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.