceled. This band has a very interesting repertoire, too, from what I can tell: a lot of Stevie Wonder and '70s soul – horn music! - Plus Bebe's own compositions. She and her Ghanaian band are preparing for a European tour. It will be interesting to hear them play.

I have now been up to the University of Ghana at Legon and visited a few music professors. It's a nice area, a few kilometers outside Accra, under some really nice big trees, where everybody goes outside to practice and teach. Hopefully I will be able to spend some more time up there once they start classes.

Last night I went down to the Equator bar to check out the band – a loud, rock-highlife group with young, rogue-like singer and eccentric keyboardist. It turns out the keyboardist is working on a thesis on highlife music at Legon. The complaint I am hearing from a lot of people is that the old highlife music is starting to die out in the face of hip-life, and people are becoming more well-versed in production and electronic manipulation than they are in playing live acoustic music. Nobody is learning to play horns anymore, they say, which are key in highlife music. This sounds like a very familiar problem to me, because even in the States, it starts to seem like the only way to make a living in music is to submit oneself to formatting by the public image industry. People still play live music in the States; the only question is whether there is anyone there to listen. At least, in Ghana, people are craving live music – the audience is there, ready and waiting.

My host family is amazing. I have a home here. I have two host-brothers, who are 18 and 19, and are good company. There are other family members moving in and out and visiting periodically, which makes for a lively environment. My host-mother just lost an uncle, so she and her husband have been recently occupied with funeral preparations.

I started using Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! as devotional material as I was preparing to leave. It has become a kind of traveling song-mantra-thing for me now. I think it makes good advice to any Watson Fellow, or any sojourner, for that matter. To share:


Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places!

You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

You're on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.

About some you will say, “I don't choose to go there.”

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,

you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any

you'll want to go down.

In that case, of course,

you'll head strait out of town.

It's opener there

in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen

and frequently do

to people as brainy

and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,

don't worry. Don't stew.

Just go right along.

You'll start happening too...