Monday, August 30, 2010

Stumbling into Surprises, Last Night in Town

Last full night in Ghana. The plan is to head down to the coast, find someplace to grab a bite, and meet Annie at Bywel's, the same place we heard some high life music when we were here a few weeks back.

That's not at all how the night went down.

While walking through something of a beach town slum, I hear some drumming. Crossing a makeshift bridge, I see some dancing. Surprisingly enough, Accra's oceanside coast is not home to international hotel chains or posh pool bars. Instead, it's a 15 year old corrugated steel Hooverville that sits peacefully, waiting as the tide laps up, just feet away. Just beyond this interconnected maze of propped up housing stands the presidential palace, looking like a fort on a cliff from behind.

The music and dancing that I'm slowly stumbling into is part of a royal drumming school, and 30 or so people are digging into the sound as the sun goes down. I stand, noticed, but untouched, and start passing by the group's concrete stage. Rounding the circular building, I found the head drummers, who invited me in and introduced themselves and their resident white guy, Claas (Klaus).

Gettin' down in the back...
Claas, from Germany, does most of the talking, although his English is staggered and smells of gin. He has been living with Senegal (the royal drummer) and the rest while making a documentary film on the group, who had just performed for the president the previous afternoon. Ghana's royal drummers are chiefs, and they claim authority over the musical/ritual activities of small regions, with Senegal, the leader of the Osu neighborhood, declaring his hierarchical dominance over the rest of Accra.

I'm excitedly pulled into one of the corrugated houses, and I find myself standing in front of a full bar. The English Premier League is playing on a TV set. Everything short of darts. Claas orders a Star beer, asks if I'm interested. No, haven't eaten dinner yet! I change my mind when I see the tasty beverage in front of me. He also gets a "Striker" - about 2 shots of gin in a plastic, sealed pouch. The 'tender has to find the scissors to clip off a corner and fill a glass, along with some lime juice. "Claas, that's my summer drink of choice right there, a gimlet!" He's surprised and gets excited. Later in the night, I have one of my own and we toast my lost wanderings while sitting in a shack/bar looking over the coast.

Claas and Senegal, chillin'  hard. Yes, that is the ocean in the background on the right.
I went back the next day - left my notebook at one of the bars. Claas and Senegal wanted pictures, hundreds of pictures of the school and the young drummers. A guitarist was visiting the night before, he was still there in the afternoon, giving us the chance to jam a bit, playing a bit of reggae and a great "Hey Joe." As a member of Fela Kuti's band, I was a bit star-struck, and he was a fantastic player. Me, I was using an acoustic guitar that was missing a string, forcing me to play as a bass. I'm more comfortable there, anyhow, but when the drummers joined in, my straight reggae lines suddenly felt much, much more difficult. I made it, and didn't make a fool out of myself in the process. In the end, that's all we can hope for, eh?

Lessons from royalty.
Annie and I left that night, Friday. Her boss took us out to a meal of Ghanaian food, complete with fried plantains, spicy sauces, perfectly mixed spiced rice, and large plates of grilled fish. All alongside the local milk stout. Perfect.

Delta, in trying to keep us "safe," took us through 18 checkpoints and consumed the 3 hours that we spent in the airport (good thing we were early!). They let us on, found a place for the kora, and plopped us in our spots. Bam, going home. Two movies, a book, and some TV later, we were in Atlanta.

I finished "On the Road" just as we came home. Felt right.

The drumming and dance school.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Other Saint Louis

She finally found one she likes. She has since found many more.
Left yesterday morning, 7am, for what was supposed to be a 3 hour trip. The destination, Saint Louis, was the previous capital of the region. The French used it as their center for the entirety of French colonial West Africa. Saint Louis was the hub that administrated over Mali, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, etc. As a result, it's booming with old colonial architecture.

Well, it was. And maybe is, but not during Ramadan.

Conducting business.
After the 5 hours that it took to get there, we dropped Annie off at the university, where she was to conduct a whole slew of interviews. Dirt roads, dirt parking lots. The things that you take for granted. I couldn't imagine the University of Florida with goats wandering the main lot. Later in the afternoon, though, Annie had to worry for her hair as they started to get closer...

(Her hair is ok.)

A moment of repose.
It was good to get out of the big city. We passed people waiting for buses, small-scale farmers collecting their wares, thatched huts inside concrete compounds, twisted trees that seemed to jump right out of a film, horse-carts, children porting water, and the most well-dressed hitch-hikers that I've ever imagined. Especially the women, decked out in expensive fabric, home made dresses.

Most everything was closed for the holy month. The hotels in Saint Louis date back to its glory days, but alas, I was denied entrance. I had two qualifications in finding a place to spend my afternoon.

1: Air conditioning.
2: A toilet with a seat. (I didn't even need TP, had my own tissues.)

First try: small bakery, coffee shop. No air con, no seat on the toilet. But it was inside, and I was hungry, so I sat. Even got some WiFi. Since I had some work to do, I decided to give it a chance. After a half hour, they closed and kicked me out. Dang.

Second try: ran into the taxi driver, who wandered into another restaurant. Looked good, but lacked, again, on both necessities. Plus, I had just eaten a slice of pizza, so no need to stick around. I was hot.

Third try: the riverside pool bar. Yes! Toilet seat! Outside, boo! It was hot, but I was done of wandering. So I sat. A few hours of writing online course materials for UF, and it was time to move on. So, three tries, and no one really passed my two-teired test. I believe that the city has much, much more to offer, and I'm sure I'll be passing through again sometime to check out the old hotels and bars.

Hiding from the heat and hunger of late-afternoon Ramadan.
Ride home? Lots of pictures. Also, waaaaay too long. We managed to find the only taxi driver who wasn't in a rush. He even slowed down to close to a stop whenever he saw an animal to photograph! We were ready to get back to our posh hotel. We eventually did, where we sat on the roof and ate a delicious dinner to make up for the unprecedented hassle of the day.

Tonight we're off to Accra. We leave at 12:55am. Hopefully it will go better than last time...

La Fourchette (The Fork). We found a way to spend over $50 on dinner, enjoying a meal that would have been impossible to afford stateside. I had a "tornado" of beef with vanilla sautéed and puréed potatoes with a glass of cab. Annie had a type of fish that was cooked in such a way that it caramelized on the outside. And, the obligatory giant bottle of water...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dakar. Check.

You're either on the bus or you're off the bus.
Dakar comes through. It has music. It has roads. It has water. It even has construction with workers doing work, more than I can say for most of the US.

We hit the town hard yesterday. We dedicated ourselves to food. Breakfast on the terrace (it was hot), good coffee, great breeze, perfect. The hunt was already on for lunch. After checking in on some clubs in the trendy Point E district across from the university, we found ourselves at an Ethiopian restaurant. Finally we find some good African food in Africa, but to our surprise, it's from the wrong side of the continent. We eat, injera toasting in the heat of the day. Coffee and ice cream were just right for a finish.

Back at the hotel, I hunt for musical activities while Annie makes her inroads for the week's work. (She's on the terrace now completing her first interview in Senegal.) It took a while, but we decided on an adventure for the drowsy night. It's Saturday, and Dakar knows how to party (even Lonely Planet says so!).

The ocean from the upper terrace. I can almost see Florida from here!
Off we go - the long cab ride takes us to Les Almidies, the Westernmost point of the African continent. After a few questions directed at folks walking the street, our driver finds his way down a dark side street with distant lights. As we get closer, we see no sign, but there is, interestingly enough, a signpost that happens to have nothing on it. "This is it." We pull in to the parking lot and sure enough, it's our spot. For $3, he'll wait. Thank god! As we pulled in we passed a family desperately trying to hail a cab on the empty, black road. As an aside, this may be the first place we've been with a parking lot.

Inside, it's an entirely different story. The many tables are empty, save for two or three, but the dining room lowers to within 20 feet of the incoming ocean tide. We settle down right on the edge, a table looking out over the black ocean, surrounded by the sound of lapping waves. It's something, how you can stare out into the sea, just as it's almost impossible to keep from staring directly into a late-night bonfire. Beers, paella, coffee. A bit overcooked, but worth it for this table and view alone.

Souleymane Faye at Just 4 U, the self-proclaimed Senegalese bluesman.
Time for some music. Souleymane Kaye is at a nearby bar, kindly called "Just 4u." Oh the internet, the havoc you've wrecked with the English language. He's a bluesman who listens to a whole lot of Fela Kuti. (As an aside, if you haven't listened to any Fela, go do it. Now.) Great show. The band would kick into a groove, led by the absurdly tall bass player and the Sabar drums, a staple in Senegalese music. Souleymane Kaye stands back, sits in the pocket, you see the sound flowing around him, he's barely playing. Suddenly he's screaming classic blues licks, but he's three, four feet away from the mic. Yet it's loud and clear. The show goes on like this. It's exactly what Dean hears in good bop in On the Road (Kerouac), the book that's consumed my plane rides throughout the trip. This guy has IT.

We're tired. Annie's falling out of her chair. Time to go. Day 1. Check.

As Ramadan passes, sights like this pop up everywhere. Sacrificial animals appear on street corners, in main roads, crossing streets... There's a group tied to a telephone post outside the window right now. One's pretty angry. The pressing decision for every family: buy one now for the feat, while they're nice and cheap, or do you wait until the night before. Most wait, you don't have to feed them, and you keep your kids from getting too attached before the big meal. (PS: check out little brother on the left, trying to keep up!)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mali just couldn't bear to have us leave!

Our neighborhood in Bamako
Yesterday afternoon (Friday), we went to the airport, bags packed, ready for the next adventure. Sadly there was an intermediary step that we had yet to discover. After going through two security/passport checks, we stepped up to the Ethiopian Airlines counter. Just as we were feeling triumphant (sometimes every minute detail feels like a victory), the man at the counter dropped the news: we had no ticket. We questioned him, argued with him, showed him how we made it here (to Bamako) from Accra on the same bits of paper, but he was staunch, showing us his passenger list (27 people), and pointing out the severe lack of Witulskis.

Thus began the afternoon. Annie fought with the main Ethiopian Airlines desk while I waited with the bags. We needed to buy a new one. Nope, no credit, only cash. Well fine. Somehow, who knows why, both ATMs at the airport are down. Seriously? A woman at the airport bank offers her a ride to the nearest ATM. No, there isn't room for the bags. Chris continues to wait (this time outside, where he is covered with 15-30 flies at a time, it seems).

While describing the ordeal to the woman from the bank in her red station wagon, her tire blows. Yes, that's right, a flat. "Madame, vous n'avez pas de la chance!" Our flight is leaving soon, and we still have no ticket. PS: Annie's phone has no more battery. Some fella on a scooter offers his help. Chris is still waiting. Flies. Everywhere. ATM #1, nope. ATM #2, also doesn't work. ATM #3, no luck. Back to the airport...

Meanwhile, the woman at the bank returns to the airport, asks me where Annie is. Eh? She was with you! Amidst the confusion here she comes, rolling in on the back of a half-scooter half-BMX bike.

Ethiopian Airlines flight to Dakar takes off. We're in the parking lot.

Time to find a new flight. Air Mali's office is here, there are people inside... What time's the flight? They don't know. They don't know?? We have to wait for the woman who knows. Where is she? No idea. Ok, we'll wait. We wait. Still waiting. Sitting with the flies. Still waiting. Finally, a phone call. Later tonight. What time? Tonight. Ok. Je comprends. C'est bon.

The man Annie's been working with throughout the trip arrives, jolly as always, and whisks us away from the insanity of the airport! We go to a travel agent, get a ticket, he takes us to a great hotel restaurant to get some lunch, we eat, sit in the air conditioning, have a beer, drink some coffee, watch an American movie on TV. We rest, recoup from the afternoon, and prepare ourselves for the second try, which works without a hitch.

Air Mali treats us well, we get the first row, plenty of space, a meal (on a flight that was only an hour and a half!), and some sleep.

Our taximan pontificates about the virtues of women and how men must treat them well, we arrive at our hotel, the Djoloff, which is perfect in every way. (Hot shower with water pressure!!!) This morning we sat on the terrace, overlooking the ocean. Dakar is the Westernmost point of the African continent, and we're only a few streets from the ocean. The air feels like it should, sitting, watching the small fishing boats. A new day, in a new place.

So far, the only picture of us together! On the terrace of the Hotel Mirabeau in Bamako. (The new terrace, at Hotel Djoloff, makes this one look like just a bunch of useless empty space, which it was.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Last day in Bamako (or so we thought)!

Fabric shopping - so many options!

After a few nights of difficult (if any), sleep, we've come to the end of our week in Mali. The highs were high and the lows were low. The food was good, when we could find it, and the people generous. But off we go, tomorrow afternoon, to Senegal. Annie finished her work this morning and followed it up by getting some fabric, which will hopefully turn into some crazy outfits in Senegal.

Last night we hit a curious restaurant called Bistro La Bafing. It was an African-themed restaurant, one of the few that we've come across, that's basically fans keeping people cool under a giant tent of sorts. We had some tasty chicken with mango sauce before moving into the bar area and splitting a (big) bottle of Castel lager, Dakar's main beer of choice.

This afternoon, after a solid nap, we went out to the Diabaté's house together, the first time Annie got to see it. Sadly, we missed Toumani by a day on both sides of our trip - he left the day we arrived and he's coming back tonight, just before we leave. Next time, insha'allah. The last kora lesson with Ledye will be tomorrow morning, right before we head off to the airport.

The entrance to what is probably the top recording studio in Mali, on the third floor of the Diabaté's house. Also a choice spot for drying laundry.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ledye Diabaté - Kaira

My new teacher, Ledye Diabaté, playing one of the songs that he's teaching me. It's called "Kaira," and I'm not half bad at it... This is on the kora, a 21-stringed harp-like instrument made out of a large calabash (gourd), blessed wood (not sure about that one), and leather. He makes them out of materials here. Today, while trying to tune it, he broke a string, sending us on an hour odyssey into the bowels of the market to find new fishing line. It's all fixed, so now I can get back to practicing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lost and Found

Mohammad "playing" the n'goni (not the kora) at our point of repose, Hotel Tamana. He had no idea what he was doing, but was amazed when I could play some tunes from our bluegrass band on it!
We found the restaurant. We finally had dinner. For the second day in a row, we spent over an hour searching back roads, or what we thought were back roads, for our dinner recommendations. Yesterday we set out for a French restaurant called Le Campagnard, supposedly the talk of the town. The cabbie, however, didn't know where it was. C'est la vie quelquefois. Angry, he dropped us off on a corner, yelling about how we lied about the location, and we began our valiant search. Over and hour later we had wandered down every road that extended from what we though was the traffic circle. It was a big circle with traffic around it, and a statue. It was dark, we were in a seedy neighborhood, so we grabbed a cab. Turns out that the "traffic circle" was actually not the circle with the traffic, but an intersection with a square foot of grass in the middle. Either way, we made it.

Today's trick was that the fancy Italian place was NOT on the paved road, but a quarter mile down a red clay road that felt like moguls. Bikes were having a hell of a time traversing the fun park that was Rue 250. But we found it thanks to a cabbie who we had asked earlier. He had no idea what we were talking about (but he was busy eating his cake after breaking the day's fast). About 15 minutes later, he found us again, drove up, and took us. The guy actually went, asked around, found it, and came to get us! Viola!

Both places were fantastic, but the food isn't what's worth telling about in Mali. Like Morocco, there are few good restaurants, the best food is at home. Sadly, we don't have the access to homes - that takes a bit more than a few days. So, we get what we can, and it's all been great. Today's pizza was just what we needed after, well, an hour looking for pizza...

The bigger news of the day, though, is that I got a kora! I went to meet Ledye Diabaté, Toumani Diabaté's brother at his house, where he showed me the koras that he builds. We talked a bit, I took some photos, and off we went to get a bag made for it. The tailor took some measurements, and Ledye's going to pick it up tomorrow. Part of me is frightened that I'll end up with some hot pink vinyl or something similarly ridiculous. I'd deserve it since I didn't make any requests on material.

Afterward, we headed over to Toumani's house (he wasn't there), where Ledye showed me around, introduced me to the room of hyperactive children, and proceeded to point out each of the (many) posters that they've collected over the elder brother's prestigious career. His latest recording, with Ali Farka Touré, won him a Grammy (Touré's second, if I'm not mistaken). It's worth a listen, I hear - I plan to pick it up tomorrow.

The top floor was his recording studio, where the Symmetric Orchestra rehearses and records. According to Ledye, it's the best in Mali, a claim I'm tempted to agree with. We sat on some couches outside the studio, where it was much more peaceful than downstairs, and he taught me two songs. One, "Kaira," I was able to pick up fairly quickly. The second, "Bani," was much trickier, and gives me something to work on tomorrow morning. Right now I'm uploading a video of Ledye playing "Kaira," which will give a great sense of the kora's sound. I'll post it in 145 minutes, when YouTube decides it's ready.

All is well, time is moving faster than we could have expected, as it always does on a trip like this. Annie's work is coming along, she's getting plenty of help, and everyone is cooperating. Ask her about the zebra restaurant if you'd like to see an impressive demonstration of what might be poor taste (or might not, who am I to go against the wind?).

She's lookin' sleepy, so it might be time to move on. Peace.

Walking to lunch. It seems that I only have photos of busy streets - but that's probably because we only really get to see busy streets. Note the large garden just off the main road...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Moving on

The streets of Accra
Finally, well rested again. The 8-hour plane ride from Accra to Bamako via 3 other countries felt more like a greyhound bus with all the stopping and starting, but it took us, eventually, to our destination. We waited through some confusion with a ride at the airport and, choosing a taxi, we got our first glimpse of Bamako. Mali is always in the discussion of the world's poorest countries, and it is equally present in any debate regarding the quality of music. It is heralded by many as an example of a democracy that runs (fairly) smoothly in an Islamic setting riddled by poverty, therefore it discounts many complaints that both characteristics stifle political activity. Yet it has many, many counter issues - women's literacy, for one, is astoundingly low at 14%.

The drive through the red clay streets of town took us through beautifully manicured gardens just as quickly as it brought us through neighborhoods of makeshift houses consisting of corrugated sheet metal and wandering donkeys (quite the traffic jam when one ends up in the road!) Our hotel, Hotel Tamana, is fantastic, right down to the mosquito nets. I'm sitting at the patio now, working through some video from last night's adventure.

Our first day could not have come together better. Despite my concerns over Ramadan's effect on the live music scene, there was a group playing at Toumani Diabate's haunt that included two of his brothers and his sister (pictured below). The brothers each played kora, and I had the opportunity to speak with one of them during the show. He will be coming by later, and my kora work will be well on its way by day 2. Unlike time spent in Ghana, this week in Mali appears to be off to a busy start... No time for wandering the city! Instead I have to work through audio and video recordings, preparing questions and working on my lousy French.

The band kicked, playing music in the style of Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra, the sounds that are partially responsible for Mali's surge into the world music scene. Aside from the kora, we had a guitarist, bassist, drum set, and keyboard. Three percussionists sat in front of the stage, one playing djembe, another playing a pair of drums and a third with a small talking drum. They took turns with solos that grew more intense as the evening progressed. A series of "frontmen" cycled through, as singers passed the mic and sang popular songs and praises. When a jeli sings to an audience member, they are often recounting the glories of that person's family, and as such, are given some compensation in the form of small (or sometimes large!) bills. The singers approached different "big men" in the audience, improvising lyrics for the situation. A favorite stop was a friend of the bar owner, fresh in from Senegal, who was known to love Mande music. The real stars were Diabaté's sister, below, and the drummer behind her. They worked the stage and the audience for hours before we, growing pretty tired from our long trip the night before, had to make our escape.

Feel free to comment - it lets me know that people are reading!

Singing praises and collecting "thanks"

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ghana On My Mind

We made it, three days in Ghana and it's almost time to move on. Things are going to pass quickly during this trip... Tonight we catch a flight to Bamako (via 3 other countries, including Guinea and Sierra Leone). We were told before we left that West Africa would surprise us, it would be quite different than Morocco. And it is. On the plus side, you can stop and get a beer anywhere you want; a far cry from the equivalent presence of mint tea weighed down with sugar that we're used to. On the other hand, the old city of Fez is basically car free, the exact opposite of traffic-ridden Accra.

Other than the 2-plus hours per day that I've spent in transit, I've found generous people eager to share their stories and music with me, a passing stranger. A few people are excited to be in touch once we return to Ghana at the end of August, ready to sit down and discuss the changes of Ghanaian music since the '40s. Hip life, a combination of hip hop and highlife, plays from car stereos and music stalls on the street. Even more omnipresent, however, are old Protestant hymns performed as groovy reggae tunes. While speaking with Sunny, a Nigerian country music fan who sells CDs by the Makola Market, his stereo began blaring "Sweet By and By," a tune I've fiddled my way through a number of times over the past year. (I quickly bought the CD and look forward to adding it to a lecture upon my return!).

Last night Annie was finally able to get out of our neo-colonial hotel. We went down to a bar in Osu, an area just outside of downtown Accra, where we found some live music. Bywel's, one of the few places still hosting bands during the week, reminded me of a roof-less Bug Jar (for the Rochestarians) or Common Grounds (for the Gainesvillians). It was a hip spot with murals painted on the walls, and the lack of shelter allowed the fresh air in and the must out. The Alpha Waves began with old ballads including "Georgia on my Mind" and "What a Wonderful World" before shifting into a good highlife/hip life groove. The place was hopping by 10:00, we stuck around for a while, talking to a rice exporter from California. Our taxi driver said he'd find us a band to hear tonight and left his number. I'll call later - we'll see if he comes through.

Tonight we leave, and finally get to Mali, a trip we've been craving for years. But first, we intent to enjoy every last minute here in Accra, and today we do a bit of shopping. I just got a soccer jersey for $10, I had to haggle a little extra since they knocked us out of the World Cup not that long ago. Tonight's goal is kente cloth, a handmade fabric from the region. Wish us luck, and good prices!