Lindy Hop Camp in Herrang. Stockholm and the Story of the Vasa.

Bon Jour, Tout le Monde!

or if you prefer

Hej! (That’s Hello in Swedish)

Well, here I am sitting in Cafe le Depart. This is a favorite hang of mine for people watching. The food’s not great, but you can’t beat the location. Right on the corner of the Place St Michel looking down the Seine. The tourists all milling about, meandering toward recommended scenic destinations, the Parisians ignoring them, walking as quickly as the can toward places so hip only a Parisian can understand them.

Last night,Virginie and I hung out at a cafe nearby playing “Guess the Origin”. We tried to guess the origin of whoever walked past. (No fair saying his/her Mom). It’s harder than you would think. Often we were reduced to clues like what did their tour books say (If it says “Parigi” they’re Italian). Viriginie had some interesting rules of thumb – Dark and flat chested = French. Dark and large chested = Italian or Spanish. Walks fast = Parisian. Big ass = American. Often we were confused (Well that guy is French, but he must have bought his belly from an American.). It struck me just how global fashion (especially summer leisure-wear) has become. In a way it’s sad. Nobody was wearing lederhosen.

I’ve just come back from my trip to Sweden (see Toute Le Monde volume 1 #6 dated 7/24/96). The Lindy Hop camp was a lot of fun – a real glorification of obsession just like a good camp should be. There were about four hours of lessons a day. Then there was dinner and a meeting, often followed by more lessons if you wanted them (usually in some alternate style – Charleston, Jazz, even Milonga which turns out to be an early form of Tango). Then dancing every night until the last couple went home, which was usually someplace around 6:00 AM). At breakfast people would say things like “I didn’t get much sleep last night – only about an hour and a half.”

One thing that I hadn’t expected was the sense of humor of the people running the camp. Lennart Westerlund is the chief, and he ran every meeting with a deadpan sense of humor that I found hysterical. For instance – “if you find it boring here, you might take a bus to Halstavik to see all the interesting things there. (Beat). Good luck.” Or: “If you smoke please don’t throw your cigarettes around, because there are people who have to pick them up. Find a place to put your cigarette. (beat). An ashtray would be a good place.” (Pause, nodding, as if confirming with himself that an ashtray would indeed be a good place to put your cigarette butt.) It works better when he does it.

Anyway, the dance lessons were a bit humbling as I soon learned that “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG”. I think this might be the title of my lessons here (drumming and otherwise) or perhaps “Moving backwards to move forward”. I arrived ready to move onto complicated stuff only to learn that my basic technique needs work. I start working on my basic technique, and some of the more complicated stuff I could do with my old flawed technique is now difficult to execute with my new, not-quite-mastered technique. Sigh.

European women have very clear ideas about how certain steps are to be executed, and are nothing loath to tell you when you’re not doing it right. I accepted the fact quickly that the camp would be the Swingout intensive for me. (For those of you non-Lindy Hoppers, a swingout is one of the basic Lindy steps, where the partners come in, rotate and swing out in opposite directions.) I worked on it with Valerie from France once – it was pretty amusing, because she would stop me whenever she felt like I was getting it wrong. Our practice sounded like this – “Un, deux NON” “Un, deux, trois-et-NON”, “Un, deux, tros-et-quatre, NON”. Luckily for me, I found partners who enjoyed my dance style during the evening social dances so I could gather back up the pieces of my ego scattered by the day’s classes.

Every Wednesday night is Blues Night where people show up in their Lindy finest – Zoot suits, high-waisted pants, slinky dresses with spaghetti straps. And you should see the women! The whole night is dedicated to slow dancing which Laurence the goofy Swiss described as “Not so much dancing as leaning against each another.” Laurence is another fixture, as whacky as only a totally restrained person can be when he finally breaks loose. He announced that he would be having a sausage party in the sauna and boasted “My average sausage throughput is about 120 sausages an hour.” You’ve got to love the Swiss. He would speak often at meetings, usually concluding by saying “It is important that you stay up as late as possible.”

After the camp I went to Stockholm. Since I’d made friends with various campers, I was able to hook up to the Stockholm dance scene. The swing scene in Stockholm is often outdoors, and is composed of the various Lindy Hoppers, and a large number of fox-trotting Gliding Geezers who use their unusually sharp elbows to shepherd the Lindy Hoppers out of their path.

Stockholm is a much more beautiful city than I had imagined. (To tell the truth, I haven’t spent a lot of time imagining Stockholm). It’s in an archipelago, and is built on 14 islands. To its east the archipelago extends out to the Baltic. There are about 24,000 islands in that archipelago. The water is very clean in town – you can swim off the town hall (I did several times).

I went to a museum which was called the Vasa museum which houses a ship called the Vasa (ironic, huh). The story of this ship will be familiar to anyone who has built software or worked in a large corporation. The Vasa was a warship built in 1628 when Sweden was at war with Poland. As first designed, it was to be one of the largest ships in the fleet, designed to blockade Danzig harbor. She was to have a gun deck sporting 32 cannon. After the keel had been laid (no giggling, please), and the dimensions of the hull fixed, the king decided that he wanted to have 2 cannon decks, not just one. If you add another deck with a lot of weight, you really should change the dimensions of the hull. But they’d already started, and invested money in this hull, and they probably had a deadline to reach, and the decision had come from the higher-ups, so they went ahead and hoped for the best and just stuck the other deck on there (another deck with 16 more cannons each weighing about a ton). Maybe they figured they could throw in a little more ballast and offset things.

When the ship was constructed, they tested it for stability. They usually did this by having thirty men run from one side of the boat to the other ten times. The Vasa was so unstable that after three times back and forth, it was threatening to capsize, so they stopped the test. Well now, they’d spent a whole lot more money and they were right up against the deadline. So what to do? The answer is obvious – deliver the faulty product and hope the client doesn’t notice.

The Vasa set sail with all of her banners flying and the whole population of Stockholm watching. She got out into the harbor and was hit by a cross breeze, heeled over, righted herself, heeled over again. Water poured in through the gun ports, and the Vasa sank, heading straight to the bottom where it rested on it’s keel, bolt upright. The Vasa sank in 30 meters of water. But with its masts, the Vasa was about 52 meters tall which meant that after it settled, its masts must have stuck out of the water, its banners flapping wetly and forlornly in the breeze in the middle of Stockholm harbor.

A really interesting part of the story which the guide pointed out to me is that everybody must have known that that ship was going to sink. There were 400 people working in the shipyard. They were experienced ship builders. They had to know that you couldn’t just stick another cannon deck on there. They had to know that the Vasa would probably capsize. Which means that all the sculptors (there were at least three master sculptors creating wood carvings adorning the boat) must have known that those sculptures were probably going to end up on the bottom of the ocean. And most interestingly, the sailors who went on board what they knew was a doomed vessel. Fifty were reported drowned, but only twenty five bodies were recovered when they raised the Vasa. At the time, service in the navy was compulsory, but you could buy your way out by substituting another able-bodied male in your place (like in Civil War U.S.). Only the poor got stuck there. Were there sailors who got themselves placed on the Vasa knowing that it would sink, and hoping to use that as a cover for desertion? Is that what happened to the other 25 “drowned” bodies? I think there’s a nice novel or screen play in there.

One other fun thing that I did in Stockholm – I took a hot air balloon ride. It’s pretty fun, and really very calm. It’s like standing on a really high balcony. One thing that I was not prepared for – that burner is really hot. (Okay everybody – One, two, three “DUH”) Whenever the pilot would fire it up, it would toast my head pretty well. And she had to fire it up pretty frequently. They had the prevailing winds figured out pretty well, because we drifted right over the center of Stockholm’s old city (that’s Gamla Stan to you Swedes) The funniest part of the trip was landing. It’s all very serene and dignified up until then. But There are no wheels or anything on the basket, so when you land you just hit and kind of bounce for a while. We landed in an empty field and then had to wait there for our pursuit vehicle to catch up with us. The pilot kept the balloon inflated, and we kind of swayed back and forth with all the locals looking at us. Then the pursuit driver checked us out and decided that that field wasn’t good, because it had a drainage ditch around it and he couldn’t get the van in there. So three of us got out, and we dragged the balloon to the side of the field. The pilot kept the balloon just inflated enough so that it was barely hovering (about an inch clearance). It was like if one of those hovering air-cars in Star Wars had broken down, and Luke Skywalker had to have his pals drag it into a garage.

The best part was when we had to cross the road to get from our landing field to the better field across the way. There was a car coming , and the pilot had to wave it off (Careful, balloon crossing) before we could drag the balloon to its final resting place.

I’ve got a few more travels planned before I get back. First to Geneva to visit Aunt Liz and Uncle Dimi and then to London to attend the Swing Jam. Then back to the States by Labor Day. I’m very much looking forward to seeing all my pals, and dancing in all the old familiar places.

See you in the flesh soon? I hope so!

Mpangi ya beno,

Tom

Back in Paris

Bonjour, tout le monde.

Well it’s been a long time since I’ve sent out a missive. A lot of water has flowed under the Pont de Arcole, but mostly it’s been the same brown as usual, so really there hasn’t been that much to report.

Arriving back in Paris after my brief-but-eventful stay in the Congo, I was stricken by a bout of lassitude bordering on aboulia. When I landed, I called Alain, and went to stay with him at the home of his girlfriend (more accurately his primary girlfriend) Bambou. A little background – Bambou is the widow of Serge Gainsbourg a very well known and prolific singer/songwriter. She was about 19 and addicted to heroin when the married, he was in his 60’s and addicted to alcohol and nicotine. They had a son, Lucien and after maybe seven year together, Gainsbourg died. Their town house which Bambou still lives in is almost entirely wallpapered in black silk. There are black-and-white photos of Gainsbourg liberally sprinkled around the townhouse. Gainbourg observes you as you walk up the stairs. Gainsbourg peeks at you from behind the cookbooks in the kitchen. Gainsbourg regarded me with disdain in the little guest bedroom that I inhabited. I was thankful that Gainsbourg was discrete enough to leave the bathroom to the living.

Although Bambou was very welcoming I found the energy of the household too dark and inwardly directed. I spent a lot of time playing the piano and reading the Dragonball comic book series in french. But I found it difficult to explain to Bambou why wanted to leave. It’s hard to tell your host that you don’t want to live in her mausoleum.

After a couple of weeks, I moved to Virginie’s house. Virginie is Alain’s number 2 girlfriend. As such, she doesn’t fight with Alain that much, and she gets to be sad a lot of the time. Of course, I find this much more sympathetic. For those of you who don’t know already, here’s my address chez Virginie:

S/C Virginie Baillou

157 Avenue de Clichy

75017 Paris.

Tel: (01) 42 28 14 18

Aside from the housing woes and my own depression, the planets seemed to have moved into the sign of “Oh no, you don’t”. I was stricken with a number of small illnesses. It rained pretty much continually from mid-June to the beginning of July. A bunch of scheduled rehearsals, shows, etc. fell through. Things just weren’t quite clicking.

Then, on July 3 the heavens entered the sign of “many friends come to visit”. Four of my friends from the States arrived in Paris by coincidence at the same time. I got to spend the week being tourist and tour guide again, and that cheered me up quite a bit. It also helped me remember who I am and rediscover my taste for Americans. They really are quite tasty if marinated properly.

After my fun-filled tourist week, things started to click better. I recommenced drum lessons with Alain For some reason, he seemed to drag his feet on restarting lessons. I’m not sure why – but Alain is rather catlike, and often quite mysterious in that feline way. But lessons restarted, and got going on a very good foor immediately. The cat came back with a dead mouse and was my friend again.

I was introduced to a congolese dancer named Jean-Didier Mbembe by my friend Stanne. Jean-Didier needed some extra dancers and drummers for a show at a festival in Brittany. We got together and failed to rehearse several times. The day of departure, the dance “Troupe” had to argue for several hours before we finally got everyone into cars and headed west. Jean-Didier had arranged for us to rendezvous with the organizers of the festival at a rondpoint (traffic circle) someplace near a little town called St. Pol. We mangaged to miss the traffic circle, so for an hour or so late at night we took a tour of the rondpoints of Finistre. I’m sure there’s a photodocumentary in there. Not one that would sell well.

The next day, we performed at an “animation” in the streets of St. Pol as well as at the festival. Jean-Didier has to rank as one of the most capricious people I’ve ever met. In the animation, this worked really well. He had a great time stopping traffic, dancing right in the face of the Bretons, and basically wreaking havoc. I think that that animation may be one of the most aesthetically dissonant experiences I’ve ever had. Not in a bad way. But try to picture this – St. Pol is a small Breton town with gray stone architecture. Narrow cobbled streets. The town has a remarkable church and cathedral of the same austere grey stone. The chruch’s spire is quite tall and is graced by numerous small spires which stood out with great clarity against the blue summer sky. In front of the church, an African with a feathered headress shook his pelvis at the boulanger. See what I mean?

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I think my favorite moment was when Jean-Didier managed to stop a tour bus. He dove onto the ground in front of it. Then, face down, bouncing on his hands and toes he headed under the bus until the bus driver couldn’t see him anymore. Then he bounced to the side and “ta-da! re-appeared next to the driver’s widow.

If the animation was chaos in a good way, the show was chaos in a bad way. Let’s just leave it at that.

I wonder if it might not be that capriciousness – the willingness to break any rule, to defy the expectations of others – which makes for a great artist. Jean-Didier is certainly one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, that capriciousness also makes for a difficult friend and a horrible organizer. Opinions please….

I’ve decided to head to Sweden for a Lindy Hop dance camp. I’ll be leaving tomorrow, Saturday 7/26 at the ungodly hour of 8:00. The camp is in the countryde north of Stockholm. I should be in camp for a week (the camp lasts four weeks). 

I think this trip to camp represents my accepting some fundamental truths. Such as – if you don’t like being where it’s hot, try going someplace cooler. And also – If you find it overwhelming to plan all of your days, try letting someone else plan some of them.

P.S. As I was preparing for my trip today, I decided to get my hair cut. I went over to my friend Aimé Mabondzo who told me that he cuts the hair of “all his friends”. I told him to cut it short. A word of advice – never tell an African with a set of electric clippers that you want your hair cut short unless you are prepared to face the consequences. I now look like a cross between Astroboy and a friendly Marine. I figure that by the time I get to New York you ought to be able to tell where my sideburns used to be.


Civil War in Brazzaville

Mbote, bampangui ya munu!

(That’s “Hello, my friends” in Munukutuba)

I asked my brother John to send an e-mail to let everyone know that I’m okay, but I wanted to write to describe my stay in the Congo and to help me digest my experience.

In the days before I left for the Congo, many of my Congolese friends and acquaintances had asked me to carry items for the to their family. I ended up carrying a bag of clothes for Alain’s family, a small suitcase of medical supplies for Aimé’s family and some videocassetes for Zeze’s brother. I was a little concerned about customs issues. As it turned out, there was no problem, I arrived with the Tambours de Brazza. Timothé, Alain’s brother met me at the airport, and we hung around with the Tambours de Brazza. Since there were about a dozen drummers in the Tambours’ entourage, they took a long time sorting out their luggage. By the time they were done, the customs officers had evidentally gotten tired and left. We took our bags and walked out of the airport.

Alain had arranged that I would take lessons in the Bacongo district of Brazaville, and eat my meals with his cousin, Francis, in the Plateau de Quinze Ans district. They found a hotel for me within about half a mile of Francis and Timothé. It was a pretty good, but not de luxe hotel. This means that there was toilet paper in the bathroom, but no seat on the toilet . The water worked in the bathroom, but you had to ask them to turn it on at the front desk. The idea was that I was going to stay there until they located a studio apartment for me.

The first day Brazzaville, Timothé and his girlfriend Cheryl took me around introducing me to various relatives. From what I could see, most Congolese households are organized into a sort of compound – a walled enclosure with one or more buildings inside. For the well-to-do, likeTimothé’s cousin, Francis, the walls of the enclosure are concrete. In Bacongo, alot of the compounds have walls made of corrugated metal and wood (I saw one that had incorporated the body of a junked car as part of its wall). Most of the courtyards were unpaved. From what I could see, extended families tended to live together in the compound.

Timothe’s family lives in a large compound opposite the Palais de Congres. It used to be a fair ground, but after 1992 and 1993 when many houses were destroyed in the fighting, the fairground was converted into housing, and Timothé’s family was resettled there. There are about six long, low buildings each maybe 60 yards long. The roofs are of corrugated metal. Each building is subdivided into many small rooms with walls that don’t reach the ceiling. There’s electricity inside the buildings, but no running water. Between the buildigs, laundry is hung up to dry and there are individual or family fire pits. For the most part, these consist of three paving blocks. You build the fire and put your pan on top of the paving blocks. Cooking was done exclusively by women.

The first couple of days, we got around mostly by taxi. The major roads are paved with asphalt. There aren’t any traffic lights, and at most major intersections, there’s a traffic circle. Traffic is not particularly heavy. Occasionally, we’d split a taxi with other folks (this means getting about six passengers in a compact car). There were also minivan/buses available. The drivers of these would park by the side of the road calling out their destination until they’d filled up the bus, and then they’d head to where they were going.

The first few days we spent a lot of time in the Bacongo district because that’s where our lessons were. Bacongo has mostly dirt roads, and most of the roads have the appearance of back alleys that you would expect to lead from one major road to another. I don’t think many white folks go there, because it was pretty common for little kids to come running out of their households yelling “Mundele!” when we walked by (that’s the Lari word for “white”). Bacongo had experienced a lot of looting in 1992 and 1993, and a number of houses were destroyed. We rehearsed in one – it still had its interior walls and tile floors, but the exterior walls were mostly destroyed, and there was no roof. You could see from the layout and the floors that it had been a pretty fine house. Out in front were about a dozen women with piles of print fabric that they were selling.

Rehearsals were quite the entertainment for the neighbors. Since school was out, all the kids around with nothing better to do would come hang out and watch, along with some of the fabric merchants and assorted adult neighbors. One thing that occured to me in my stay was that in Africa, you live your life in front of everyone. There really isn’t the sort of privacy that we expect in the US. Lessons are right out there for all the world to see. Fights and arguments are held out in the street. I watched one argument in Timothé’s compound that started with one women yelling from the courtyard into a house. This went on for a while until another women about twenty yards away started yelling at her. Then two other women began to try to calm down the second women, but pretty quickly began to dispute among themselves. At this point, the first women had gotten tired of yelling at the women inside the house. It occurred to me that it would make a great scene for an opera.

On the third day, while we were taking a taxi to Bacongo, we heard a cannon in the distance. I thought maybe it was announcing victory in the World Cup, since the Congolese were supposed to be playing in the elimination rounds. I didn’t think anything of it until it got to be time to go home. After rehearsal and a few beers in the neighboring cafe, we walked for a while. I thought we were just walking because it was a nice night, but it became clear that we weren’t going to find a cab. We were stopped by the military who wanted to see my papers. A little while later as we were walking we were joined by a few others who didn’t want to walk alone. We began to here some gunfire in the distance. One of our new found companions spoke some English and he advised me to go straight back to the hotel. I began looking around at the occasional bystander, wondering if they were armed. Timothé began exchanging information with people heading in the opposite direction – “is it safe to go that way?” “Yeah, how about that way?”. We arrived at Timothé’s compound without further incident. Cheryl wanted us to stay there, but Timothé wanted to go to his Francis’s. Since that’s where the food was, I decided to go there. I also wanted to see if I could get some information form Francis who spoke some English and held a government post. On the way to Francis’s we could see flares being fired into the sky, and hear the sound of gunfire. Timothé found it amusing that I was scared. “This is nothing”, he told me. “They’re very far away.”

Francis also thought that the trouble was minor. “This is just a small problem. It will be arranged very quickly”. I wasn’t completely convinced – it’s scary hearing sporadic gunfire even if it is not in the immediate vicinity, and I wanted to stay chez Matsala that evening, but it didn’t sem to be an option. I looked yearningly at the heavy metal gate with its padlock when Timothé and I were sent into the night to walk the half mile to the hotel. When we got to the end of block, close to a small field/garden, several men in dark jumpsuits emerged from the shadows, holding submachine guns. The stopped Timothé and searched him. Then they began going through my backpack. They demanded my papers. I was pretty shaken by them – they are pretty intimidating, and I had no idea whether we’d fallen in among the rebels or not. After they had checked us out, they let us go and Timothé explained that they were the police, guarding the homes of the various ministers in that neighborhood.

The road to the hotel was deserted – I believe there was a curfew by that point. At the hotel, I drank beer in the lobby with a few of the guests – all of them African, trying to piece together what was happening,. It made me feel a little better to know that some of them had fled to that hotel – at least it must be somewhat safe.

The next day, we decided to go back to Bacongo for rehearsal. There was a lot of foot traffic on the roads, people carrying all sorts of burdens heading toward Bacongo. As it turned out, they were being evacuated from Moungali because that was the neighborhood of the Cobras, the militia of Dennis Sassou-Nguesso. President Lissouba had ordered that neighborhood evacuated and then proceeeded to shell it.

We caught a cab going to Bacongo, but traffic was being stopped all along the road. All the foot taffic was being searched. We were stopped a couple of times by the military. The second time I was again asked for my papers. This time, the soldier wanted to see my residence permit. Of course I didn’t have one, just a visa – but that seemed to satisfy him. Bacongo was pretty calm, and what turned out to be my last drum lesson went well. I tried to call the embassy and get information, but the lines were all busy so we decided to head back home. I had already determined that I would not be coming back for the evening, as I didn’t want to walk homein the dark again.

(A little note on daytime in the congo – because it’s right on the equator, the sun goes down by 6:00 and it gets dark fast. Also, the moon waxes from the bottom up. In the northern latitudes, it waxes from right to left. Check it out.)

I walked with Timothé and Fortuné, holding hands. It’s very common for men to hold hands in Africa, and I have to tell you, it felt reassuring to hold Fo’s hand as we headed toward home. The foot traffic was moving in the opposite direction, which I did not take to be a good sign. We were stopped again by the military (“Hey Mundele, come here.”). They told me not to be afraid if I was really American. I told them that I was really American. Finally we caught a cab. We were almost at Timothé’s compound when we were stopped again. This time, it was a man without uniform, but with the requisite submachine gun. He called me into the middle of the traffic circle and stopped Timothé from following us. He told me that I had committed an infraction, and would have to pay a fine. I wasn’t sure what the proper amount of the “fine” should be. I certainly didn’t want to insult a man with a submachine gun by under-bribing him. I gave him one of my larger bills which amounted to something less than $20.

When we got to the compound, and Timothé discovered how much I had given he was outraged – that was too much. I was walked around the compound while we looked for Cheryl’s dad, who was with the military. Timothé and Cheryl thought that he could go figure out who had taken the money and get it back. Personally, I was ready to let it drop – Idid not particularly want to get the money back and have my armed pal be really angry with me.

That evening, before dark Timothé, Cheryl, and I went back to the hotel. Later that night, the hotel concierge opened my door. I didn’t quite understand his explanation – but I began to feel less safe there. I wondered, if an armed group wanted to come into the hotel, would he be willing to hide me? The gunfire started up again outside and at dawn someone fired a rocket launcher from close by. I packed my bags.

In the morning, Timothé and Cheryl came by for a while but they had to leave to go to the market. While they were there, some of the local militia passed by, and the concierge told me to go back up to my room. I spent the morning with the shades drawn, listening for gunfire and watching cartoons on TV. Later, Timothé returned with a friend, and told me that he was going to take me to his compound to stay. We joined the throngs on the street all heading away from the areas where the most fighting was happening. Everybody was toting suitcases, mattresses, piles of clothes tied inside sheets, lugging necessaries to wherever they were going to stay until the fighting blew over. Without saying anything, Timothé gave my large suitcase to one of his sisters-in-law and separated me from it. I think he did that so that I wouldn’t be carrying anything that looked interesting when we went past the military.

I stayed at the compound for five days. Everyone was very friendly, and without being pushy, they basically kept me inside and out of sight during that time. I was allowed to be between the buildings and inside the buildings, but they weren’t too happy if I headed for the gate. Everybody kept thinking that the trouble would be over very shortly and I thought so, too. Right up until I left, I thought that everything would blow over and that I could stay in the Congo.

Among the people living in the compound there were a bunch of members, of the Zoulous, which are the militia of President Lissouba. [Political lesson – there are three major contenders for office: President Lissouba, ex-President Sassou-Nguesso, and the Mayor of Brazzville, Kolélas. Each one of these had their own militia. Lissouba’s militia are the Zoulous, Sassou-Nguesso’s are the Cobras, and Kolélas’s are the Ninjas. In addition, Lissouba has the regular army as well. Basically, the militia and political alignment runs along tribal lines. In 1992 after the elections, Kolélas claimed fraud and fighting started between the Ninjas and the Zoulous. Since neighborhoods are for the most part divided along tribal lines the Ninjas attacked those member of the tribes that supported Lissouba who lived in theNinjas’ neighborhood (Bacongo), and the Zoulous attacked the members of tribes who supported Kolélas and who lived in the Zoulous’ neighborhood. In that fighting, the Cobras were hors de combat. This time around it was the Zoulous versus the Cobras with the Ninjas for the most part hors de combat]

The Zoulous that I met were, for the most part between the ages of 16 and 19. They carried submachine guns (AK-47’s, but they might have been Chinese, as well.) and occasionally grenades. At one point in my stay, I was told that the Zoulous were distributing arms. Any man who wanted a gun could have one. The Zoulous seemed pretty pumped up about having guns and being able to shoot them. Occasionally they would fire a couple of rounds into the air when they would come back to camp. All of the Zoulous seemed to have the rank of officer. I didn’t meet one who was less than a Colonel. They did not seem to have much organization, and didn’t have any uniforms, except occasionally when one had managed to steal a garment from the regular army. Each night, they would head out to loot the neighborhood of the Cobras. They would return in the day lugging all sorts of stuff. Bags of shoes, kitchen utensils, food, stereo equipment. One even came back with a refrigerator in a wheelbarrow. The items that they didn’t keep they would sell in the compound, which meant changing role from victorious warrior to haggling merchant.

Timothé made sure that I was introduced to the Zoulous so that everyone knew that I was one of theirs. They would come by occasionally, and tell me not to be scared, that I was being protected by them. One day, Timothé called me into the room of one of the Zoulous. The Zoulous had managed to grab a Sony stereo, but all of the components were labeled in Eglish, so they weren’t quite sure how to operate it. They figured the mundele would know. [African French, assignment 43: Explain to the militia man that the reason that his pillaged stereo is having problems is that the optical cable connecting the CD player to the amplifier has got a little break in it]

I had the impression that outside of the camp things were developing into a bit of a feeding frenzy. One day, the Zoulous returned with about 20 merchants from Mali. They brought them into camp and fired a bunch of rounds into the air. They let them go later, but I was told that they shook them down for 500,000 CFA (about $1000).

Days in the compound went by pretty slowly. There really wasn’t much for me to do, since the drums were down in Bacongo. I watched the women go about their business. They would start up in the morning around 6:30 building the fires. They would roast peanuts over the fires and display the finished product on tables for sale in the compound. Cheryl usually cooked a large pot of something which she would put up for sale. Soldiers would stop by during the day to get something to eat. Once the crowd found out that I would eat peanuts, I was the object of a lot of generosity goober-wise.

Occasionally, there would be bursts of gunfire, and the women would shoo me and the kids back in side.

Luckily for me, there was a guy by the name of Serge who was with the foreign language department of the University of Brazzaville. He wanted to practice speaking English, so I had a conversational partner. He was particularly interested in American expressions. Now he knows how to say “No shit, Sherlock.” Occasionally, we would get on to a topic that was pretty difficult to explain. For instance – what’s the difference between wooing a woman and picking up a woman. Is it just a question of speed?

Serge had lived in the Moungali district in a rented apartment, and when he was evacuated, he came to live with his cousin. A couple of days into our acquaintance Serge looked at my name written on a piece of paper, and told me “That’s a very good name. If I have a son, I’m going to name him Weiser”. Weiser Makounou – I look forward to meeting him.

There tended to be more gunfire at night, including heavy artillery. Since there were no toilets inside the buildings, you had to go around back of the buildings to pee. At night with the crackle of small arms fire and the more distant booming of cannons, it was a little unnerving. I also had an irrational fear that I would be hit by a stray bullet while taking a crap in the latrine – a padlocked stall of corrugated metal which enclosed a pipe leading to a pit that I didn’t care to examine too closely. (There’s another example of how you live your life in front of everybody in Africa. Whenever I wanted to use the latrine, I had to ask someone to get the key. Then I’d be escorted over to the latrine. Thank god I didn’t develop diarrhea.)

I didn’t see any of the destruction that the heavy artillery made, but I’m sure that it was pretty devestating. It made an almost stately sound thundering in the night, slowly, methodically. In fact, I didn’t see much of anything, I only got to hear it. The lack of information was hard to bear. I couldn’t tell what was happening, I couldn’t call to find out what the embassy had to say (no telephone). I couldn’t get word out to my family and friends that I was alright ( I knew that people would start worrying).

For my sources of information I had Serge and Marcel. Marcel always tried to put a good face on everything. In the news according to Marcel, the Cobras were far, far way. They tried to get organized, but the heavy artillery kept them from regrouping. Sassou-Nguesso had no support, and it was just a question of pride which kept him from giving up immediately. The foreign press was completely mistaken about fighting around the airport – that was the Zoulous firing into the air to intimidate the Cobras.

I believed the news according to Marcel up until my last night in the compound. I had been told that the French had taken up a position at the traffic circle near us, in conjunction with the Congolese army. (I found this out because it seemed like a possible avenue to send a message out that I was okay). During the night, shooting started up again, and I could hear that some of it was coming from the traffic circle. But I doubted that the French would only shoot into the air. I figured that Europeans shoot to kill.

The last day I was in camp, the shooting continued into the day. Bullet holes had appeared in the corrugated roof – stray bullets that were fired into the air elsewhere falling down where we were. The fighting seemed to be nearer. There was a lot more tension in the camp – the Zoulous running toward the gate, crouching behind trees. There was a rumor that one of the Cobras was on top of a tall building not far away. As I was sitting on the bench, a man that I hadn’t seen before sat down next to me and said “I’d prefer if you left. They’re evacuating the French and the Americans.” I told him that I’d prefer to leave, too. Timothé and Marcel went to talk to the French. They came back and said “There’s a French cortege waiting for you – let’s go”. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to everybody.

Timothé took one of my bags, and Marcel took the other. I was quite willing to abandon all of my personal effects, but I figured what the hell, I might as well try to take them with. We walked out the back of the camp, through a small woods and emerged by the traffic circle. When we got to the circle, Marcel told me “You should wak quickly across here”. I trotted across the circle. On the other side, amongst some bushes were about 6 French Foreign Legionnaires with two rugged looking trucks. They sat me down behind one and we waited for a convoy to come by to take me to the airport. While we were waiting for the convoy, I realized that I had the keys to Timothé and Cheryl’s room. (Since I was always around, and I had pockets, I was the one who held the keys. One of the things I learned to say in Munukutuba is “pesa munu fungula” – give me the key). I felt pretty bad about that, but I didn’t think that the Legionnaires would be too helpful in getting the keys back. After about 15 minutes, Timothé and Cheryl came back – they were heading to the market, and wanted to get the keys back, too.

Among the Legionnaires there was an American from LA. He told me that they had in fact been in a firefight the night before, and had had four legionnaires wounded. He said that the day before there had been a fair amount of fighting elsewhere and that he was “All day long with a beer in one hand a joint in the other, and my rifle.” I’m not sure what he held the rifle with. The legionnaires also kept checking out the tall building nearby – evidentally there was someone on top. A couple of convoys came by – the convoys consisted of a column of cars with an armored vehicle on each end. After about half an hour, my convoy arrived, I got into the armored vehicle at the end.

When I arrived at the airport, I was put into a group with the new arrivals. There were a lot of French military around. Don’t worry, they told us, you’re in a secured area. Everyone will be evacuated. Once we were in a group, a soldier came over and said “Ok, everybody who’s French come with me”. About half the group left. A little while later he came back and said “Ok, everybody from the European Economic Community come with me”. I was left with the Zaireans, Lebanese, and a couple of irate Asians who thought they might never get out. I could sympathise. The soldier kept reassuring them “Everyone here will be evacuated”, so I decided to go with that, even though a certain nascent racism began to perkle up (“Please sir, did you miss the fact that I’m white?”). Sure enough, in our turn we got registered, and then assigned to planes.

Once the plane was called, the drill went like this: About 25 soldiers in helmets and bulletproof vests formed a square. The evacuees stood in the middle of the square, and walked down to the runway to wait for the plane. As we were walking down, gunfire broke out fairly close. We crouched down at the side of the runway and the commander explained that there was some gunfire about 400 meters away. He deployed a number of soldiers over that way, including a guy in a jeep who stood up with a rocket launcher, surveying the tall grass. The plane (a C-130) arrived, turned around on the runway, and kept its propellers turning. A bunch of soldiers got out and were deployed in the direction of the gunfire. The soldiers who had accompanied us formed a corridor leading to the plane and we got in.

We were flown to the French army base in Libreville, and later that night to Paris.

I’m a little bit at sea right now. I didn’t expect to come back here, and so I’m kind of wandering about. I’ve attended rehearsals for Ballet Lemba and Ballet Kodia, but my heart’s not in it yet. I don’t intend to go back to the States any time soon, so for right now, I’ll hang out until I can figure out what the new plan is. Suggestions are welcome.

Mpangi ya beno,

Tom

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.

END OF NATURE SECTION

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

Tom


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.

Tom

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.