Note: I've finally put my photos of this African trip
online (it only took me a year!).
Some pictures have been embedded or added as links into the relevant text on this page;
to see all of the photos, check my Senegal pages.
[As if I really have time to be writing this when I should be packing!
But I just wanted you all to know... :-]
OK, it really is happening! I am going on a
drumming mission, to
Abene, a small Senegalese
village right on the Atlantic coast of West Africa,
just two hours' drive south across the
Gambian border from Banjul airport. So just
where is this
Abene then? It all just looks like
bleedin' Eastenders to me...
"Cor blimey Guvnor, I ain't goin' south of the river...!"
There are going to be quite a few eminent teachers out there to study with (Hello Jed and Justine! :-)
This was an unmissable chance as lots of wonderful people who I met in Hebden Bridge are all going to be in Abene at the same time. Hopefully while we're there we'll get out in the wild on some funky transport :-)
At Bizia's party, everyone reminded me to check that my passport had not expired. When I got home to check it, amazingly, it is still valid until April 2006! I'd originally got it back in 1996 when Craig was going to Australia, just in case I ever went to visit him. But being a total travel virgin (except for a few school ski-trips to Switzerland), I've not used it yet! Both Mama and sister suggested that I won't be let into/out of the country with such a freaky passport photo ;-)
So all was well until people at Tuesday's Wycombe drumclass told me that some countries' immigration policies require that a passport be valid for an extra six months after the expiry date, for some reason. So I spent the night fretting over the websites of the UK Passport Agency and the Senegalese Embassy until 2am. Next morning I phoned up the Embassy, and was superelieved to hear that they only require a three month surplus after a passport expires: incredibly, I would be OK since my passport expires on April 30th, which is three months and six days after I get back! That's six days leeway in the ten years since I got it!!! So thankfully I won't have to take a day off work and battle into Central London to pay ninety quid for an emergency fast passport application. Thank-you Angels!
Imagine my joy and surprise, when, reeling from that, I phoned Barbara, who had brought back some djembes and shakers for us when she'd been out in the Gambia working on her charity project. I was just asking for general advice, having not spoken to her for many months, and was amazed to find that she herself was flying, also from Gatwick to Banjul, just two days after we were, and returning two days after us! She gave me her mobile number in Gambia on the off-chance that we might even have an opportunity to meet up, since we will be within ten miles as we travel from the airport. Big world, huh?!
Then I mentioned my passport expiry scare, and she reminded me that I would actually be landing at Banjul which is in Gambia, so they would be the people checking passports, as well as at the border into Senegal. Ohmygodno! I'd already had kittens once today, so a second time was getting too much. She urged me to phone the Gambian High Commission immediately to check... luckily they too required just three months :-) Love it!
Monday was a mammoth last-minute shopping spree, gathering all the things a traveller could need, zooming around Studiospares, Brent Cross and Galleria shopping centres, Welwyn Garden City and Tesco. Here's a breakdown of my spending on the entire trip:
That's £1950.00 in total!!! Ah well, holiday of a lifetime...
Of course, seasoned travellers would know better and be more frugal, use digital cameras (and not drop them!), already be vaccinated against Yellow Fever, etc. Since I'm a complete travel virgin, I needed to buy lots of stuff that most people already have like rucksacks and sunglasses, so just deduct all that to get a more realistic cost if you're contemplating a trip. With hindsight, I now know what (not) to take; don't bother trying to be all benevolent by bringing gifts - just give folk all the clothes off your back (maybe wash them first, by hand of course :-) and then go and buy some funky African outfits to take back home, as I did. I also left anything behind that might be of use, just bringing back dead batteries and other non-recycleable rubbish. And be sure to book your flights well in advance to get a much better deal than our last-minute desperation allowed.
I didn't finish packing until 4am (!), so went straight to Justine's, from where her dad drove us to Gatwick. Luckily my hand luggage was just under the 5kg limit, although I got stung on my hold luggage and had to pay £100 excess weight :-(This made my idea of bringing gifts of pens and paper and nice soaps and nuts seem pretty economically stupid!)
At 9:15am, we flew to Banjul in Gambia in an Airbus A330, which took about six hours. This was my first long-haul flight, having only ever been on a plane once to Edinburgh (although I have done parachute training, but never jumped yet). Despite my dislike of air travel on environmental grounds, I realise that flying is a practical necessity for such faraway trips, although I would have loved to have joined some folk from Newcastle who were driving there (they set off way before Christmas!). It was an exhilerating journey and great to see the world from a new perspective: peering out of the window I was deeply moved at mankind's achievements seeing countless wind farms standing proudly on the slopes of Portugal, and photographed awesome views over Morrocco and the Sahara. Most pictures didn't come out too well due to camera shake and thick aeroplane windows, but here you can see us making landfall over Africa and then skirting the coast of Dakar.
Eventually we landed in a new world, and I disembarked from the plane and kissed the tarmac! Everything was new: climate, landscape (as flat as the Fens), trees, birds, language (although English is spoken in Gambia where we began), currency, customs, transport. Filing through the airport, I managed to lose my money belt containing my passport, plane tickets, money and credit cards!!! It had fallen off during the scrum after the luggage X-ray machine; luckily someone handed it in. Phew!!!
We met up with our host Jan (my original dun dun mentor from Vitae Drum Circle) and our driver Keba. Calming down, I drank cool water (fasting) in the bar as we waited for Duncan's flight to arrive from Manchester. We welcomed in the third member of the Hebden trio, and went out to load up the car, trying to ignore all the hassle from the 'porters' who will attempt to carry anything (even things you are already carrying yourself) and expect payment. Keba then drove us in a Toyota 4x4 pickup to Brikama, with some of the porters sitting on the back of the truck to cadge a lift. Stopping at a Shell garage in this crazy little market town, the vehicle was beset by children begging, who we had to duly ignore so as not to encourage them. We changed some sterling into the Senegalese currency of CFAs in a darkened back room of a shop. Once we escaped the gridlock of no-rules traffic, our journey continued the back way across the Gambian border to Senegal as dusk fell. Turning off the tarmac road onto tracks of scorched red earth, we were glad to be in a four-wheel drive vehicle, with a knowledgeable driver who knew where to slow down and avoid the huge holes and where it was better to move off the 'road' altogether. It's quite tragic for these guys who drive these roads for a living that their ridiculous state of disrepair is steadily wrecking their transport which is their very livelihood. Crawling along progressively more crazy roads deeper into the jungle, we eventually arrived in the village of Abene at night amidst a deafening chorus of cicadas.
Reaching Jan's house was quite a surprise; it is a mile or so out of the village along sandy tracks, in dense jungle beside a creek which floods in the rainy season. Suddenly a monolithic dark red rectangle appeared in the headlights and we had arrived. The building itself is difficult to describe in words, so check the photos. It's a large hexagon shape of rooms surrounding an open courtyard in the centre of which is a circular room which housed the dinner table. It's currently still under construction; soon a second storey will be added on top of the ground floor, giving a circular bedroom above the central dining area, and the outer rooms will have a covered walkway on top edged with a railing to prevent falls. The central bedroom will be linked to the perimeter by a bridge, and all of this upper floor will be covered over by traditional grass roofing (thatched African dried grasses, not English lawns!)
Round the perimeter of the courtyard there are five bedrooms (four ensuite), a music/sewing room, a kitchen with fridge/freezer and gas cooker (one of only a handful in the entire village), a living room with (*cough*) TV and DVD player (!), and a storeroom. There will eventually be a staircase leading up to the rooftop bedroom, and mosquito nets will be set up under the perimeter roof canopy so that people can also sleep out there in the open air :-) Electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator, until solar power is installed. (I'm not sure if the soon-to-arrive village electricity supply will reach this far out.)
> > > More pictures of Jan's house
After meeting Jan's main man Abdoulaye Badji ('Laye' for short), we were shown to our rooms and given a run down of procedures such as drawing water from the well. Each of the bedrooms has a (triangular!) ensuite bathroom which is way too much luxury for the jungle :-) Until the water tower is built (which will use a solar-powered pump), the shower and taps didn't work, instead we used buckets of water to wash and to flush the toilet. I soon warmed to this technique though, taking great pleasure in hoisting up water from the well, enjoying the sound of it swishing and echoing in the 7m-deep stone cylinder (that was dug by hand), feeling the coolness against my flesh and the effort invigorating my muscles. Washing is done by using a large cup to scoop water out of a bucket, to then pour over yourself. I soon found that the best plan was to be the first awake and fill the buckets at dawn while the well water had lain undisturbed for a long while and was bizarrely warm, then leave one bucket out in the midday sun to take the chill off those cold showers ;-) Throughout my stay here, I really enjoyed using the well, and given the choice would prefer it for all watery tasks except perhaps shaving and washing up, which are the only things that a steady stream of water are helpful for. This is just one example of something that our society misses out on: now that I find myself (lost) back in Britain, taps just seem like soulless, mundane dead things which remove some of the beauty from daily life, just a further distancing of ourselves from a reality we never even knew. We're all too busy working hard to waste time enjoying the play of water on skin, the sounds of drips in a well; we've got mortgages to chase, a certain quality of life to maintain... (hey - wait a minute...!)
It took quite a few days to acclimatise to this awesome place. Somebody (I forget who) once said that although the body may travel great distances, it takes the soul a few days to arrive and catch up - I definitely felt this (and on the return journey too).
Breakfast was taken sitting around a table in the garden, where we met Jan's rasta crew who were building the house: Maguette from Dakar, Nfally Sagna = angaS (who later taught me a lovely song), Saddibu and Lamine; these guys were such cool characters and we quickly became great friends. I was given the nickname of Malcolm X, which was an honour ;-)
They have cleared the bush (Jan also worked with them, to prove she could!), chopping the 2m-high grasses and undergrowth by hand with machetes to create a beautiful garden in the compound with lemon trees, bamboo, palms and many other amazing species. Laye took me on a tour of the place, showing me the extent of the land, marked by the traditional fences made with large twisted grey palm tree branches linked with wire. He showed me special medicinal plants with magical properties that he had learned about during his childhood growing up in the bush - he is known as a 'jungle boy', a real Crocodile Dundee character able to live on insects and plants if need be. We picked one fruit called Caba which was like a dark-red/orange lemon-sized object, which contained inside its hard skin many segments of super-zingy sherbet-tasting flesh, pre-cut by nature into bite-sized chunks with stones in the middle; I brought some stones back to England in the hope that someone with a greenhouse might cultivate them.
It was good to see the house in daylight; although unfinished and only half-painted, you can already tell that there is real genius at work here. Remarkably, Laye designed it (with Jan's help) and built it from scratch. Once completed, this palace should be featured in architectural magazines.
Since it was the Tabaski religious festival, there was to be no drumming; instead, people tend to put on their finest clothes and go out visiting. So we went over to meet Jan's neighbours: Silvia and Kiki, and then on to Lucia and Papice's awesome traditional Djola house; this large round structure had an amazing grass roof sloping down to a central circular area open to the sky with a small tree that will be watered by the rain! I wish I'd got photos of this most incredibly energising building which puts most of our Western architecture to shame.
After dinner that evening, we played djembes and dun duns (so much for Tabaski!?) with a potential teacher Asu Baba, giving a powerful rendering of Kakalambi all sitting in the round at Jan's house. This place really is so perfect for drumming, in that the various bare stone rooms off the central courtyard acted as reverberation chambers, the acoustics being controllable by opening or closing the doors (a la IRCAM's experimental concert hall ;-) In fact, I soon discovered that the triangular ensuite bathrooms had remarkable acoustic properties that resonated at the pitch of B-flat, which would be utilised later...
Then we walked to the village to a disco at The New Bar; on arriving we saw some awesome drumming from a band that I believe included Nansady Keita. This venue was like something in a dream - very cool people and fantastic architecture including an amazing roof the underside of which was one huge spiral of bamboo, and white pillars and black and white tiled bars; a splendid blend of modern and traditional. One side of the bar was open to the gardens for people to chill out when the pace got too hot. The music was mostly reggae and African stars such as Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita and their ilk. Oh, and did I mention that there was some pretty sharp dancing going on? It only took a few minutes to realise that this really was the legendary tropical paradise that mythical tales are told of, a sort of Restaurant At The End Of The Universe type of place devoted to pleasure. We danced until the late hours, revelling in the wonderful vibe, before walking home in the same vivid moonlight that we'd enjoyed so much last month at Malham...
Straight after breakfast, Laye drove me to the nearby town of Kafountine on the back of his Piaggio "engine" (= scooter). Despite having only ridden as a motorbike pillion passenger a few times, I was amazed at how safe I felt balancing on the back of a bike without holding on, on sandy tracks in the middle of nowhere; Laye's confidence is infectious and dispelled any fear. Helmets and seat belts are not really done in this part of the world. The only concern was the occasional branch which whipped my legs as we flew past; I now see why people will pick up any loose sticks while walking the paths and throw them into the bush. It didn't take us long to travel the 10km to Kafountine, the journey made all the more entertaining by the fact that so many people were stopping to say hello to Laye - he is well-known in Senegal as a footballer, restauranteur, 'jungle boy', hustler, general good guy, and now architect. (On drums, he claims not to be an artist, but ignore his modesty - he taught me lots and can certainly keep the pace with the best of them!) This was just an extension of the general Big Family vibe of the village: while walking the streets, it is customary to greet everyone you meet in a mixture of French, Djola, Mandinka, Wolof, and for us English. This turned every journey into a social occasion, and rendered trying to get anywhere in a hurry pretty futile, as did the heat. Incidentally, during our entire stay, the climate was just right for me (I don't perform well in extreme heat) - the hottest midday temperatures were about as hot as England ever gets in a heatwave (30'C), the average being mid-20s'C, with only a few of the night walks home getting us shivering.
Thursday was quite cloudy, so I concentrated my photography on the colours of the town. Laye took us to the beach to see the multitudes of fishing boats along the sand: vividly painted long boats resting from their work, awaiting the time for the oarsmen to drag them back into the ocean at dawn.
We went back to the Mini Marche to buy groceries. This is the best shop in the region without travelling to Ziguinchor, yet is only the size of your average living room, stocking a minimal but useful selection of foodstuffs. I found some apples, courgettes, chick peas and olives, so I was a happy bunny. Not so happy for long though, as I foolishly dropped my camera! Luckily it was my old backup camera, not my beloved Canon EOS600 which I'd also brought to Africa, but thought better of bringing on the bike. I tried to remove the film, but it wouldn't wind on properly, so I had to abandon this camera in the hope that the film could be salvaged back in England :-( luckily, it was, albeit with psychedelic effects :-)
> > > More pictures of Kafountine
Back in Abene, Laye, Duncan, Justine and I walked to see The Big Tree, but alas the sun was by now too low to photograph it properly today though, so we returned later. We got back late, and got stuck in an African Time Vortex: the car booked to take us out never arrived, so we missed Ananou's dance performance on the beach, which was a shame as the reports were wild; we danced at the Disco to console ourselves.
Today was the last day of Tabaski, Full Moon, and Friday 13th! DANGER!
After breakfast of freshly picked pineapple and grapefruit, I had my first French lesson with mon professeur Maguette, who spoke only French and Wolof, so Nelson translated into English for me and Wolof for Maguette :-) I was relieved to find that my schoolboy French was still there, and we both learnt lots. In exchange for general grammar and vocabulary, I taught Maguette the alphabet and some proper BBC Received Pronunciation ;-) This would help him to converse with the English guests here at Jan's, and was great fun; over the next weeks' lessons we forged a special friendship despite not being able speak in each other's native tongue.
Lunch was Tebeje (vegetables + rice) with papaya for dessert. Oh, papaya... At last, my digestion awoke and freed me from a disconcerting four days of constipation (since Day -1!) - apparently this is not uncommon: the shock to the system of travel/climate/Malarone/diet perhaps? Although my diet was pretty much the same as usual, I was eating white rice instead of brown rice, which may have been a factor; and maybe I wasn't munching enough nuts and seeds between meals. Those of you who know me well will be amazed to hear that I relaxed my rule of only eating food I had prepared myself, and ate with everyone else, all sharing from a large bowl of food as is the custom. Once I found that the food was pure, cooked (by a friend in the village) without additives and sugar, I gladly partook, although had to avoid sitting next to people who were dashing their food with sugared sauce. I am now addicted to cassava root (like a tough potato), but can't find it in English shops yet. [UPDATE: I found it at Madina General Stores in St. Albans, along with some huge papaya and palm oil. :-]
Justine and I went out on a networking mission to try and arrange our drum lessons for the following weeks. The village is quite large and spaced out (in both senses ;-) and so getting around the place takes quite a while, particularly in the midday heat. (Luckily for all of the classes we ended up doing, we didn't need to carry drums with us as they were all provided, as that would have been a killer.) We walked to Les Belles Etoiles ('The Beautiful Stars'), one of the many drum schools in the village, where we met Hans from Norfolk - he'd already been in Guinea for a month and was hence very chilled ;-)
Next we needed to go and see Mockoulo to discuss possible teaching, and then who should appear, but the man himself on a Piaggio bike! He spirited Justine away on the back, only to break down just up the road! :-) We wandered back with him to his place near the beach at Kossey, and met up with our friends from Hebden Bridge Alec, Steve, Magi and Estelle, at their beach huts near the paradise gardens of Kossey. We walked briefly across the beach and I paddled in the Atlantic Ocean - a token gesture and the closest we got to beach life: despite being in Africa only a mile from the sea, we never once swam in it! We were here to work, not on holiday ;-)
We arranged late-morning drum lessons with Malo Sonko, with Estelle from Leamington Spa joining us. Meanwhile, Duncan and Laye had bumped into Jean-Marie Keita in Kafountine, and had arranged for him to come over to Jan's house each day and teach us.
That evening, the atmosphere was quite tense to say the least! The Full Moon was wreaking its emotional damage, and walking out in the midday heat had affected some people. So only three of us sat round the dinner table for a glorious frites salad fit for kings (perfect chips in the jungle!) - others were ill or hiding. I did my best to steer the tiller into a positive direction, philosophising with a rather sunstruck Duncan, and then walked with Angas and Maguette to Kossey to try and find the English crew again. Some nice drumming drew us into the garden, to see some serouba players around the bonfire - very cool! This was my first encounter with this traditional Casamance instrument (like a small sabar peg-drum) and the interplay between the players and their songs is something special. I chatted with Tim from Newcastle, then walked back with the guys.
Back home, Jan and Duncan and I had a nice talk eating Halva in the kitchen about the situation here, and how the village works. The guys who are helping to build the house are looked after and fed as part of the family, because food is a relatively expensive item. The poverty here is quite difficult to come to terms with - Senegal is the eighth poorest country in the world. A day's wage for the poorest people is only a couple of pounds, so even though the exchange rate is about 1000CFAs to a UK pound, each of those pounds is relatively worth about thirty times that. Thus giving a begging child the smallest currency we had (a 1000CFA note) could potentially cause problems when the child's father comes home having only just earned that for his entire day at work.
Saturday was our first day of drum classes, after a few easy days settling in. Malo Sonko (some more pictures) is founder of Ballet Theatre Bitinibaa and school. He taught us for two hours each morning at his house, beginning with a rhythm called Senefoli. The great thing about his classes is that members of his band also attend, so that each of us was doubled up with an expert to copy: Malo led Justine on djembe, while Estelle and I had Bajan and Appai as dun dun masters :-) It's always nice when dun duns outnumber djembes (so unlike England! ;-)
Jean-Marie Keita came to Jan's each day to teach drumming out in the garden, and stayed for lunch with us. He's originally from Guinea, but now lives in nearby Kafountine. He was Justine's first ever djembe teacher, when she had come to Africa as a djembe newbie back in 1998 - that meeting at Karamba had set her off on the path, starting her own drum classes on her return to England - the rest is history... He recognised his former pupil with a cute smile, and we got into learning Saba and Mendiani. Since he only speaks French, we sometimes asked Laye to come and translate for us, but on the whole we managed to understand. When I finally asked him (via Laye interpreting) if I could notate the rhythms he had taught us and publish them here on my website, he seemed very honoured to be famous! :-)
> > > More pictures of drumming
Later on, Steve and Marion, Justine's friends (also students of Jean-Marie's from Karamba), came to visit and eat brazil nuts round the fire. We decided not to go out tonight, and so I stayed in editing DAT tapes and chatting, leaving our wonderful hosts to have a well-earned night off after their weeks of house-building and dance the night away together.
I rose early on Sunday, eager to record the dawn chorus, but the very loud cockerel neighbour was already up and shouting his thing even before sunrise. I recorded the sounds of the well, and left my DAT machine capturing the ambience of the creek while I ate breakfast.
Jean-Marie introduced Tiriba, Kuku and Liberte. Later at Malo's class we started on Guinea Fari, which was hard!
Laye took us on a tour of the village, including The Big Tree, a vast 500-year old Silk Cotton Tree that is famous throughout the Casamance region. Just like the Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern, the word Big is no understatement here; it stands proud over the village like a vast power source, and is used for special ceremonies - this is not surprising when you see the strange inviting arms and curious bannister-like formations that entice you into the heart of its benevolent embrace.
> > > More pictures of The Big Tree
Next we stopped for a drink at Laye's shop, where he showed us a photo of a 5m-long boa constrictor found in the village once! Nowadays such creatures have all retreated from mankind's domain; during our stay we saw plenty of small lizards, and there were rumours of chameleons too, although of course they were probably in camouflage and hard to spot! Vultures sat in trees and spiralled slowly around above the village, awaiting the demise of tired drummers cooking in the midday heat. My favourite creatures were the huge and varied butterflies as big as your hand that would flit about the place, dancing through the air amidst our drum circles in a riot of colour, and also the tiny birds of brilliant red and blue, half the size of sparrows, that gathered in large insect-like flocks. We also photographed a freaky insect and saw lots of others, most of which were harmless. Incidentally, during our whole stay I only got one mosquito bite, probably due to my obsessive coatings of insect repellant, and my only injury was a sharp bite from some unseen insect, initially shocking like a bee sting, but nothing serious.
Back at the ranch, we got into some brilliantly spirited drum practice by the fire, and then had dinner hearing some cool CDs: Baba Kone's band Jelimasa playing live at London's Dingwalls, and an awesome compilation (which I later bought a copy of) by local artists of the Casamance region with songs, bougarabou drumming and other local folk musics.
Driven to the border at 07:30am (!) via Dioloulou, in order to present our passports. Once properly awake, we practised rhythms en route on our knees (tapping, not praying, that is).
Walking to Malo's later, Justine made my day by saying she'd like to make house music with African drums, a quest I've been on for years now :-) Played Guinea Fari again = still hard! I couldn't follow the breaks at all. We walked back with Luciano via Les Belles Etoiles, to invite Hans and people to our party tonight, and met Seckou Keita's kora-teaching brother plucking away.
After lunch, Jean-Marie recorded some cool dun dun patterns for me, which I duly practised on headphones later, after another French lesson avec Maguette.
That evening I played Kuku's dun dun parts along with reggae on the stereo, warming up for our little gathering. Steve and Marion arrived, but sadly no-one else came to enjoy our fireside jam session. I played with Justine and then the rasta crew WOWed us for hours with traditional Djola songs, with Laye playing awesome unstoppable bougarabou patterns on two djembes. Earlier on, Justine and I had been singing an instrumental song that we'd heard on a Songhai record and loved; Angas then came out and sang the same traditional tune complete with words in Djola! Wow! He proceeded to teach me the lyrics, which I wrote down and recorded for later study:
Emitter ambinola ley
Manney bon ketala ley
Ooli bejow bey mission / bey Casamance
[Phonetic notation - I've no idea of correct spellings/grammar!] The song is basically asking for spiritual help when undertaking a difficult quest; the last line means roughly: "We're going on a mission" and is sung alternating with "We're going to Casamance" on successive verses. If you know me, expect to find yourselves singing it soon... ;-)
(Massive thanks to Angas and the guys for all the Knowledge they imparted that night and other times... :-)
Jean-Marie started teaching Dundunba this morning - what a funky dun dun pattern this is! Walked to Malo's and photographed our groovy group: Malo and his wife Laurie, Estelle, Justine, Bajan, Appai and Luciano. I played djembe for a bit = hard! Played Guinea Fari again = too hard! Afterwards I gossiped with Estelle for a bit, then we went back via Lamin the tailor, who gave me a lovely shell.
Later on I photographed the house and well, and then Laye got Justine and I walking about with baskets balanced on our heads - it's surprisingly easy when you try it (UPDATE: but not good for you). You just need a ring of cloth underneath as a support. (On our voyage home at Gatwick airport, we saw one very cool African lady walking gracefully through the crowded terminal building with her hand-luggage bag balanced similarly on her head. We shared knowing smiles :-)
That evening we went to a different bar called Moffey, to witness the amazing spectacle that was Mockoulo's band Tamila. We arrived early to ensure a good view, and sat at tables near the performance area and dancefloor. This venue was equally idyllic, a bar with a large reggae sound system, with the event being held in the garden out under the stars and palm trees, with speaker stacks and heavy teak tables and chairs set out on the sand. Just three single dun duns stood on their individual stands with such powerful presence, poised and aimed at the dancefloor, silently awaiting their players. When they finally appeared and launched into the first mesmeric rhythm, the djembefolas soon joined them pouring fire over the sonic bedrock. And then came the dancers... Oh my Lord! I have seen African dance and ballet before many times, but this was at a new level. Having a sand dancefloor allowed the dancers to be completely free from any fear of injury; after the first wave of attack, someone rushed on and poured a bucket of water over the sand to hold it together, providing better grip and preventing it flying everywhere. More dancers came on, spinning into the place in formation like flocks of alien beings tumbling over one another. Daredevils from the crowd would occasionally launch into the action, sometimes being challenged or simply outclassed by the dazzling display. I have never seen humans move so swiftly. This was not graceful, but wild, unadulterated and raw. Such experiences are never forgotten.
Today we started a new rhythm with Jean-Marie called Suli, which has an exquisite dun dun pattern - a real workout for the arms. And I managed to notate Guinea Fari's patterns (but still not the tricky break).
Tonight I cooked dinner for everyone, my finest gourmet dish of TC Stirfry with brown basmati rice and some organic tamari I'd smuggled onto the plane - not bad for the jungle :-) I think the guys were quite surprised when my 'English food' turned out to be not unlike their own.
In the evening, while I was drawing water from the well, something flashed across the corner of my eye: I turned to watch through the trees as a glowing green sparking thing fell gradually from the night sky, at a shallow angle of less than ten degrees to the horizon. It streaked right across the village, much longer and brighter than any tiny little meteor tail I've ever seen before. Whether it landed in the sea or the village I don't know, but it must have been of considerable size to make such a display. Perhaps the green coloured sparks were due to some kind of metal ore in the rock. It was definitely not a firework, as the trajectory and speed were all wrong.
I was barely able to contain my excitement at such an astronomic event, and told the others as we walked to Kossey under the clearest night sky I've ever seen. Now, I'm not about to suggest that this extra-terrestrial visitation was in any way linked with some of the very weird spiritual events of the following week, but it was all very odd...
Arriving at Kossey, I chatted to Phew beside the bonfire - he also saw the meteor. Then I asked Nansady Keita for permission to record his performance with Manding Kaira later on, and showed him and Estelle and Magi my photos of them all from Rhythm 'n' Grooves. I recorded their gig pressed up against the wall, hemmed in by crowds surrounding the dancefloor, passively inhaling the DJ's doob wafting in front of me, unable to move to clear airspace. Nansady put down some fine solos to whip up the dancers, including a particularly fine extended roll. [I must practise...!] Mockoulo then performed with his students from Newcastle, also accompanied by dancers. We looked on jealously, wishing we'd had the forethought to arrange a performance of what we'd been learning - next time... ;-)
After Jean-Marie's early morning class, I walked with Justine to Malo's, both of us listening on headphones to our recordings of Guinea Fari that we'd been obsessively swotting up on in every spare moment. Malo showed us a fun new rhythm (with a charming song) called Mama Africa, a long piece with lots of sections, designed for the older women to dance as it is less frantic; Justine remarked that it would be ideal for us English dancers who dance like old women :-)
I nearly sussed out the break to Guinea Fari, but was still having trouble finding where Beat One of the bar was. This particular rhythm can easily throw you into thinking that the count is in a different place entirely, because the bass only appears on Beat Eight, not Beat One! As a result, we spent most of the time hearing and learning the pattern upside down, and once you hear it one way, it's almost impossible to right yourself again. It got so bad at one stage that I had to down my sticks and run around the mango tree in the hope that when I returned I would be back on the beat, which greatly amused the others, but still didn't cure me :-)
Justine was frustrated by the
nigh-impossible djembe part she'd been studying incessantly; she too was
helplessly upside down, and no amount of my yelling
"ONE TWO THREE FOUR" across the circle at her could save her :-)
She sat it out and we walked home consoling ourselves.
Maybe it's a fault of our Western intellect needing to count everything, but
it seems a common trait of African teachers who presume that we can just play
things without needing to know where the patterns start. It can be tricky at
first to play your own part and simultaneously listen to how other parts/bells
go without getting led away from your own part. Often parts will begin
with an/some upbeat leading note(s) before the bar starts, quite rightly so
because that's how the song goes, but you do need to know that. For example,
"We wish you a merry Christmas" starts with the word 'We', but
the downbeat comes on 'wish', so the pulse starts counting from there.
It's all very well not knowing which is Beat One if you're playing an
endlessly repeating pattern, but unless you know where each individual voice
lies against all of the others and in relation to the calls, then you
don't truly know the whole rhythm, and won't be able to teach it to others.
We decided that our hard work will ultimately make us better teachers, in
that we'll be able to explain in ten minutes what it took others hours to
explain to us, just by counting the beat along with the patterns - simple!
(hehe, in theory at least... ;-)
That evening we walked to The New Bar to see Omar Penn, a fine local singer with his band who played some very cool Afro jazz rock, but alas we were too tired to stay long and really enjoy it. No rest... Back home, retiring to my room, I was too tired to care as I saw something quite large scuttle under my bed...!
Friday being the sabbath, there was no drumming, so we'd planned a daytrip to the nearest big town. We rose at dawn and were driven to Ziguinchor in a Peugeot 'sept-places' (7-seater). The Away Team consisted of Estelle, Justine, Duncan, Laye (whose hustling and bargaining powers would prove invaluable) and I on this djembe+cloth shopping mission. During the two-hour journey I composed a dun dun and djembe rhythm, and we compiled a list of all the traditional drum rhythms that we know between us - 47 in total! I also photographed the journey there and back, and took lots of photos around the town, including a tree on which grew the large 40cm mange tout seed-pod shakers I have.
Our first stop was Le Kassa, a cool restaurant with stylish hand-carved tables and chairs, and a stage area with a palm tree growing through the roof. Then we changed money at the bank, and I withdrew 200,000CFA from an IBM 4789 ATM, which promptly broke down (this was quite annoying, since my day job involves fixing such machines!)
At the market place, we were instantly set upon by clouds of hustlers eager to take us to see their stalls, with promises of good prices. I wished they would just leave us to look at the market in peace, and tended to ignore anyone who approached me, preferring to look at stalls where there were no hard sell tactics in operation. In the craft market, I bought a selection of jewellery to give as presents from a pair of nice women who gladly modelled necklaces for me. The many material shops were overflowing with exotic patterned cloth, making decision-making very difficult.
On one long street there was an awesome stall which sold nothing but djembe rope in every imaginable colour and thickness, but not as many actual djembes on sale as I had thought; we tried every drum in the town, and only found a few that met our exacting standards.
We visited Laye's family home, and then I bought a djembe from the drum makers over the road, who were hacking away at a large pile of logs, painstakingly turning half-tree-trunks into dun duns. It was fascinating to see quite how skilled the art of carving the curves of a djembe is, all hewn from one piece of tree trunk; you don't tend to appreciate it once they're covered with ropes and skin.
Back at a djembe shop, Justine and I each bought djembes, then went for a last lap of the market to round up our favourite cloth we'd seen earlier. The shopping ended with a mad dash around every cloth stall on the entire market, seeking out more colours of one particular design of batik with which to make waistcoats for our Vitae Drum Circle to perform in.
Having Laye with us was a great help in pricing, as he is well-known in the town and can command good deals. The African system goes like this: the shopkeeper begins by telling you his 'first price', which is usually exorbitant (and often for Westerners, about double the normal price!), from which you then haggle a reasonable price. Laye told us that if they are still smiling when they finally agree the selling price, then you have not haggled low enough! It's all hard work, especially in French!
> > > More pictures of Ziguinchor
When we finally got back to Abene, I stopped at master tailor Lamin's house to give him the material I had chosen for my suit. While there I bought one of his wonderfully unique Afro Couture creations: a very funky technicolor waistcoat with built-in rucksack, that magically transforms into a different rucksack, plus a matching bag (plus one for Justine). It was nice to be buying designer clothes again, like I used to in my youth (before I got more sense than money), albeit at much more reasonable prices than South Molton Street.
Walking home in the dark was quite a challenge before the moon had risen, as they do not even know what streetlamps are out here. Getting back, I met Dave and Elsa, more fellow Vitae drummers who had arrived today, Elsa sadly on crutches :-( Dave played us the new CD he had just finished mastering of DrumWeaver, their band featuring Jan and Justine on African drums and singing, to which he had added electronic arrangements. It was quite uncanny, considering the conversation I'd had with Justine, that here were traditional rhythms mingling with dance music grooves :-)
This morning began with a nice tune coming to me, always a fine way to start the day. After breakfast we walked to Appai's dance class, where Estelle, Bajan and I played dun duns while Appai taught Justine dances for Bougarabou, Djaa, and Kassa (accompanied by the rhythms for Mama Africa). Appai is a very cool customer and an ideal teacher. Next we played a different version of Lenje with Malo before returning home for lunch and Jean-Marie's afternoon class.
That evening we were driven to The New Bar (called 'Anango'?) to see Malo's group perform three ballets out in the gardens; these were a mixture of spoken dialogue, live action, song, dance and music. The audience clearly enjoyed the humourous story (in Mandinka I think) while we revelled in the music and dance, watching our teachers Malo, Appai and Bajan in full flight supporting the large cast of dancers and singers. There was the usual audience participation and other dramas unfolding. Afterwards the disco took us deep into the night, then Justine, Duncan and I were driven home and chatted into the small hours.
At 4am, I walked alone out into the bush with my DAT recorder, only to encounter something large moving in the darkness; I prepared myself for a battle to the death with evil spirits, but it turned out to be a cow! I left my recorder capturing jungle sounds until the batteries died, while I went to bed.
Walked with Justine to Appai's dance class to learn Djole and photograph them in mid-air, as well as taking some fun group portraits at Malo's last class. That afternoon was also our final session with Jean-Marie, so we sadly said our goodbyes.
Dinner was a delicious dish of cous cous and spicy vegetables, but sadly Jan was ill with a migraine, and Elsa also ill, so tonight's planned housewarming party was cancelled. Instead, Estelle came over to visit, bringing her iPod full of wonderful African music, a veritable mobile DJ she is! This was my first encounter with this device, and I was quite impressed, although the user interface is a bit fiddly. Estelle played her man's music Invisible Drummer and recordings of her own drumming band, and let us wander through her vast collection of classic dub and reggae. For me a seminal moment of the entire trip was sitting out by the fire under stars hearing my mentors African Head Charge's "Learning" and "Jungle Lore", really out in the jungle, my head fully charged by Africa ;-) Dave, Estelle, Justine and I discussed our various musical projects - it was good to meet such wonderful people with so much in common, all like-minded creative musicians from England but coincidentally out here in Africa on the drummer's path. We chatted and heard accounts of strange goings on in the village... The night ended by practising Djole dance with Justine, then singing by the fire.
After attending Appai's last dance class with Justine, I walked with Laye in the midday heat to his shop in the village and we discussed things about Abene; I was interested that there were no police here, and asked how crime was dealt with. He replied that there was a military outpost at the village entrance, but that generally there was an understanding between the people here as to what constituted acceptable behaviour. If you committed crimes, your life would soon become very unpleasant. Indeed, I wouldn't want to be in a close-knit place like this where suddenly all of your neighbours blacklisted you - shopping would be hard if the shopkeepers refused to speak to you! (Mind you, having said that, it's worth pointing out to the unwary visitor that leaving possessions just lying around is unwise, as people are quite likely to pick up anything they find and assume it is unwanted.) In the event of emergencies, there is a large bell under a huge mango tree in the centre of the village which can be rung to summon an immediate response. The village elders control all official things such as planning permission - if you want to build a house you buy the land and ask them.
Another concern of mine was the impending arrival of mains electricity to the village. Laye was also slightly worried by the changes this may bring about - they have already cut down lots of trees to make room. I did my best to warn him about the seemingly benevolent offers of businessmen promising 'development' and 'progress', but really only coming in to make a swift profit, depleting the local resources and labour force and leaving behind pollution and hardship. He agreed that the village works just fine as it is, and that its popularity with musicians and tourists is precisely due to its unspoilt nature; if that is disrupted, people will no longer come.
I bought a funky black and gold top from the Mali shop, and some beautiful jewellery from Laye's shop (I'd love to have bought a container-load of his fine sculptures and paintings!).
After lunch, a different Lamin with South London connections ("init?!") drove Duncan, Laye, Jan, Justine, Estelle and I to Kafountine in a short open-top jeep. I photographed the Internet Cafe there, which is currently the nearest web-connection to Jan's house (unless I can set up my own in Abene ;-) I browsed the shops with no money left (a torturous pastime with such beautiful goods!), before returning home via Abene's own craft village.
Back home I recorded Angas' enchanting Casamance song accompanied by Justine's sublime harmonies in the uniquely resonant acoustic of my candlelit triangular bathroom :-) Thankfully my dusty hoarse throat had got magically better, and after a few takes we got a good version on tape, that we plan to work on in my studio...
After dinner, a deep conversation in my room about spirits prompted me to give my copy of Doris Lessing's book Shikasta to Jan. I played our earlier song recording to Angas and Saddibu beside the fire - if only Angas had been there too when we recorded it. They taught me some more songs, which I recorded for future study. Despite dressing up ready to go out and paint the town on our last night here, a sudden need to lie down sent me to sleep, only to awake in the middle of the night having missed our last disco.
After breakfast I photographed the guys up on the roof :-) Then a swarm of bees decided to invade the house - we were pretty powerless to stop them! We said heartfelt goodbyes to our new family, and packed our baggage into Keba's truck for the drive to the airport :-( It took a small army of large men with big sticks to beat me back onto the plane, but I knew I finally had to return to England; my dear friends, and my studio were the only things calling me back.
At Banjul airport, we met
Malo and Laurie - she was flying back with us. We said goodbye to Duncan and
boarded our flight to Gatwick. On the journey, we planned
Justine's new website, and
watched a new Doctor Who episode:
"Dalek" = COOL!
(Alarmingly, there were no sofas to hide behind! ;-) As we approached London,
the pilot made an announcement:
"The temperature in London is a chilly -4'C..." = how to instantly
dismay hundreds of people used to 25'C! Nobody listened to any more...
So I am happy to report the completion of a successful mission to the African jungle. We survived the sunshine and creatures with no serious side effects to any of the Away Team, other than heartbreak at leaving the paradise village of Abene. I just want to take this opportunity to thank Jan and Laye for being such wonderful hosts and to everyone else for making our stay so special. What did it for me was that we were welcomed as one of the clan and not just a tourist. A superabundance of fine feelings to all of you :-)
It felt very weird to be back in England - such wealth everywhere. Justine and I spent the day going back over some of what we had learned before it slipped from memory. That evening's Vitae session at Wendover was storming! We played Mendiani, Djagbe, River Wye, and Dundunba with some vigour. Good to be back!
Finally I returned home to 572 emails (of which 85 were spam), so please bear with me for a few weeks to catch up! I've finally scanned the best of my 360 photos, and I'll eventually edit the 30 hours of DAT recordings. I really need to quit my job, Angels.
The inevitable post-holiday blues hit me pretty hard, especially due to a sudden immersion straight back into work without even time to catch my breath. This has resulted in a considerable determination to accelerate my retirement timescale to the age of forty (at the most, perhaps even this year if I can pull it off) and start working towards my own aims. It's about time I started playing Life at its own game, instead of hiding in the safety of my day job. I am way too over-qualified now as a musician not to be utilising my skills full-time, so I shall plot a new course and prepare myself for the challenges of self-employment. [UPDATE: it finally happened! ;-]
England is cold! I know we all know this, but I now see things from a new perspective: just as African people are restricted by poverty and droughts, our society is limited by the simple fact that one cannot really survive in winter without proper heating and protection from the elements. We don't realise quite how much this affects our daily life: in warmer climates, having a wash is a simple case of pouring water over yourself, but we English need power showers and central heating (and therefore electricity, etc.). Our whole way of life is geared towards huddling together indoors and being cosy; our home comforts dictate that we work hard to afford them, whereas Africans enjoy such comfort for free just being outdoors (perhaps sheltering from midday sun under the shade of a mango tree). (The rainy season is a different matter of which I have no experience.) Of course, other creatures also thrive in this fertile temperate climate, and bring with them serious problems of tropical diseases, so it's not all good. I know this is a gross over-simplification, but I'm trying to show that it is a two-way exchange: we in the West lack some things that the 'Third World' are rich in, and vice versa.
So I'm trying to come to terms with being back in England again, with things such as taps, smooth roads and unfriendly people, but it may not be possible - something has changed forever. I'm wandering around in a daze in this alien country of affluent effluent, seeing everything in a new light and feeling (as Fabrizia put it:) "...like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole." Take me home! I gave £11 to a woman stranded at Asda Stevenage so she could get a train home to Huntingdon; after my 3000-mile voyage home, this seemed the least I could do (but I forgot to tell her to Pay It Forward).
The next few weeks were spent writing up this journal and catching up with work and Real Life. I tried to keep my drumming hand in too, attending as many sessions as I could, one week managing to play Dundunba at Seneke's drumclass in Walthamstow on the Monday, then again at Vitae on Tuesday and Wednesday and Secret Bass on the Sunday :-)
© copyleft Malcolm Smith 2006-01-01 - last updated 2007-07-19