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.