Studying with Dieudonné

Bon Jour, Tout le monde!

Well here I am on the TGV heading north from Lyons to Paris. I’ve got to say that French public transport kicks the shit out of American public transport. This thing does 130 mile per hours. It will go from Lyons to Paris in about 2 hours, which I think is about the same as Boston to New York. And the Paris metro – it’s clean, it has rubber tires so it doesn’t make much noise, it runs very frequently, and it even has interesting artwork in various stations. And the beggars are well dressed. And they give back rubs. Okay, I made up the part about back rubs, but the rest is true.

I was beginning to get a little frustrated with my work with Alain in Paris – it felt like I kept getting the same lesson over and over again. This is probably because, indeed, we keep going over the same stuff again and again. Alain won’t let me finish something until he’s convinced that I’ve got it right. I have to admit that I agree with the technique – my tendency is to want to review a lot of material, and review it “later”, but I’m beginning to realize that, for me at least, “later” almost never comes. With the “play it until you get it right all the time” method, the melodies and techniques get in my body, and there’s no need to review. They are literally incorporated.

I know that the frustration is part of the process – a shrink once told me “In order to get to Oz, you have to cross the deadly desert”. This is about the most useful thing that a shrink has ever told me. And I could have read it myself. The fact that I know that frustration is a natural part of learning does not make it feel any less frustrating. Especially in the song classes, when Alain gives me a particularly tongue-twisting lyric. Then I feel like making him try to say “eeny weeny tipsa-teeny, wa wa bumbaleeny otchy potchy double otchy iggledy aggledy oo and out goes y-o-u”. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t get that the first time.

I know that Alain feels like I’m making progress, because occasionally he shows me off. Once, after a rehearsal of Ballet Lemba, we stopped for a beer with a few of the dancers. He had me sing some of the songs that he’d taught me. This caused a great sensation among the company. I felt a bit like a talking dog – it’s not that it talks well, but that it talks at all that’s amazing. (Okay, that’s not my quote, but I don’t know who said it)

Anyway, we were supposed to do a workshop with Dieudonné N’Kanza. The workshop was cancelled, but I decided to go down to Valence and work with Dieudonné anyway. It turned out to be a really good decision. Not only was it a break from the Alain technique, but it was also a break from Paris, which it turned out I needed.

WARNING – in the following section Tom waxes rhapsodic about the countryside of the south of France. Naturephobes are advised to skip the following section.

The south of France is truly lovely. On the way south from the train, there are fields of some grain or grass which is in flower with a vibrant yellow color. All throughout the country side the bright red poppies (coquelicots) are in flower. It’s funny – I don’t think that I really got some of Monet’s paintings until a saw the colors of the French countryside. They are different than what I’ve seen in America.

This visit, I made it a point to take a walk once or twice a day. I found it very aesthetically satisfying to walk around there. I really like the way that the architecture sits in the landscape. A lot of it looks like it was too much of a bother to try to flatten the landscape, so they just decided to build a kind of lopsided house instead. There’s a lot of building with fieldstone, and on a number of houses, there might be kind of a stub of a wall sticking off which implies something like “okay, there used to be something here, but it fell down, and we decided that we didn’t really need it anyway, and besides the wall-stub looks pretty good there, don’t you think, and why don’t you just sit down and have some wine?” You’ve got to like a house that talks like that.

One walk in particular sticks in my memory. I walked up the ridge of a hill toward a town called St. Bardoux. Mostly there were green fields of wheat on either side, but also the occasional cherry orchard. In the distance on the right hand side were the Alps, snow capped, grey and white. A lower range of dark green in front of them. On the left, in the distance the lower mountains of the Ardeche and the light green valley of the Rhone. It was threatening to rain, so there were some pretty dramatic clouds moving around overhead. There were a number of birds, maybe larks, that would rise up out of the grain, twittering, fluttering rapidly, rising higher and higher. St Bardoux is a tiny town that sits on the top of the ridge. When I got there, the kids were running around the schoolyard yelling. The bread man was making his deliveries. The irises were in bloom.


Dieudonné is a physically imposing man. Although I am taller than him, he nonetheless gave me the impression of being bigger than me. He’s got a big round shaved head, broad shoulders, barrel chest. Alain projects the image of the trickster brother – Hermes. Dieudonné is more Jovian. This is appropriate since Dieudoné was Alain’s teacher. Kind of my Yoda’s Yoda. Nowadays he’s trying to patch things up between Alain and his girlfriend, so I guess he’s also my Yoda’s yenta.

Dieudonné loves to eat and drink. After he picked me up at the station, we picked up two 5 liter kegs of beer. They would not last us three nights. We worked together for three days, and probably the best lesson was the second day when we drummed for about 4 hours and polished off the second of the two kegs.

He also loved for me to eat and drink as well. The Congolese have a rather endearing expression. When they see you pause in eating or drinking, they’ll point at the food and or drink and say “Attaque, Tom, attaque!”. I attacked quite well during my visit to Dieudonné.

As you can tell, the visit put me in a good mood. It’s an old saw that you bring along all of your emotional baggage when you travel. Nonetheless, it’s been interesting for me to observe my own patterns. Without a schedule, or direction, I become anxious and feel disconnected. I construct a schedule, and after a while, it begins to feel burdensome, and I grow restless and resentful. Then I have to escape from a box of my own devising. Perhaps that’s how we grow – constructing larger and larger boxes to escape from. Is the final escape when we shuffle off this mortal coil?

Yow – too much is enough.

More later, but for now it’s

Au Revoir, mes amis