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.