- 2020-06-20 00:26:23+02:00
Notes From Africa
I first saw Hamid squatting in a doorway near Broadway in New York. I knew from his long frame and bloodshot eyes, and the dust and stoicism that rested on his back, that he was from the Sahara. I caught his eye, and greeted him in Arabic, ’Salaam Alaleikum’. I had a djembe on my back, which was probably why we connected in the first place, but I was on my way to something, and mistrusted his appearance, despite the welcome in his eyes... his shirt stained, his shoes grey and battered. So I didn’t stop to talk. Later he told me that this was the spot to which he came whenever New York was too uncomfortable, the longing for the desert too strong. Surrounded by a mass of people, that swirled like dust, he could be alone and meditate, commune with the images within, and imagine the Harmattan wind tugging at his clothes.
I next spoke with him at the flower-market, where he was selling djembes and wooden amulets. He was with his American wife and small son. He’d not long ago arrived via Air France, to join the white woman he had met when she holidayed in Dakar. I asked him in French if he was Fula, and he smiled and said yes. We looked at each other, and then I confessed my bad French and he his bad English, and then we talked about music. He then told me he’d recently arrived from the Northern desert, following the rains, and that he’d pitched his tent a block over, and I was welcome to join him for tea.
I followed him along one of the East Village’s less well known blocks, and then I saw it, pitched in a battered garden that had originally been the foundation of a tenement building, a Fula herdsmen’s tent. Opposite which was a wooden hut painted with a Puerto Rican flag, surrounded by tall shrubs and a group of Spanish speaking men playing dominoes and drinking weak beer. I could hear hens clucking. There was a child’s tricycle hanging from the back fence, and a selection of toy cars scattered on the dry earth. The men nodded at Hamid as we passed. We sat on rugs under the front flap, that was pinned back to allow air to circulate the rooms within, and Hamid slowly and carefully brewed up over an open flame. I could hear a faraway jeep revving angrily over the dried-out river bed.
It was I who had recognised him first, at the market, he’d almost forgotten me. Hamid does dress in traditional robes sometimes, and this was one of those times, and his mien was very different, but I still knew him--he has a unique presence. When you first meet him he seems to be nothing special, a little slow, obtuse even. Then you realise, this guy is bright, he speaks eight languages for example: Pular, Manding, Wolof, Berber, Bambara, French, English, German (after some time in Paris he crossed the border and lived in Cologne, driving taxis, selling ice-cream). He grew up in the North, but has lived in Dakar, 'like most people' he says, he can play guitar and sing a bit.
He’s got some stuff to say though, philosophical, and spiritual, if you let him. If you want him to say what’s really on his mind that is. For example, at first sight, you don’t think of him as religious, but then you hear the ‘insallahs’ and ‘hamdillahs’ scattered in his speech, and feel the patience... the sad, slow, patience of the desert, of a man who has walked miles in dry, destructive heat, not knowing if there is water in the miles ahead, and with the understanding that if the well is dry then death has been his faithful companion. Because although there used to be an oasis there, around that fold in the sand and stone, times change. Patience and acceptance are intrinsic to Hamid’s nature, but he was restless enough to get on the plane to Paris, and then return again (he took soccer balls and shirts as gifts for everyone), and once again turn and travel, this time to New York. He’s always searching for the means to feed the people left behind, a small group of herding families, who, even as we speak in the brilliant sunlight of Manhattan, are making evening prayer, a thanks for the deliverance of the day’s end, that is the near miracle of God’s love for His people.
However, Hamid decided that given the ever encroaching desert and shrinking rainy season, there was a limit to the number of miracles he could reasonably expect, so he began his journeys. Another nomad loose in the African Diaspora.
He talked to me about music, speaking very seriously in our new found medium of broken French, English and German, plus a few Arabic interjections and expansive gestures. ‘African musical fantasies made in America or Europe just aren’t confident, like the music we play in Africa’, he said at one point, as we swapped names and CD titles. Confident? Musical fantasies? What was he on about? I think it had something to do with how he felt, so many miles from home, so many miles from a way of life that he might never be able to return to, that would probably not be there when he returned. How could he be the confident one? Yet, for example, dub, he reckoned, ‘...feels so sad. It’s great to swim in, but it doesn’t move. It’s like, you’re marooned, in Jamaica or wherever, not traveling. But I love to listen to it.’
He had tapes from the Blood and Fire catalogue of re-releases, typical ‘seventies reggae like Keith Hudson’s, ‘Pick a Dub’, or ‘The Development of Dub in King Tubby’s’. His wife missed hearing the Senegalese stuff that had brought them together in the first place. But he liked Soul music too, because ‘When you listen to old Stevie Wonder or Soul ll Soul, you hear it going somewhere. It’s like it’s sure it belongs where it is, in Britain, in America or France, in the here and now, so it can go somewhere. It’s a modern sound. Like our stuff, it really moves.’
Hamid is really puffed up now, pleased with his point, and I am not sure if it’s confidence or arrogance that drives him. It’s a familiar attitude, this cocksure bearing and didactic tone. I seen it before. In Jamaicans at school, in Salif Keita when he speaks, in Latino Conga drummers, in Jah Wobble’s music. I appreciate it. It’s alright, seems ok, has a place. Sometimes though, it’s not unlike the smug attitude that upper-class Englishmen or Dutch exhibit--‘knowing’ that their cultural values are coveted by the whole world. So I am not sure, with Hamid, where it comes from, or whether I fully believe it, or his words. He is trying to make his way in the world after all, one Senegalese migrant amongst many. He just grins, and drinks tea, suddenly inscrutable.
‘ Thing is my brother, music and dance being associated with sin these days, black people are associated with sin in the white world. You push on us all your sins as well as our own! Not only do you remember the way you discovered we existed, and brought us into your world, which is an endless guilt for you, but now, as well as that, your perception of black music is that it’s nothing but a party party sound. You don’t take us serious. Add to that, too many of you completely lost touch with your own dance and music. So you take our music instead, as a kind of soundtrack to drug and drink to, as you sneak around to get a' (he pauses) 'travesty of dance and music and community up....’
Hamid laughs, and slips my question with a statement. ‘With us, we’re so down that we can only go up, economically speaking. So we always have hope.’
After a long pause and a refill of cups he relented.
‘It’s just that when you dance here, in the West it’s for pleasure--and pleasure only. Not that dancing shouldn’t be pleasurable, it is, but in fact it’s so often you who say that pleasure shouldn’t be pleasurable, that pleasure is somehow wrong. So you never dance without feeling illicit in some way. So you turn to something black, something other, to answer that part of yourself, because you lost touch with how to do it yourselves, because you repress it so long. But when we dance, we don’t just do it for pleasure. We dance for life. Because for us all this performance means a lot more. So if you like our pleasure is directly harnessed to the cohesion of our community....’
‘You mean like in Jamaica when news would travel faster via a DJ record than any other method?’ I asked. ‘The disc would be voiced ‘there’s a polio epidemic go and get a vaccine’ or something, and off it would go around the dances all over the island...’
‘That’s a dimension of it, yes. But there’s another level beyond that when we sing and dance. We know we’re alive then. We sing the praises of everything around us, or it sings us.’ he replied, and closed his eyes.
‘But, Hamid, confident?’
‘Yeah, man, identity. We, Africans, we are free about that. We got no problem with identity. We’re not confused. Thing is, because you’re confused you try to take confidence from us as well. So now I have to come here to take something back.’