Sunday, September 14, 2008

Giggin' Gabz

It's a beautiful day here in Gaborone. The sun floats, proud and unobstructed in a clear blue sky. The winds show mercy, and a light, thin breeze floats through empty sand lots and tickles me through my open window. Music still fills the gaps in my overflowing mind, echoing from my first show in Botswana last night.

The morning started with a phone call from Ntilerang 'NT' Berman (not Bearman as I have erroneously referred to him in past blog entries). I slept through the first two phone calls and was finally woken up to the scratchy recording of Sonic Youth's 'Silver Rocket' that serves as my ringtone, at about 10. It was Berman reminding me we had planned to meet up and jam and that he was 5 minutes away. I downed a bowl of Coco Pops (a newly rediscovered love), jumped in the shower and briskly walked to the gate. From far away I could see his short stature huddled against the security outpost, noodling on his guitar. I was under the impression that we were just meeting up for a quick jam session around UB, as I used to do with Pat, but after we greeted he said: "All right, let's go." I responded with a puzzled expression on my face and a lost "where?" We were going to his house to 'practice,' for what? I had no idea. We jumped onto a combi, managed to squeeze ourselves, a guitar, and my doumbek into the last row and made our way to 'White Village,' his neighborhood. We disembarked, paid our three pula (about 50 cents) fare and walked across the empty sand lot, and through mazes of tuck shops, bottle shops, and run-down, peeling cinder blocks. As we made our way through the sand and broken glass, which seem to be the main components of all the ground in Gabs, Berman explained to me that the significant majority of the residents of the neighborhood are illegal Zimbabwean immigrants who spend every day sitting on street corners waiting for any oddjob they can get their hands on. He said the place used to be so dangerous he wouldn't even leave his place after dark - so many Zimbabweans who jump the border in search of a life where the inflation rate isn't 11 million percent, end up dealing drugs and stealing. In the last three years though, the neighborhood has made a 180 flip as about a third of the Zimbabweans hanging out on street corners now are actually undercover police pretending to be Zimbabweans.

Anyway, after a short walk we entered Berman's place, a tiny one room cinder block in a complex of similar blocks - uncannily similar to a kampung, for my readers who are familiar with Indonesia. Chickens flirted in the sandy yard, and children ran around, playing a game involving hiding and then searching for little cardboard animals that looked like they had been cut out of cereal boxes. I recognized the Corn Flakes rooster as one little girl silently approached me and showed off all the cutouts she had found. Rebo, Berman's trusty sidekick and rhythm guitarist was in the cluttered room using the bed as a drawing board as he cut and knitted, putting shirts together. This was when I found out I would be performing with Berman, Rebo, and two female singers at a show that night. I was as surprised as I was excited, and the anticipation only increased when Berman handed me the outfit he wanted me to wear for the show. It included a Ntilerang Berman t-shirt that had been altered by cutting off the sleeves, separating the remaining tanktop into two sheets and then stringing them together with scrap cloth so that tassels hung all the way down the seams, a black and white beaded headband, and a Botswana flag around my wrist. After showing me one of his music videos, Berman followed me onto the front porch and gave me a lesson in African rhythms. He has studied, quite extensively, the theory behind Southern African traditional music, including percussion, and so he gave me a crash course in polyrhythms and Southern African traditions, like the San which he is most familiar with. Almost immediately, I felt my musical mind expand as I imagined all the possibilities for future percussive riffs and how to incorporate these into every other genre I play - namely get some prog rock going...

The girls arrived, and I am ashamed to say I don't remember their names, although they were very friendly and as I discovered when we started jamming, extremely talented. I'm constantly surprised at the raw creative talent in this country. In a country with just over a million people, it's amazing to me that almost everyone is artistic in one way or another, but perhaps everyone in the world is and its just a matter of tapping into it (more similar musings later). ANYWAY.

Rebo cooked up a mean medley of rice, morogo (extremely salty and delicious spinach), and some minced meat. It could have used some extra-hot peri-peri, but I chose to eat it bland over the ketchup and mayonnaise that was offered to me and that everyone smothered their food in. Finally, after three hours of idle jamming, laid back conversation, and the everpresent "where am I?" question, we got to work. We played through the song a few times and it sounded great; Berman's haunting falsetto matched with the power and drive behind the two women's backing vocals and Berman's Epiphone work cascading through and around Rebo's looping rhythm. It was really liberating for me to play an entirely new style of music, and after a few runs of me stumbling to get used to the patterns, I was grooving hard and it felt great. As the sun began its descent towards the horizon, we finally packed up, I said my "see you laters" and headed to the main road. I hopped into a Pick and Drop taxi heading towards the bus terminal, jumped into a combi and made my way back to campus. It's been a while since I've felt the rush before playing a show - since March, I guess - but I guess the fact that I'm in Botswana gave this rush a little bit of an edge. I couldn't keep still back on campus for the two hours of downtime before meeting at the venue. We were playing for a show that was being put on by Exodus Live Poetry, the same group that organizes the Tuesday Open Mic sessions at Khwest. I arrived at the Maitisong theatre at Maru a Pula school at around seven and was finally joined by the rest of the artists thirty minutes later (momentarily forgot about 'African Time,' a close relative of 'Indian Standard Time,').

After settling in backstage, and a pep talk from the organizers, the show began and I spent the time backstage pacing back and forth between the wings to watch some of the acts and the waiting room where Berman and Rebo danced and danced for the entire time. I guess everyone has their pre-show ritual. Most of the other performers were excellent and included poetry about colonialism, lunacy, love, Africa, time, and more.

Backstage I met Ras David, a middle-aged Zimbabwean Rastafarian percussionist and poet, and we had some enlightening conversations about drums, art, Zimbabwe, and Irish women. "Us artists, we are like peacocks," he told me. "When we are by ourselves, there's no need to flaunt your feathers. But as soon as there are others around, we have to wave the crap out of them. Shove them in everyone's face so that they can see every single piece of our tail." He continued with a very serious expression on his bearded face and his breath smelled of whiskey; "You see, we are all in our own spheres. I like to stay in mine, but so many of us love to just sneak out of theirs to try and find their way into others. That's not what art's about, you see. Art is about filling up your own sphere, not trying to fill up someone else's." I engaged him and the conversation progressed and digressed until it was his turn to go on stage and he stopped half way through the sentence, "It's like Irish women, you see..." and ran towards the stage. I'm not sure if there was anything concrete that I took from the conversation, but it certainly made me think about art, the sharing of art, and how involved the ego is in that sharing. And then it was my turn to share.

After Berman played a solo song he called Rebo, the two singers, and myself onto the stage in Setswana (I heard 'Sebastian' somewhere and knew it was time to come on) and after a short introduction that I continued to not understand we launched into the song. It was a good thing the spotlights were bright enough to drown out the faces of the audience, because I was nervous, but as usual after the first few rolls of my fingers over the doumbek, I entered my own mind, which in turn burrowed its way into my hands and that strange, but ecstatic feeling of disconnect and possession by music didn't fade until the song finished. And started right up again as the girls left the stage and KK came out to jam with us. KK is the sound man of Exodus Live - he's large, in charge, and has a hard drive in his vocal cords that can reproduce every drum crack, synthetic zap, and R&B vocal trick. I've jammed with him at Khwest several times, but it was even better doing in front of an audience and with Berman to back him up. It was tough for anyone on stage to keep a composure as we were just having too much fun. I was still shaking a bit when the set ended and I got off stage. I joined KK and his band at the end of the show to close the set, and the energy level knocking itself around my skeleton was out of control when the curtains finally closed. I'm supposed to be playing another show in the same venue on Friday with Berman and just got a call from KK asking me to play what seems like a pretty tentative and big show tomorrow night.

Its exhilarating to be gigging again, and to be a performing artist in Southern Africa is pretty surreal. Once again I'm utterly astounded at the amount of music I'm getting involved in here. It feels like high school again, except lacking the familiarity of the environment and the routine, and instead dripping, utterly saturated, with the new and exciting. I'm meeting some amazing, creative, like-minded people and its liberating to be floating in such free space. I've never felt so inclined to figure myself out, to think and create, and share. I don't necessarily want to climb out of my sphere and crowd someone else's, as Ras David seems to think artists are wont to do, but it feels good to open a little valve in my sphere and let the air seep out and mingle with everything else and form collective creativity, collective exploration, collective understanding and misunderstanding.

From left: Forgotten Name 1, Rebo, Me, Forgotten Name 2, Berman

That's KK on the left.

Oh! A couple of sidenotes:
1) The orange ribbon that has been around my wrist for the past fourteen months shredded itself and fell off day before yesterday. About time, I guess, but sad nonetheless.
2) I've heard "Hero" by Enrique Iglesias on the radio, mentioned in conversation, and sung by different people approximately twenty times in the past three days. I don't know what this means in the metaphysical sense, but in the literal one - it's driving me crazy.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Loops, Spirals, Ladders

Dumelang! It's been an eventful week, to say the least. A week filled to the brim with every possible emotion- the good, the bad, those in between - creating an intoxicating cocktail that has left me spinning. But maybe sometimes it's okay to just keep spinning. Maybe I'll let the momentum work its magic and just keep spinning and spinning and spinning until I actually have a reason to stop. I haven't been faced with a good enough one yet, so I'll let this whirlwind just take its course while I gasp for whatever air I can.

The Gates Of Hell: It's pretty amazing how in a matter of minutes emotions can do a total 180 and a night can go from phenomenal to abominable. Last Friday started off superbly as we sipped Windhoek Lager and watched the dusk sun put on its usual show in color invention - splattering never before seen reds, oranges, purples into the sky - in what is starting to become a routine Friday evening visit to the Dam. The Penn nursing students who were here for about a month were heading back to Philly so after Khwezi, Ngozi, and Mex came and met up with us at the Dam we made the usual squeeze into the Mexmobile (we have once fit 12 people in his 5-seater coupe) and headed to Riverwalk for a farewell dinner. Dinner was a little overwhelming as any dinner with about twenty people and multiple bottles of wine is bound to be, but eventually the bill was paid and we made the [terrible] decision to go to Lizard Lounge. Lizard Lounge probably isn't generally a bad place. It's a decent club with a sizable dance floor, a balcony sitting area, and a smoking room that through glass looks at the calves of dancers, in what I deemed 'the Danciquarium.' It was about 1130 by the time Mex, Khwezi, Ngozi, Lebo, Daniel, Ilana, Anna, Brianna and I walked into the club. It was not packed, nor was it empty and while the DJ sucked we managed to find our circle on the dance floor and moved to the grooves of industrial house. Sounded something like this - CHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKA.

One of Mex's artists, DJ ONKZ was going to be on later and this was part of the reason we were there as Daniel has been designing cover art and promotional stuff for him. So as the night progressed there were few incidents, besides some over-ambitious men making moves on the girls who were with us. I am now simultaneously married to Ilana, Anna, and Brianna. Seems to do the trick most of the time. I usually point to one of my bracelets and say "in my country we don't use rings - we use cheap Balinese coconut beads." As usual Daniel made his rounds, camera in hand, taking advantage of the sleazy lighting and mirrors on the walls. It was about three in the morning when I felt a tap on my shoulder, saw Khwezi's deadpan expression and heard him say "Daniel's camera is gone." Shit. For those of you who know Daniel, you know how big of a deal this is. Daniel losing his camera is like me losing my hands. Photos are just what he does. Speaking of which, check out his blog, for some audiovisual wonders and his website,, for his work - he's pretty talented, I guess... Anyway, upon hearing the news my heart stopped and I immediately began to scan the crowd but everyone and nobody looked suspicious. We mobilized quickly and in a matter of minutes Daniel had spoken to the club owner and had bouncers searching everyone who came out. It was tense in the tiny entrance foyer as people impatiently shuffled towards the door and I was overcome by a vast variety of feelings. I was nervous, angry, sad, self-conscious, angry, angry, angry. As Mex, Brianna, Lebo, and I combed the bush, with the aid of a handphone-flashlight, I couldn't help but feel really really mad. Of course, I've had things stolen from me before, and it's weird to have anger so seamlessly blended with other emotions like understanding. Maybe he was going to use the money from pawning off the camera to feed his family comfortably for months. Maybe he is HIV positive and was finally going to be able to afford ARVs. But, probably not. It's far more likely its some thug with no conscience who does this every weekend and spends the money to further fuel his thuggery. Jackass. After about thirty minutes of kicking thorn bushes, and sifting through foliage in an attempt to maybe recover the camera that could have been dropped in the bush to be picked up by an accomplice later, we headed back into the club. By this point is was around 430 and we thought it best to give up. Especially as tensions began to rise in the club, and people who were refusing to be searched were being pummeled by bouncers and locked in closets. As I stood at these Gates of Hell in the dim red lighting and listened to the steady rhythm of beer bottles being thrown against walls all I could think of was that damn camera. When we finally left that infernal place it was nearly five in the morning and despite my emotional and physical exhaustion it took me a while to fall asleep. I was a little shaken up from the roller coaster night and as I finally fell asleep I could only think one thing - never, ever, EVER will I return to Lizard Lounge. Never.

(For another perspective and some gorgeous prose please check out Daniel's blog, listed above, and Ilana's - Sometimes I can't really capture what I need to, but with their help, maybe together we can paint a coherent picture.

Bday Bash At Mexyland: In the spirit of climbs, slips, and roller coasters, last Saturday was a big boost, at least for me, after the previous night's incident in Hell. I already briefly mentioned the party that my friends threw for me. It was a total surprise and what I thought was a routine studio session actually became a full-blown party, filled with great people, baked goods, grab bags, and laughter-laughter-laughter. Besides Daniel and Ilana, I've only known all of these people for about a month and it's really amazing how when the people are right, connections can be latched into place in no time at all, links forged on fast-forward speeding through the days until suddenly you look around you and realize how lucky you are. I know how lucky I am to have met Khwezi, Ngozi, Shorty, Mex, Lebo, Anna, Brianna, Rafa (the list could go on...), and Saturday night was a celebration of that.

Kamogelo Rhythms: On Wednesday after our 'Critical Issues in Modern African Literature' class, Ilana and I made a return to Kamogelo Day Care Center, the center where Ilana was teaching all summer and I made a visit to in my first days here. It was really great to go back. I wasn't in the best of spirits when I got up that morning, or on the stuffy combi ride out to Mogoditshane, but as soon as I saw the radiant smiles of the kids the clouds cleared. As usual they were hugging, dancing and hanging, and it was great to see that even some of the five year olds remembered me. Again, they stared, completely fascinated, by my pronounced Adam's apple. Again, I pretended to swallow one of my bracelets and watched the perplexed looks on the kids' faces as they poked my Adam's apple thinking it was the piece of jewelry lodged in my throat. By the end of the afternoon I had convinced a few that it was, and convinced a few others that it was, in fact, an apple. Unfortunately, I didn't have the musical accompaniment of my doumbek and Daniel's harmonica, but an old rusty trash-can served as a worthy replacement as me and a boy with a gap between his teeth banged out some jams. These kids have some serious rhythm! Which reminds me, I'm also helping Thabo teach hand-drumming to a bunch of the CIEE Study Abroad students here. They, too, were pretty impressive on the first class last Tuesday, and I'm looking forward to this Tuesday where Thabo's bringing in materials to build some drums.

Spring: It's opening its eyes and stretching wide here in the southern hemisphere. The streets smell more like flowers, the sun is fierce, and the budding trees are swarmed with bird nests of every variety.

Bakery: Ilana and Anna seem to be running one, right here in the Graduate Village, much to my delight.

Poetry: It mingles with music and rhythm as the three essential elements of the air here and it's so easy to just inhale it all and see what comes out when you exhale. I've written poetry for years and years, but never have I felt such an urge to create and perform. In the past I rarely have read my poetry, besides in classroom settings, as I never really saw it as something to share. I guess I just thought no one would care. But here, open mics are as common as goat herds that lawfully follow traffic codes (apparently common) and I'm excited to create and share. Anna, Ilana, Arnheld and I went to a UB Writers Workshop on Wednesday night and it was packed with people who just wanted to share their work. I hope to make that a regular thing and with that along with Khwest poetry nights, my outlets for expression are quite sufficient.

Michael Dinake: On Wednesday my 'South African Politics' professor, which is probably the best professor and class I have here, brought in someone to come talk to us. Michael Dinake is originally from Botswana but in the 60's was active in South Africa and the region in the African National Congress (ANC). On a mission to Lusaka, Zambia he was stopped my apartheid regime secret agents and arrested, illegally as it was out of their jurisdiction, and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment in Robben Island - where ANC big shots like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were being held. His story is an incredible one and he told us details about prison life at Robben Island. About torture, discrimination, and the time towards the end where they were allowed to get an education while in prison, so Dinake ended up with three degrees and only recently retired from a long service in the Botswana parliament. As he was talking I kept thinking about self-satisfaction and achievement. How this man dedicated his life to a cause, one of liberty and justice, and suffered and suffered for it only to be victorious at the end. How does it feel when you win a revolution? How does it feel when you are part of liberating an entire people from tyranny and bigotry? 'Respect' doesn't quite cut it when describing the sentiment I felt for him as he spoke to us. Not to mention we were, as Ilana's note reminded me in the middle of class, "one degree of separation from Nelson Mandela."

This Weekend: is a little hazy, even as I try and reflect on it as it comes to a close. Last night was a lot of fun. Anna, Walter and I met up with Khwezi, Mex, Lebo, and Ngozi at Red Dot at around nine. I've described Red Dot before - it's the giant sandy parking lot where people grill meat with their bare hands, drink, and be merry. It was Saturday night so the place was completely packed. The usual dented, rusty cars, neglected in the face of tricked out stereo systems lined the perimeter and clusters of people dancing and talking became less and less sparse as we approached the bar. DJ Onkz was there shooting a music video and so Mex immediately asked us to be in it. It was a little unsettling to be there dancing in the corner with a giant spot light on us and a man with a camcorder in my face. Although it is pretty cool to now not only be a recorded musician in Botswana but a documented back up dancer... Sort of.

After Red Dot we headed to a party out in the Beverly Hills-esque suburb of Gaborone being hosted by the biggest record label owner in Botswana. On the drive over, Mex kept turning around and telling me "all the music celebrities will be here, all the celebrities" and it was interesting to be in that kind of environment; around a house with a swimming pool, and green, green grass (a rare commodity around these parts and a luxury I sorely miss). On one of the trips back to the Mexmobile to grab a beer out of the trunk the pumping hip hop suddenly ceased. Then I saw an olive green military jeep parked at the entrance. Naturally, this was a little worrying to me but it didn't even seem to phase any of the residents.

Khwezi: What the hell you waiting for? Let's go.
Me: Um, but what about...that?
Khwezi: What?
Me: Police?
Khwezi: Who?
Me: The freakin' army truck at the entrance.
Khwezi: Yeah, who cares? It's fine. We're not doing anything wrong.
Me: Uh...okay. [follows meekly]

Ahh, yes, to think that two years in the United States has made me terrified of drinking laws even after growing up in places without one. Frat parties have turned me into a wuss.

The police eventually left and the music resumed. After some shuffling from foot to foot and talking to Lebo about Mex's big dreams to be a producer like this guy, we got invited inside by Khwezi into the producer's studio. It was a small studio, with high quality sound proofing providing perfect cushioning to lean against, and some high end synthesizer equipment. Blinged out and in matching leprechaun green hat, jersey, and converse, the producer - his name escapes me now - was working behind the boards barking orders at Khwezi and Buckshot as they rhymed. I felt like I was in some movie about the music industry and selling out as I watched Mex watch his every move, with unblinking attention. If all else fails, I think I'll just move out here and get involved in the Botswana music industry - it's got such an interesting dynamic. We got back to UB at around 3, indulged in some 'Planet Earth,' (the BBC TV series not the Prince album although it's pretty quality too), and went to sleep.


I can still smell the chlorine on my skin from our afternoon visit to the Gaborone Sun pool as I sit here in the still quietude of the Gaborone night trying to reflect on the last week and the last month. Once again, I find it difficult to put into words - because of both my unwillingness to reveal some things and my inability to reveal others. I've been so absorbed in where I am and my own situation, my own transitions, my own well being that I think I've been a little selfish and it's left me feeling a little detached from reality. No matter how hard I try, I can't really imagine what my friends are doing in Philly right now, what my parents are doing in India, what my friends are doing around the world. No matter what I do, returning to Philly is going to be a totally weird experience and one that I'm not sure I'm going to be ready for in a few months. I'm used to changes. Drastic ones. But change usually happens to me when I'm fully in control of what's being changed, when I have the awareness to understand the streaks and blurs of the world as it passes before my eyes. This detachment from reality that I've been feeling here is as scary as it is exciting. It's exciting because there's a little bit of liberation in feeling this way, in knowing you understand the world in a way that only you understand it. But it's scary, because in doing so it pushes you back a little bit to get a good look, and before you know it you're floating in space. Both the future and the past seem a little ethereal to me, like the last feint plumes of smoke of a burning piece of parchment. It's only the present; the sandy, glassy African soil under my feet that makes any sense at all right now. It's the only thing that seems real. But that's okay. Keep the present coming.


Some notable quotes from the last five weeks here in Gaborone:

"You're from Colombia and India? So you can talk to me about drugs and finance?" - Tsotsi (UB student I met at the laundry room)

"I won't name names because I don't have a chicken to pay with." - Charity Nkala (the International student coordinator)

"Suppose you have a visitor and he/she dies in the night. Where will you dispose of the body?" - Ma Khudu talking to us during orientation about not having visitors spend the night in our rooms.

"It's okay. Right now you're experiencing this cultural...thing."

"There will always be those who are tomatoes among apples. Don't trust people right away. If you want to get to know someone, 'Google' them first." - UB student talking to us during orientation about meeting people. 'Google' is apparently established slang for asking your friends about someone.

"I was there when Sun Tzu realized he had something to fight for." -poet at Khwest Open Mic night

"Intimate partner homicide." - written on the board of our Setswana class.

"With every untaken step, the soul sighs in relief." - Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity!

"For Cliche is but pauperized Ecstacy," - Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, p. 11