Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Friends Are Better Than Your Friends

The clouds and dust in my mind clear on this windy morning and a smile still dominates my face. My amazing friends threw a surprise birthday party for me last night at the studio, Mexyland. It didn't even occur to me that it was happening even when I was present at a number of different planning stages. Even when I got there and they had set up speakers outside I was completely oblivious. I saw a couple of balloons but guessed that maybe we were having something with the usual crew to celebrate my birthday (Tuesday) and Ngozi's (Thursday). But then people started arriving en masse. All the international students were there as were the usual Mexyland crew and it was the best night I've had in Gabs, and possibly one of the best nights of my life. I wish I had better pictures, but I was too busy being happy to spend time taking them. But I'll leave you with some mental pictures and go play with my new pair of finger skates and marvel at how truly beautiful my friends are.

Think: dance circles in the driveway, streamers, balloons, knock-out cake and cupcakes, impromptu heavy metal jam sessions, and a wonderful night blanketed by stars and kept alive by the subtlest of breezes. Thank you Ilana, Daniel, Anna, Mex, Lebo, Khwezi and everyone else for the party and most of all - thanks Gabs.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Interabang / ?!

Anyone who knows me will have expected a political rant at some point, so here it goes. These thoughts have been spurred, in part, by my Politics of South Africa class. The class is an excellent one and the professor's enthusiasm and the class' organization have led me to learn more about southern Africa in the past month than I've known in my entire life. What has got me thinking, asking more questions than answering them, has been an in depth look at the international response to the South African apartheid government that ruled the country through bigotry, racism, and oppression from 1948 until 1994. Yes, 1994. A minority-ruled regime, easily comparable to Nazi Germany, was able to rule a country until fourteen years ago. It's mind-boggling.

As we scanned the never ending proverbial pile of UN resolutions on the Union of South Africa, I was forced to read one spineless, euphemistic slap on the wrist after another and found myself asking a lot of questions. The first, being what the hell is the point of the UN if the most they can do is say that they "urge" the apartheid government to change its policies, after dozens of unarmed men, women, and children are sprayed with bullets at Sharpeville in 1960. The second question, that inevitably follows that first one, is that there probably is a point and would it be better if member states could do something more? All you have to do is look at Bush's Iraq blunder to see how terribly wrong unilateral action can go. It's just so depressing to see that no matter what politicians, pundits, and revolutionaries say, vested interests rule everything and pure altruism is so close to being some ethereal construct that we create to make ourselves feel better. So in the 60's and 70's as the West wagged their collective finger at petty apartheid, and the National Party responded with a larger finger of another variety, it's all too easy to look right through the bullshit and see the United States, the UK, France simultaneously protecting their economic investments in a place as strategically important as South Africa. Likewise, as the Soviet Union and China encouraged the national liberation movement with training camps in Angola and Mozambique, they also just played on the ambiguities in Western policy, and slapped the rump of Cold War politics urging it to speed through the world. So the next obvious question - does it matter what a nation's interests are if the result of it as that they are doing good? Should we care that the Soviet Union was only really trying to create another satellite battleground for the Cold War, if through that they were funding and training the ANC's liberation struggle? Probably not, but it is still discouraging to think about, and devastating when vested interests lead the other direction (Iraq...again).

All you have to do is look around the rest of this continent to see the same playground politics at work. France and its sheltering of Hutu Power psychopaths in Rwanda during the '94 genocide, China pouring money and guns into a genocidal government in the Sudan and the Arab League turning their eyes away from the carnage being perpetrated by their "Arab brothers," the United States installing, funding, and supporting dictator after dictator to protect its political and economic interests (Mobutu, for one), and don't even get me started on the World Bank.

Also, where's the rest of Africa when this is happening? Great leader after leader in the region has preached African unity, the need to rebound from the devastation of colonialism together - Nkrumah, Senghor, Mandela, Kenyatta, Houphouet-Boigny to name a few. But where were they when UN blue helmets hid behind red tape and men, women, and children were macheted on the streets of Rwanda, or as chaos ruled and rules the DRC for the past forty years. It's beautiful and inspiring to see countries like Botswana and Zambia speaking out against Mugabe's insanity-fueled government, even as South Africa tries to mitigate a power-sharing deal: it's convenient for a regional hegemony when its neighbor is in ruins and depends on you for everything. Maybe things are changing, and as the nations of Africa begin to find their footing after hundreds of years of being trampled into the ground a difference can be made.

Is total disenchantment any better? Am I doing anything by whining and complaining about the world order and how backward and self-righteous it is? You don't see me dropping out of college and starting up a Save Darfur Army, and getting on the first flight to Khartoum. I keep myself informed, which usually means more bitching and grieving, but what can really be done? I had an interesting, frustrating, and interestingly frustrating conversation with another exchange student on the program here the other day where he expressed his utter disenchantment with the American political system and said that whether he voted for McCain or Obama it wouldn't make a difference. I tried to convince him otherwise, that Bams really could bring some great changes to the country and the world, but found myself second-guessing myself a couple of times. How entrenched are we in a system where money speaks louder than the heart, where 'hope' is another ghostly euphemism fit for a UN resolution? I don't know, but I hope my idealism can keep afloat for a little while longer, can keep me going long enough to figure out some real answers.

In the meantime, I'll apologize for potentially boring or maybe infuriating my readership and justify this rant as an effort for me to rearrange the gibberish of my mind into something comprehensible. I hope the questions I've asked are ones you maybe think about from time to time. I hope that 'hope' is a word that still holds some weight and that maybe it could be our generation that can flip our world order on its head, turning it into something dynamic, loving, and most importantly - real.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Look Up, Sometimes

Distance blurring land and sky
Vastness that stifles the softest cry
Until entities blur into abstraction

Running into the horizon means
Stumbling through broken scenes
Twirling flipping disorientation

Memory of memories always ignite
Into firework displays of the corny and trite
Overwhelming heart striations

To think colours like this could glow
Beautifying the starkest crow
Emptiness into surreal satisfaction

Satisfaction in any liberating scream
Stifled by the heaviness of a moonbeam
In pleasing suffocation

Tranquility in a new unchartered home
To tread water and then plunge into the unknown
Deeper and deeper pulling the imagination

Good night, GC.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Give It A Try

We made our return to the UB campus in the cold, empty and dazzling Gaborone dawn. You could just see the sun beginning to peak over the horizon, as if making a careful check of the landscape before pulling itself into the sky. It was 5:45 and with the help of Will's battered, but functional car, we had just made the rounds around the city dropping people off. Pat, Will and I dragged ourselves over to Pat's room. It had been Pat's last night in Gabs and now was his last morning and throughout the night at the studio it was hard for everyone to keep that fact out of their minds. I went through the horrible ordeal of the goodbye, and made my way upstairs and was asleep in seconds.

I've dealt with my fair share of goodbyes, some harder than others, but in general - they all suck. I've only known Pat for about 3 weeks and in the midst of group hugs, laughter, and what would have become mass tearfall if we had stuck around longer, it was beautiful. Pat's an amazing man, a creative and inspired artist, and I know if he sticks with his music and his ideas when he gets back to Salt Lake City it will really take him places. He just needed an awakening to shake him and tell him that he can do whatever he wants - even something as audacious as songwriting! I think Botswana was that awakening. I plan to keep in close contact with him and maybe get him to hit Penn for Spring Fling and play a few shows with me. His music is Green/Quad material for sure.

Hours at the studio tend to bleed into each other, fuse and blend until suddenly you look at your watch and realize you've been there for about twelve hours. I was boiling some water to cook up some Maggi noodles when I got a call from Pat telling me he was heading to the studio. I poured out the water, made a hasty (but delicious) peanut butter and jelly sandwich and hopped into a cab with Pat. It was about 5 pm, on Saturday. For the first time I brought my own sticks and my brushes. Some of my playing has been a little shaky at times lately, and it scares me so I am blaming it on the sticks Mex has at the studio that I'm not used to. It was much better last night, so maybe there is some merit to my excuse. We drove through the now familiar, and often confusing, sprawl of Gaborone, dust and sun filling the streets, and I munched on my sandwich and enjoyed the dry, cool breeze against my face. We stopped for fat cakes (a round, warm, delicious dougnuty bread without the sugar or the hole) and then walked the rest of the way to studio. On the way I had an interesting conversation with Pat about - surprise! - music. We were discussing his plans for when he returned and talked about how easy it is to do things, especially in the world of music, half-assed these days. It's so easy to record a couple of tracks that you're mildly satisfied with on GarageBand and have them up on your MySpace the next day. Then you record some more a few weeks later and add them up. One day you realize you have eleven decent tracks, burn them onto a blank, sprawl "Pat's Stuff" with permanent marker on the CD and give them (maybe sell them for five bucks) to your friends and family. He talked about how if he wanted to put all his heart into making music, he had to just drive straight ahead and fast, working hard, making sure every little guitar pluck and vocal croon is flawless, and then release it all together with a sexy design and even sexier production. Maybe it's something that applies to a lot of things, not only music. It's definitely one of those patience-testers, to be able to hold back creation, ideas, whatever until you really are ready to share. To be sure of something before you do it. To not just put it out there and then try and convince yourself it was the perfect thing to do. Interpret it any way you want, but I think it's worth thinking about and seeing where the thoughts eventually take you. Logic trains are fun, so hop on.

We reached the studio and after waiting outside for an elusive Mex, the door finally opened and we were greeted by an excited Mex and an even more excited Mexy (Mex's hyper-active mutt). Mex had been listening to his solo-house album that he says is near completion and it was great to see the pride on his face. Of course, to me house music sounds like its made by pistons and programs; I imagine this giant machine, somewhere in Northern Europe, churning out house music all day and all night - uhn tis uhn tis uhn tis uhn tis. But even with my dislike, it was refreshing to see Mex so excited about what he was creating. Khwezi, Shorty, Ngozi, Daniel, Ilana, as well as two fellow exchange students, Brianna and Walter, hadn't arrived yet so Mex decided to focus on the drums, get the right sound and maybe record something with Pat for a future track. While we knew it was Pat's last night and had to live it up, we also knew it was Pat's last night and had to get as much guitar recorded as possible! After some oodling and doodling and the arrival of some more of the crew Pat and I were recording the Intro and Outro to a new song, leaving a blank canvas in the middle for a funk-groove that could turn into more cascading verses and skipping rhymes courtesy of Khwezi and Shorty. Ngozi, accompanied by two other girls - Thato and S___ (names, especially of the Botswana variety, are difficult for me to retain sometimes), recorded some vocals for the Pat-inspired "Love Anthem," which is definitely one of the shining stars of the album. My jaw dropped and hung suspended for the hour of takes as the three girls' voices sent waves through the room that caressed and calmed, wowed and humbled. These people have so much talent and imagination, I am still in a state of stunned shock.

One of the highlights of the night came when Pat and I realized it was our last chance to jam and so we assembled outside, guitar and djembe, played some of the old favorites and launched into some blues accompanied once again by Daniel on the tin sandwich fitting perfectly into the pocket. We played for about thirty minutes, with impromptu backing vocals by Ngozi, Thato and S___. The night reached epic proportions when during a break, I received a text message from Anna who was away for the weekend telling us to look up. Questions of divine intervention inevitably surface when music, friendship, and carefree fun come together with a lunar eclipse! Could Pat have asked for a better last night in GC when to say goodbye, the Moon ducked behind Earth's shadow to really show him how wondrous the Gaborone sky could be. The stars seemed to wink mischievously as the shadow crossed over the moon as if waving. With the usual fine line between work and play, the night passed and people slowly made their way home until it was five in the morning and we realized we were, in fact, exhausted. It was myself, Mex, Lebo, Ngozi, Shorty, Khwezi, Will and Pat left over as morning made its first appearance. Goodbyes and logistics took about 45 minutes of group hugs, and procrastinating conversation. I know Pat had a profound effect on P. O. R. N. (the name of the band), and vice-versa and it's hard to believe in coincidences when witnessing people like this coming together. I know that Pat has had quite the effect on me, and I hope its reciprocated at least a little bit, even if its just him realizing he needs to get a drummer when he gets back to Salt Lake City.

Paradigm-changing events seem to keep leaping out of the shadows and slapping me in the face. I never really thought of music as a means for small-scale positive change, as a route to at least temporary happiness for the listeners. On Friday afternoon, Ilana, Ebony, Pat and I went to the Holy Cross Hospice, where Pat has been doing his social work, for a performance. We walked through the small converted house, and ended up in the back patio where the patients were sitting, waiting for lunch. Pat and I played a few songs accompanied by claps and dance, and then were joined by two of Pat's friends, Bearman and RB. Let me make a brief interruption to clarify that a lot of Batswana use the English translations of their given names - hence the people you meet named Pretty, Justice, Will (his name is actually God's Will), Dog Tail, and of course Bearman. With RB and Bearman's extra guitars, and the bonus of Bearman's harmonica playing and singing, we launched into some music I've never played before. It was hard to get a hold of the syncopated, non-linear, African rhythms, but once I got a hold of it, it was smooth-sailing through Pat's stunning guitar solos and Bearman's haunting call and response vocals. Once again my heart was reduced to wax to see the hospice patients, struggle to stand up and then dance, clap, yell and sing.

playing at Holy Cross Hospice with (from right: RB, Pat, myself, Bearman, spectator)

Music is so closely connected to emotion, to expression, to sharing, that it truly is beautiful when you get to see the effects of that in reality. To witness the emotion of the musician as much as the emotion of the listener and to create these connections that supersede language, culture, race, beliefs. Whoever you are, you can take in music in whatever way you want to, create or destroy any sort of connection you want, all with the tap of a drum, breath of a voice, or pluck of a guitar. It's as mysterious as it is awesome, and I apologize if I write about music too much, but right now the making of it, the sharing of it, the hearing of it, is helping me lift spirits and soar.

I'll make an effort to shift from musical jargon. Classes are going really well. I'm glad I'm taking courses here that I really couldn't take at Penn. It can be frustrating sometimes, to be in a different system where so much depends on note-taking, recitation and copying, and where some classes are far too large to have any sort of interaction with professors. Or at least that's what they told us during orientation. I'm noticing, however, that in many of my classes, Mfecane for instance, or South African Politics, the professors put a lot of stress on interactions. Class presentations play a big role in the class and the professors are constantly asking questions, not afraid to veer off topic to ask the class what they think about Botswana's president, Ian Khama, boycotting the SADC meeting because of Mugabe's presence or asking Ilana and I about the American electoral system. I haven't been this excited to learn for a while, mostly because everything is brand new (I didn't even know how to pronounce 'Mfecane' before taking the class - there's a click in it). So in the spirit of blank slates, dry sponges and no expectations, I'm ready to soak in as much as I can.

Despite being surrounded by beautiful people, and having moved around a lot in my life, always away from someone I care about, I've never really felt distance and the feeling of missing like I do here. Perhaps geographical distance plays a part in it. To think of friends in Philly, Texas, Canada, Indonesia and family in SF, DC, India, and Bali is to think of people really really far away. If I wanted to hop over to one of them, it would take me at least a day and it's both scary and exciting to feel so isolated in this land-locked desert country. Maybe its something beyond geography too, related more to the intangibility of experience. There's no way, no matter what I write or how I write it, that I could properly express what I've been experiencing since arriving here. There are things I don't want to write, there are things I can't write and there are things I wish I could write. The mind and heart, even when in tandem, work in strange ways creating clutter and incomprehensibility, and so to try and spit that out into words seems and is actually impossible. But I just hope I can come close and let my family, friends, and those in between know that I miss them, love them, and am alive as well as living.


just finished You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers
God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane

Opeth - Watershed
Thievery Corporation - The Richest Man In Babylon
Sonic Youth - A Thousand Leaves
Steve Reich - Six Pianos: Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards

Monday, August 11, 2008


I've never been the organized type. When my parents would storm into my room and yell about clutter, not living properly, and pig sties, I would reassure them that it all makes sense to me. That it worked the same way as my mind. Imagine a giant store-room; austere and plain, four corners, steel walls that create deep echoed acoustics. Now imagine the room filled in every direction with papers of different sizes, pictures, photos, text with different handwriting and typeface - some legible some not - adorning the scattered documents. Sounds, both the mundane and the musical, rebounding from wall to wall filling the room with an indistinguishable din. Sometimes you can hear a rhythm but most of the time it sounds like early-Sonic Youth...with more noise. That's my mind. So in an attempt to update myself and anyone who reads this I will compartmentalize. I will wade through the junk, turn the volume down, and start putting things into boxes. It's only been a few days since I last wrote and the clutter is already getting unmanageable.


I'm not only playing music, exploring myself and the place, and self-reflecting here. I am, actually, an enrolled student at the University of Botswana and after a slow first couple of days where I wasn't really a student - officially - and professors preferred sleeping in over going to class things are picking up. The classes I am taking : The African Novel, Critical Issues in Modern African Literature, Politics of South Africa, Mfecane and the Settler Scramble in Southern Africa, and Intro to Setswana. All the classes seem really interesting, and I'm already learning a lot. A workload hasn't really happened yet, but its only been a week and some of the books we need aren't even available in the bookstore yet - so I'm not too worried. It's going to feel great learning things I know close to nothing about. Our first Politics of South Africa class had my knowledge of the country's history and current situation tripled in a matter of two hours. Things are tense in South Africa right now, as they wait for the court's verdict on the Zuma case. I don't know enough about it yet to give my opinion, but hopefully that will come in time. There's some tension in the political situation of Botswana too. The new president has bypassed parliament a couple of times already to introduce new schemes like a 70% tax on alcohol - woe is me. He's also trying to pass a Media Practioners Bill that would place certain restrictions on journalists - mandatory 'courses,' government permission for publication, etc. In a country that has prided itself on being an oasis of democracy in Africa for the past forty years, these measures are causing some raised eyebrows both in the media and in the general population. Anyway, I'm excited about all my classes and hopefully I'll know more about what I'm talking about in a couple of months.

I Like Steak:

Last night I was outside the dorms and ran into Justice, a local celebrity (he was on Big Brother Africa) and UB student, along with a sizable crew of the international students on their way to a 'jazz club' called Red Dot. Of course I was interested. I began following them and then, after realizing I had forgotten someone, went back, retrieved my friend Anna, and we began our catch up walk to the Gaborone Sun Hotel to catch a cab to Red Dot. We were still walking in the campus towards the gate when a familiar car pulled up alongside us and began beeping its horn wildly. The window went down and a smiling Mex and Khwezi (not Kwayze as I had previously spelled his name) greeted us. They were in the neighborhood and decided to stop by to say hi to us and were heading to Red Dot afterwards. After a brief conversation session with Pat, Daniel, and Ilana, Anna and I got back into their car and headed to the 'jazz club.' The ride was long, fun, and filled with blow-your-ears-out hip hop. I had this vision of Red Dot being a smoky jazz club, cool cat in the corner tickling the keys, espresso resting on the piano-top. It was not. Think small bar, giant sandy parking lot, hundreds of people battling for music supremacy with tricked out trunks, and lots and lots of meat. It took us a few minutes to navigate the maze of cars, people, and sand until we found parking. We said hello to the other kids who had come before us and headed for the bar. After peeling our way through the throngs of people we reached the bar and I was too busy soaking in the chaos to catch Mex before he bought us all a round of drinks and, of course, meat. He distractedly handed me the cardboard plate stacked ten inches high with raw beef and followed, beers in hand, outside to the grills. Khwezi took over from there and threw the meat on the grill already crowded with other people's steaks as I watched in amazement. We, in the rest of the world, think its pretty cool when someone moves their finger through a candle. Here, in the crowd of steaks (I don't know how one keeps track of their food), people reached and grabbed, hands in flame a-la-Gaius Mucius Scaevola, flipping and rearranging. Occasionally someone would sacrifice a little bit and pour a splash of beer on their steaks sending the flames leaping high into the sky. Needless to say the steak with the inevitable side order of pap was delicious. As I sipped on my Windhoek and tore the meat apart with my bare hands I was happy. Happiness can be as simple as a steak, a beer, and good company. I apologize to any vegetarians. Veggie burger if you prefer, but I hope the point still stands. Of course it helps that I'm in Botswana and have been fortunate enough to meet people like Mex and Khwezi. Which brings us to the next compartment in the clutter -

Music, Music, Music:

I've played more music here in Botswana over the past two weeks than I have over two years in Philadelphia. There's rhythm and melody in the air. It's so easy, too easy, to just breathe it in and let it flow out. After dinner and drinks at Red Dot, we headed back to the studio again to hear the progress on some of the tracks I recorded earlier. Studio visits are becoming a regular thing and I am loving it. I had been talking about it a lot so some of the other exchange students were interested in joining. Franka (German), Sabina (Dutch) and Rafael a Mexican student from the University of Texas all filed into the mini-back seat of Mex's car and we left for the studio. Rafael had told me he played jazz piano and I knew Mex, sound-engineer and producer-extraordinairre would love it. He did, and within a few minutes Rafael and I were laying down a bossa-nova groove that slowly morphed its way into an intensely subtle hip-hop groove that Khwezi and Shorty decided they were going to rhyme over for one of the CD tracks. I have now recorded on three separate, all drastically different tracks and I'm excited to work with these inspired artists more and see the finished product. Tomorrow we'll be going to Kwest for actual open mic night and hopefully bust out a few tracks and end up at the studio later in the night.

Even when I'm not jamming with Pat and/or People Of Revolutionary Nature (alternatively People of Religious Nature, Peace Out Relax Now, etc - you work out the acronym) music seems to keep tapping me on the shoulder and also saving me. A lot has been on my mind recently, and it's been really difficult dealing with some of the changes that have gone in in the past weeks but music always seems to be there to remind me why I love it so much and how simple peace can be when banging on things. This morning Daniel, Ilana and I ran into an old acquaintance of Ilana's. Ilana had told me about Thabo over an email this summer. He's a Motswana percussionist, tour guide, gumboot dancer, the list goes on, who looks like he wakes up every morning and walks through a rainbow. Colorful bead bracelets blend into silk technicolored tunics and wavy chameleon pants. His dreadlocks stick out of the hat on his head just enough to say hello and tease as to what the sight might be like without said hat. Within minutes we were sitting on the grass, him with his beautiful West African djembe and me on my trusty doumbek improvising and then jamming along to Enigma and the Flaming Lips. We parted with each other's phone numbers and plans for many the jam session including a bonfire and full moon drum circle in a couple of weeks. Music keeps holding out its arms for me and bringing me in for a comforting pat on the back, a reminder that beauty is everywhere. I hope that I've been able to take that message, take that embrace and pass it on even just a little bit through my playing.


On Saturday afternoon, Pat, Daniel, Ilana and I got into a cab and left the UB campus for a village about 30 km out of Gabs called Khama Kwane (or something). We had some rough directions, a guitar, a doumbek, a camera, and trusty Maud (Daniel's wonderful, pocket size, multi-direction recording device). We were heading to the home of Keabetswe Sebolao. Keabetswe is probably in his twenties and was born with a spinal cord dysfunction that has left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak. He has spent most, or all, of his life lying on a mat in a small, four-walled clay room, cared for by his mother. Pat, through his social work here, had met him before and was told of his love for music - an antiquated radio in the corner of the room is the only real furnishing besides the mat. Upon that meeting Pat had played a song for Keabetswe and promised he would return. So we were heading to the village to visit him and play a few songs for him. It took about an hour and a half to reach Khama Kwane and another thirty minutes of winding through dusty streets, sparse shrubbery, and cinder block homes interspersed with traditional clay huts, to find the Sebolao house. We finally found someone who hopped into the car and navigated our way there for us. We entered the main courtyard of the house, greeted Keabetswe's mother and entered Keabetswe's room. As soon as he saw us, the familiar face of Pat, and our instruments he began smiling, moving his head just enough to raise it from the mattress and show his appreciation. We launched into a cover of Bright Eyes' "First Day of My Life," and as the songs progressed the village children began filling up the room, first as wallflowers and then as involved, dancers, clappers, singers, and yelpers. Every once in a while I'd catch Keabetswe's eye and his face would turn into a beaming smile.

music for Keabetswe

I had to swallow back tears a couple of times throughout the playing. I couldn't figure out whether they were tears of joy, sadness, compassion - maybe all three. As I reached down to give my thanks and farewell to Keabetswe I hoped that the music had hugged him, had shown him the beauty in life even when it was probably so hard to see. I just hoped that we touched him in some way close to how he touched me.

Botswana continues to seduce, surprise, and share in the best possible way.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Forensic Ear

I woke up for my 9 AM class on Wednesday slightly dazed, with a dull headache, and a smile on my face. It felt like I had woken up from a fantastical dream filled with freestyle rhymes, art filling the space in every corner and between every soundwave, headphones, and stimulating, eye-opening conversation. It took a few minutes, and a cup of coffee to realize that I had instead woken up from a night that took place in reality, not the dreamworld, that included all of those things and more.

As I have previously mentioned I have been spending a lot of my time jamming with Pat - an intelligent, creative, laid back, and hilarious middle-aged social worker/musician/full-time hippy. He has been here for the past three months finishing up his practicum for his masters in social work. It is also worth mentioning that the Pat that Ilana, Daniel and I have been enjoying is only a recent manifestation of a Pat who spent years married and designing "bad-ass garbage disposal trucks" in a period he refers to as 'Hell.' In the past few months, starting with a chance conversation on the streets of Gabs, Pat has been writing, jamming, and recording with a group of Batswana artists (in every sense of the word). For the past week or so, since Daniel, Ilana and I have been hanging out with Pat, he's been talking about this group of people incessantly and how bringing us and them together was a dire necessity that would inevitably result in magic. Well Tuesday night it happened and, sure enough, there were sparks, flame, and other incendiary explosions of magic for hours and hours.

Every other Tuesday at a quaint restaurant/bar at the Main Mall called Kwest there is an open mic poetry night. While we weren't sure whether that night was the on-night or the off-night we decided to arrange a visit anyway, with hopes that Pat and I could press out some tunes at the open mic. It turned out to be the off-night for 'Kwest Poetry Night,' but was surely not an off night in the traditional sense of the word. The guys, including the two main MCs of the group, Kwayze (sp?) and Shorty, came to pick us up at the Graduate Village and we made our way in the two cars to the restaurant. Short introductions were given and then everyone launched into a sudden frenzy of art and idea sharing; Daniel showing photos, Ngozi (girl who is part of the band/group/whatever you want to call it) displaying some flawless pencil-work, and some profound discussions on music between Pat, Kwayze and myself. After a couple of drinks and a 'North African Salad' we realized, as we heard the torturous sounds of 70's new-wave synth-pop coming from the inside of the restaurant, that poetry night was not on. That wasn't going to stop us though and Pat and I, with Daniel on his trusty mouth organ, set up in the corner of the balcony and launched into some blues. It was great to have the attention of such a creative, artistic, imaginative crowd and it really shone through in our next song. We played one of Pat's originals, a song that he wrote during his stay here in Botswana called "Give It A Try," with Ngozi supporting him on vocals with some beautiful harmonies. Towards the end of the track there's a slow, hauntingly melancholy riff that Pat plays on repeat ad nauseum. At about the fifth time around the loop one of the guys began to speak in a style somewhere between spoken word poetry and rap. As the words ran into eachother, slipping and sliding between the breaths and spaces, I got that all too unfamiliar feeling of synchronization where something I'm playing just fits like one hand in another. As one voice faded out another came in, as Kwayze stepped in adding his own poetic flair, and then Kago (more on him later) ended things as Pat and I slowly faded into silence, my palms slapping the drumskin slowly becoming fingers barely touching it. And then the bartender interrupted with "can I get anyone else drinks or are you guys good?" Ngozi summed up the feeling pretty well: "Back to reality!"

I would have been happy if the night had ended there and would have gone to sleep a different person than the one I woke up as, but the night was only going to get better. When the bill had been worked out we headed to Mex's studio, the place where the group plus Pat has been recording. The ride was fairly uneventful... No, the ride was highly eventful. You see, I was sitting next to the aforementioned Kago.

I could go into great detail about Kago, his situation, and the effect he and the circumstances had on me, but I will only skim the surface as I don't think I am comfortable with, or qualified to really dive into the depths. Kago is a friend of the musicians and was at the restaurant and so was invited to join them at the studio. I know what its like, and how "the studio" usually is more of a social venue than a musical one. What we found out later in the night was that Kago and his girlfriend, Marsha, had a child about a year ago who passed away three weeks ago. Until the point that I learned of this, Kago just seemed like a beligerent drunk. He talked a lot and a lot of nonsense for the entire car ride to the studio, only interrupted by me nodding my head in mock agreement or Pat letting out an exasperated "Jeeeesus..." At the studio, it continued but when I found out what had happened I was taken aback and understood. Then I saw the way that the other guys and especially Ngozi was treating him and I was utterly touched and even realized some of my own shortcomings. Here was a guy who was being nothing short of obnoxious. Talking loudly and yelling when Mex was trying to record something, asking silly questions, and generally being a nuisance to the entire group. Yet I never saw anyone lose their temper (except maybe Kwayze, but it was done in a quasi-jesting manner). Again and again I'd see Ngozi telling Kago as he self deprecated himself, "you are a beautiful person. We all know you are such a beautiful person and that's why we love you so much." I've never seen such beauty and pure amistad in people. They were entirely selfless as they would delay recording a song to talk to him, reassure him despite his incessant interruptions. I won't elaborate further on what it was like to see all of this or to hear Marsha talking about the death of her baby, as I don't think I am fit to fully portray it.

We arrived at the studio, and walked through an entrance of the house into what used to be a garage but was now a fully (or at least close to fully) equipped studio. A few guitars in the corner, an old but fully functional drumset, the familiar sight of tangled cords and speakers framing the magic box of the computer. It felt amazing to be in a studio again, as it has been over two years since I was in Studio 267 in Jakarta with Mercy Beat. Mex, the producer/sound engineer/guru walked in looking as if he had just woken up scooping strawberry yogurt into his mouth as he booted the computer. First thing we did was listen to some of the stuff the group has been recording with Pat and I was left, to use a word that fascinates me, - flabbergasted. I've never heard stuff like this. Intricate, hard hitting hip hop riffs with rhymes by Kwayze and Shorty flipping and spinning over them, backed with the acoustic guitar riffs and soothing voice of Pat sprinkled into the mix like ginger in squash soup. The material they are creating, the recipes they are concocting, are completely new and immediately I was so grateful to be able to hear it from the artists themselves. And then I became a part of it.

The recording of Pat's song that I already mentioned, "Give It A Try," with Ngozi was the agenda for that night at the studio. After a round-table meeting, sans table, where every member of the group gave their two thebe on how they think the song should sound, I was suddenly in the curtained make-shift sound booth, my ears hugged by headphones rolling away on my doumbek along with Pat - recording. I was recording. On an album. In Botswana. With amazing people. I know I have talked about how I haven't quite come to terms with the fact that I'm really here right now - in Botswana. But at that moment, I wasn't really anywhere. I was ecstatic, completely in my element, feeling the music - not only playing it. I could almost feel the soundwaves entering my blood stream, reverberating through veins and arteries, and as I tried to get my bearings and say to myself - "you are recording in Botswana, right now," I couldn't stop smiling. After the first take, when I peaked around the curtain to see Ilana and Daniel absorbed in their notebooks, I could tell they were having similar feelings by the (here I go again) flabbergasted expression on their faces. It wasn't over. I realized I was sitting on another drum (seating at the studio was scarce), a "homemade djembe" as Mex called it, and minutes later I was recording a second, different drum track over the first. And then a third with another drum. And then the moment I had been waiting for. Three months without a drumset is to a drummer what three months without a drink is to an alcoholic. I was ITCHING to play. So when Mex suggested we could record a subtle drumset track over the other drums, despite me saying it didn't quite fit with the song at first, I immediately jumped onto the djembe and sat behind the kit. It was refreshing working with Mex. The way he approached the recording process was like nothing I've experienced. He really was a producer, not just an unenthusiastic sound engineer being paid by the hour. Every step of the way, as he made no efforts to hide his excitement that he was finally able to record some drums, he was asking me my opinion. "What do you think about the mics here? I'm thinking maybe you should do something like this, but I don't really know, what do you think? Is this okay? Is that okay? What do you think about starting the drums here? Sha'p, sha'p." Once again as I started playing the drums, despite a few takes of working out the rust in my joints, I was transported somewhere else and returned to Earth just in time to realize, again, that I was recording. On an album. In Botswana. With amazing people.

The recording continued, with more breaks than recording sessions as is the usual studio environment, and it wasn't until about 3 in the morning that we realized we really needed to head home if we wanted to make it to class the next morning. I wish I was a better writer, as maybe talent and skill are necessary to portray something like this. I, sure as hell, am not doing it justice. Not only did I get to record music with some inspired and inspiring Batswana artists but I saw what it is like to be part of something totally new. The word 'underground' makes it sound like something stationary and hiding. What these people are part of isn't the underground, it's a movement. They all believe in Art, they all believe in themselves. They believe in good conversation, good friendships, creation and creativity. At one point Kwayze began talking about what he calls "the forensic ear;" the ability to hear something and dismantle it simultaneously. Listen for the parts that blow the mind, and the parts that underwhelm, figure out how to improve it. Dissect and rebuild, shatter and sculpt, simultaneously tear down the art around you while taking the shards and building something new and brilliant. I look forward to the many nights at the studio I hope to spend with Daniel, Ilana, Mex, Kwayze, Shorty, Ngozi and the rest bringing all of our worldviews, experiences, and creativity together to shape and construct the brand new. Pat leaves in a little over ten days and we are going to miss him very very much, but I'm forever indebted to him for introducing me to these young artists who are building a brand new edifice of art, music and ideas that should and will shine over Botswana and the world.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Where Am I?

A question in my head that seems to be morphing itself into words lately. I asked it at a house party on Saturday night, where a small coupe had pulled up, opened its trunk, and began blasting "Soulja Boy" from speakers the size of my head. I asked it this morning as I entered my first class, Critical Issues in Modern African Literature, and the lecturer wasn't present. I ask it now as I sit in my room looking out onto the bustling University of Botswana campus. No matter how settled I become, no matter how diligently I build my own nest with sticks, memories and open spaces, my mouth will continue to form shapes and release that conundrum of a question: Where. Am. I?

What does it mean to be in a completely new place? I've had a lot of questions from Batswana students about what expectations I had before coming here. They always seem to break into laughter mid-question imagining my presuppositions about Botswana : lions roaming freely down the street, dirt roads, water out of the communal well. The truth is I had no expectations. It's hard to come into a new place with a clean, polished whiteboard of a mind. I feel like I have done so, for better or for worse. How do you create expectations about a place you really know close to nothing about? You can't, and in the tradition of double-edged swords throughout our lives, here we run point-blank into another one. I haven't quite figured out what it means to be here. In fact, as that mind-bombarding question implicates, I haven't quite figured out where the hell I even am? This floating in the dark leaves me a little lost and feeling a little light, but I'm levitating and that's exciting, right?

As I use this post as a way to sort my own mind, burrow through the layers and layers of fresh produce on my mental shelves, I ask you to bear with me and maybe even think a little bit about what it really means to be somewhere. The transience of this journey, the bell that's going to ring in six months and send me spinning back into Philadelphia surely plays a part. To really be somewhere, to really understand that I am in Botswana, does it mean I have to spend every second of every day seeing as much as I can, galavanting around the continent with a camera glued to my face? Or is it just as important to spend a good amount of time doing nothing? Sitting, watching, thinking. Is dynamism, movement, kinetics really superior to statis? Perhaps it's one of those 'balance' things. Of course I want to see as much as I can, I've always been one who runs into the arms of new experience. I'm just afraid it will all go zipping past in front of me too fast for me to reach out and grab hold of, let alone see. I'm perfectly okay with pulling the reigns and ambling through the new. The new is far too precious and delicate to just recklessly sprint through.

Another question relating to that huge, looming, umbrella of a one, is how did I end up here with two people I love immensely and find wonderful, entertaining, and amazing in every single way? How did Ilana, Daniel, and I (three people with completely different lives) end up going to Botswana together? It's totally nuts and impossible to wrap one's head around. The best Ilana and I could do to try and formulate an answer was bring back a hazy memory of a Saturday night at The Body when I slurred to Ilana, "Hey. I'm going to Botswana. Daniel might come too. Wanna come?" "YESSSSSS!" was her, as usual, grinning, smiley response.

About five months later and here we are at the University of Botswana refrectory lining up for pap, salty beef, and bug juice. It's wild, it's ridiculous, it's impossible, it's silly, but most of all, it's absolutely beautiful.


So, as I mentioned, I had my first class today. No, let me rephrase that. I was supposed to have my first class. It's been a while since I've had first day jitters, but as I stumbled through the puzzling lay out of UB trying to find Block 232 with an equally-confused Ilana by my side, the Monarch butterflies in my stomach through a rave. That proverbial blank whiteboard that I've entered this new environment with is itching to be covered with ink. Alas, as we were warned the professor did not show up (this is normal for the first week parents, do not fret). So Ilana and I collectively remembered the beautiful, often embarrassing innocence of elementary school for a few minutes and then made our way back to the Graduate Village. Our impressive herd of frustrated and enthusiastic exchange students will be meeting in about an hour with Charity, our communal mother here, and registration should be completed and classes should be sorted out. As I've learned here, however, "should" isn't a word that holds a lot of weight, so I'm not expecting much.

In the meantime, I will just reiterate how new and exciting it all is. It hits me the most when I look up and see the endless Southern African sky, cloudless and blue until the sun sets and everything explodes into hues of purple, red, orange, and yellow. Then the famous Botswana diamonds show their glory, and the black blanket above gets littered with a thousand and one tiny glowing specks, sometimes fusing to form mysterious stretches of milky waves. The wide, open spaces stretching in every direction dwarf me, and there's comfort in that tininess not brought about by the sheer number of people around me at any moment (something I'm far too used to) but rather the sheer amount of nothingness that envelops me. All I can really do is ask myself "where am I?" and start trying to put together an appropriate answer.


I'm all about sharing whats making its way through people's eyes and ears so I'll give occasional updates, and please do the same. Especially my music people - I fear I'll be a little behind what's happening upon my return.

Colin McPhee - Symphony #2
Stomu Yamash'ta - Music of the Future, Vol. 2
Alkaline Trio - Agony and Irony
Propagandhi - Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes

Tintin and the Secret of Literature, Tom McCarthy

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dumela / Intro Credits

Um.. Hmm... Well...
These are the first words that come to mind as I stare at the sneering, blinking cursor and think about the avalanche of new experience that has buried me in its sandy snow since arriving in Gaborone, Botswana one week ago. It seems disgustingly cliché to start out this blog with an ambiguous, rhetorical "Where do I start?" but I'll do it anyway.

Where Do I Start?

The Journey:
If one were to look at my travel itinerary of the past two months they might think it was a copy of one of Jules Verne's original drafts for Around The World In Eighty Days. It was ridiculous, amazing, and eye-opening even in the places I have already been to / lived in for five years of my life. It looked a little like this : Philadelphia - Chicago - DC - London - Malaga - London - Singapore - Jakarta - Bali - Surabaya - Kuala Lumpur - Doha - Dubai - Addis Ababa - Johannesburg - Gaborone. The homecoming, the vacations, and even the transit stopovers were all fantastic and I appreciate every frequent flyer mile I hoarded (thanks Papa). The most exciting, frustrating, and dazed of those legs was definitely the Dubai - Addis - Joburg one. As Harris dropped me at the airport in Dubai, I didn't exactly have all my wits together due to some extraneous circumstances. I walk through the metal detector as I have done again and again - BEEP BEEP BEEP - "do you have a belt sir?" - fumble, fumble, unbuckle - "thank you. have a good flight." - "thank you. " And I walk away. It is not until 2 hours later as I sit on the plane and observe the frequency that I am pulling up my plants that I realize that some lucky security man now owns the one belt I once owned. (Thank you Ilana for flowering me with flowery belts for the last few days).

My brief stopover in Djibouti and then the more lengthy one in Addis Ababa were fairly uneventful. I wish I had arrived earlier in Addis as I only had time to check into my hotel, enjoy a beer and conversation with an Ethiopian businessman, and wake up in time for a breakfast and a ride back to the airport. The one observation I was able to pick up from my stay in Ethiopia : everybody runs in Addis Ababa. As I sat in the back of the hotel van on my way to the airport in the wee hours of the morning, every where I looked were herds of joggers, sprinters, and even some that seemed to be neither but were still, of course, running. Can anyone say Abebe Bikila?

I arrived in Johannesburg and I thought twice about going out and getting a coffee when I saw the sign hanging over the Arrivals section that read "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" with a highlighted picture of a revolver under the letters. And then the sinker occurred. Have you ever been at Baggage Claim and felt that slow sinking of the heart as the interval between suitcases exiting that merciless portal becomes longer and longer until the conveyor belt shrieks to a halt and your flight number disappears from the display screen. No bags. Connection to Gaborone on a different airline in an hour. Bureaucracy. After being sent to three different places I finally got to a stand where the lovely lady behind the counter calmly said "no, I'm afraid we don't know where your bags are, but here's my number - call me from Gabs." Grin. I spent my two hour delay making lists of all the things I would have to buy in Gabs to replace all my possessions. Finally, I boarded the rickety, two-propellor plane and stared out the window at the barren extraterrestrial landscape below for an hour until we bounced, quite literally, our way down the runway of Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, Gaborone. Pick up was easy - because I had no bags. The next day I would learn that my bags had inadvertantly been sent to Lagos, Nigeria, from Addis Ababa and a day after that I would pick them up at the airport completely intact, untouched, and slightly damp from a rainstorm in Lagos. Or Addis. Or Joburg. Who knows. My bags have seen more of Africa than I have. Maybe I'll ask them a thing or two.

The reunion with Daniel and Ilana was as epic as I had imagined it would be and as our days together went on, things only got better and better. As Ilana and I discussed and allegorized while I may have slipped and tripped down the ladder of fortune a few times in a few different ways in the weeks leading up to my arrival, there was now nothing to do but wipe my brow and begin a steady climb back up. And that we did.

The morning after I arrived, Daniel and I joined Abby and Ilana on one of their routine combi (small, packed minibuses with nonsense like COMBI4LIFE and SILENTPREDATOR WordArted to their rear windows) out to the day care center that they have been working at for the past two months. My heart remained intact for about the first five minutes until it immediately melted into a more waxy, water-based substance as crowds of smiling kids began to hang off limbs, give thumbs up, and poke my Adam's apple in amazement. Perhaps it was superficial, as their reaction is probably very similar whenever an unfamiliar face enters the schoolyard, but I felt a connection with some of the kids that went beyond just simple fascination. This reached its pinnacle in a percussive frenzy when Daniel with his harmonica and me with my doumbek began to jam. Some observations from this jam session:

1) Batswana kids can really shake it.
2) Music really is a universal language that can bring people of widely different backgrounds, interests, ages, everythings together.
3) Daniel's tin sandwich skills have improved significantly.

It's really amazing how simple happiness can be. As my fingers rolled over the head of the doumbek and Daniel's shallow breaths transformed themselves into melody, and kids hung off my neck and smiled and screamed and shook, I really was perfectly and purely happy. Depending on our class schedules which are still very much in the air, I hope to be able to go to Kamogelo at least once a week during my five month stint here.

In three y-tailed words? Anxiety, Bureaucracy, Frenzy.
Dead ends and detours, registration woes, paralyzing newness, wacky cool and wackily cool new friends from Botswana, and less expectedly Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Mexico, and the States. All the other international students studying abroad here are all really interesting in their own lovely ways. And the Batswana that I've met only keep reconfirming that they may be the friendliest people in the world.

Orientation has consisted of repetitive but informing lectures, dinner and dancing around a fire at a masterpiece of a house in a small village outside of the city, bus tours of the city, and lots of "what are you studying"s "oh, tell me about your little town in Norway"s and "here, you call me and then I'll have your number"s. I'm used to moving around a lot and as a result I love introducing myself and am not all that opposed to small talk. But something about this time makes it very different. Maybe it's because I'm in Botswana now. Or maybe it's my age. The experience of settling in to a new place is undoubtedly different for a seven year old, a thirteen year old, a seventeen year old, and a nineteen year old. Whatever the reasoning, there's something really exciting about this whole beginning thing.

After lugging my aluminum doumbek across four continents it has truly proven its worth. On Wednesday night after a Quizzo session at the Bull and Bush, we (Daniel, Ilana, and I) came home to an impromptu German party in Daniel's apartment (did I mention there were a lot of German exchange students?) We mingled, laughed, and then I remembered the existence of one of Daniel's roommates, Pat. Pat is a middle-aged, Texan social worker with long hair, an impressive beard, and a guitar. One thing led to another and Pat and I, with the aid of Daniel and his harmonica "slipping into the pockets" put on an impromptu gig. He is a fantastic songwriter, a great conversationist, and full of ideas and I look forward to exploring the Gaborone music scene with him in the next couple of weeks. It's been a long time since I felt a strong connection, creatively, with another musician (at least since last summer) and it was a very relaxing, almost surreal experience. Every percussion tap, nylon pluck, and exhale of breath

The Dam:
We went to the Gaborone Dam on Thursday evening. The bar was closed. But a rock to sit on is all you need when you're looking at this:

I realized the task I had ahead of me, recounting the onslaught of experience when I asked the question, "where do I start?" and now comes the inevitable "where do I end?" There's a lot I haven't elaborated on in sufficient detail and there are things I haven't even mentioned that I have been experiencing a great deal of : the nightlife, for instance, or choosing classes and figuring out what I want from the months ahead But all that will come. There's plenty of time. I've come to realize that so many of the events, influences, and people in our lives are completely transient. Very little, nothing even, is permanent. And as obvious and pessimistic as this may sound, I don't think its either. There is no 'good' or 'bad' in looking at the episodic nature of life. It's important to understand, and I think I am finally understanding it, that no matter how transient, temporary, and slippery the things that enter and leave our lives may be, there is beauty in the permanence of their effect on you. Nothing really lasts. People, places, and things change every day. Whether in slight, unnoticeable ways, or drastic, traumatic, epiphanous ways and every alteration shapes you into one form or another. To me the transiency I see around me isn't a good thing. It isn't a bad thing. It's just a thing.

So as I look ahead of me into the next five months of my life here in Botswana and try to figure out what I'm doing here I take up the permanence of the past and launch into another exercise in beautiful transiency. There's a lot about everything (I'm very good at being vague), that I still need to figure out. But I'm glad this next episode is happening here in this entirely new country of Botswana, in this entirely new region of the world. I was ready for The Entirely New and I'm happy its here.