Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Genius Next Door

Laco Deczi doesn't answer the doorbell.

He's too busy telling lurid stories about the exploits of the Russian mafia in communist Czechoslovakia, answering his cell phone in any one of four languages, and going out to flip the charred fish on his prized backyard grill. He intersperses his tall tales with occasional phrases on his trumpet, sounds filled with a haunting purity and nostalgia that transport the listener to a time and place distant in mind and memory.

In Bratislava, Slovakia, where Deczi was born in 1938, and throughout what is now the Czech Republic, you would be hard pressed to find a person on the street who does not know his name and his music; on his Czech tours, he performs for audiences of up to 1,000, including diplomats and presidents. A film biography of his life, titled Voľná noha, was released in the Czech Republic in 1990.

The trumpeter and prolific composer enjoys a different kind of celebrity in his East Haven neighborhood. He spends his days puttering around in an old white Mitsubishi with the bumper hanging off, catching snappers in the Long Island Sound, and recording in his home studio. He knows where to get the best pizza in town, who will cut you a deal on car repair, and who could be persuaded to give you a deal on waterfront property. With his fly-away hair, bare feet, and tan shoulders, he looks more like a beach bum than a jazz star. Still, Deczi is a consummate performer and storyteller, and slips in and out of recollections as his hard blue eyes focus and then unfocus on the world around him.

I live[d] in communism, and listened [to] American music on short-wave radio,” he says, in a heavy accent. “At this time there was no records, nothing.” Among his heroes were hard bop trumpeters Blue Mitchell, Fats Navarro, and, especially, the virtuosic Clifford Brown, who he calls, simply, “a genius.”

Deczi worked his way up through the cafes and bars in Prague, and started writing his own music when he was about 20 years old. Throughout the 1960s, he was a part of vibraphonist Karel Valebny's SHQ Ensemble, a forward-thinking post-bop group that, no doubt, encouraged Deczi's propensity for the avant-garde. He started his own group, Jazz Cellula at the end of 1967 to perform his original compositions, inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Then, in 1970, Dezci got the education of his life when he began what would become a 15-year stint with the state-sponsored Czech Radio Big Band. “That was probably the best big band this time in Czechoslovakia,” he says. “For those 15 years, I got a [lot of] experience, because all those musicians were better [than me].” He started to gain some recognition as a soloist, and released his first solo album Sentimental Trumpet in 1971.

While creative expression and free speech were strictly controlled under the communist government, according to Deczi, the communists did not consider jazz to be too great a threat: “The communists don't bother [with] jazz, because they don't know what it is. There's no words. You can strike up the rock band, with the words, and make a protest. But doodly-doodly-doodly-doo, that's nothing strange,” though many the world over consider jazz to be a prime example of expressive freedom.

Deczi escaped from communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s on papers which were forged for him by an artist friend. He landed in Berlin, where, he said, “The Germans took care of me.” African-American trumpeter Carmell Jones, who gained his fame with Horace Silver's album A Song for My Father, was also living in Berlin at the time, and Deczi took the chance to study with him. Jones died in 1996, a date Deczi repeats each time he looks at the photo of Jones he has tacked to his studio wall.

On an invitation from Sonny Costanzo, who Deczi described as an “excellent trombone player, very special,” the trumpeter came to New York City for a visit in 1984. He was soon gigging regularly with Costanzo's big band in the New Haven area, and in 1985 moved permanently to the United States. Costanzo's death in 1993 meant the loss of a mentor, but Deczi found other collaborators.

Drawing on players from his gigs at small clubs in New York and a few musicians from New Haven's Cafe Nine session, Deczi founded Jazz Cellula New York in the mid-1990s, which has since released about a dozen albums of Deczi's original music on the Arta, Multisonic, and New York Sound labels. The ensemble currently features the talents of Eric Meridiano of France on piano, Nob Kinukawa of Japan on bass, and Deczi's son Vaico on drums. They have recently completed a Czech tour in which they performed for the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, among other dignitaries, and plans are in the making for a live album to be released soon. Business back in the States, however, remains slow.

It is problem,” Deczi says, “because there used to be much more work, more money here. Now it's very bad – for everybody. I am up and down. Everybody lives the jazz musician life.”

Laco's story is one of both joy and sadness,” says friend, harmonica player, and former Republican State Party Chairman Chris DePino. “America has given him freedom of expression to create musically. In Czech, Laco is a household name, with millions of people who grew up with his music turning out in droves to see his concerts. Here, his experience has been that of an everyday, struggling musician, working to get the attention of a non-interested public.”

He came from a place where you could go to jail for saying the word 'marketing,'” DePino adds.

Now, when Jazz Cellula tours the Czech Republic, Deczi is awarded with a homecoming fit for a jazz prince. “When we toured the Czech Republic, there was never a moment where the house wasn't packed, and the audience wasn't listening,” says DePino. “With those former communist bloc folks, it's like anything goes with them; they cherish their freedom more than you can imagine. They relish people exhibiting creativity in front of them, because that's something they were never able to do.”

Deczi is a man of many talents; he paints, writes film scores, and has published a book on jazz improvisation in Czech. By some estimates, he has written over 300 compositions, some of which were lost when he escaped from Slovakia. One of his dreams is to write for symphony orchestra. “I listen [to] all music,” he says. “I listen [to] African music, Arabian music,” which might be a clue to the source of the fascinating harmonic and chromatic scales he uses in his writing.

At the age of 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. Leapfrogging the stuck-in-the-mud disease that can afflict some jazz practitioners, Deczi seems eternally in touch with the youthful pulse of his audience. He explained, “We've got a [big] young audience. The old one is in the cemetery, rooted, like a flower in the ground.”

Perhaps it is that Deczi's compositions are so utterly danceable, full of interesting polyrhythms and exotic scales, completely infused with the sounds of his Eastern European roots, giving his music a distinctive voice that is a rarity in a music market saturated with sound bytes and often unfriendly to music which requires a longer attention span.

It is true that, had he had the opportunity to develop his music in America from the beginning of his career, he might have achieved more commercial recognition. Then again, a Laco Deczi who had not endured and trumped communism would not be Laco Deczi at all. It is the struggles he endured that molded him into the supreme individualist he is today. In a world full of copies, Deczi is undoubtedly unique. He disdains both free jazz and high society as parallel evils. He throws nothing away, preferring to repair it, a technique one can perhaps see in his compositional process as well.

The man is hopelessly in love with his music; he is constantly penning new tunes, and finds no greater joy than to sit uninterrupted in his studio, perfecting Jazz Cellula's most recent recording. Sitting and listening to their new live album, one gets the sense that Deczi's star is on the rise, and if this is any measure, listeners here will come to realize what an enormous talent they have living just next door.

I originally published this article in the October 2008 issue of New Haven Magazine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Return to Goree

How many returns will I make to this place, to this space? How many times will my path criss-cross the others and what shape will they design? Here we are again, where it all started and where it will all end: Return to Goree.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

-William Stafford

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Running in place

So it's been almost two months since I last posted. I've been busy. It strikes me that I have spent most of this fall not only adjusting to life back in the United States, but life in a new place and truly in a new mode of existence, in which no one even remotely validates the choices I have made. I don't know quite what to do with this. There is no one standing there saying, "Your experience is valuable. This is significant no matter how meaningless it may seem at the time." This doesn't mean that I don't still believe it; but when people press me, I have fewer things to say in defense of myself. And yet I feel, and feel is the word, that I am in the right place. I haven't been here for long enough to know where I'm going, but maybe I'm not going anywhere right now and that's ok. If here is where I'm going, then that's just fine with me.

For a while, I was working 40 hours a week for a slightly controlling film producer and director who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, a regressive muscle disease that currently has her confined to a wheelchair with her arms paralyzed. She is in the middle of launching a national tour for her documentary on racism in health care. I don't know whether it was the particular dynamics of this job, the personalities, or the tasks, but 40 hours a week is a lot of work, especially when it's not exactly what I find rewarding, challenging, and inspiring in life.

So I quit. This was a good thing; I felt I had freed myself before getting permanently trapped.
I am being forced to make a lot of big decisions lately, and I'm finding that I am most at peace when I choose the most rebellious option. So I am currently doing one of the things I said I would do. No, not apply to graduate schools, actually. I am working part-time as an editorial assistant, freelance writing and playing music gigs. So far it's paying my ridiculously low rent for the room I share with Andy, buying some nice food, and keeping the car running. I think that's a success.

On my day off this week, I took the Metro-North train into New York to visit Columbia. I got off at 125th Street, took the bus down to 116th, and found myself in East Harlem, seven blocks from campus. Oops. So I walked back to Morningside Park and up the hill and to a great seminar on Caribbean music in the ethnomusicology department. There was more fun to be had at a lunch lecture with three scholars from Brazil, who talked about the value of participatory research, where researchers who travel to foreign countries work cooperatively with the people there, rather than continuing to objectify them as ethnomusicology and anthropology have done historically. This addressed one of the major reasons why I have had doubts about going into ethnomusicology - that it has colonial overtones of superiority, power, and the control of knowledge. This issue came up in the seminar, too, when the professor brought up the work of a controversial Ghanaian scholar who has accused the discipline of ethnomusicology, even in this day and age, of doing violence to African culture in its study of African music. The professor noted that he had been offended by this scholar's negative appraisal of the discpline as a whole, without acknowledging the past 20 years of advances in cultural studies and activist musicology. But isn't this always going to be an issue? Even if we could say that the age of colonialism had passed (and I don't think we can), aren't the issues of power and privilege still in constant play in our interactions with other societies? Aren't we bound to consider that as responsible human beings? My subsequent meeting with this professor was a little bit of a turn-off, but others in the department held my interest. The question now is timing. To stay, to go? I'm happy here, but is there more out there? Should I reach higher, jump through flaming hoops of fire?

Who knows. Tonight I cleaned the shower and that seemed like accomplishment enough.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


This is an excerpt from my Watson final report. It is strange for me to read it now, having settled back into the New England groove so (un)easily.

The essence of this year, I have to think, is really about the trip back, about coming home. I wrote in my project proposal about the “strange homecoming” of jazz when it returns to its native shores in Africa; in fact, those words were part of my project's original title, which I intended purely as a musical analogy. I had not realized at the time how this phrase foreshadowed the queer loop of a journey that I am now completing. I have traveled so many places this year and felt strangely and suddenly at home, left so many communities knowing that I had a place there. I felt my definition of home shift to include people and places wildly different and yet so welcoming and accepting. My challenge now is the return: coming back so profoundly changed, and effecting change, to a place that I have really, officially, and fondly called home for many years. I wrote that American culture carried the “remnant essence” of African culture, “like a seed on an animal's back, to its point of origin. When it arrived it found that many things had changed in its absence.” I now see that, as in many things, this proposing and hypothesizing really ended up describing the arc of my personal journey just as much as the cultural journey I was tracking.

I suspect that quite a few Watson fellows have found meaning in T.S. Eliot's lines: "We will not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." Having done my share of exploration and come 'round to start and finish both, I find that perhaps I do not know the place, or that maybe it does not know me. This “strange homecoming” is the realization that, as Jerry Garcia posited, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It is, in short, the understanding and experience of constant, identifying alienation. So, not knowing and unknown, having not yet reached the end, and with no turning back, I return to Eliot's first line. “We shall not cease...” My Watson journey does not, in fact, end with a homecoming. The arrival quickly becomes the departure as it has so many times before, and the freedom and self-reliance of my Watson mentality spills like water over a dam into the next phase of my life.

A fellow remarked at the Watson conference that he was not sure whether he felt more alienated as a lone traveler on his fellowship year or as a returned fellow with experiences that set him apart from his family and friends. And yet I am beginning to feel that this alienation actually places us in a position of insight and profound agency. What thing is there that I could not do now, having waited four hours for a tow in the middle of Mpumalanga? Having sailed up the Niger River to Timbuktu? The question is no longer if a challenge is surmountable but how. I had a discussion with Funsho Ogundipe about what it means to find out who you are and what happens once you do. He says you never go back – a true conversion experience. I don't know how much I believe in the instant change model; I prefer a long term growth diagram. But Funsho is dead right that with self-realization, there is no turning back. There is only forward and onward and upward. So this is the story of my journey as I watch it recede backwards and in reverse into the rear-view. These are the stories I tell, as I explain myself to others, and, ultimately, to myself.

As I look over my writings from West Africa, I think it was everything I had been looking for and more. Mali was a late addition to my project and completely astounded me with its depth of musical history and connections to the legendary homes of African civilization in Egypt and Ethiopia. I had never expected to find such incredible hospitality, but, with few exceptions, I found people passionate about my work and willing to help; the musical relationships I made will last me a lifetime. The opportunities I had to record with Funsho Ogundipe in Ghana, with Vieux MacFaye in Senegal, to study with Kofi Ghanaba and Djelimady Tounkara, and to perform with Bassekou Kouyate, Toumani Diabate in Mali and Baaba Maal in Senegal may never be paralleled. These people served as musical and spiritual mentors as well. I had more opportunities to teach music than ever in my life, which intimidated me at first, but I quickly found that it is something that I really enjoy, and in which people are genuinely interested. Maybe it was my status as a clear outsider that brought these opportunities so quickly my way, but regardless, this status served me well.

As a musician, my ears sharpened with more exposure to oral traditions, and my confidence grew as I became infinitely flexible, playing with groups from many different genres and cultural contexts. I gathered musical ideas everywhere I went, and started to hear new music that I could call my own. On a personal level, I discovered my potential for strength and self-reliance; but I also became acutely aware of the importance of community strength, of networking, and of interdependence.

I am just now beginning to process what I went through in South Africa, which was really a break with my experience in West Africa. I had been looking forward to South Africa for a long time, because I had read so much about South African jazz and its connection with social change. But I felt my experience there, for whatever reason, ended up being somewhat separated from the musical cultures that interested me; I found myself longing for the dirty soulfulness that had so completely enveloped me in places like Mali. I had been looking forward to Cape Town's relative comfort and organization, but this turned out to be a great deceiver, as this was the location in which I felt the least secure in all of my travels. With my levels of security and home-ness constantly in flux, it was a big shock for me to experience such a stark revision of my expectations.

But I am glad I went to South Africa; though I left feeling stripped raw, I am glad I spent so long there, and ultimately very satisfied that my experience was exclusively a Capetonian one. (I will have to save Johannesburg for the next time around.) The chance to build such an extensive network of friends and colleagues, to really use the resources in the music library at the University of Cape Town's College of Music and the Center for Public Memory, would have been interrupted by an attempt to shift my focus to Jo'burg. So I gained depth at the expense of breadth, which is just fine by me. Cape Town was a place where I could practice on a regular basis, put together a performing ensemble, attend the same jam sessions consistently, and generally become a fixture on the scene.

During my last few months in South Africa, I think I recovered my sense of what it is to have time to myself, what it is to know what I want and to go after it. I came out of this period accepting fewer excuses from myself and others and with a propensity for the frank and honest that can be shocking. I also channeled my emotions into my music; I came out of this period with a thick notebook of compositions, which I owe, in part, I think, to the prodding arm of Mac McKenzie, possibly the best musical partner I could have asked for in Cape Town. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the end result of the months I spent performing and composing with Mac was a musical synthesis of my whole year, a sonic expression of what these experiences had done to me and for me, how they have broken me and healed me, torn me down and built me up time and time again.

Friday, August 15, 2008


After a truly enlightening Watson conference in steamy Tennessee and ten days in the breezy, buggy North Woods of Minnesota, I am home. Worcester hasn't changed a bit. People tell me I look the same, but I know that on the inside hidden parts I am not.

In a week, I am moving to a house in New Haven, CT, which I will share with Andy, who will start in the Forestry and Divinity schools at Yale in September; a geophysics doctoral candidate who played the baritone horn in the opening ceremonies in Beijing; a retired history professor and his librarian wife. My job search continues.

This blog will go on, I think. I'm taking suggestions for new titles.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sometimes you can't make it on your own

Sometimes I don't blog because I feel like there's nothing new. Well, here's some news for you:

Last night, between the hours of midnight and 10 a.m., some individual or group of persons stole the carburetor, air cleaner, spark plugs, and metal plates (parts together valued at approximately $500) from the engine of my Beetle. Now, I am trying to appreciate the absurdity of the situation, but it hurts to laugh. I feel poor, powerless, and absolutely furious. I would go home early, but I don't have the money. Funny.

12 days.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

One of these mornings I'm gonna rise up singing

I broke out of my funk last week and took a bus out to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. I was really impressed. The sheer quantity, not to mention diversity, of events was overwhelming. I mostly hung out around the jazz festival and associated jam sessions, but I also checked out photography exhibitions, street theater, dance shows, spoken-word poetry, and lectures. Then there was the atmosphere. Walk around the streets and you are confronted at every corner with little boys standing stock still, faces smattered with white dust, waiting for - what? A tip? A touch? The Spirit? Marimba music moves the ground from early morning to late night. Campers in the courtyard trade herbs and secrets. Overheard: "I think I tried that the last time I was in Ethiopia." "Chew this, it will bring you strength and good things." Strength for what? To keep from falling of the edge? From losing your grip? Or will it push you over instead, to fall, only to be caught again?

I went to Grahamstown to see three things: Jo'burg avant-garde bassist Carlo Mombelli leading his group Prisoners of Strange, Mark Fransman's newly composed Suite, and the Kouga Jazz Band from Port Elizabeth. Prisoners of Strange was certainly refreshing, especially in the haunting vocals of trombonist Siya Makuzeni. Mombelli is a remarkable composer - so confident, so creative, and so good at what he does. There is nothing standard about this group. They performed a piece scored for six squeaky toys and a kazoo. All of the musicians make frequent use of loops and effects, but always with the determined aim of surprising and creating something new. I interviewed Mombelli, who told me he does think his music is South Africa, as it came out of this environment, although that does not necessarily include township jazz. But he said he prefers to think "intergalactically," rather than nationally.

But the highlight of my festival experience was Mark Fransman's Suite. The concert was advertised as jazz plus a classical string quartet and two bassists with nods to Bartok and Shostakovich, but what actually transpired was much more unusual: an hour of music of heartbreaking beauty. Perhaps it was Fransman's choice of subjects that made the pieces so moving; he dedicated one to Martin Luther King, Jr., another to his mother, and one to his first-born daughter, "At First Sight." Fransman did use two bassists, one plucking bass lines, the other playing harmony with the bow. And the string quartet provided swelling, closely-written harmonies of strange simplicity and beauty, though the avant was not explicitly in evidence. Fransman actually only performed one movement - "North" - from his Suite, a title appropriate for the first movement of a work in progress, indicating very little but the certainty of direction and perhaps the urge to travel.

But my words cannot tell you what it was like to experience this concert. How could you write with such passion, such love, such control? It gets to the heart of matter: people's lives are full of real extremes of emotion - longing, disaster, hope, triumph. Not necessarily always so dramatic, but we are human in these moments. Fransman's pieces stared this reality in the face and screamed and moaned for it. Cried out in passion. I left the hall exhausted, having reached every height and depth of love and pain, any objectivity blown wide open. I want to write music like that.

I realized that, before coming to the festival, I had begun to believe what mainstream society wants you to believe - that works of art are acts of personal expression only, not avenues for serious employment, and certainly not anything worth getting all tingly about. While listening to Fransman's Suite, I found myself reacting to the sounds and images in a way I have not in a long time; I think it is fair to say that it renewed my faith. I was reminded with a jolt that expression is always a two-way street; the music goes out and actually affects people's lives.

The group most directly related to my project was the Kouga Jazz Band, which takes traditional Xhosa music from the Eastern Cape and combines it with jazz, certainly not the first group to do such a thing, but maybe one of the first in the generation of South Africans considering itself "Born Free." The music itself is evolving, the various elements are still finding their place in their compositions. I talked to trumpeter and leader Xolani Faku, nephew of Feya Faku, who, along with Abdullah Ibrahim, was part of the Xhosa-jazz fusion during the African Renaissance back in the day. The younger Faku started out playing jazz in Port Elizabeth, but was also exposed to the music of the traditional Xhosa cultures in the Eastern Cape, especially along the Wild Coast. I asked him about his piece "Ntsikane," written for a Xhosa warrior who was also a gospel composer. Does Faku see his music as political? "We cannot detach ourselves from our environment. As a performer, you have to reflect the situation of the time," he said. "We are more like prophets. The struggle is still on. And music is the only language we have to express these things."

I began to understand that for people like Faku, the jazz-traditional fusion is as much about the urban-rural dynamic as about any politics. He is from the city, but, like many young South Africans, harbors a certain nostalgia for rural life and culture. He explained that he sees a real need for his music to be connected with the revitalization of African culture and its roots. "Detaching ourselves from Africa creates a problem," he said. "By doing this, we could even detach ourselves from who we are." The invasion of homogenized Western culture has been responsible for some of the erasure, he said, but jazz is a bridge - something that links Africa with the diaspora, and should be part of the conversation.

It's easy to forget that, under apartheid, black South Africans were essentially forced to conceive their identity as cut off from the rest of Africa. This mentality has left some ugly scars below the surface. Though the new South Africa is supposedly founded on the principles of ubuntu - that the individual exists because of, for, and in cooperation with the larger group - that "I am because we are" - recent events like the xenophobic attacks reveal that this message sounds deafly to the mindset that accompanies ongoing, debilitating poverty. Can South Africa really be a part of the African community if its leadership continues to operate on a level of increasing materialism and self-preservation?

Sitting in the International Library of African Music, listening to the strange, bluesy sounds of '50s era Zimbabwean guitarists, my research questions suddenly take on a very political tone. To ask about South Africa's relationship with the African diaspora is to breach a subject with its tendrils buried deep in the fabric of this country. There have been actual efforts, conscious or no, to wipe out the evidence of what once existed here. Excavating these roots is nearly impossible, and there are a fair number of musicologists here who are knee-deep in the Sysiphan process. Who was here first? Even the San, Xhosa, and Zulus migrated to South Africa shortly before the first European explorers arrived. Here, at what has begun to feel like the end of the world, claims to land and identity have been contested for hundreds of years.

The natural process for reconciling these differences is through syncretized culture. As Vincent Kolbe told me, "This whole mess got started with culture, and I think that will have to be the way it ends, too." To separate and divide is a colonial mindset. I am beginning to see my project for what it is: a study in post-colonialism. It is about music, yes, but it is really about globalization, about identity in a world that grows ever-smaller, in a world full of multiplying copies and fading originals. It is about how to live on earth.

Now I am back in Cape Town, staring in disbelief as one rainy day follows impossibly after the next. Doesn't globalization capture the essence of my journey? I trip, I fall onto the stage as a global citizen, and only with time am I able to grasp the largeness of what goes on around me. I am older than before, tired, harder, thinner. To go out is one thing, but to come back, changed, to effect changes, is quite another. Is this what I wanted, to grow up? I have a real urge to redress my experience, to rewrite the rules, to own myself. I long to transform, to build myself a cocoon and emerge clothed in radiant color. Though my wings are wet and heavy now, the time is coming when I will learn how to use them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sometimes We're Not Prepared for Adversity

Some nights, this incredible mist creeps in over the ocean and fills Cape Town with such thick fog that you can barely see six feet in front of you. It clears a bit when you climb a hill, but you are immediately plunged back into it as soon as you head for lower ground. This was the situation as I was driving home from seeing Mark Fransman's band Strait and Narrow play at the Green Dolphin. The show was great; Mark laid down his soul-styled vocals and socially-conscious raps, and the horns filled in with vintage hard bop lines, harmonized to maximum cool. This week, they are playing at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival - a ten-day extravaganza of progressive, risk-taking music, theater, film, and dance. I am going, to play, to conduct interviews, and to keep my ears wide open.

In other news, I had a large amount of cash disappear from my room last week. After searching the whole place several times, emptying shelves, replacing things, and emptying them again, I have decided that it is not there. Robbed? Again? The house has not been broken into, and I live with only two other people, a Xhosa woman and her 14-year-old son. They offer no information. Thoughts of going home early preoccupied me until recently. No, not now. Yes, now! But in the end, to leave is to lose more than to stay, and there has been quite enough loss already. It is nice to know that I don't have to stay here, but I can choose to stay here - to make of it what I will. And I will make something of it. I am poised to enter a phase of fast-moving festivity, ending the period of hibernation which has preceded it.

What else? I hang out in the UCT music library on any of our frequent rainy days. A gem: That music is tied up with identity should not surprise us. Identity is, in every context, a performative activity. So music, through "performative identifying," can allow us to express a politics, which is essentially an identification with one given group or another. I hang out with church people and talk about the problems and contradictions in the Bible. I teach brass lessons to teenagers at the Athlone Academy of Music. Athalie and I are starting to rearrange some of Bertold Brecht's work with an eye to Capetonian culture. Mac and I are putting together an album, bit by bit.

I like the way laundry looks when it hangs on the line. It has nothing to prove. Not trying to be anything it isn't.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Such a long time to be gone and a short time to be here

Somebody told me today, "Ah, but you only have a month left," as a way of saying, regretfully, that this was not enough time to accomplish a certain task. This stopped me in my tracks. Someone, somewhere, thinks that the time I have left is short? Not long enough? Besides, I don't have a month left, I have 47 days left.

I have been spending more time with Vincent. His is tired and easily irritated but seems to enjoy my company so we get on all right. He has referred me to a number of articles on Cape Town music and the creolization of culture that have spurred me on (see previous post). Sometimes Athalie (a lovely singer-friend) and I go over to his house in the morning and play some music and take him to church and maybe go out to lunch. Vincent is full of stories. He says we are all Atlanticos, which is a word he invented to mean a kind of seafaring creole that travels the ocean without a home, picking up some things at one port, carrying them to the next, leaving some parts of himself behind. We played a concert at the hospice where Vincent is a patient and each went home with flowers and olive plants in return.

Mac has found us a recording studio. I don't know how, but it is in Muizenberg in a neighborhood very close to the beach with little, tiny, winding streets that remind me of St. Louis in Senegal. There are a lot of immigrants in this neighborhood, so the whole place has a kind of charged feel about it. Mac has been encouraging me to compose more and more. This is so hard, but I really enjoy it when I can just sit and do it. Today we recorded his "Tango" and my "They Stare Because You're Beautiful" with a string section. It was so incredible to hear these harmonies that I wrote played so beautifully and so strangely. I sat with my mouth open, hardly believing it. I wrote another tune yesterday which I think I will call "Djeligoema."

Most days I struggle to be present here at all. I want the next thing - a job, a schedule, a trajectory; I want to know what it is and that everything's going to work out and there's a shape and an arc and a meaning to it all. And if not a destination I would at least like to have somewhere to point on the horizon or an interim landmark of some kind, not as proof really but just as a small kindness that will get me through today and tomorrow and the day after that.

This is the longest I've stayed anywhere. It's been good for precisely two reasons. First, I have built up a community of friends and musicians and contacts and feel relatively well taken care of. Second, I have had a chance to see what loneliness does without the escape of indulged restlessness. Before, when I started to feel too empty in a place, I would move on. I planned it this way, but in a certain sense, I've got nowhere else to go; I've run to the edge of the map. Now all that's left to do is turn around and go back.

Friday, June 6, 2008


The conception of creolization proposed by Glissant, and developed by other West Indian thinkers, converges with Paul Gilroy's contention that identity is more a process of movement and mediation than a question of roots and rootedness.
From Denis-Constant Martin: Africa, Brazil, and the Construction of Trans-Atlantic Black Identities

Saturday, May 24, 2008


This morning I went hiking with some folks from church. It was cold and it almost rained, and we read the map wrong and got turned around. But it was beautiful. Beautiful to swap life stories and ambitions. Beautiful to have company. Beautiful to have a path to walk and the mountain ahead and behind and below. We had lunch at a farm stall and ate potato bread and organic licorice.

I then went to a last-minute rehearsal at Mac's for our concert for Vincent Kolbe on Sunday. Kurt Diedericks, this young piano player we've been working with, brought along his friend Galina, who plays violin. We'd been working with two string players all week and not getting the results we wanted, but this clicked and was so satisfying to hear the parts that I'd written played with technique and passion. We joked and yelled and cavorted while Mac's girlfriend Renata made vegetable pie and we ate this soon afterward.

So I rushed out of that homey place to the Africa Day film festival, where I saw Return to Goree, a documentary about Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour's musical journey from Dakar to America via Europe. This brought up so many new and old emotions for me, combining all of my homesickness as the film traveled through Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York with all my longing for friends left behind as they went through the streets of Dakar and the island of Goree. Every one of those places has a level of personal meaning to me, and to see them contextualized in the story of the African diaspora was pretty powerful.

For a film that seems to so easily encapsulate the reasons and philosophies behind my project this year, I was afraid that seeing it might make my journey seem cliche or overdone in retrospect. But the film is better than that. N'Dour's experience working with musicians in America is not always seamless; he seems to wrestle with some internal conflict the entire time, not sure what to do with himself. There is a struggle to relate to a society that seems so different, speaks another language, has learned to do things in different ways. This is part of my story: the ambiguity of putting such disparate cultures in contact with one another, but ultimately realizing that there is something very basic and very human held in common. Still, this realization comes out of a story of a lot of pain, and a lot of loneliness and alienation that it is difficult to relate without having experienced. What do you say in the face of this saga that has changed the face of the world so dramatically and so tragically? How can one feel but overwhelmed?

Amiri Baraka plays a big part in the film's section in New York; he performs a piece of poetry with atmospheric drumming: "It might take you hundreds and hundreds of years... to get out. To get out. To get out." His lips push into the microphone, enclosing the vowels and sending shivers down my back. When the music does start to come together, one cannot help but surrender a small smile, even sitting alone in a movie theater. Then, out of the struggle, you can begin to feel and to share the joy. Reunion, wholeness, understanding, empathy, communality. There is a passage with Mardi Gras Indians that made me want to up and pack my bags for New Orleans tonight. Hey Pocky Way.

A word on Africa Day. The big news this week has been the xenophobic attacks against African refugees in South Africa, starting in Alexandra, a township outside of Johannesburg. I felt the tide rising all week as I followed the headlines. Friday I learned that there had been copycat attacks on Somalians living in Cape Town's outer suburbs. Then, yesterday afternoon, there was a non-violent protest outside Parliament against the attacks attended by several hundred whiteys, hippies, and black South Africans. The protest didn't make TV news or the papers. The crews were too busy covering the bad stuff elsewhere.

I find this frustrating, and frightening. The painful irony of it is that tomorrow is Africa Day - a day for African unity. I can appreciate the mentality of a desperate, impoverished South African who is less than thrilled with the waves of refugees entering the country from troubled Zimbabwe. But that does nothing to justify his violence. Africa has had many sins perpetrated against it; for one, it has been cut up on colonial rather than cultural lines, a recipe for what seems to be continuous political unrest. What mystifies me is this sense of entitlement, the idea that because someone is of a certain color, ethnicity, or nationality, that they deserve more or less of the joy of being alive.

I am personally so thankful this week for my own joys: a safe place to stay, contact with people I love, good music and friends - and that my freedom is a freedom to rather than a freedom from.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Very Fine House

it's a nice house. the kind of house you might visit on a cold halloween night expecting candy and uncomfortably stand in the doorway while the resident gathers the goodies and you take in the strange, pleasant odor of otherness.

Friday, May 16, 2008

On Human Relation

I forgot about flying solo, just a little bit. I forgot about the deafening silence of a house inhabited by one person for days and weeks. I forgot about the circular thought patterns, the maddening stasis of it. There is no one to come home to. There is nothing to react to but yourself, no unpredictable dish in the sink, no scuttling noises in the morning. A sneeze would be welcome. How did we fill our days?

Happiness is not real unless shared. I cannot help but feel more and more that this is true. This is designed as an individualistic endeavor. It's supposed to be about me, about my identity, what I want, what I think. On the best of days I haven't the foggiest, but one thing I do know is this: I am a communal animal. My life is inevitably, inextricably tied up in the life of every other human on this planet. And we cannot live without love. Not really.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Best of the Fest

So I did this arts journalism course last week with writer and South African jazz historian Gwen Ansell, which meant that, for the first time in a long time, I worked over 40 hours in a week. I was up early getting educated on the finer points of freelancing, and staying out late at jam sessions and pre-festival events and then finally the grand smash of it all: a total of 32 hours of music occurring, some simultaneously, over the course of about 36 hours of existence. There were master classes and press conferences and interviews and shows and I generally just moved until I dropped.

Favorites that have survived the bleary, post-festival re-cooperation period: Friday reminded me of a formidable presence on the jazz-rock scene, Steps Ahead, in its current incarnation. Still led by the now-70-year-old Mike Manieri. Totally blew me away. They played LOUD in a boomy hall but came to PLAY. Especially liked drummer Kim Thompson, a magnetic ball of energy. She kicked the whole band. Evidently, this was her first time playing with the group.

Then Saturday brought Lionel Loueke, the guitar-hero of just about every jazz musician I met in Benin. He wore a lime green shirt and clicked and sang and guitar-effected his way into our ears, along with his collaboration of international Berklee musicians.

But Saturday's favorite was definitely Tutu Puoane, a sprightly, innocent-yet-knowing South African vocalist who has been working in Belgium and the Netherlands. She was completely in control musically, bending her vocal chords from perfect anunciation to bluesy growl and delivering an honestly touching performance.

I don't know how many Cape Tonians actually got to enjoy the festival. It was expensive, inside the convention center - a sort of circus, really. There was a free concert Wednesday night on Greenmarket Square and Sunday morning in the townships... It's a young event.

A long talk with young saxophonist and pianist Kyle Shepherd got me to realizing some of the ways in which indigenous South African music is being erased or suppressed in this place. Kyle reports that there is a tendency of South African university professors to teach to a uniformly American style of jazz, to the point where they deny the authenticity or validity of other African forms of music, like goema or street music or kwaito or mbaqanga... As it turns out, that is the stuff that is the most fascinating to me, and not the South African jazz musicians who reinterpret standards from the American song book. I am starting to understand the strife and pride of composers like Mac and Hilton Schilder who militantly create their own music informed by their own experience and cultural tradition. To me, the very REASON I'm interested in Cape Jazz or South African music that is jazz-influenced is because that music has something in common with the sounds of the African-American diaspora. I've heard people say they play jazz or listen to jazz because it sounds like "our music."

In other news, Andy has been accepted to the joint program with the Yale School of Forestry and the Yale Divinity School. Worries and excitement about August and September are developing, when I will ideally join the workforce in some capacity.

To the streets!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

For the beauty of the earth

So I am here. We are here. At the same time, in the same place. There are no words.

It is summer in South Africa, and this week it felt and smelled it. The smell of summer is the grass baking. We had a few days in a row of 90 degrees in the shade, followed by cool evenings and walks to get ice cream and mountain hikes at sunset and music late at night.

There is a fantastic jazz jam out in Ottery at a place called Swingers every Monday night that totally impressed me. This week, the crowd was full and eager to listen. The screaming house band, led by Alvin Dyers, really set the standard. Then they stepped down and offered the stage to other players to sit in. And then they came, drummers and guitarists and bassists and hornists all - droves and droves of young players, each with his own developing sound and something different to say. Donald Byrd once told our class, "You play one note, I can tell you your whole life story, everything you been through up till now." And you really do get to know people that way, listening to them and playing with them. Highlights included a great pianist from Durban working on his Masters in Music at UCT, a drummer from New Orleans (though Canadian) also studying there... And these pick-up groups, sometimes made up of 100 percent people who had never played together before, were tight. And that is a jazz community.

I have two major projects at the moment, one being a great young sax player from Mozambique called Ivan Mazuze, who I sat in with on Friday night. I met him at an improvised music festival last weekend - an incredible event featuring several free improv groups from around town. Ivan's group included a really intelligent-sounding guitarist from Norway and a crazy drummer who played things backwards and dropped cymbals on the floor. Another favorite was saxophonist Mark Fransman's group - probably the most melodic of all the groups - which really brought out Mark's strengths as a free soloist with his long, meandering, lyrical lines. Hopefully plans to talk with Mark will come together later.

My other project is working with Cape Town's composer laureate Mac McKenzie. He was on my list of people to find, and I found him playing guitar one morning at the District Six museum. So I introduced myself and we had tea and started to talk. He is really determined to create a place for the creative musicians in Cape Town - those who make their own music, rather than playing standards or covers. There has been too much aping, too much imitation of Western music among South African musicians, he says. He began teaching Andy and I some of his compositions. Mac is militantly original, and has received a grant from the Swiss government to build a composer's workshop in his backyard. He is currently clearing the ground for the foundation. His enthusiasm for the project is incredible and untiring. Our periodic practice sessions are often interrupted by deliveries of concrete and questions from builders. When Mac needs a break from music, he goes out in the back and turns earth for a few hours. "Sometimes your instrument is the spade," he said.

We hiked Table Mountain yesterday, an exhausting, totally rewarding adventure. I've never seen anything so beautiful as these green mountains dropping down into the little towns nestled by the sea. But my knees may never forgive me. We started out at noon; then it took us about four hours to reach the top, and probably three more down the other side. Getting back to our car where we started was an adventure, but it worked out in the end. Below is the mountain with mist settling on it, seen from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where we've also been spending a lot of time - especially at their sunset concerts. It is bad to be on the mountain when the mist comes. But we were lucky and had a gorgeous day.

I am up too early, as Andy is off to cycle the Cape Argus race today. This one is for moving slowly, drinking tea, making cookies.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Back to Center

I feel like I have come home. Cape Town is absolutely beautiful. Since Friday, I have been staying on an eco-farm a little bit outside of the city, with strong winds blowing all day, an unbeatable view of Devil's Peak, community gardens, some Dutch Master's students, and a research assistant from Guam. Lots of hippies and vans and organic vegetables. Something akin to what I imagine Santa Cruz was like when my parents met in the '70s.

I am the proud steward of a 1978 VW Beetle, and now have two (2) days experience driving stick. I suspect that each and every car in Cape Town has honked at me by now. But I haven't rolled down a hill into anyone, so I'm counting that as a win.

I also found an apartment. A garden cottage way up in the foothills of the mountains. Five minutes from Long Street. Absolutely silent. So I'm back to center, in a way. I am slowly but steadily assembling a life here, a nest, a car. Andy will be here on Friday, long overdue.

For such a beautiful place, Cape Town still has latent weirdness. "Affirmative action hurt us all," they say. "Don't talk to him, can't you see he's colored?" [in response to the Muslim call to prayer]: "Man, does that guy have a stomachache or something? Does he have to let everybody know about it?" I listen and file these things away. I fear my silence indicates complicity. Some people speak Afrikaans here, but it's the language of oppression for most native Africans. "It's like speaking German to a Jew after World War II," one woman told me. English is more neutral. But they won't make you speak Xhosa or Zulu the way they will make you speak Wolof in Senegal. South Africa is on top as far as African economies are concerned - but what has really transpired here? Whatever it is, it may be irreversible.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Movin' on up

So. Time heals all wounds. Or at least stitches them up haphazardly and repeats soothing words to you while you attempt to go about your business and strange and mysterious things happen beneath your skin.

Things are getting better. I finally played with blues guitarist Vieux MacFaye around the middle of last week, went down to the Casino du Cap Vert and sat in with the band. What did we play? Nothing I recognized, except "Stand By Me," which Vieux really tore through, ending with a verse of scat-accompanied guitar riff. Everything else was some alternative blues form that oddly made some sense and was full of Vieux's blistering blues guitar riffs ripping off into the Mardi Gras crowd. I was feeling some blues myself, so sat down and gave them a piece of my mind.

At the end of the night, I shook hands all around and Vieux invited me to a television recording session with the band the next day. Pleased and a little scared, I said I'd be sure to be there. This turned out to be the perfect set-up. I got to play music I was really feeling on the air, and hear Vieux interviewed by the show's host about his opinions on the blues and Senegalese music. Most music in Senegal is pretty commercially driven, and, well, mbalax, the percussion-heavy dance music that has re-Africanized the Cuban craze that entered West African several decades ago. There is good mbalax. Youssou N'Dour comes to mind. But like a lot of musicians who play exclusively for dancers rather than listeners, they sometimes put their ears on autopilot. What Vieux is doing is completely different. He explained that he loves jazz and the blues, and feels like it resonates with him in a special way, and it was African to begin with, anyway. If Senegalese music wants to be successful, he said, it needs to examine how it can resonate in a universal way way with the rest of the world so that it can travel outside of the country's borders. That is the beauty of jazz, that it has been embraced by the entire world, and has the power to bring people together, even if America itself is ignorant of its own treasure.

I am happy to report WATSON FELLOW SIGHTING #3, Leigh, who arrived in Dakar last Monday and will stay for several months researching attitudes toward abortion here. We have been spending some time together, aware that I am leaving at the end of the week, so the potential for dependence is not really there. But she said something to me at dinner tonight (we went out for Thai - oh the forgotten joys of having a friend to shoot the breeze with over pad thai) about how her project is different from mine. My project, in its finest moments, yields deep and lasting relationships with musicians that transcend race and nationality. The time I spend with Badu, explaining jazz theory, exchanging advice, musical war stories, anecdotes - that's an automatic in. And it forms relationships that are inherently respectful, and at the same time powerfully personal, in a way that is typically almost impossible as a white, privileged woman traveling in Africa. These are relationships that are not about sex, money, or immigration papers. These are friends I will keep. This is not to say I am against organized aid for Africa or liberal immigration policies or mixed race couples or anything. To the contrary. It is just to say that right now, I am not individually in a position to make any of those things more or less effective.

I have gotten bitten by the grad school bug again and have started to play the "What if?" game, just to try things on, see how they feel. What do they call what I am trying to do? Cultural anthropology? Musicology? Comparative literature? A fantastic farce?

Another good thing: A heavy heart at least keeps your feet on the ground.

Eleven days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Follow Your Nose

This has been an incredible week. A horrific week in some ways. I took the train last weekend from Bamako to Dakar, which took 48 hours. I slept most of the time, and the rest of the time tried to improve my Wolof with the people in my couchette or stood at the window and watched the baobab trees travel slowly on by. The train arrived late at night and I had (almost) everything I owned with me and had to get all of this into a taxi and to my new place, for which I had only the address. So me and this irritable taxi driver got painfully lost for an hour and finally I decided to do the unthinkable: go back to my homestay and knock on the door at one o'clock in the morning. Ishmael let me in.
I slept fitfully or not at all, and got up early. Some things had changed. My host mother now had malaria and in the last week had been in a car accident. One of her girls was also sick, and her husband, in New York, had stopped sending money and would not return her calls. She asked me to pay for my room in advance. I told her I was thinking of moving.
I went to the internet cafe to check my mail and got some shocking personal news that instantly colored my day sour, along with sudden blessing of the phone number of the place I wanted to move. Within an hour I had found the place and was very pleased. They are downtown, have hot water, DSL, a kitchen. I have my own space. This is what I should have done from the start. I feel a little spoiled, but these are things I have discovered that I cannot do without for very long.
So I am finally, gratefully living in the middle of it all. There are musicians who live here, a bassist and a keyboardist. One helped me to get in touch with Baaba Maal's drummer, and I played with their group at a huge concert for Dakar's ministers and politicians on Friday night. It was a party in the end, and not a concert. They started at midnight and finished around 4 a.m. This is one thing I just cannot get used to in Dakar, is the late hours. It wrecks me to stay out that late, because the mornings are generally too hot to sleep in.
I think I have found my guide. His name is Badu and he is a bassist who lives around the corner. He is one of those excellent, rare people who has been bitten by the jazz bug and it has become a religious devotion for him. He thinks of nothing else. He plays several nights a week with a quartet, and invited me to join them one night. He asked me to teach him how to read music, and I asked him to show me how to keep time in mbalax music. Yesterday, he took me to see a friend of his, a mixed-race Senegalese named Serge. This man is a brilliant hermit, a jazz DJ, a percussionist, a retired NGO worker. He is old enough to remember what music was like in Senegal before the arrival of mbalax. He remembers the jazz revolution in the '60s and '70s, and has photographs of the 6 month music festival that ensued when Dizzy Gillespie's tour came to Dakar. He always has a young musician sitting on his couch; Serge gives advice, plays records. His eyes light up and he tells you, "Wait, listen to this."
Beninois guitarist Lionel Loueke, who has recently recorded an album with Herbie Hancock and is the hero of all the jazz musicians in Cotonou and Porto Novo, played a show last night downtown, but I was so tired that I fell asleep at 9 p.m. last night and woke up this morning very surprised. He is playing again tonight, and I will not miss it.
I am lonely, and in pain. It is astonishing how well my project is going, how one thing follows naturally into the next, how I know intuitively where to look for information, who to talk to. I have been having incredible opportunities to play. The transcript is one success story after another. But I am profoundly conflicted. And empty. Does what I'm doing even matter if I'm not enjoying it? Can I enjoy anything I'm doing without a community and the people I love?
I went to church this morning - Transfiguration Sunday - and participated in a beautiful Catholic service. Along with a healthy percussion section, the choir pulled out some harmonies that were almost South African, and the congregation fell right in with them. I understand pieces of the service in French but mostly just enjoyed the chance to bask in the presence of God and in the fellowship of other Christians.
This coming week is another extreme one: Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, primary elections. I have two more weeks in Dakar - two more weeks in West Africa - to get as much done as I can; but it's all I can do to force myself to take advantage of these incredible opportunities that are coming down the pipeline. I don't know what I want. I want to go home. I want to go to South Africa. I want to be free of whatever is hounding me. I want to have my love and my work in the same place, and to put everything on the table and deal with things like rational adults. Until then I'm just sitting and spinning.

Monday, January 21, 2008

There and back again (almost)

Two Sundays ago, I escaped my living situation in Dakar and set off on a week-long pilgrimage into the interior of the continent – cutting up through the middle of the Republic of Mali, through the central river port of Mopti and the mystical Timbuktu, finally arriving amid sand dunes, camels, and their turbaned masters in Essakane for the three-day Festival in the Desert. One night in Bamako reminded me suddenly of how down-to-earth Mali is, and of what an excellent community I have here.

My journey north was full of colorful characters out of a Vonnegut novel, arduous treks, freezing nights, and hotter days. I think I managed to keep my sense of humor throughout, though the absurdity seemed to mount with each passing day. I took the 10-hour bus ride up to Mopti from Bamako, with a young Italian guy named Andrea for company. We shared what I have come to see as the usual twenty-something disillusionment with What Comes Next. He has a psychology degree, but says he is no longer interested in the field. His girlfriend is starting her opera career in Rome. We parted ways and I found my way to Hotel Flandres, where I was supposed to meet up with Baba, our trip manager, and the group.

I was shown to my room, which I was to share with an eccentric, retired Spanish teacher from Texas named Wanda. She had already filled the room with the makings of her instant coffee, her back massager, and other Western comforts. She had recently come from visiting her daughter in Lebanon and had decided on a whim to come to Mali, expecting someplace warm, though I told her that desert nights are among the coldest on the continent. She has been traveling almost constantly for the past two and half years on her daughter's flight attendant discounts. Time with Wanda was immediately full of stories of Mexico's beaches, wildlife in Zimbabwe, or children in Cambodia.

We left early the following morning on a pinasse (long motorboat seating 12-15 people), for three days and two nights on the Niger River. Baba went up by land to meet us in Timbuktu. Our company was a strange international microcosm: Two Germans, a balding, pot-smoking bookbinder and a very old-fashioned but extremely hardy lady about his age; they fell in love over the course of the trip. Two Austrian ladies, one of whom had just been widowed and explained that she was just now beginning to live again. A French couple. Three brothers in their late 20s from northern California, respectively a PhD student in comparative literature, a photographer, and an art teacher. Me. Wanda. Sori, our guide, who spoke only English and Bambara. Mamadou, Baba's chauffeur, and self-appointed tea and beer-server on the boat. Three other Malians who drove the boat and cooked our meals. A motley crew.

The Niger is beautiful all day long, from sunrise to midday to sunset, and in quiet spots there are hippos and colorful birds and just you with your eyes wide open. We passed countless Bobo and Bozo villages with hoards of kids sprinting along the riverbank and waving frantically at us. We made it our business to wave back. Whenever we stopped, to buy fish for lunch or to look for blankets (no one had brought a sleeping bag), we were mobbed by wide-eyed children demanding “Photo, photo!” and “Cadeau, cadeau!” I don't think they really understood what they were saying most of the time, as none of them seemed to speak a word of French. They were usually thrilled to simply see their own face on the screen of my digital camera.

Now, going by pinasse is probably the most relaxing way to get to Timbuktu, but it is not without its own discomforts. If we were out on open water, waves splashed into the boat and over the tarp that covered our baggage, usually soaking everything underneath. The toilet on the back of the boat was an adventure and a half, and in retrospect I now think I am glad to have the privilege of writing to you about it, rather than having slipped off into the river, or worse, into the roaring motor below. Food was spaghetti and fish and red sauce for lunch, and spaghetti and red sauce for dinner.

But we got by. It became clear that some of us were more adapted to camping than others. We were all very patient, to a point. The first night we camped on a hard sand beach and the Austrians built a huge, roaring fire. I took out my trombone and played, to everyone's amazement. They decided that I had to accompany our arrival in the port of Timbuktu. I agreed. The second day on the river we stopped in Niafunke, the hometown of Ali Farka Toure, the famous blues guitarist. I saw his house and chatted with some of his neighbors. That night we camped on the most beautiful sand dune overlooking the sunset on the river. Motorboats hummed by in the middle of the night. I could think only of the Mississippi.

We arrived mid-afternoon the next day in Timbuktu, with trombone fanfare as promised. By about 5 p.m. we were with Baba in two 4x4s on the road to Essakane. Night fell just as we left the paved road to follow a sign reading “Essakane 33 km” into the unmarked desert. Our driver, Peter, did a remarkable job of negotiating the dunes and taking us through one impossible pass after another. The other car was not as lucky. With tires almost completely bald, they must have gotten stuck at least 12 times during those 33 kilometers. And we had to stop every time and push them out.

So we arrived at about 10 p.m. at the festival, which had started in the afternoon. It immediately became clear that Baba had not planned ahead. It took him a good hour to obtain our tickets, explaining that he had given money to someone to arrange this but this man had recently been arrested and no one knew where the money went. The same with our meal tickets. And tents. There was a brief 15 minute shouting match between Baba and his customers, until he succeeded in borrowing four tents from another tourism agency, who also agreed to cook us meals, for a fee.

The next morning we met our neighbors, another interesting lot, including Florence, a British expat living in Kenya who recently left because of the violence there; two Belgian pilots living in the DR Congo; a very intelligent British guy who does international development consulting; and a great kid named Lane on break from New Mexico University, who came up to meet a friend and go on adventures in the desert on their rented motorcycle.

The festival itself was a really interesting experience, a complete media spectacle on the one hand. I had a press pass and got into most productive situations by showing it at the door. I attended all of the press conferences and posed my scholarly questions to Bassekou Kouyate and Abdoulaye Diabate about blues and Malian music and the influence of Western music. They vehemently defended the tradition. This is their profession, as griots. But you cannot listen to Bassekou's music and say that he has not listened to music from all over the world. Simply in the way he amplifies his ngoni there is a fundamental change in quality. But in a way, it doesn't matter what you call it, because the music speaks for itself. The dialectic that accompanies it is often only so much business strategy. Everyone will take what they want from it anyway.

I'm not sure I like this role of being purely a journalist. It did give me some privileges, like networking and free drinks and stuff, but I was constantly a self-declared outsider. That was my role. Marked by my press pass, I was never to be fully admitted, always to be smiled at, shaken hands with, diplomatically appeased. I much prefer taking my horn out and saying nothing at all.

The highlight of the festival for me was the performance of Electrica Dharma, a company from Catalonia, Spain, in which they collaborated with a Tuareg group called Tamashek. With every world music artist at the festival, whether from the Inuit lands in Canada or from Ireland or from Catalonia, there was always this discussion of cultural solidarity with the Tuareg people that really resonated with me. The Tuareg are nomads; they are traders who travel on long caravans all over northern Africa, have contact with many many different cultures, and speak many languages. They have the opportunity to interact with more different peoples in a year than most people in the world, I think. And yet their culture and their music are extremely insular; they do not readily admit change, and they are militantly determined to defend and validate their way of life to a Malian government that has historically neglected them both economically and culturally.

The Inuit are in a very similar position in Canada. They have a very insular culture, but are Canadian citizens, and are now moving into Western style homes, buying televisions, dealing with drug and gang culture, and struggling to mediate their relationship with the more developed world. Electrica Dharma has been using the innovative power of Catalonian folk music to reach out to marginalized cultures for over 20 years. There are bards in Ireland who are similarly persecuted for their nomadic lifestyle and are finding it difficult to survive in the modern era. How much of a the holistic Watson journey falls into this category as well? It is quite uncommon to validate such an unstructured, experiential project. As one of the Inuit singers said, the word “Inuit” means nothing more than “person”; we all walk on two feet, smile, laugh, clap hands, and seek alternately solace – and community.

It was Lane who on the last night of the festival connected me with my WATSON FELLOW SIGHTING #2: a dancer named Geoff from Reed College who had been in Burkina Faso for the past few months and came up to the festival for a short detour before flying to Rome to see his family and then to Brazil for the rest of the year. We talked about how you have to spend some time preparing mentally and physically for your next destination or else you go a little bit crazy. I think that's been pretty accurate in my case. I'm not really sure how to mentally prepare for South Africa; it's going to be such a big change on so many levels, culturally and personally.

The festival closed up with a great show by Tikan Jah, the outspoken reggae singer from the Ivory Coast. In an interview earlier that day, he had discussed his role as a gadfly in relation to the government in his home country and in places like Senegal. It struck me that in a nation like Mali, which is already so diverse, containing over 20 different cultural and language groups, and which has its own rebel groups, maybe someone like Tikan Jah can find a home. And maybe that explains in some ways the down-to-earth feeling I have whenever I come back to Bamako. There is already so much inter-cultural exchange going on in this country and its capital that they have no choice but to accept you as you are. The same will be true eventually for Western music here, I think. It is just one more spice in the pot; but Mali's native roots run so deep, I don't think there will ever be any danger of pulling them out.

Several months ago, my historian friend Dicko, who works with the BBC, gave me the analogy of the mango tree for the diversity of African-based music in the world: sometimes you are dealing with the roots, sometimes the trunk, sometimes the branches, sometimes the fruit. And sometimes the branches will mix with those of another tree and create a new kind of fruit. But the roots are always there, healthy and alive.

On the way back down, we went through Timbuktu and saw these ancient Koranic manuscripts that are being preserved by a South African team – really amazing, because if the scripts are left in the desert climate, they will decay very quickly – and it looks like their going to be able to save them. Something about it feels vaguely Borgesian... “The Library and the Books.”

I am spending one more week in Bamako, to finish up a television recording with German musicians Tony and Hannes, as well as a short Wassulu project with Paul Chandler, an American guitarist who has a studio here. Then I go back to Dakar for a few weeks to tie up loose ends there, try to track down Baaba Maal, touch base with Dr. Ibrahima Seck on the books he lent me, and play as much as I can. I'm looking for a different place to stay.

I spent yesterday and the day before sick in bed with what they thought was malaria but what turned out to be a throat infection aggravated by vomiting induced by the badly prescribed anti-malarial they gave me. Tony took me to a really nice doctor yesterday who straightened me out, gave me an injection to stop the vomiting and now I am almost normal, just a little weak and cautious around food.

Here's to the road and those who travel it. Here's also to home and love and a place to rest.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

O Brother

One of my favorite Christmas sightings in Dakar included a young boy in the Christmas pageant at the church in Ouakam who was playing the part of one of the three Oriental kings. He was wearing: a head wrap made out of traditional Senegalese fabric, reflective sunglasses, a green felt cape, and a wrap-around pagne (traditional woman's skirt) made out of fabric with a recurring Jesus-print. He was very happy with himself.

So I went to church on Christmas and prayed Hail Mary's with the Catholics. There was a fantastic pageant put on by the youth group with an additional element to the story. After Jesus was born, people came from all around the world to see this new, mysterious event. Some said the new arrival was a bird, others said it was a sword, or a piece of coal. They started to argue. Finally a wise man came in and announced that everyone was right - it cries like a bird, is fast like a sword, and is hot like a piece of coal - but it was actually a baby. Then they explained that it is in this way that many people can see the same thing differently and still be right. It occurs to me that this must be a necessary attitude for a Christian living in a predominantly Muslim society like Senegal.

Before Joe arrived, I was considering changing my lodgings, where the screaming children and lack of personal space have begun to wear on me. After taking a week with Joe to declare myself on vacation, I think I can handle it for a little while longer. I will spend two weeks in Mali and then three more in Dakar before heading out of the region, so my plan is just to keep moving and pray that my head will stay screwed on straight.

Joe and I had a very nice time traveling up and down the coast of Senegal this past week. We went to the island of Saint-Louis, the old capital of French West Africa, a true jazz city and the mirror image of New Orleans culturally and historically. Much of the music was toned down while we were there, though, because a prominent marabout died in Dakar and the president declared a three-day public holiday, lasting until New Year's. This was ok, though, because Saint-Louis is full of quiet magic and bands of kids playing soccer and idle musicians and good food. I'm hoping to spend some more time there at some point.

We came back to Dakar to spend some time with my host family. We went to the beach, which is something I haven't really done since being in Africa, and disturbed me a little bit. I don't really relate to any of the Westerners who come here on vacation, no matter how much we may actually have in common. No longer interested in buying tourist goods, I find myself simply talking to the vendors. It seems like I don't fit into either group very well. What a strange trip this has been. I no longer know where I stand.

Yesterday we went to the island of Goree, off the coast of Dakar, which was another great adventure - our third island of the trip. The highlight by far was this guy Samba and his wife who showed us around their house - a huge, ruined cannon abandoned by the French over a hundred years ago. They are "renovating" it, by painting the inside with murals and patching up rust holes as they appear. We climbed up and up the crazy ladders leading to the top, finally emerging from the top of the cannon itself, where several surprised tourists were trying to take photos of their family.
I have leads on some of Baaba Maal's musicians, a jazz club in town, and a music producer friend of Karim's. Time to move, because Lord knows I can't sit still.