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.



About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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