It was a trip which came up so much at the last minute that I barely had time during the preceding couple of weeks to get the requisite shots for Yellow fever, Hep. A, etc. in preparation, and had to leave for Africa literally 4 hours after returning from Europe with David Murray (meaning another "travel first" for me: the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice in one day!) I had been talking to Sengalese master djembe player Mor Thiam about wanting to see his country for a long time and so when he was asked by Jim West of Justin Time Records to travel to his home and record with some of the greatest musicians in Senegal, he asked me to be a part of the project and I immediately agreed.
When I first arrived at Mor's home in downtown Dakar, I was struck by how richly he lived, and how highly regarded he is here. Mor owns three homes in Senegal, one of which he rents out, one on an island I have yet to see and which I’ve heard he rarely visits (though he's hired a a sentry to look after it), and his home here, where during the week I’ve been here, there has been a constant influx of people – friends, family, neighbors, I suppose as well, all coming by to welcome him - a return home by Mor is apparently a big event. When we arrived at his home, Mor officially told me "welcome home, D.D.", and I was treated to some traditional Senegalese food – fish with a strong, oily sauce, rice, vegetables, a delicious fruit drink called bissap, etc. And this is where the trouble started.
Although I had little time to prepare for my visit, one thing that had constantly re-stated itself in the little source material I did read was the necessity of never drinking the local water; bottled water was the only way to go. When I got to Mor’s, I was relieved to see that right at the dinner table was a bottle of mineral water; I am typically so paranoid about such things that I asked Mor if he’d mind if I "hoarded it" for a while, until I could get my own, and he didn’t mind at all. I think it was the next day that I noticed Mor’s sentry, Babanou, using a similar bottle, ostensibly filled with mineral water, to water the indoor plants Mor has. I asked Mor about it, and he explained absent-mindedly that he actually wasn’t sure if all the water in those bottles was mineral water at all, since they usually re-used the containers, filling them with tap water and then placing them in the freezer after their first use. Still, I wasn’t alarmed, because apart from some curious allergic symptoms I was feeling basically fine. That is, until 3 days later, when I discovered that I was suffering from a bad case of what is commonly known as TD, or "Traveler’s Diarrhea".
This was, also, I think, precipitated by a meal that I’d almost just as soon forget. When I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at how "Western" everything seemed – the shower, though fairly "earthy" and "raggedy", was a functioning shower, with reasonably warm water (a fact Mor explained to me was actually quite rare and considered a luxury); and my worries were further allayed when I finally peered into the separate room where I hoped the toilet would be located and discovered a more or less Western device (that is, as opposed to the dreaded "hole in the ground", crouching affair also common here). So in a similar fashion, the meals were all served at a very Western looking dinner table, complete with table cloth, silverware, dishes, and even some beautiful woman helpers (in this case, Mor’s sister-in-law – who was intrusted with staying at Mor’s home and looking after his 2 year old daughter while his wife is in Atlanta; a teen-age looking niece, and another woman whose formal relation I still haven
It started that night with a fever. Though rushed, I had managed to bring a few essentials, but unfortunately Tylenol, which is normally a staple of my traveler’s bag, wasn’t one of them, and I suffered for it that night with a series of strange hallucinations probably induced by my temperature. What followed, more or less, was 4 straight days in bed, on my back, at times literally completely unable to move. I finally "gave in" at one point and called my dad in Canada; he reassuringly defined what I had for the first time as "Traveler’s Diarrhea", which, he read from a book he dashed out to get, was almost always non-fatal; he recommended an international-styled doctor from the same book (man, I love that book :-)), etc., and this provided me with such a psychological lift that I suddenly felt quite ready to attend one of the rehearsals for Mor’s recording session that I had previously been forced to miss due to my illness. I arrived in good spirits, shook everyone’s hand and told them how good I felt, etc., etc., played a few notes… and was overcome by a profound stomach cramp that almost sent me reeling. I made one feeble attempt to use the outhouse they provided – the dreaded hole-in-the-ground version – but gave up and instead became morbidly fascinated and vaguely repulsed by the large cockroach I saw swimming for its life on its back in the waters leading towards the hole into which I was supposed to relieve myself. Instead, I lay down for a while in a stuffy room, and was later taken home, though I could hardly walk to get to the cab which was to take me there, and when I arrived, I literally passed out on a mattress on Mor’ floor, the reality of three days of an exclusive yogurt and ginger ale diet finally catching up to me.
Another interesting feature of Mor’s home is the central area, which features what resembles a "sky window", but which in fact, is no window at all, but an actual opening to the night sky, and also to the bright sunlight during the day. This means that when it rains (though this seems a rarity and has yet to occur), the water will presumably pour into Mor’s home (though there are drains installed to wash it all away). This also means exposure to all that the outdoors have to offer, particularly all manners of insects, and especially mosquitoes. As with the water, I had heard the warnings, and had been careful to pack plenty of insect repellent, but that night when I collapsed under the stars in Mor’s center room and didn’t have any more energy to move, the mosquitoes must have had a field day, because the next day I counted something like 75 bites on my two forearms alone (!) So I suppose it was adding insult to injury :-).
Yesterday I saw the doctor my father recommended, and miraculously, after taking the medications he prescribed, I almost immediately began to feel better, to the point where I feel like I’m finally (knock on wood) adapting. Today, in fact, I woke up and almost feel like I have my strength back, and for the first time I can actually visualize the thought of perhaps staying the full 2 weeks without feeling a sense of panic :-)...
"Success" at last. Woke up both yesterday and today feeling almost entirely like myself again; like I had paid my dues and was now seeing this new and foreign environment with the benefit of some new "protective shield" (I guess I’d already developed one for New York, over the years :-)). Went to the recording studio with great energy, but ended up spending most of yesterday and today mostly sitting around, as Check went about the business of laying down the basic rhythm tracks. At the end of the session yesterday, the famous percussionist Dou Dou D’Ayerose appeared, looking regal in an elegant, light-blue dashiki, and accompanied by another drummer whom I would suspect was probably one of his numerous children, who are all, it seems, part of his drumming groups. He proceeded to record a couple of purely percussion piece
11/28/1998 - Nov. 23/98
After 11 days of being here (including 6 days sick and on my back), I think I'm finally sort of settling into a groove here in Dakar (although albeit a not exactly "African" one). Pretty much every day I seem to have established a routine of getting up around 9 am, going to the local store down the street, and purchasing two yogurts (to calm my stomach), an International Herald Tribune, an orange crush, two litres of bottled water, and a can of ravioli and green beans, "in the event of fish" (a food I seem to generally have difficulty with, but which Mor’s family serves quite frequently). Besides, the whole ravioli thing gives me reason ("pathetically enough", I admit) to avoid the whole "collective eating" ritual without appearing rude. Got "caught" yesterday, however, the last day the whole band came to the studio, during lunch. I usually ask for a seperate plate, but unfortunately, when lunch rolled around there was no separate plate in sight, and when the other band mates, who had already gathered around the big bowl, saw me, they were sort of like "here’s a spoon! What’s the problem? Let’s eat!" and so I joined them, eating sparingly and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. The woman who brought the food, however, who are aware of my "social acclimation" problems, saw what I was doing, and couldn’t stop laughing amongst themselves and at me from across the room, and I teased them, pretending that when I left the circle of eaters early, it was actually because I was so stuffed that I just couldn’t possible continue…..
Tues. morning – I’ve now been here 12 full days, and it looks like it’s likely that there’s just today and tomorrow to go, before I head back. The drummer of the group, whose name fails me (I’m really terrible, in that I haven’t really successfully learned the names of anyone in the band, with the exception of the leader, Chiek), when he noticed how much Mor and I admired the dashiki he was wearing, offered to go out and have one made for me over the following 24 hours, and yesterday he brought it to the studio and presented it for me – a bright, baby-blue and black/white-patterned, loose-fitting robe and pants with an elastic serving as belt, which I immediately put on. I suppose now I’m an "honorary African", but whatever the case, the clothes seem to serve a practical purpose as well – they’re really the best suited for this very hot climate – they’re loose, decorative, cool and light, plus they cover most of the body to protect against mosquitoes. Mor’s brother is a tailor, as well, so one of the first things I did last week when I felt better was to go to the market with him and with Eric (a young, white guy who is here from Missoula, Montana, perhaps to stay, and who knows the Wolof language very well, having lived here for a couple of years before) to hunt for appropriate materials. It seems that here the whole "ready to wear", off the shelf concept doesn’t exist – you basically chose your materials, hire a tailor, and have your clothes custom made. I had been admiring Mor’s clothes for some time, and since his brother does all of his tailoring, when he asked me what style I wanted, I basically pointed to Mor’s wardrobe. I also found some beautiful, rich blue material which I asked that he make into a dress for my [NB. now ex-]girlfriend Lesley. At any rate, I will see the results of all of this probably either today or tomorrow – he’s just arrived with a package of finished clothes today, in fact, though I’m not sure whether they’re for Mor or for me…..
On Tues. night, I was presented with my tailor-made clothes made by Mor’s brother. It was actually very exciting to get some new clothes in this manner, wrapped in paper, as seems the custom here, and completely made-to-order. The problem was that the pants, for some reason, had been cut so that they were about six inches too long in the legs. As with everything here, I wasn’t sure what...
The rest of our trip to Goree was dominated by a high degree of commercialism – people constantly approaching us to try and sell us their wares. Mor had warned us about this, and had advised us not to buy anything on Goree since it was a tourist trap. Immediately prior to Goree, Thomasears, who was acting as my guide and I believe is a young relative of Mor’s, had brought me to the central area of the city where I’d "stocked up" on African paintings, a large wall-hanging for my living room, an African bag, and a couple of vests (one of which, I’ve discovered, doesn’t fit!) It was amusing to watch him bargain – it really seems like both an art and a necessity here, and Thomasears told me to be sure to report back to Mor what a good job of negotiations he had done, which I later did.
When we got back to Mor’s that evening, it was already dark – and I mean, literally, pitch black – the power had gone out again – something which seems like literally a once-a-day occurrence. It’s hard to see how business is conducted here at all with the electricity being so unreliable, but I guess that’s just how things are. As has been the case on the numerous other times since I’ve been here where the power has gone out, Mor and his female helpers brought out the candles, and we were forced to sit around in pseudo-meditative silence.
Chiek, the producer and guitarist/keyboardist of Mor’s album, has promised to take me into town sometime before I leave to purchase some Senegalese tapes – since he’s the producer on the majority of them he says he can get them for wholesale. I imagine he must be extremely respected, as he is responsible as the true "man-behind-the-curtain" for the success of such popular artists as Yossou N'Dour (whose state-of-the-art studio we were recording at), as well as several female singers (he said that before he began, female singers hadn’t really been accepted in the world of Senegalese pop music, but he patiently set their voices to music and really presented them to the world for the first time). Other than this, I’m sure things will come up, but I’m essentially "biding my time". Have to also figure out what to give people as presents – I’m not sure if they were joking, but the women were suggesting to Eric, the guy living here originally from Montana, that "money would be better", when I suggested that I would give them tapes of my jazz music. Seems like money here is the international language that everyone understands, since it is in such short supply – anyone with some of it is instantly respected...
Today, after much "waiting around", Chiek brought me briefly downtown to hunt out tapes. Because he is so widely known and respected, he managed to get them for I guess what is considered the "wholesale" price – around 80 Senegalese Francs, or less than 2 dollars American (the regular price is a whopping $2 US). He chose an assortment of current African pop stars, presumably many of whom he helped get where they are by being the arranger on their albums. Interestingly, when I asked to buy some blank cassettes so that I could later make some copies of things for people, I was told that they cost the equivalent of $3 US per Maxell XLII tape, meaning that it’s cheaper to buy the original cassette here rather than bothering to illegally make a copy – perhaps this is what discourages piracy, though I’m not sure how people make a profit if they’re only bringing in $2 per cassette. Strange how the economy works here; I mean, someone told me that the average income of a typical Senegalese is something like $3/day. How does one survive on this? Similarly, after being shown Goree Island by the tour guide yesterday, after much intense negotation, Tommasear paid him the equivalent of about 4 dollars for all his hard work; I felt so guilty that I gave him another $2, which seemed to please him greatly…
11/27/1998 - Nov. 27th/98:
Countdown is beginning – 4 hours til we head to the airport. Made some very good friends; really enjoyed working with these musicians and getting to know Mor’s "extended family" (both relatives and otherwise) better. It’s funny how after a while you start to feel like you "belong" some place, or are actually living there. But I have another life waiting for me back home….
I even feel more comfortable, I would say, in my dashiki-inspired clothes here than in my Western clothes, although I didn’t really make a serious attempt to fully grasp the language, I’m embarrassed to admit. Something to save for next time, perhaps…All in all, a trip that I will remember for the rest of my life, and which will no doubt impact me in ways not yet even discovered (knock on wood) :-)....