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.