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.

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