writing from Saly, Senegal.
Plastic bags blow through streets of powdery dust like tumbleweeds over the scattered remains of hair extensions, goat turds, and bits of miscellany in various states of consumption by the sand. A five minute walk takes one past metalworkers welding ornate doors to be mounted on rich french houses, children begging for food and money while talking on a cell phone, a group of people cordially shouting at obscene volumes, a group of mangy sheep munching on pits of plastic refuse, smells ranging from delicious to revolting, and about 50 handshakes. Occassionally you are passed by a random dust cloud kicked up by a family of sunburnt and obese french tourists speeding around in a fleet of 4-wheelers wearing helmets taken straight out of spaceballs. Restaurants, hair salons, and shops are run out of a converted room in a house and people sell whatever--usually some form of fried food matter of varying degrees of deliciousness, peanuts, oranges, or cafe touba, a sort of spicy sweet coffee--from a stool outside their door. The entire local economy of many african towns is really not much more than a collection of lemonade stand-type setups. The concept of a business license is laughable. Life here is a very mixed bag, which is fairly typical of Africa it seems, but here it's got extra highlights because of the contrast between the glitzy grand hotels that line the beaches (and the people who frequent them) and the comparatively poor african neighborhoods 100m inland (and the people who live in them). For the most part, I live as a working musician does here. I share a small room in a small house with another drummer, 5 doundouns, 4 djembes, a callabash, a didjeridoo, and a large (in both size and number) family of flying hissing cockroaches--before we even had 2 more friends of mine from Bamako along with 2 guitars, and a bunch of painting and construction equipment. Most homes here don't' have running water, so everyone hauls buckets to a spigot on one of the main corners next to a boutique. This is very obnoxious when faced with a toilet emergency and an empty bucket.
My home here is in something like the little Guinea of Saly, populated by a sizeable and fluid community of Guineans, mostly artists--drummers, dancers, performers. They come and go as their life takes them, trying to make what they can from the large tourist traffic in Senegal (most touristed country in west africa, mostly french beach-goers escaping frigid winters) sometimes working in different resorty towns around the senegalese coast, sometimes going back to see family, but basically following where work takes them. Because the music is essentially all based in tradition, the musicians are all more or less interchangeable in a sense and can work with any group pretty much anywhere. this makes the performance groups here also very dynamic, with never really the same show twice, because there's almost inevitably a different lineup of musicians and dancers even if they're playing the same "set" each show.
The musicianship in itself continues to be mindboggling for me. I know i have written about this before, but its simply amazing. The two guys I have been learning with, Abdoulaye and Aly "boy" are each in their early thirties, each with over 20 years of performing experience. Crazy. And when I say "playing" I mean working hard. They practice everyday, everyday, everyday for hours and they play hard and fast. The innate sense of timing and the ability to remember a 40 bar solo from three days ago is borderline insane. And for all this work, all the constant rehearsals and organization it takes to pull off a show they make the equivalent of $5 a piece for each gig, with one or maybe two gigs a week. It's not an easy life.
As for me, I have been living the closest thing to a 9-5 work week that I've had in about 4 years. I wake up around 8, eat a bean sandwich, drink some cafe touba, and haul all our drums out to the forest behind the town for 3 hours of practice. We break around noon for lunch and siesta--i take a nap or go to an internet cafe or go to the beach or something like this. We go out for another 2-3 hour session around 3pm, drop off a couple drums at the house, haul other drums a half mile to their ballet practice, where I play even harder and faster for another hour or two. Come home, wash up, relax, get ready for a show and then go down to one of the hotels to play in or watch one of the other groups play. Come back eat a spaghetti-fries-onions-mayonnaise-egg sandwich (not as bad as it sounds... fries are treated as a garnishment like parmesan cheese) or something equally bizarre, go to bed, do it all again the next day. 6 days a week. It’s a pretty awesome little schedule, but it’s also a lot of hard work. It’s like learning any other foreign language you have to first learn to make the sounds, then the words, then how to articulate a full sentence, then how to say interesting things, etc., etc.... it can get a little frustrating at times...
a paraphrased excerpt:
me:<baddabaddabadata tadata dada taditditdit dagdagbadagabadadit gangakunkagangakunka dat dat dig>
abdoulaye: "nononononono!!!! all wrong, baddabaddabadata tadata dada taditditdit dagdagbadagabadadit gangakunkagangakunka dat dat dig"
me: <baddabaddabadata tadata dada taditditdit dagdagbadagabadadit gangakunkagangakunka dat dat dig>
abdoulaye: "NO!" <baddabaddabadata tadata dada taditditdit dagdagbadagabadadit gangakunkagangakunka dat dat dig>
me: "aaaaaaarrrrrgggggggghhhhhh, that's what i JUST PLAYED"
abdoulaye: "no, you slow after tadata"
me: "how the hell can you even hear that?"
It looks the same, even sounds the same to any without a perfect sense of timing. It inevitably takes me about 10 times or so to figure this out, to even be able to hear these little 64th note hesitations and pickups, and then we will drill this rhythm for about an hour straight. Again and again and again and again...
Despite the completely out of place plastic euro-resort scene grafted onto the african beach, something I normally avoid like an open sewer, this place has grown on me about and I have had many very fun, fond moments here. A couple:
-My friend Oumar coming down from Bamako, leaving Mali for the first time in his life and taking in the ocean. His first splash flight was a truly precious moment, the rather stoic lawyer guitar player transformed into a playful and giggling ball of wonder.
-Playing on stage in the hotels with the my teachers' ballet troupe. a little intimidating at first, but inevitably really really fun. they were all really kind to me to let me play in the first place.
-After one especially frustrating day where my hands and brain refused to speak to each other I met this little kid of about 3 or 4 years old, Papa, who was bubbling with an utterly infectious playful energy. Everything was funny, everything was a game for him. Me looking at him was funny. Me not looking at him was funny. Me walking away was funny. Throwing peanuts was funny. Eating peanuts was funny. He followed me around for about an hour carrying a five foot long plastic tube giggling and running around in circles the whole time. This kid definitely knows what it’s all about. It was one of those moments where there in my moment of despair and frustration the universe comes through with the most perfectly timed and delivered medicine for my ailments.
-Playing didj for some senegalese guys outside a shop with a rasta reggae MC guitar player. Great accoustics, great energy, great ensuing dance party. They all flipped out when they heard the didj for the first time, with one guy running out into the streat wide-eyed and shouting "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH, EEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHYYAAAAAAHHHHH!" Pretty funny. After words he gave me this blessing "i want you beaucoup health, beaucoup friends, beaucoup girlfriend, beaucoup beaucoup girlfriend africa! goodgoodgood!" teehee.
I am leaving Saly tomorrow for a few days in Gambia (ANGLOPHONE!!!!) and then Morocco! FINALLY! I am a little reluctant to leave, but at the same time soooooooo looking forward to it. Especially for the food. I have had my fill of rice and sauce.