It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here, but this week I had the privilege of being back in West Africa for some field recording with the Ganadougou people in southern Mali.
The workshop didn’t get underway until almost three hours later than scheduled, for various reasons, but it was worth the wait, a these folks had great voices and knew their traditional genres well.
They’ve got some pretty interesting instruments too, including half a gourd floating in a bowl of water (something I’ve come across several times across W Africa).
And then there was a young chap with his hand made metal scraper:
And, of course, there was a balafon too, which really added to the quality of the music:
(I’m looking pretty tired by this stage in the afternoon!)
Recording these songs helps to preserve the Ganadougou culture and their musical heritage, as well as passing on important messages via radio and mobile phones. If you’re wondering what they all sounded like, have a listen here:
I’ve been playing cocktail/jazz piano since the late 90s and, although opportunities in West Africa were somewhat limited, I still had a number of gigs and performances whenever possible.
So, here’s a wee promotion video I put together of a few of my favourite pieces. I’m afraid my sustain pedal is a bit squeaky, and the sound quality is far from perfect, but it does give an idea of what I do:
Remember, I’m available for weddings/parties and the like, so drop me a line if you’re interested!
Here’s a piece I recently wrote for an event where local authors read out passages from their books. I hope you enjoy it!
So, do they know it’s Christmas? The answer is most definitely yes, or maybe no. You see, it all depends on where you are. In the average African village, a day’s journey from the nearest city, Christmas morning begins in much the same way as any other morning: with cockerels crowing before the sun has even hinted it’s going to rise, goats braying tirelessly, and small groups of ladies – always up before the men – heading out down the narrow, rocky path which leads to the local well half a mile away, heavy clay pots perched skilfully on their heads. And as the huge, red semi-circle of the sun rises slowly and majestically on the misty horizon, dozens of white, wispy columns of smoke can be seen across the village, emanating from small wood fires in dusty courtyards. Within minutes, the warmth of the sun is felt, and long shadows from tall palm trees make the dirt road through the village momentarily stripy. Tropical birds, one by one, break into their usual exotic melodies to greet the new day, taking over – almost seamlessly – from the crickets, who’ve been chirping away non-stop since dusk.
If there’s a church in the village, it will probably have a Christmas service, though rarely an early one. Some will even sing somewhat Africanized renditions of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Silent Night’, accompanied by djembe drums, and with melodies somewhat modified to fit their pentatonic scale. After the service, they might share a ‘special’ meal of rice, sauce and chicken. Not particularly special though, as this is what they have every other day, alternating chicken with goat, or perhaps fish if the village is near water. No excitable children rushing downstairs to open masses of pristinely-wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes. For starters, all the houses are single story! No brightly-coloured lights adorning the streets – this village still has no electricity, so that would be something of a challenge. And there’s none of the obscene over-indulgence the West deems both normal and acceptable as part of the ritual of celebrating Christ’s birth. These villagers consume the same number of calories in a week that the average Westerner would eat on Christmas Day alone. But they’re just happy to have some food in their stomach to get them through the day. And are they less happy than any of us on this special day? If anything, I’d say they were happier in many ways. They have none of the pressure which commercialization has brought to the Western Christmas and are just happy to spend time enjoying each other’s presence, and maybe doing a little less work for a day.
Now, if you go to urban Africa, then it’s an entirely different kettle of fish – or turkey if you’d rather. The swarming main streets of crazy Cotonou, Benin, are lit with brightly-shining, bell-shaped lights, alternating red and yellow for about a mile. Enormous Christmas trees – artificial of course – adorn the lobbies of swanky hotels, which pipe cheesy festive airs through every speaker at their disposal. And any white person outdoors at this time of the year, will be followed by groups of children carrying nativity scenes they have made from cardboard boxes (of varying quality, but never quite up to Blue Peter standard). As they scurry along behind you, they all sing the same song, in the hope of a coin in return. It goes:
Mon petit Papa Noël
My little Father Christmas
In many capital cities, a Christmas Market is held – for the ex-patriates of course, although some more prosperous Africans go along, often those who have lived in the West. The markets sell jewellery, wooden carvings, paintings, clothing, dried pineapple and mango chunks, peanuts – anything these ‘rich foreigners’ will spend their money on. At one such market, there was even the chance for my three children to go and see Father Christmas (for a small fee, of course). The queue was short and we were soon stepping into his tinsel-filled grotto.
You see, urban Africa has quickly learned that, at Christmas time, Westerners go crazy and spend even more money than they do the rest of the year. And so, every opportunity is taken to quite literally cash in on this. The larger supermarkets (still no bigger than your average Co-op) are adorned with giant inflatable Santas, reindeer or even snowmen. (How many local folk even know what snow is?) Inside, you can buy all manner of festive fare: French cheeses, wines, spirits, pâtés, chocolates – even Ferrero Rocher. Then there are Christmas lights, balloons, tinsel, party poppers, over-priced board games and endless tacky toys made in China, guaranteed to last at least until Boxing Day. Artificial trees – green, white or silver – take up a significant area of the shop floor, ranging from small and cheap to huge and expensive. I once even saw a real Christmas tree in a Lebanese-run supermarket in Bamako, Mali. Goodness knows what journey it must have made to get there. And it was priced at a mere 250,000 cfa – that’s three hundred English pounds. Tempted as I was, I decided I couldn’t quite justify blowing that much on a tree, however lovely it looked – or smelt! The best thing is that none of this starts until early December, when the supermarkets’ containers of festive goods finally arrive and are unpacked. Before that, there’s not even a hint of Christmas. And so, we get three weeks at the most of Christmassy goings- on, which is quite long enough in my book.
As a family, we always managed to recreate a pretty passable Christmas Dinner with what we could get hold of. Veg is easily available from any market: carrots, potatoes, beans – sometimes even broccoli. Brussels sprouts are something of a challenge, however, and can only be found in the tinned variety. They ooze out of the can, soft and brown and squashed, tasting even worse than the real thing. One British friend who spent an African Christmas with us almost a decade ago, still cites the ‘tinned sprouts’ as his most ‘memorable’ experience of the day. Mind you, he wasn’t there the year we bought a most interesting turkey from our Lebanese merchants down the road: My wife, Lois, was alone in the kitchen when she unwrapped the bird one sunny Christmas morning. She let out an almighty scream, and came running into the lounge, crying:
Intrigued, I went into our small kitchen, only to find an entire turkey, lying on the worktop: head, beak, claws – the lot. It looked just like, well, a dead turkey. It took me a good half hour of twisting, dislocating and chopping, before it even started to resemble a British supermarket turkey. And we got less meat than expected that year – I had paid for five pounds of ‘turkey’, but wasn’t expecting the first pound to be inedible.
If you gave me a choice between the three types of Christmas alluded to above, then I’d choose the urban African Christmas almost every time. I know I’d miss cosy log fire-lit pubs, the smell of real Christmas trees, and fresh sprouts. But an African Christmas is a much more relaxing affair, and does not invade your life for a quarter of the year, like back home. And you can choose to be Christmassy or not, getting together with like-minded ex-pats to enjoy a simple festive celebration, without the sometimes awkward obligation of spending a day with extended family members you hardly know. The weather’s warm and sunny too, of course, affording one the chance to sing outdoor Christmas carols in a tee-shirt (just don’t forget your mosquito repellent).
I love an African city Christmas, but, just occasionally – maybe every three or four years – take me to an African village for a Christmas untarnished by materialism, and where genuine love and hospitality pervade all aspects of life. For me, that’s what Christmas is really about.
Rob is author of “Adventures in Music and Culture”, available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. He lived in West Africa for eight years and is currently writing his second book, which is set in Mali.
Read an earlier blog post about Christmas in West Africa here (including a picture with Santa!)
Pictures of the turkey incident can be found on this blog post.
Rob’s first book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” has appeared in a number of publications and websites over the past few months. Here are some of them…
Have a look at the page here. It currently has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 – would you be able to rate it on there too?
If you are able, I’d be really grateful if you could share the book with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Also, if you could review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be really helpful too!
Rob’s Book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” is available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. Find out more here.
Now, before I start this list, a disclaimer: firsly, I LOVE Africa, even though there are things about it that I don’t like. Secondly, some of the things listed below are also reasons why I love Africa, because they are what makes Africa Africa. Finally, I leave this beautiful continent tomorrow and know I will miss it, so this is my own personal therapy to soften the blow somewhat. Here goes…
1. Being constantly conspicuous because of the colour of my skin
Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.
1. Mobile phone scratch cards to top up your credit
Although the journey there was significantly shorter than last week’s trip to Daloa, the last few miles were nethertheless quite challenging:
After half an hour of bumps, turns and strange angles of driving, we finally arrived at the Catholic retreat centre where the workshop was to be held. A beautiful oasis of calm on the banks of the lagoon, just north of the coast itself:
As soon as we got there, we checked into our accommodation:
After dinner and introductions, it was time for bed. We have almost 25 participants this week, though the Avikam are low in number for now.
Next day, and teaching began. I started off as I do with most courses of this kind I have taught, by asking two questions:
(i) What is culture?
The answer to (ii) is almost always given as ‘yes’, until I explain more clearly, giving examples from across the globe. After this, participants realize that, whilst music is a universal phenomenon, it is not a universal language, as every culture of the world defines, composes and makes music in a different way.
We then make the logical step on to the importance of one’s own culture and how, when artforms from the local culture are used, it speaks to members of that culture in a powerful way, and communication is improved too.
After this, we list all the song genres present in each culture. A song genre is just a style of song linked – in Africa – to a specific event. Songs for weddings, funerals, harvest, initiation, hunting, war, and dancing in the moonlight. Once listed, we see how many of these have already been adapted for church use and which ones could be used. Sometimes they are almost all already used in church, sometimes almost none have been used. But the idea is the same as that of Charles Wesley: to use the music closest to the heart of those we are trying to reach. We call this contextualization. Or, as William Booth said: “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”
In the afternoon, each ethnic group chooses from a list of parables in Luke’s Gospel, being sure to pick ones which speak to the needs of their culture. For example, one participant said to me: “We don’t have mustard seeds here”, and so this was clearly not the best choice of parable for his people group!
Mealtimes were fun and the food was varied: meat or fish with rice, yam chips, spaghetti, or foutou banane:
Day Three is mostly given over to practising the songs composed, and perfecting them, ready for recording. However, we also do some teaching on organology, and each group lists (and draws) it’s idiophones, cordophones, membranophones and aerophones! Here are some of them:
Day Four is recording day! We have a total of ten songs, all based upon parables. As well as using and celebrating local music styles, these songs will also promote scripture usage and encourage literacy, as well as communicating Bible stories in a clear and culturally-relevant way. Even though each people group had a free choice from over 20 parables, they all stuck to the same few, but these should be the ones which speak best to their world. Here’s what they chose:
Avikam: The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Good Samaritan and The Lost Sheep
Once again, there was a nice square gazebo (or apatam) under which to record the songs:
I only had one microphone stand available for the workshop, and so the chorus mic was suspended from the rafters. Then, the end of the string was attached to a chair, so that the height of the microphone could be altered simply by moving the chair forward or backwards! The remaining two microphones (for drums & other percussion) were taped to chairs.
Now, have a listen to extracts from three of the parable songs I recorded:
1. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by the Bakwe people
2. The House on the Rock by the Nglwa people
3. The Lost Sheep by the Avikam people
Click here to read Chapter One of Rob’s Book “Adventures in Music and Culture” free of charge. The book recounts Rob’s travels to eight similar workshops in Togo and Benin, and has received seven 5-star review so far.
I’m so pleased to be back in Africa, where there’s always something to blog about! And last week was no exception…
The workshop, held in Daloa, begun on Wednesday with some teaching on the importance of indigenous song genres, particularly in worship:
After this, our 30 participants split into groups and begun composing new songs, based upon different Psalms. I encouraged them to (i) use local song styles for their songs (ii) choose a genre which would match their song thematically (if possible) and musically and (iii) to use local instruments where available.
There were three different ethnic groups present: The Wobe, the Djimini and the Nyaboa, and each of these groups was divided into two smaller groups, giving us six new songs by the end of the afternoon.
Day two began with more teaching, then a second composing session, and the songs were even better this time round! On Friday, some final teaching on instruments and research, then the afternoon was set aside for practising all the songs composed.
Saturday was recording day, and I set the equipment up at 7:00am, ready to begin recording around 8:00. I sat there until 12:30pm, bringing in each ethnic group to perform and record their songs, using four microphones and a mixing desk. All based upon the Psalms, each song was different and fascinating. I was surprised to hear a lot of indigenous two-part harmonies, and lots of polyphony, not just in the percussion section.
But don’t take my word for it, have a listen yourself!
And here’s one of the Wobe’s songs, based on Psalm 51:9-11:
Finally (my favourite of all), here’s Psalm 137 by the Nyaboa. Wow – listen to that counterpoint!
Interested in finding out more about how an ethnomusicologist runs a song-writing workshop? Read Rob’s book Adventures in Music and Culture.
Another ‘top ten’ for you today, based upon my day’s experience, and another 9 years living in this continent:
1. Smoke from a log fire – it’s just not the same as a bonfire or barbecue smell, but I love it! It also probably means that something tasty is being cooked!
2. Diesel – particulary from lorries, although a Peugeot pickup passed us today and was belching out an amazing quantity of smelly smoke.
3. Baygon bug spray – it does what it says on the tin, but it doesn’t half stink!
4. Sandy dust after a vehicle passes – close your mouths folks!
5. ‘Jungle Formula’ insect repellent – I’m wearing it now, and it’s a kind of a lemongrass-type smell I’ve grown to quite like over the years.
6. Open sewers – not pleasant.
7. Perspiration – it happens! But most of the time it’s fairly bearable 😉
8. Strong ladies’ perfume – that’s the perfume’s aroma, not the ladies who are strong (though many are).
9. African rain – before you write in to complain, I know that rain itself doesn’t smell of much. But the smell of the streets, lawns, plants and trees after a rainfall is heavenly indeed.
10. Roast chicken – fresh in my mind as I just had some. On many street corners in a big African city, you can find folk roasting or grilling chicken, often on a rotisserie. Very tasty, and tonight’s dinner was not exception (even if it did take 90 minutes to arrive!
Thanks for reading.