Blues on the Pont d’Arcole

Well, now I’ve been in Paris long enough to have a favorite bridge. It’s the Pont D’Arcole, and it runs from the Hotel DeVille to the Ile de la Cite which is the island where Notre Dame is. From it, you can see the Seine running on either side of the Ile St Louis. You can also see two staircases which run down the side of the Ile de la Cite to the Seine. It’s not unusual to spot a Parisian skulk furtively down these stairs to relieve himself. Whenever I catch one at it, I like to jump up and down on the bridge and wave.

I’ve also been hear long enough to have caught my first dose of the blues. It was right around the full moon which makes me think that I’m a bit lunatique, as the French say. But anyway the circumstances were something like this – I went and watched the movie “Romeo and Julliette” (yes I know that it closed a while ago in the US, but it seems to take several months for the European release). Frankly, I didn’t like it that much. I was sitting next to an American woman and her friends. At the end of the movie she turned to her friends and said “Well, my heart is wrung”. So there I was with an opinion, and no one to express it to. I would have liked to say something like “Well, I’ll hand it to the costume designer, because John Leguizamo’s shoes were pretty boss, but what was it with Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech anyway? It semed like he was pretty worked up about something, but frankly I have no idea what.” But I felt like that would be a little harsh to say to someone who I didn’t know and who was clearly moved by the film.

Here’s the rub (let’s continue in the Shakespearean vein) – in NY, I would have been able to discuss that film with a number of pals. Eventually my opinion would have been nicely polished, and I could have nailed the movie pretty gracefully. Here, since I tend to avoid Americans, and try to speak my rather awkward French, my opinion comes out something like this “Are you being acquainted with the writer who was calling himself Shakespeare? I have seen the movie “Romeo and Juliette”, but in a cow-like way, the pleasure was not mine”. It’s just not the same thing.

Anyway, there I was feeling kind of lonesome when I got the old “be careful what you wish for” lesson. The very next night, I got a call from Alain, my teacher. He had left his girlfriend, and needed a place to crash. Of course, I offered my place as an emergency landing pad. It seems that emergencies last a while in Africa, so I got a roomate for a while. It soon became clear that I preferred to be lonesome rather than having the pleasure of listening to an African snore. Now we’re in that delicate stage of jettisoning the roommate while maintaining the relationship.

In other news, we’ll be heading south again for another dance workshop. I plan to stay down in Valence to work a little bit with Dieudonne Nkanza who seems to have a pretty clear idea about how traditional rhythms should be constructed. I’d also like to visit Rouen and work with Ferdinand Batantou who I know from camp in California, but we’ll see how that works out. Right now, my flight or the Congo is June 2nd, but I think that I may try to move it back a week, because there is evidentally a big African Dance and Drum show on the June 7th in Paris, and Alain wants me to perform in it.

That’s all for now.


Playing the Ngoma in the Cave

Bon Jour, Tout le monde

I’m sitting by my window looking out over St. Severin. (This is where I always sit, because it’s just about the only place to sit in my studio besides the bed). I’ve got an electric heater running, standing about a half inch away from the head of an ngoma, which is a congolese drum. My teacher, Alain, borrowed it from a friend of his for me to practice on. Since it’s “traditional”, it’s got the head nailed directly onto the body of the drum. The only way to tune the drum up is to apply heat.

Alain wil be coming over for a lesson in about 45 minutes “in principe“. In principe is an excellent french/african phrase which means something like “in a perfect world, but don’t sweat it”. When he gets here, we’ll descend into the cave for a two hour lesson. We usually have the lesson in the third chamber which is the furthest from the door, and therefore soundproof “in principe” (see how useful that phrase is?). That room is about 8 feet by 8 feet with an arched ceiling maybe seven or eight feet high. It’s like playing drums in a catacomb. We both wear earplugs because the sound echoes around in there so much. How do I spend my time in Paris? Why, playing the ngoma in a catacomb. Doesn’t everyone?

Alain and I have worked out a pretty full schedule. I’ve got two 2-hour private drum classes a week and a 2-hour private song lesson (This week, I learned a song that you can use to taunt a kid who has peed in his bed. This will undoubtedly come in useful in the Congo). I take two 1-hour group dance classes. I dance pretty well, for a white guy, which is kind of like saying “it glides pretty well, for a chicken”. I also play for rehearsals for Ballet Lemba which is a dance troupe that Alain plays lead drum for. That’s usually twice a week for about 3 hours a pop. I also sit in on Alain’s intermediate (group) drum class, which is another hour and a half.

On the days when I don’t have classes, I try to do a little practicing on my own. When it was cold, I used the cave, but the other day, I grabbed Alain’s djembe, and sat on the bank of the Seine looking at the Notre Dame and played for a couple of hours. The view was nicer.

I’ve been doing very little taping in the lessons, which is quite a contrast from last time. Last year, I probably recorded 8 hours worth in 2 weeks. Now I’ve barely recorded an hour in a month. There’s a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, Alain has taken a rather methodical approach – we keep working on the same 4 or 5 rhythms, and it’s clear to me that we’re not going to do anything new until he’s satisfied that I’ve got them by heart. Since I’m getting things by heart, there’s not that much reason to record. Also, I realized that I almost never have the time to review tapes. So I’m going with the “be here now” approach.

Alain treats me very much like family. I’ve been over to his house, and eaten Congolese cuisine quite a bit. It turns out I like it. It’s usually some sort of stewed meat and greens in a tomato or peanut based sauce, served with a starchy gob (either manioc or farina) and hot pepper. I am encouraged to drink heavily. Alain has taken to calling me “maitre Tom”, and from time to time will turn to me and exclaim out of nowhere “Maitre Tom!”. I guess this is a congolese practice, because he has a cousin, Edmond, who was visiting him who from time to time would look at me and say “TomTomTomTomTom”. I guess they just like the way it sounds.

Alain also brings me with him when he’s going to visit his Congolese pals, and this I have to admit gets boring sometimes, because visiting entails sitting around and speaking in Lari, of which I understand about 9 words – “Kani” which means no and “mouana” which means child. I can also count up to 7. You can imagine that I am not considered a sparkling conversationalist.

The more I’ve hung around with the Congolese, the less daunting going to Africa seems. For one thing, they keep saying to me “you’ll have a great time, the atmosphere is great”, not “you will probably become gravely ill”or “my family would consider you a tasty meal”. Also, I’ve spoken to several (white) French people who gave the Congo high marks as well. It’s very interesting the contrast betwen the French and American view of a trip to Africa. For the Americans it’s a journey fraught with peril. For the French it’s a fun vacation spot. Since the French go there more often, I’m starting to lean toward their interpretation.

I’ve been here for almost a month now, which is kind of hard to believe. Things have begun settling into a routine. I know where to go for bread, wine, cheese, laundry. I usually have breakfast and lunch at home (which is quite a contrast from New York.) I’ve been eating alot of bread, cheese and pate, and drinking quite a bit of wine. Wine here is great – I’ve been shopping the cheap stuff, and have yet to come across a bad bottle. My French is slowly improving. There’s still an awful lot that gets by me, but I can hold ponderous conversations with those who are patient enough. Luckily for me, a lot of people are. Really I haven’t run into very many rude French. In general, I try to speak only French.

I have also begun frequenting the swing dance clubs in Paris. They tend to be underground in “caves’ as well. Arched ceilings of stone, hard floors (I actually managed to crack the sole of one of my shoes dancing). The style is different then what you see in New York – a little more fifties, a little more white. But I’ve begun to find clubs that I like, and to meet the regulars. Luckily, my apartment is in the midst of the dance club district, so I can walk to clubs and back (this is convenient because the clubs close at 3:30 on the weekends, and the metro stops at 1:00). Louis Prima is very popular here – almost everytime I’m out dancing I hear about half the set that I used to hear from the Flipped Fedoras. Occasionally, though, you get an interesting mis-translation. The other day, I saw a band advertised as the “Just a Gigolos”. They had a large banner with lyrics printed so that the audience could sing along. It declared “When I grow to old to dream, your love will leave in my heart”. I thought that gave it a kind of cynical Gallic twist.

The weather continues to be beautiful here. Since April, it hasn’t rained, and the temps have been mostly up in the 60’s. I love walking around Paris. I particularly love walking by the Seine and looking at Notre Dame. I never get tired of it. I think it’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. I also love walking by all the small gardens that are so carefully tended. It’s great to see the change of flowers. When I arrived it it was Pansy Days but now it’s Tulip-Mania. I can harldy wait to see what’s next.

Keep the cards and letters coming. I love to hear about what’s happening back home.

More later, but for now it’s

Au revoir, mes amis.


In the Lair of the Pack Rat

Bon jour, tout le monde!

I have located an apartment in Paris, so now I have an address and phone number. If you call and reach the answering machine, you will have the pleasure of hearing me mangle the French language.

My apartment is very french -small, dark, and inadequately bathed. But it has a great location – right across from St. Severin a block or two from the Seine and Notre Dame. My window looks out over St. Severin and the flowering chestnut trees next to it. It’s really for the view that I took the apartment. That and because the guy that’s renting it bought me some croissants and waxed poetic over the beauties of Paris. It’s true – I can be had for the price of breakfast and some talk.

The building was evidentally the home of Salvador Dali. On the side of it is a sun dial which Dali created.

The guy who usually lives here, Alain Van de Velde, is a real pack rat. All sorts of things are squirreled away in unlikely corners of the apartment. So far I’ve discovered a plastic bag containing carpet scraps. Several long pieces of molding. Some hinges. A collection of coasters. And most mysteriously, a crumpled envelope containing several rocks.

But that is nothing compared to the basement. The basement is the other reason that I took the apartment. M. Van de Velde assured me that I would be able to practice there. The French word for cellar is cave, and for this one, the word applies in both French and English. First you have to go down a spiral stone staircase. Then you need a flashlight to navigate a long low-ceilinged corridor. A padlocked metal “door” yields entry to the cave of M.van de (Unten)velde. It’s a series of three small rooms whith arched ceilings, the top of the arch being maybe 8 or 9 feet. If the studio was the den of a pack rat, this is more like the lair. It contains (Among items too numerous to mention) : a dress maker’s dummy. A wooden box overflowing with flexible PVC tubes. Several iron grates. A park bench. Several street and metro signs. A stack of classroom chairs. A large canvas bag full of rocks.

The cave is “carpeted” throughout with astro turf.

All in all, it seems the perfect spot for a vampire drummer to spend his/her daylight hours before ascending to the streets of Paris.

I’ve found (or been found by) my Congolese friend Alain. Now I’m taking lessons in drum, song, and dance. More on Paris a la Africain in my next missive.