Leaving Nigeria

The drive out of Nigeria is comparatively uneventful- Lagos is still a swirling mass of humanity and metal that defies belief, but we don’t have any run ins with self appointed gatekeepers on the way to the border. Sunday, bless him, has accompanied us again, and his presence calms us and lets us know that all this is normal. Or at least, it tricks us into thinking so. It seems that leaving Nigeria is OK- it’s coming in
that causes your wallet to slip out of its pocket.
Of course, leaving Nigeria means you have to enter Benin, and this time we are made to wait five hours parked before a dusty wooden oil drum-supported pole. Sunday cajoles and argues like the pro he is, but this time we are up against sheer, obstinate opportunism, and even he can’t take it anymore after a while. When he tells us he has to leave (“I’m sorry guys, this is not my fucking country, I have to go”) I readily agree- so far he has piloted us through a maze of human quicksand so thick it would have stopped us in our tracks long ago were it not for him. We hug him goodbye one by one and watch him disappear on the back of a moto scooter back towards Lagos.
The only danger we are facing now is the danger of spending all our money at the border, and the absurdity of it this time is a bit much to handle. The ‘problem’ (which translates as an excuse to squeeze more money from us) this time is that our transit visas to cross Benin were originally valid only 48 hours and so have expired. We already knew this, since buying these visas was the only way for us to get into Benin from Togo in the first place, and had agreed to buy additional transit visas on the way back (damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead). But of course, anything out of order is grounds for new negotiation here, and so the immigration officer claims we should have gone to the Benin consulate in Lagos, and that we will have to turn around and go back there to get our visas today. This is out of the question, and he knows it, but it ups the ante as far as what he’s really looking for is concerned. We end up paying double the normal price of visas- $20 each instead of $10, and then I have to sit with Alex and the ‘assistant’ as he leisurely copies down the information from each passport and writes out new visas for us, periodically putting down his pen and holding his arm in a mock display of the carpal tunnel syndrome that comes from not having enough small bills slid his way. Somehow we manage to get all the visas without paying him anything, probably because Alex keeps the atmosphere light by telling the assistant how good he is and how good an assistant Alex is in keeping him company while he endures the sheer terror of writing out each visa.
This gets us across the road to the wooden pole gatekeeper, who demands cassettes when he finds out we are a band, and then sends us across the road yet again, where Alex must slide some bills to the ‘health officer’ before he stamps our visas allowing us the privilege of driving through Benin on our way back to Ghana. This in turn gets us about a hundred yards down the road, where we are stopped at yet another wooden pole to make sure the papers for our bus are in order (surprise, they aren’t), and must wait there as Chambas is pulled into a small wooden shack to settle the matter. Chambas has become our friend, but he is not the most diplomatic member of our crew, being much more prone to screaming at an official that his bus is licensed and ready than to the slightly subservient and apologetic attitude that seems de riguer for getting anything done quickly at an African border crossing. This, coupled with the fact that Chambas rarely misses a chance to brag about the fact that he’s packing heat right there under his right hip, makes me grab Alex and beg him to follow Chambas and do all the talking everytime Chambas is called out of the bus. This seems to be working in this case, Alex inserting all the right “Please sir, we beg you”’s and “God will bless you”’s as the motley assemblage of uniformed border guards, immigration officers and random hangers on debates the wisdom of letting this bus full of Americans past the final wooden pole, until Eric, our Ghanaian cameraman, decides to snap a picture of a truck driver next to our bus. One of the border guards spots him, storms on to the bus and orders Eric off so he can confiscate his camera, Eric frantically stashing the tape in the camera in his bag unnoticed before he hustles off and into the wooden shack. A heated shouting match ensues, and we are made to wait yet another half hour while this is eventually sorted out, with more small bills, allowing Eric to rejoin the bus with his camera intact. Finally we are cleared, and as we roll under the last wooden pole about 6 hours after first arriving at the border (a scant 200 yards or so behind us), I feel an odd mixture of relief and annoyance at being made to wait so long for something so basic that I am relieved when it’s finally over.
We roll through Benin in a couple hours, arriving at the Togo border just after nightfall. Our enemy now is time, with the Ghana/Togo border closing at 10 PM a few hours away and us determined to make it home to Accra that night. So the Togolese border guards who make us pay extra for ‘proper’ bus papers annoy us more for the fact that they take so long doing it than for the fact that they’re corrupt beauracrats intent on enriching themselves at our expense. We already know the drill, a few of us joke to each other, why not just tell us up front how much it’s going to cost and let us pass through right away? This streamlined border/toll booth idea has its appeal, but the realistic truth here is that nothing at an African border crossing- like anything in Africa itself, it seems to me- is streamlined, so it’s a good two hours later before we finally push off from the Togo side of the border, checking our watches and calculating the time needed to reach the Ghanaian border minus any unforeseen delays like goats in the road or Chambas’s need to pull over and pray to Mecca. Of course, the first of the only delays we need to worry about rears its ugly head not twenty minutes drive from the border in the form of a random checkpoint established by soldiers collecting a ‘large vehicle’ toll for, wouldn’t you know it, vehicles just like us. This takes a few minutes of negotiation before we’re on the road again and headed for the next checkpoint a little ways down the road, where we offer half of what the stated toll is and move on. This continues at least twice, the last time the soldiers waving us through when they don’t have the correct change to give us from the toll agreed on when we offer a larger bill. All of these delays tighten the nerves in our stomachs and make us uneasy as we pull nearer to Ghana- we are hungry, having no time to pull over for a decent meal, and exhausted and dirty with sweat after over 12 hours of sitting in the bus in the heat waiting for yet another bribe to take its desired effect and let us pass yet another checkpoint. The thought of arriving at the border after it closes- of spending the night in the bus at the border or of turning around and driving back to Lome and looking for (and paying for) another random hotel room, is as unappetizing as the smell from the open sewers that line the road as we near the border.
We arrive at the Togo side of the Ghana/Togo border and Christopher and I practically race out of the bus and straight to the border guard’s desk- it’s 9:45 and counting. Christopher asks in French if we can please hurry up since we’re trying to cross to Ghana tonight, and the official points to his desk drawer as Christopher tells me to couch up 5,000 CFA, about 10 bucks, which I hurredly lay on the desk for the guard to snatch up. We sprint to the Ghanaian building, where the border official tells us to move the bus past the gate because it’s about to close, but as we race back out to tell Chambas we are stopped by a Togolese woman in uniform and several Togolese soldiers, who order everyone out of the bus for ‘inspection’. I plead with the woman that we must bring the bus past the gate, there’s no time, which Christopher only half translates into French, knowing, as I do also, that there’s no use and that nothing I can say will make anyone hurry up here anyway. The Ghanaian officials, some of whom just told us to hurry and cross the border, are watching abstractly, uninterested in interfering. Chambas is yelling at someone, Christopher is pleading with the woman officer to let us pass, everyone else is standing around wondering if anything we could do will do any good or if we should just ride this out like everything else. Then somehow, for some unknown reason (maybe just because the Togo officers decided we were too much to deal with) we are ordered through the border and we shuffle through a tunnel and into the parking lot on the other side. As Chambas moves the bus into the parking lot the rest of us stream into the same office we had begun our journey in five days before and fill out the same questionairres as we did then, taking care to check ‘tourism’ as our reason for visiting Ghana and scrawling the address for the Kusun house in Nungua as our permanent address in Ghana. One by one our visas are stamped, one by one we emerge from the visa office into the warm breeze of the African night, and one by one we realize dejectedly we’re not out of the woods yet- the parking lot where the bus sits and where we stand is a kind of no man’s land in between Togo and Ghana- we have exited Togo and been granted entry into Ghana, but the final gate to enter Ghana in the bus lies west of us 100 yards or so, and it is well past 10 PM. What’s more, as we jog over to the bus we discover several Ghanaian border guards poking through our equipment, deaf to the shouted pleas to hurry up, that we must get through the final gate before it closes. I run over to the gate with Christopher, Bongo, and Eric and find the uniformed officer in charge ready to leave for the night and nonplussed at the prospect of our being stuck in this parking lot until morning. “God will bless you if you let us through” says Eric, which doesn’t make much of an impact either, but somehow he does grudgingly tell us that if we can get the bus over to the gate he will let us through. Racing back to the bus though, we find the border guards taking apart Jason’s drum case (looking for drugs? Voodoo trinkets? We’re not sure), then using Mully’s flashlight to look over the pile of bags and equipment in the back of the bus. They threaten to search the entire bus, surely dooming us to a night here on the fenced-in asphalt. We plead at them to reconsider, that we are only trying to make it to Accra tonight. And for the second time in the space of half an hour, the officials holding us relent, and wave us through. I don’t know why- maybe it was the Ghanaians with us insistently wishing religious favor on them for easing up on us. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion in the thought of actually going through with a full search of this entire bus and all its American bags and equipment. But whatever it was, we found ourselves cruising through the last gate and wondering at our good fortune.
There’s something else though too. I don’t know if you noticed anything missing from that last episode, but I, and several of us on the bus, sure did: no money changed hands the entire time we pleaded and hoped to get into Ghana from Togo. This was not just unusual or unexpected or even just simply interesting. From our standpoint- the one that comes after spending your entire day in the hot sun cramped inside a bus shelling out more money you don’t have to border guards who treat you like an ATM machine- it was downright revolutionary. Ghana is many things compared to the countries we travelled in and passed through- poorer, on the surface, than Benin and Togo. Maddingly inefficient when it comes to anything running on time. Less fascinatingly full of contradictions, of significance to the world economy, than Nigeria. And yet, based on the woefully biased experience of one American in one bus crossing three international borders in one day, Ghana has the only working government of all four countries. The uniformed civil service employees at the Ghanaian border were just that- employees, hired by the government to perform a service larger than simply enriching themselves from the next passerby. A sense of law, of civic duty, was nonexistent in Nigeria, unnoticeable in Benin and Togo. Yet crossing into Ghana yielded much the same experience as crossing from Canada into Vermont- a uniformed beauracracy doing its job, poking into cargo and ultimately giving in to pleas of common sense. It would be easy to make too big a deal of this, to pound your chest in admiration for the Ghanaian civil service and wipe your eyes after getting misty with the thought of Ghanaian patriotism. Yet it’s hard to overlook it also- the nation-state that we take for granted in the west is a malnourished and disadvantaged non-native plant in West Africa. The anecdotal evidence tells me it hasn’t taken root in Nigeria and not really in Togo and Benin either, where tribal identity still rules and personal and familial enrichment trumps any kind of service to a higher governmental authority. But Ghana- perhaps because it gained its independence before any other African country in 1957, or because alone among West African nations it has never undergone serious civil unrest or war- seems to be held together by more than just lines on a map drawn up by someone in the British or French foreign office early in the last century. It’s a country, with the sense of law and order that that word normally implies, and as we glided past the last iron gate and settled in for the last leg of our journey, we were weary and hungry but more than a little relieved to have made it somewhere that felt like home.

Nigeria 3: The Shrine

The following day is spent mostly lounging around Femi's swimming pool in his compound, a bizarre Miami-ish respite from the chaos that surrounds us. Despite the relaxing setting- or maybe because of it- I can’t help thinking about the sheer improbability of what we’ve put ourselves through and where we are. A little over two years ago, I met Lara, our lead singer, in San Francisco, and discovering a mutual love of African music between us hastily organized a jam session in my backyard shack. This led to us cramming into the shack with several of my musician friends, creating dense, serpentine rhythms inspired by the Fela Kuti CD’s I couldn’t stop listening to while Lara married them with chants and songs she had learned while living in Ghana years earlier. Which led, eventually, to us graduating from the shack to a real rehearsal studio, buying a bus that ran on vegetable oil and taking this music of ours out across the country and discovering that we weren’t the only ones to love the way it makes us feel and move. All of which led, somehow, to us biting the bullet and traveling to Africa, to see where this music came from and to soak up the inspiration for ourselves.
So far glimpsing the birthplace of this music called afrobeat had inspired so many questions and feelings that it was almost hard to digest. Here in Lagos, Fela, and by extension Femi, means something very different than he does to us in the West. In the short span we are here, I notice two tabloid-style articles about Femi, both about how he misses his dad and how difficult it is to uphold his legacy. It’s a reminder that Fela was much more than simply a musician here, which is how we tend to think of him in America. In Lagos he was a politician and perhaps the most public and visible spokesperson for the people of Lagos and Nigeria in the whole country. This of course drove the government mad, and it of course must be an impossible thing for Femi to live up to, hence the pressure alluded to in the tabloids. But the marriage of politics and music that drove Fela’s life hasn’t gone away in his son- and being here I am struck by how natural it seems that Fela and now Femi should be seen as political figures and not just rock stars.
For example, when we drive to the Shrine in the late afternoon it takes an hour to travel what can’t be more than a mile- even at midday on a Sunday the traffic here is virtually standstill. We crawl through dirt roads lined with shacks and glimpse shiny new Mercedes rolling in the traffic next to battered taxicabs and tro tros. As we do I can't help but think about the fact that we are at this moment in the heart of the economic engine that drives the entire world. Nigeria's oil wealth is immense- more, much more, than any of us know. I am told by three different people here that what the Nigerian government reports as its official export total is about one third of the actual total, making Nigeria the largest oil source in the entire world, larger than Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Venezuela. In addition, Nigerian crude is much easier to process than oil from other parts of the world, making it more valuable. I am told by several Nigerians of an ongoing scheme that involves people driving fuel trucks around the Niger Delta and siphoning off oil. These trucks are then driven to a waiting barge, which, when sufficiently full with oil, steams out to sea five miles into international waters, where a supertanker, usually provided by Royal Dutch Shell or another giant oil company, awaits. This tanker then pays for the crude oil- less than market rate but still a huge sum and completely off the books- and steams off to refineries in Europe, North America, or wherever, where no one cares where the oil came from or how it got there. The Nigerian government usually owns the barge and sometimes the fuel trucks and is complicit in every step- meaning the Nigerian government is stealing from itself to sell oil off the books on the world market. Shell gets rich, the supertanker captain gets rich, the Nigerian Junta gets richer, and the fuel truck drivers, well, at least they have something to do besides watch the burning oil wells that litter the delta like trash heaps.

There is no way to confirm any of this, of course (getting in a car and driving the couple hours to the Delta- Nigeria's oil country- does not exactly sound like a fun day trip), and following this logic gets you to a paranoid and conspiratorial place: Iraq is a smokescreen, Saudi Arabia a diversion, Venezuela and its loudmouthed strongman Hugo Chavez a mere distraction from the real issue at hand: the importance of Nigeria’s crude oil and the country’s growing instability. But at the same time there is no way to disprove this ‘oil bunkering’ (as I hear it described) either, and as a scientific hypothesis the basic premise fits several of the undeniable facts that have confronted us since we crossed the border. Evidence of Nigeria's wealth is everywhere, even here amid the shacks packed together like supermarket shelves and the dusty alleyways with filthy open sewers. Shiny, spotless Hummers roll down alleyways lined with people selling phone calls as their only means of survival. The occupants of new model Mercedes stop to buy bags of water off the heads of women who will make less than a dollar all day. To be fair, this disparity exists in Accra too, and to a lesser extent (the economies of the French African countries seemingly better off) in Togo and Benin. But in Nigeria it slaps you in the face and brings home some unpleasant truths. Shell, for example, is not stealing oil from Nigeria. They are paying an agreed-on price for the priviledge of extracting dead dinosaur residue from the Niger Delta, notwithstanding the questionable environmental effects and the rumored siphoning of their own pipelines (the fact that the Nigerian government gets proportionally less for its oil than do the oil-producing governments of the Persian Gulf is another, equally troubling issue). The issue, as several ordinary Nigerians alluded to or blurted right out, is the Nigerian ruling elite who keep this immense paycheck for themselves, their mansions and cars, their foreign bank accounts and their trips overseas while letting the city of Lagos fester in its own dysfunction and the country slide ever deeper into chaos.
It was into this same environment that Fela Kuti overlaid political rants railing against the ruling military government on top of stubbornly funky, impossibly polyrhythmic big band music that lashed the modern American funk of James Brown to the traditional drumming of the Yoruba of Nigeria and so appealed to just about everyone in the whole world. The courage this took- aside from the Kalakuta raid by government soldiers which killed Fela’s mother there were numerous arrests and beatings in the 1970’s and 80’s at the hands of a government increasingly frustrated and worried by Fela’s ever-growing influence within Nigeria- seems unimaginable, and yet being here among these people now it also seems entirely natural to me. The one thing all the Nigerians I meet here- from our driver, who loudly rails against the ‘thieves’ running Nigeria, to the local newspapers which denounce Nigerian president Obasanjo’s current anti-corruption campaign as a political sham, to the several concertgoers at the Shrine who tell me all about the aforementioned oil scandals- are not is timid and cowed. Everyone here seems outspoken, bold, and full of life, and it’s not hard now to imagine a man like Fela standing up and barking with his music straight into the face of chaos.
This chaos is not imagined or overstated either- in just the two days we are here we hear of 3 dead at a Muslim/Christian clash in Lagos, 10 oil workers abducted in the Delta, more religious strife in the north of the country, and guerrilla activity in the Delta from a group called MEND- the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta- which has been stepping up attacks on oil installations and pipelines in the Delta region, financing itself with stolen oil and pushing the region and the whole country closer to the brink of full-scale civil war. And people here seem resigned to the horrible direction the country might be heading in- none of the news of kidnappings, death or sabotage seemed unusual or out of place to the Nigerians who shared the news with me.

Meanwhile you may be reading this on a computer made of plastic and circuitry, powered by electricity; at some point you will get in your car and drive to work or school or home or the race track or wherever. Meaning it's a very safe bet that every day, at least some of what you do is powered by Nigeria in one way or another, and the effects of this massive drain on the country's resources- the Western World's electrical socket as it were- coupled with a government run by criminals, are chilling when you see it from the inside. It is hard not to feel hopeless about this situation also. I am, of course, writing this on a computer and rode in a tro tro powered by diesel fuel to get here to the Internet Cafe. When I get home to San Francisco I will continue to drive where I need to go. Our band will continue to drive on biodiesel and promote it as an alternative, but seeing the scale of the problem, it is hard for even the most starry-eyed idealist to do anything but throw his hands up in disgust.

That night we open for Femi and play a much better, tighter, more focused set. Femi doesn't sit in, but tells us afterwards how great it was, and how “in one hundred years people will be talking about this band from America who came here to the Shrine.” We then get to watch Femi perform at the Shrine, which is in itself worth the trip coming here. Before he takes the stage I am backstage as he walks out from his room, his band already playing. Two Shrine staff members shout at him, psyching him up, like Muhammed Ali in the tunnel leading to the ring. "The king of Afro Beat!! Anakelapo!! Make way for the king!!” and so on. Meanwhile Femi is silent, doing stretches and staring into a mirror. Finally, he wordlessly takes the stage and the place goes nuts, young kids in the front crashing into each other, polio cripples careening around the dancefloor on skateboards. In the States he performs with a sizeable band, but here it is immense, with ten dancers (about the most beautiful women any of us have ever seen), two drummers, two bass players, guitar players, percussionists, you name it. He plays for four hours straight and doesn't even seem to break a sweat. His set is the most high energy nonstop performance I have ever seen, with barely even any breaks between songs. Seeing him here is entirely different than in America, at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where I saw him give two solid but comparitively relaxed performances for sold out houses of mostly white people looking for a taste of ethnic dance music and a whiff of the legendary politics of Femi’s dad. Here the audience is a different beast, one that seemingly won’t rest until every last drop of manic energy is poured on them as if from a firehose. Again I am reminded of British punk, because of the aggression everywhere in the music, the manic tempo at which Femi leads his band and the release so evident in the crowd of young men that thrashes around the concrete dance floor up front that translates, to me anyway, as solidarity. For example, several cripples on skateboards shoot themselves around the dancefloor at breakneck speeds, threading their way in between the cracks in the crowd and occaissionally snatching beers from unwary patrons. Several times I see them get stopped and pummeled with fists by men who don’t seem to care about the troubling image of punching a cripple. But each time the men end up hugging the cripples and slapping hands, and I get the sense that this happens all the time, it’s just like a big brother playing rough in front of the TV during a commercial break. All around me there is a similar vibe- a little rough, yes, and aggressive, but not exactly menacing. The gate fees at the Shrine are kept purposely low- less than a US dollar- and I get the sense that this is because Femi wants this cross section of Nigerian society to be here, to bathe in his music and to feel some connection with each other, as if everyone here really is in this together, whatever this is. That feeling is palpable in the room. The Shrine is more than just a nightclub, and even though this is not the original Shrine that Fela lived and played in for years- that one having been razed by the government two years after Fela’s death in 1997- a loose and welcome kind of family togetherness pervades the atmosphere here. Walking around the floor I am besieged by Nigerians who slap hands and want to know what I’m doing there- many of them congragulate me on our show, some of them invite me to another Lagos nightclub they’re going to later (I decline), and almost everyone wants to know where we’re from and why we came to the Shrine.
Meanwhile there are two cages on either side of the dance floor with two of Femi’s dancers in them who make it very unlikely that I’ll ever visit a strip club again (why set yourself up for such a letdown?). And there is the backstage scene, where several of us, starting with our girl singers, get pulled into the dancers’ dressing room and made over like Nigerian backup singers, complete with face paint and ass-shaking dance moves. I am pulled in and photographed by the most beautiful group of women I’ve ever been around- and probably the craziest too, as they grab all of us and spin us around in between drags of the huge joints that are passed around, eventually pulling us up on stage with them towards the end of the night. Afterwards a small crisis ensues when Liz leaves her video camera in the care of one of the women, who later has it turn up in her locker. The rest of the dancers react with fury- throwing the dancer in question out of the room for being a thief after screaming at her and shoving her for bringing shame on all of them. We have no idea if she intended to take the camera and are inclined to believe her story that she was holding on to it for safekeeping- not least because we’d just like those good, sex-soaked vibes back from just a few minutes earlier. But from then on our new Nigerian dancer friends are preoccupied and uninterested in us- they yell and argue in the dressing room well after Femi has left the stage. It’s random perhaps, but also a reminder that the gut-wrenching tension of this place, which we had largely forgotten in the euphoria of watching Femi and partying with Nigerian supermodels, is never very far away.

After the show and the drama with the dancers (which takes some hours to wind down), we all unwind in our dressing room, drinking beer and passing out on the floor one by one. Femi is around just down the hall but preoccupied tonight; I peek my head in to tell him what a great show he just put on but don’t feel quite like sticking around as if I’m one of his inner circle. As we wind down he says goodbye and heads upstairs, but before he does we manage to snap a few pictures of him with some of us to prove to our friends, and maybe ourselves, that all this really happened.

Nigeria 2: Lagos

Lagos is chaos. Picture Blade Runner, that apocalyptic sci-fi vision of a futuristic urban hell, strip away the robots and the neon, and you've pretty much got what awaits us as we pull further from the border and deeper into what can only be called a kind of urban insanity. The traffic doesn't just thicken, it congeals, and we are surrounded on every side by tro-tro's packed like sardine cans with people hanging from the doors , trucks, motos that zip everywhere with no regard for traffic flow and a teeming mass of humanity that spills over from the shantytowns and market stalls that line the road into the freeway in the form of people running across through the deadly maze of moving metal to get to the other side. Around us are shacks piled on shacks, concrete buildings, some finished, most not, jutting a story or two into the sky, and above us a haze so thick it chokes. The smog here makes Los Angeles or Houston on its worst August day seem like the clearest Colorado Rocky mountain morning. The natural effect of cars and motos and trucks and buses spewing exhaust literally everywhere we can see invades us- we feel it in our lungs, and the soot and exhaust hovers over this city like a blanket. At one point we head up a freeway ramp- like every other road we take here a parking lot that funnels forward in fits and starts- and see before us a nearly pitch black cloud covering the entire sky, fed by smokestacks from power plants and crumbling warehouses by the side of the road, bracketed by frayed electrical towers and lit up by the setting sun behind it- barely detectable through the gloom. If you had ever asked me what the end of the world will look like, I would have painted something very close to this.
Through it all the cars and trucks and motos and tro tros are packed so tightly around us it is as if we are all blood molecules squeezing through the same enormous vein. Around us horns bleep and blap like the inhabitants of a mechanized rainforest- at one point a tro tro on our right bursts staccato horn blasts that repeat over and over, on our left a truck sounds an immense rumbling horn and in front a moto emits a high-pitched buzzing wail- all of a sudden I understand Fela's jagged, angular horn lines a little bit more. We are inches from sure death at any time, there are precious few traffic lights and seemingly no traffic rules- motos buzz every which way, sometimes through the cracks in the traffic going the wrong way, cars and motos drive on the shoulders perilously close to the vendors selling plantains, water, watches and whatnot. The bus is bumped and scraped several times- this seems natural, unavoidable, even logical. We pass many roadside hulks, crushed cars left to die in the dust, dark rusting burned out skeletons of fuel tankers that have sat there for days, weeks, months, who knows. Through it all Chambers is superhuman, threading us through this psychotic tangle to safety as Sunday barks what directions there are to him. We should be dead by now it seems, or at least stranded with a broken bus by the side of the freeway, which right now seems to be much the same thing. I am tired and exhausted but cannot close my eyes, the knots in my stomach drawing tighter with every inch.
And then suddenly, somehow, we are on a clear residential street (one with no visible houses for the high security walls that line each side), and we pull into a warehouse driveway in front of wrought iron gates emblazoned with a big circle framing a map of Africa. "We're home" shouts Sunday. It is the Shrine. We are here.

We park and file out of the bus, exhausted but somehow wide awake. I walk through a big iron gate with a yellow outline of Africa emblazoned on it, and through an alley lined with European model cars. Then right through what looks like a service entrance, and straight through a short hallway where I see the back of the stage in front of me, visible through a square cut in the wall, through which I can see the back of a drum set and a cavernous gymnasium beyond. I round a corner and there he is- Femi, wearing sweat pants and a tye-dye T-shirt, lounging at the bottom of some stairs awaiting our arrival. "Thank God", he says as he hugs every one of us hello. "I don't know what I was going to do if you guys hadn't made it, man. Probably go on stage and start criticizing my government again or something!" He is gracious and kind as he greets every one of us, and although it is already 8:30 PM and the show has been advertised as starting at 6, he insists we stay in the dressing room and eat the food that is on the way. We talk, us a bit awestruck, he totally relaxed and the picture of hospitality, asking if we have enough to drink and do we need anything else. It's all a bit surreal after what we've gone through to get here- then again, I'm guessing Femi knows what we've gone through a little too well.
The Shrine is a big warehouse with a metal roof and a sloping concrete floor that looks from the stage like a sea of plastic chairs and tables littered over a concrete sea. It's not huge- maybe the size of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco- but it's imposing when we finally take the stage, wearing our shirt and ties and facing a canvas of Nigerians sitting around eyeing us suspiciously like a cat eyes a mouse to see what tricks he can do before eating him. As we stand on stage ready to start, the sound system plays what sounds like a Nigerian youth anthem- loud and fast and full of trouble- and the crowd- mostly young men and boys, goes crazy, moshing and running into each other and throwing plastic bottles everywhere. It's the first time of many over the next few days where I bizarrely feel I'm reliving a part of the British punk explosion of the late 70's. Finally the music stops, the dance floor clears and we play. It isn't our best set by any means- nerves and the sheer exhaustion of sitting around in a hot bus all day with your life in danger will do that- but at one point, maybe during a version of 'Sirena' where my bass and Jason's drums slap around the Shrine's cavernous interior like a hockey puck, I think to myself that on a wall somewhere (maybe in this building) or just inside someone's head (maybe Femi's), there is a list of people that have ever played music at the Shrine. It says Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, God knows who else, and Aphrodesia. Gulp.
During 'Money', our third song of the set, we notice a commotion out on the floor and it is Femi, dancing around with a beautiful African woman and causing the whole crowd to rush up and see what he's doing. Before we know it he's onstage with us, blowing his alto sax at the end of 'Sirena' where we normally end. We keep playing and he solos over the last chorus, his sound hard and brittle, the notes spewing from his horn in a tangle that echoes the crazy streets and freeways that surround us. Reports of Femi's musical inferiority have greatly missed the mark- his sound is raw, yes, but in the torrent of sound that comes out of him everything somehow- sometimes bizarrely- hits a rhythmic mark. It also echoes perfectly the chaos and humanity that surrounds us here, in the Shrine, in Lagos.
We go straight into "No Agreement", Femi smiles, sings a verse, plays more, and we try not to wonder if this is really happening to us. Eventually we wrap up the set, exhausted, and play another short set after that when Yeni, Femi’s sister, and Sunday wonder to us why we left the stage after only two hours. I walk around in the crowd and meet tons of incredible people who shake my hand and tell me how blessed we are for coming here to Nigeria, how strong we are and how they are proud of us for coming here. Nigeria may be dysfunctional, corrupt and broken. Its people are not.

Eventually some of us are driven back to Femi's house- which is an immense house surrounded by walls where Femi never goes. "It's too easy for them to get to me there", he tells us the next day, explaining why he never leaves the Shrine. He is talking about the government, or just thugs, or maybe pretty much the same thing. The repression and violence that marks much of Fela's music is not, unfortunately a thing of the past. Our show here is on the 27th anniversary of the Kalakuta Raid- a drunken binge of soldiers who raided and beat Fela and his followers at the old Shrine, threw his mother out a second story window and inspired his song "Coffin For Head of State". Nowadays Femi tells us he stays on the road touring throughout the world because it's too dangerous for him to be there. A few years ago, he says, he was on tour in South Africa when he received word that a man who looked and dressed like he did at the time- a fan- was gunned down in front of the Shrine. It seems international stardom, a few million records sold and a Grammy award have not changed the fact that there are plenty of people in Nigeria who would rather see Femi dead- for his own outspokenness and especially for his father’s. When he tells me the government will be very angry that Aphrodesia played here because it legitimizes him and the Shrine internationally, I nod, not knowing what to say. Are we really a part of this history now? Or have we just inserted ourselves into it like tourists snapping pictures at a museum?

Nigeria 1: The Border

“We have no fucking government, man”, Sunday yells after bounding back onto the bus after yet another confrontation with a bribe-seeking uniform. “That’s why it’s like this. The corruption starts at the top, the very top” he continues, obviously frustrated. Sunday is Femi Kuti’s manager, who has traveled from his home at the legendary Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria to Krake, a dusty stretch of road that qualifies as the Benin-Nigeria border, to escort us to the Shrine, where we will play tonight. Femi Kuti is the son of Fela Kuti- the legendary father of Afrobeat music and an iconic presence in recent Nigerian history equal parts Bob Dylan and Che Guevara. We are Aphrodesia, a ten-piece all-white afrobeat band from San Francisco, in the middle of a monthlong trip to West Africa, sitting inside a sweltering bus on the Nigerian border trying not to draw attention to ourselves.
It’s not working. We have been parked in front of two battered oil drums that support a fragile wooden pole for over three hours now, waiting as Sunday and his buddy Kofi, Chambers, the Ghanaian owner and driver of the bus, and Alex, our Ghanaian percussionist, alternately negotiate, beg, plead and ultimately pay off various officials in hopes of getting the bored-looking gatekeepers who control the wooden pole to lift it and let us pass into Nigeria. Sunday is a pro, but even he can’t change the fact that we are a big bus containing a bunch of white people sitting at the Nigerian border and so can’t pass unmolested.
Outside the bus moto scooters zip back and forth with bags of rice tied to their seats, women tap on the windows to wave bags of fried plantains and plastic bags of water at us, and the border officials who control our fate seem as indifferent to us now as they did when we first pulled up here this morning. We are neither escaping attention nor attracting it in the way we had hoped, and as the minutes languish by and the sweat runs off us we watch our Ghanaian sound and video engineer Panji leisurely get a shoeshine outside from a woman wrapped in beautiful blue printed fabric and begin to wonder if this is all worth it.

Several months ago on a chilly and wet San Francisco night we had gathered at our backup singer Nicole’s house and sat on her hardwood living room floor trying to hash out some sanity in this in this absurd idea- a white afrobeat band traveling to Africa, touring through Ghana on a biodiesel bus and maybe, just maybe, making the trip to Lagos, Nigeria to play and worship at the Shrine, home of Femi Kuti, his legendary father Fela and the birthplace of afrobeat. Our guitarist David had traveled to Ghana for a week to try and set things up for us- intercontinental phone communication being less than reliable, to put it mildly. We had hoped for an itinerary, a signal, a round of booked gigs that would pave and pay our way- instead David told us there would be no one holding our hand and no guarantees- depressing thoughts. Somehow though to our independent musician brains it was comforting to know it was up to us alone- if we really wanted to go to Africa as a band, to travel to the source of our music and get our butts kicked, we could just go: it would be like stealing second base or helping ourselves to another bowl of ice cream, because we could and because there was no one telling us not to.
This led to our previous two weeks- a whirlwind of new friends and otherwordly experiences in Ghana that included several spontaneous gigs in the capital city of Accra, a trip up north to a tiny village called Binaba near the border with Burkina Faso where we played a village market and were paid in slaughtered goat, and many desperate phone calls to Nigeria trying to contact someone, anyone at the Shrine. Which led, eventually, to our being invited to play at the Shrine in Lagos, to our renting this bright green (petroleum fueled, unfortunately) bus from Chambers, and to us packing all ten of ourselves, our growing African entourage that now numbered at least as much, and all our equipment and bags inside for the trip through Togo and then Benin, where we played two unscheduled shows at an outdoor festival in Coutounou we chanced upon when wandering through the city wondering where we would sleep (see “Differences in Booking Gigs, Africa and America”).
Which led to us sitting here, on the Benin-Nigeria border, wondering if our luck was running out as each minute and hour seemed to slip away in the dusty heat just like the plastic bags of sweet mushy Fan Ice we obsessively sucked on to keep cool. An hour or so ago, Sunday bounded onto the bus in sunglasses and snazzy black T-shirt, lifting our spirits like an updraft catching a hang glider. We had agreed to meet here and have him walk us through the border and now he has found us somehow in the chaos, we beamed to ourselves. Our entry to Lagos, to the Shrine, to history, we all thought as he and his buddy Kofi hugged all ten of us hello, is assured.
Not exactly. It turns out that even having a Nigerian pro with us who knows the ropes and will do everything possible to get us through the border does not change the fact that we are a bunch of white people in a big bus in a place where such a sight is about as common as a giraffe meandering through Central Park. Sunday argues with someone about the bus license, with someone else about our passports, and finally we are all called off the bus one by one to meet with a uniformed Nigerian immigration officer who asks us each our occupation (musician) and whether we’ve been to Nigeria before (no). The price for each of these conversations, for each of Sunday’s negotiations with each official, is under constant discussion. Each demand for Naira- Nigerian money- and the Aphrodesia cassettes that everyone asks for when they find out we are a band is explained as some sort of ‘toll fee’ or ‘paperwork fee’, but never by its true purpose, which is that the Nigerian government would rather keep their oil wealth for themselves and let the masses blow off steam by collecting small amounts of money from each other. We are told by Sunday and Kofi, while we languish in the heat waiting for another official to decide how much our ‘paperwork fee’ will cost us, that Nigerian officials such as police officers, immigration officials and the like are not paid a salary. They are expected instead to collect money for themselves in the course of their job, and everyone routinely accepts this. As Panji, our Ghanaian sound engineer, explains, “This is quite normal, you understand. This is how we want our system to work. It is in this way everyone can get something small for themselves and everyone has enough to eat.” In other words, calling the system in Nigeria corrupt is a linguistic slight of hand- the system in Nigeria is corruption itself.
None of which, of course, means there is anything we can do while we sit here, well into hour three, in a bus that now closer resembles a sauna than a moving vehicle.

By the time we finally roll forward through the dust, the maddening logic of this place has taken shape. The Nigerian border is some concrete buildings, a dusty road, and several wooden poles supported by battered oil drums that pass for checkpoints. To go through these checkpoints you must talk to the appropriate official, bribe him, and hope that he tells the person manning the oil drum to lift the wooden pole so you can drive through another 20 feet. If he doesn't, you bribe someone else, and hope that works. There is no government here, or authority, only a bunch of men in uniform demanding payment, and a bunch of men out of uniform demanding payment or else. Even with Sunday escorting us through the process it is maddeningly slow. It takes us five hours of paying off random 'officials' with Niara, CFA (Benin money) and Aphrodesia cassettes until we are finally cleared to move, but as the last wooden pole is lifted from its two oil barrels and we glide past, our sighs of relief are stifled before we even finish exhaling. Beyond the last 'official' checkpoint stretches a narrow dirt road crawling with self-appointed gatekeepers wielding clubs, whips and sometimes metal spikes which they throw in front of tires and demand money from drivers they randomly flag down. There is no law here- they operate steps away from uniformed soldiers and policemen engaged in much the same operation. The sun cuts through a thick haze of exhaust and dust; piles of burning trash are everywhere and the acrid smell of burning rubber and garbage lingers in our nostrils. As we begin to move, things are getting rough and it seems like business as usual- I see one woman pulled from her car and whipped, and everywhere moto drivers and riders are rudely shoved until they cough up some small bills. The only rule here is sticks, ropes that serve as whips, and patches of ground where the thugs ply their trade. Above it all towers an immense billboard emblazoned with the image of a can of Super Star Motor Oil and the words "Welcome to Nigeria." If there is a gateway to hell, it looks like this.

We are stopped at least 10 times, 50 or so feet apart, each time by someone demanding more money. Finally we pay off the last thug and hit a stretch of open road, only to be pulled over again by soldiers in a jeep with uniforms and machine guns. One of them storms up onto the bus and orders us all out on the side of the road. He then grabs our stack of passports from our guitarist Chris’ hand, and as we nervously file out of the bus and onto the road they grab our Ghanaian friend Bongo and two of the four drivers Chambers has brought along for the trip, Sharrif and Omar, and push them up into the jeep. They demand we return to immigration, back to the border we have just spent all day trying to cross- a thought that right now is like returning to a dusty prison hours after parole. They speed off, three of our crew and all our passports with them, and as we frantically rush back into the bus they pull a screeching U-turn and head back at high speed towards the border. Chambers, who has grown increasingly irritated all day at the unending harrasment and demands for more money, fires up the bus, pulls the same U-turn and speeds after them in pursuit, pulling up alongside with Sunday screaming out the open bus door for them to pull over, the soldiers in the back sitting nonchalantly next to our friends, cradling machine guns absently like walking sticks. They pull another U-turn and pull over, and we cut them off and glide to a stop in front of them. Sunday, Chambers, Panji, Alex and the rest of the drivers stream out of the bus and onto the shoulder, yell and argue with the soldiers, then bound back on the bus with the announcement that our passports and 3 friends will cost us 1000 Niara (a little less than 10 bucks) and 5 Aphrodesia cassettes. We pay them off, slap high fives with Bongo as he and the other two bounce lightly back into the bus, then wait awkwardly and anxiously as we sit there, unmoving, feet away from the armed soldiers who had just taken three of our crew hostage. We have no driver.
“Where the fuck is Chambers?” yells Zack, our manager, and we all crane our necks around the bus, peering out the windows at the jeep behind us, fearing the worst. And then we spot him- ten yards or so off the highway, in the grass, kneeling to the ground with arms outstretched- praying to Mecca. We wait awkwardly as he finishes, runs back onto the bus and into the driver’s seat, fires up the starter, and we are gone, cruising back the way we were headed, away from the border, towards more unknown gauntlets that surely await us.
We drive, through some “checkpoints” that Sunday orders us to ignore, are waved trough a police checkpoint, then pulled over by immigration officers, passports checked, 1000 Naira and no cassettes taken. Then again almost immediately by the Nigerian DEA, and the officer who boards the bus explains that he will have to take everyone’s passport and check all of our luggage. He relents when Sunday tells him we are musicians en route to play at the Shrine- information which has proven about 50% effective today, with half the bribe-seeking officers we encounter being impressed enough to wave us through and the other half treating this information as if we had told them we were on our way to the dentist. The following stretch of road is clear driving broken by checkpoints we either ignore or are waved through when Sunday yells out the driver’s window, leaning over Chambers and barking to the officers standing on the pavement, that we are musicians heading to the Shrine. After the first stretch, as we pull away from the border and deeper into the madness that is Lagos, it’s almost starting to seem routine.

The Stilt Village of Gonvie

Our Boat Ride Through the Stilt Village of Gonvie (or, We Try on American Tourist Hats for a Day and Cause a Village Riot).

Friday morning we wake in a Coutounou brothel decorated with brightly painted walls and 70’s-era decour, waking in mid-morning with three or four of us packed to a room. For a change we have the entire day spread ahead of us like a blank canvas- no borders to cross and nothing really to do until that evening, when we are to appear again at the Festival, this time as the headliners. Over a leisurely breakfast of egg sandwiches and Nescafe in a third floor patio that overlooks the alleyway and trash heap next to the brothel, we decide that acting like tourists and taking in some sights would be a good idea. Lara has heard about the village of Gonvie- where in the 1700’s a local tribe was at war with another whose warriors feared water because they believed their ancestors lived in it. The tribe moved their entire village to the middle of a lake, where, resting on stilts, it still survives today. We pile in the bus and motor out of the city looking for excitement and good photo ops, except for Christopher, the only true French speaker among us, who leaves to visit his friend and will meet us later at the festival.
Finding our way to Gonvie, supposedly just a short drive from Coutounou, is a little like stumbling through a maze in pitch darkness looking for an exit by feeling your way around the walls. We drive down what we think is the main road out of town and pull over as Bongo leans out the door and barks questions in what sounds like passable French to random passerby, then take off down another road, and repeat it all over again. This continues three or four times until we’re all getting more annoyed than tourists on a relaxing day trip are supposed to be. “Bongo”, Lara yells after Bongo points us in yet another direction, “where the hell are we going?” “Yes” Bongo replies. “We are going to the village. This man knows the way and we will go there.”
Finally someone on a moto scooter takes pity on us (and smells an opportunity to make a few bucks off a busload of tourists), and says he will guide us the rest of the way there, and Bongo hops on the back of his moto as Chambas glides our bus out of the city and onto a dirt road that leads through fields that grow more swampy as we go. Finally we pull up in the dusty square of a tiny village on the edge of a swampy canal and file out of the bus. The man who led us here is now speaking to Bongo in French about taking us all in a boat through the stilt village, and Bongo turns to me and translates.
“He says we can all take the tour through the village for 500 cifa (which is what everyone here calls CFA- Central Franc Africaine- the currency of Benin and Togo and the rest of French Africa) each,” Bongo says. 500 CFA is about a dollar, which, even for Africa, seems like a very good deal for an afternoon of enjoying another culture’s bizarre habitat from the exotic vantage point of a long, beat-up motorboat with a crude wooden awning in the middle of it. Such a good deal, in fact, that none of us really stop to question it and we even bypass the haggling that is de riguer for anything in Africa and instead file one by one onto the boat, all 19 of us.

We’re off, and as the boat glides through a grassy canal Bongo translates as one of the guides tells us about the village we are about to see, about how it has been a fishing village for years but is now growing and changing to accommodate the many tourists who come for a look. As we start to see wooden shacks propped up on long wooden sticks he tells us of how the houses are built, and how the village has a school, and a mosque, and some stores that are all built on shallow sand bars that pop up here and there out of the swampy lake. Lara asks if the local people do not like their pictures taken because they think the cameras will steal their souls. The guide replies that it is actually because people here do not want tourists making money off their picture. We dock and walk inside a store selling trinkets and see two monkeys chained to a fence outside on the ground. We take pictures of the huge, concrete mosque that rises like an iceburg from the water and crude shacks around it. We hit open water with passageways hacked out of the swamp and our guide points down one waterway and tells us we can get to Nigeria that way, but there are boats with soldiers in them so it is better to go by road.
Finally we are heading in what seems like a circle, drawing nearer to dusty village square where we arrived. The motor stops, and the guide explains that it is better to handle the money now, otherwise people back in the village will see us giving money out and they will want some too. This sounds like a classic set up line, but at the moment we are 19 strong and they are 3, and anyway we only owe them the equivalent of about 20 bucks, so I reach inside my right pants pocket where the band money resides and pull out a 10,000 CFA note. I hand it to the guide.
“Merci”, I say, with a big smile. “Magnifique.” I have now used up half my French.
He looks at me a little quizzically. “Por deux”, he says, flashing two fingers and motioning to me and Lara, who sits next to me in the front of the boat.
“No”, I say, “por….um, all”, motioning down the length of the boat. I ask Bongo what is going on, even though my stomach is beginning to feel sick because I can already tell. Bongo argues in French, sounding more aggressive and assertive.
“Monsieur, cinq mille! Cinq mille!” Bongo yells at the guide, pounding his fist for emphasis.
“Cinq Mille!” the guide echoes, his voice rising.
We are approaching the shore, our bright green bus gleaming right where we left it an hour or two ago.
“Bongo!” I yell, “Mille means a thousand!”
“Yes!” Bongo replies, and Lara will later swear to me and everyone else that in this second Bongo’s brow eased and his jaw dropped and he immediately began berating the guide with cries of “Cinq sens! Cinq sens!”, ignoring the fact that he had confused five thousand for five hundred. At the moment I notice none of this though, realizing only that we have agreed to pay about ten dollars each for this ride, which comes out to about 200 dollars- an unheard of sum in Africa and astronomically more than we ever would have agreed to pay if we had known what was being talked about (not to mention exponentially more than what our dwindling cash supply could support). I also notice the shore, and with it a whole village of men no doubt aligned with our three guides, who are even now shuffling down towards the water to meet us, the shouting between Bongo and the guides carrying over the water and informing the whole village of our dispute with the subtlety of an air raid siren.
The boat glides up on the beach and we hop out awkwardly, one by one. Bongo and the guides are still yelling at one another and gesturing violently; some of the village men have surrounded them as they walk and are joining in, yelling and pointing. We make our way up the beach and towards the bus, wondering what to do, scanning the growing crowd of village faces for anyone sympathetic or at least English-speaking.
“Keep going,” says Panji. “Everyone get into the bus.”
A crowd has gathered. Mostly it’s men who are standing around, joining the argument or standing in a circle around Bongo, who is locked in a furious shouting match with our head guide, but also women and children who crowd around to see what the growing chaos is all about. Most of us file onto the bus, but I linger for a few moments outside the door, next to Alex, feeling strange running away from these African villagers and into my big bus full of white people.
I find one of the other guides in the crowd, and touch his arm. “Monsier” I say, as politely as possible. “Cinq sens.”
“Je ne parl pa Anglais!” he shouts at me, and turns his back.
Things are getting more heated. There is a lot of shouting among the villagers. Alex is standing around, and so is Chambas and his crew- Sharrif and Mohammed and the old guy. I join the rest of the band on the bus. We nervously watch the crowd out the windows, as Bongo yells and storms away, then turns around and yells again.
Some of the villagers are hauling big blocks of concrete and dropping them in back of the bus. We’re blocked in. I see one of the guides drag a ship’s anchor from the shore to the concrete pile in back of the bus. David suggests we play music, so they can see us as human beings, musicians, instead of just greedy white people who are trying to get away for free. Jason and I shake our heads, “yeah, right, that’ll work” we mutter, but I don’t have any other ideas at the moment and the situation outside is getting chaotic. Chambas paces the ground and yells angrily at no one in particular- now that the villagers have piled concrete and a ship’s anchor in back of his bus this is his problem too. Zach darts out of the bus and follows Chambas like a shadow. “Chambas! Chambas, no!” he yells, and I flash back to the meeting with Chambas back in our house in Accra the night we met him on our second floor porch, Zach hastily scribbling “No gunfights” on our handwritten contract with him as soon as Chambas proudly boasted of the gun he always carries on his right hip.
Todd, Liz and Kevin get their horns out and head into the crowd, followed by Maya and Lara. They sing a little of Fela’s “Water No Get Enemy”, but even though a few of the villagers- women who are there because it is what is happening in the village at the moment- start dancing and singing along I think the irony is lost. I don’t know what to do. Maybe this is just harmless agitation all around- the kind that has you shouting back and forth with someone when all you’re trying to do is ask directions to an Internet café- or maybe it’s something deeper and could spiral into violence. Right now it seems it could go either way, and from the looks of Chambas, who is stalking the ground, glowering at the villagers, yelling and pointing at them to move the concrete pile from in back of his bus while Zach trails him yelling “Chambas! No gunshots!” I don’t want to wait too much longer to find out.
I dart out of the bus, find Alex, whose huge arms and calm demeanor make him the closet thing to a bodyguard we have, and corner the lead guide away from the crowd.
“Monseur,” I begin.
“Je na parl pa Anglais!” he retorts, angrily, and turns away. I look for Bongo but he has stalked into the bus and is sitting in the front passenger seat, arms folded, a look of disgust on his face. I motion to the guide to follow me and Alex into the bus so Bongo can translate.
“Non!” the guide shouts when he sees Bongo, and he storms off into the crowd.
Lara, David and Nicole start picking up blocks of concrete from the pile in back of the bus and moving them to the side. The villagers pick them up and put them back on the pile. Lara gets in a tug of war with one man over the concrete block she is trying to move, it drops and almost hits her foot. She freaks out- pulling money from her pockets and stuffing it in her mouth in front of the villagers, as if to say “You want money? Here is money! I’ll show you money! I want money too!” The villagers are confused. So are we.
I comb the crowd again, determined to find the guide and convinced that he is our only key to getting out of here without things getting further out of hand. I find him and motion for him to follow me. He looks annoyed, but follows me to the bus door. We make hand gestures, me holding up fingers for how much he wants, him shaking his head. I am desparate for some sort of good faith communication, something to show him we’re not all bad, that we’re trying, that he can tell his friends to move the pile of concrete from the back of his bus.
After a couple minutes of back and forth, the guide points to me, and gives me the thumbs up sign. Then he points to Bongo, who is now wandering around the crowd as if sulking, and angrily gives the thumbs down. I feel like we are getting somewhere, and motion for him to come inside the bus. “Non!” he says. “No parl pa anglais!”
“I know, I know!” I shout back. “Don’t worry, hang on.” I grab my notebook and a pen and sit on the front seat. He stands on the doorway, eyeing me curiously. I write “95,000” on a blank page, hold it up, and point to him. He brightens and nods, as if this whole thing was only because we didn’t understand how much they wanted. I cross it out, write “9500” and point to me. He frowns and shakes his head.
“OK, ok”, I nod, and write “20,000” on another page. He frowns again and shakes his head, though I convince myself that it’s a little less vigorous of a refusal, and that it means I am a master negotiator skilled in the art of the African Deal. Like a master, I stand up, acting pissed off and angry, and slam the notebook down into the seat. I throw my hands up in frustration and stalk back into the bus. I have seen Africans do this many times, and am convinced I have it down pat. I turn around and he is gone, back into the crowd somewhere, leaving me to my fantasies in the bus. Alex is watching the whole thing. “Whoops”, I say.
I dart out of the bus and find him again. Everyone in our group is now yelling, in English, and many of the villagers are yelling back, in French. Chambas is still pacing and glowering, Zach still pleading. The guide reluctantly follows me again.
I grab the notebook, and scrawl “30,000” in big letters. He shakes his head. “Come on!” I say. “We have to work this out! You have to tell them to let us go!” He yells back at me, in French, and if he isn’t telling me that you crazy mixed up white people agreed to go on our boat ride and now you don’t want to pay us he might as well be. I have no idea at the moment if we’re being ripped off and the whole village is in on the scam- tell the white people one thing to get them into the boat, then make them think there’s been a miscommunication and get more money out of them- or if Bongo didn’t translate right in the first place. I am leaning toward the latter, as the guide, all things considered, does not seem like such a thug really, he seems more like an honest boat guide trying to make a living, and anyway, why would they only charge us a dollar each for such a boat ride? But of course I don’t know, and I only do know that we need to get out of here.
I write 35,000 on the notebook. “That’s it!” I say, throwing up my hands. “No more!” He shrugs. He looks around, considering this notebook, this white man in front of him. I offer to shake his hand to seal the deal. Reluctantly, he extends his hand. “You have to tell them” I begin to say, but I have scarcely finished my sentence and fished 25,000 more CFA out of my pocket when he is gone, and somehow the whole crowd is breaking up. Men are moving the concrete blocks. Someone drags the ship’s anchor back toward the shore. We all file back on the bus, the word getting around quickly that we can leave. Chambas fires up the bus and yells “Mr. Zack! Can we go now?” I am hit by a wave of remorse for the boat guide and his men, for the village, for the state of race relations on planet Earth. I have an uncontrollable urge to apologize to the guide, my friend, for the way things got out of hand. Surely he understands me now, and knows we’re not all bad, I tell myself.
I ask Bongo, who sits in the front, how to say sorry in French.
“You don’t need to say sorry to these people!” he explodes. “They are thieves! You do not need to say sorry to them!”
“Bongo!” Alex shouts. “He is asking you a question!” Alex never yells.
Bongo hesitates, his arms folded in disgust. He looks out the window. “Pardon” he mutters softly.
I stick my head out the bus door, scanning the crowd for my friend, but we are moving. The crowd is thinning, people shuffling off, and I can’t see the guide anywhere, just the dust kicked up by our bus and the village receeding into the distance as we drive away.

Coutounou, Benin

Last night was the part of the movie where the band arrives in Coutounou, Benin, for two gigs with the amazing Gangbe Brass Band, and they find there are no gigs, and the Gangbe is leaving the city for their dad’s funeral for a few days. Remember that part? I love that part. There’s no hotel, because the band hasn’t called ahead or anything because well, why would they, and they’re all by the side of the road in Coutounou getting sick from the exhaust fumes pouring from the thousands of moto scooters screaming around the streets like flies, and they’re getting tired and hungry and pissed off because this promoter has turned out to be a flake and the venue isn’t even open and no one there knows who they are and nothing here works and they’re all in one way or another whining to each other why didn’t we plan this better, this gig here and this whole trip to Africa or could we have anyway.
Remember that part? That’s a good part. Because then it all changes around so fast. Just when things seem to have hit rock bottom, the lanky guitar player suggests going to the big outdoor festival that they passed on their drive into town and seeing if they can get on stage there. Which only makes things worse initially, the bass player snapping at him come on David, you don’t just show up at a big music festival and get on stage, what a complete waste of time that we don’t have, let’s find a hotel, quick, and be done for the night, and some of the other band members and the posse with them nod their head, weary and tired of things not working out. But the band gives in, sure, why not, we’ll go by the festival and then find somewhere to sleep when they tell us to get lost. And so everyone piles back in the bus and drives back to the festival, and Panji, the eloquent British-accented film and music producer traveling with the three-man film crew, goes up to the festival director over by the sound board and says,
“Look, we have a 12 piece afrobeat band here from America. They are traveling to Lagos to play with Femi Kuti and they do not have a gig tonight. You must put them on stage.”
And the guy goes,
“Hmmm. Really? OK. How about 8 O’clock?”
“That’s no good, it’s almost 8 now.”
“OK. Nine?”
“No good either. Let’s do 10 o’clock. And you must put them on for one hour, they’re really quite spectacular.”
And then the camera cuts to the band on stage, decked out in West African nation soccer jerseys, tearing through its most powerful set of the month yet, lit up like superstars on a huge stage in front of an outdoor park full of French Africans in the heart of Coutounou, Benin, with local boys and women climbing up onstage to paste small bills on the women singers’ foreheads in a sign of cross-cultural respect and admiration.
That was a good scene.
It may sound like the preceeding is rejected script for an ABC Afterschool special or a sitcom pilot rejected for being too unrealistic and sappy. In reality though, this is more or less what happened to us on our arrival in Coutounou, and among other things it confirmed for me the Second African Axiom of Nothing Will Ever Be As You Think It Should Unless You or Someone Who Works For You Meets With Someone Face to Face. The corollary to this axiom is a variation on the Anything is Possible Here theorem, so named because since nothing here is planned especially well (at least nothing we’ve encountered so far), it means no one else has planned things especially well either, meaning the door is open for all sorts of last-minute things you would never think you could pull off, like for example rolling into an African city where you’ve never been before and don’t know anyone and ending up headlining a big outdoor festival an hour or so later.

Before Nigeria

This talk of Lagos and the Shrine has set everyone on edge. Going to Nigeria is the one thing every white person we know in the States told us not to do. It feels as if we are here with Viggo Mortenson and Ian Mclellen plotting a direct assault on Mordor itself. In the States we tour by the seat of our pants, sometime making things up as we go along. We are no doubt looked at as idiots, with perhaps a bit of grudging admiration thrown in, by the jam bands we rub elbows with on the summer festival circuit who are much better endowed financially and, let's face it, smarter with their money than we are. But our problems in the States seem like a white American crying over a lost water bottle in a village full of African children excited that today they get to eat a handful of rice. We have booking agency, a schedule, a bus that usually gets us where we need to go. But now we are messing with a different beast, one that may spin our world into areas we cannot control. We are in a different land, a different culture, one that we know essentially nothing about. We are bold, yes, and as Annas told me with tears in his eyes at the Africa Unite Festival when we found out we would not perform, we have heart. But there is a fine line between bold and stupid, and we are four days from finding out where that line lies.
And yet, the honey being waved in our faces is too sweet to turn down. Never mind the imaginary headlines that blare in our heads ("White Afro-Beat Band With Elephant Balls Travels to Lagos, Worships at Birthplace of Afro Beat"), the clubs packed to the rafters with curious Americans, Europeans, and Japanese come to see exactly who these crazy motherfuckers from San Francisco are that they've heard about. We are going for the chance to swim in our music, to pay homage in a way few if any white people would dare to do. Fela Kuti was Martin Luther King, Daniel Shays, Harriett Tubman and James Brown rolled into one- a courageous leader hell bent on delivering for his and her people, roadblocks be damned. Fela's son Femi, keeper of his legacy and a direct link to royalty no weaker than Queen Elizabeth, has invited us to pay our respects at ground zero for our music and who we are as people. We are going.

In Northern Ghana

The drive to Napoleon’s village of Binaba takes 20 hours. It’s far, though not nearly as far as where that amount of time would get us back home- when you have to slow down for goats and chickens in the road every few miles and wind your way through tiny villages you don’t exactly cruise at 80 mph the whole way. We arrive at night and are led by moonlight through dried clay village walls and I sleep in a stone courtyard with chickens scampering on top of my blanket and the cool night air giving me the best night of sleep I’ve had this whole trip. We wake in a living museum- walls of clay and stone, thatched roofs framing charcoal drawings on the walls that look to have been here for tens or hundreds of years. We are a curiosity here, no doubt about it, the biggest this village has seen in years, maybe ever, and so we are followed everywhere by kids who eye us like strange new toys, some of whom sleep and live here and some who have walked over from the surrounding villages- all just groups of huts spread over the same dusty plain. Our bright green 1970’s style coach bus pulled up here on the ridge next to these thatched huts makes quite a sight- it’s not futuristic exactly, more like 1976 meeting 1272.

That afternoon we sit beneath the thatched roof in the center of the village- called the Chief’s Umbrella, it’s pretty much the best shade around and so the only place the old men and the children of the village sit all day- and Alex teaches us the kpan logo rhythm, each of us cradling a kpan logo drum and straining to fit our interlocking rhythms into the overall puzzle. The kids in the village- there are tons of them everywhere- watch us, and I can’t begin to imagine what they must be thinking of us, these white people who arrived in a bright green bus and now hang around in the heat all day playing African drums. In a tradition for visitors or maybe just to show off for us, Napoleon rides a motorcycle into town and buys us two goats which he then brings back and slaughters for our meal, their bright red blood running over the cobblestones in what passes for the village kitchen- really just a space in between thatched huts with an enormous metal pot on one end. Alex skins and guts the goats and cooks up a huge stew that feeds most of us- that is, it feeds everyone on our bus and some of the villagers, but not the entire village, many of whom eye us longingly while we huddle next to village walls and gulp down the sumptuous mix of rice and goat that Alex has cooked. Our amazement at eating what we saw squirming on the back of a motorcycle not two hours ago and washing it down with hot beer is tempered when Napoleon gathers the children together under the Chief’s Umbrella and attempts to divey up the leftover rice from the pot of stew. A near riot ensues, with the kids pushing and pulling their way into position to grab a handful of rice and run off into the field to eat it alone. One child tells me that he will eat half his handful today and sleep with the other half to save for tomorrow.

It leaves a strange taste in our mouth as we pile in the bus and drive a couple villages over to see the local chief. Nothing here happens without the consent of someone in charge- which perhaps isn’t so different from our world, except that those people here don’t wear uniforms and don’t work for any government- and our presence in this village is no different. We are major news- the biggest and maybe most bizarre happening to come here in years- and so of course must ask permission to be here from the appropriate person. Hence our visit to the local chief, who apparantly is the chief of several local villages since we have to drive for 20 minutes or so, past several villages which look more or less like the one we are staying in- to meet him.

We seat ourselves outside his house in a semicircle of plastic chairs and stand as the chief, dressed in a light blue robe, walks out and sits in front of us with several members of his clan- a translator and a whole row of other men who sit facing us and don’t say a word. Napoleon kneels in front of the him and asks his permission for us to be in his land- one of the village women who has piled onto the bus with us translates in whispers for me- but the chief seems more interested in the fact that we have been on his turf since last night and have only come to see him now. Napoleon explains that we got in late last night and couldn’t make it over until just now, and though I don’t speak the language even I can hear the appropriate apologies and utterances of respect he throws in at just the right moments. This seems to satisfy the chief, who through the translator on his left tells us we are welcome to stay a few days here, but he would like four Aphrodesia CD’s and some T-shirts for the priviledge. He then asks one of us to stand and explain who we are and what we are doing there. David rises and in over-enunciated English speaks about wanting to save the environment, about how we drive on biodiesel and want to bring this technology to Africa and are trying to figure out the best way to do that. The chief nods, and I wonder if any of this makes any sense to him. Later I will have fantasies of rising and telling the chief and all assembled that I hope they will come visit us in America so that they can stay in our house and we can cook them a huge meal of Mexican food, and I wonder if anyone here besides us knows what Mexican food, or Mexico, is, but at that moment I do nothing. There is an awkward silence as the chief mulls over David’s soliloquy, which opens the door for Chambas to jump to his feet and yell “Let us pray for the chief!” He then begins a Muslim prayer, which prompts us all to bow our heads in respect and wait it out, all five or so minutes of it. We then file past the chief and shake his hand and utter words of thanks, and pile back in the bus to bounce down the road back to our village, wondering if what just happened was genuine or just a show put on for our benefit.

As it turned out, we found out in several ways over the next few days that visiting the chief may have been the most important thing we did during our time here. Everything here happens from the top down. It’s been evident in the way David and sometimes myself have been cornered and pulled aside by dozens of people at every gig we’ve played- whoever is perceived as the leader is the one everyone wants to talk to. Usually this talk is inconsequential- “Please Ezra, I would like to have your address in America so I can write you”, or “Please, I would like to know if we can meet sometime tomorrow”- but it’s always delivered with the utmost urgency, face to face. Why bother talking about anything important with people who are just part of the team or band, or in speaking with a whole group to form a consensus and act on it from there? Here in Africa, it seems, the concept of consensus is decided on by one leader, the chief. Who that chief is may be decided on by consensus- the village of Binaba at that moment had been without a chief for several months and was in the process of choosing a new one, a shadowy process that as best we could tell included the possibility of Napoleon assuming the mantle. However, once that person was chosen it was up to them to decide how much other opinion they felt like listening to.

This system of authority, at least where we were right then in the remote north of Ghana, seemed to trump any held by the central Ghanaian government based in Accra. Two days after our visit to the chief, while we were packing the bus for the drive back to Accra, a uniformed policeman who had driven down the road into the village in an unmarked car loudly confronted Zack for being here without notifying the authorities of our presence. Apparantly a big bus containing twelve white people and half again as many Africans parking out here for a few days was not the kind of thing that went unnoticed by the local authorities. Of course, the local authorities here are not necessarily represented by the policeman who stood near the Chief’s Umbrella that day in the village courtyard, yelling at Zack and threatening to haul him into his car and down to the local jail. He was immediately shouted down by Napoleon and several of the local men who were standing around, who yelled and pointed and shook their fists until he retreated meekly into his car and drove away. Afterwards the men all laughed and told us the man was very silly, very stupid, the chief’s permission for our presence here being worth far more than anything related to government authority.

Indeed, before we play at the bar in Zillaba two days later, I walk around with a video camera and ask people why they are there, and if they knew there would be a band from the USA there today. One older man says he is Napoleon’s uncle (I am losing track of the people who say they are related to Napoleon), and he came because the chief told him about us. He says the chief was very happy that we respected him by visiting and that he told everyone afterwards that we were all honorable people. These things seem to hold more sway over people than the scarce symbols of political authority- from a government based over 500 miles to the south- that crop up randomly in the occaissional pair of strolling policemen, machine guns slung casually over their shoulders, or the plastered posters for the two main political parties that sometimes line the concrete walls of the market.

Everywhere I turn here it seems our Western concept of a nation-state only partly conveys the reality of life. On the road to Binaba and while driving back to Accra we encounter many roadblocks, which are nominally police-run checkpoints to check people’s papers and identification but in reality are only places for buses like ours to stop for a minute while local women sell us peanuts, water, plantain chips, dough balls and whatnot from baskets perched on top of their heads. At each of these Chambas yells at the unformed person at the checkpoint for anywhere from one minute to five, and drives off. When there are no other vehicles ahead of us and the gate is not blocking the road, he barely slows down. There do not seem to be any consequences to this. Indeed, the one time we see someone pulled over by the police it is Issac and JJ on our drive back to Accra, who have stuffed Isaac’s motorcycle in the back of JJ’s car, no doubt to save gas money, and have been pulled over for it. When our bus passes them we stop, and everyone gets out and surrounds the policemen, including Desmond, our cameraman from MetroTV in Accra, who immediately begins filming. The policemen freak out and scream at him to stop filming, then to ‘delete’ the film, then for everyone- including Isaac and JJ, who are apparently no longer worth the trouble- to get lost. Hard and fast rules- what we call “laws”- are hard to come by here.

The night of our visit to the chief we are entertained by the “Local Madonna”, an elderly (or maybe not- life is so hard here it is hard to tell age the way we are used to) singer who has walked two hours from her village to perform with her band of gourd shakers and a violin player for us. She sings the news from the next village, welcomes this band from the USA that has come here to see her, and asks the village how it has been managing since the death of its chief, accompanied by a wailing, Arabic-sounding violin and by three men who sling gourds roughly like pizza dough, weaving impossibly complicated rhythms that sound like they have been here since the beginning of time. It is trance music, Local Madonna (who does not appear to have any other name, everyone calling her that our entire visit here) spinning verses that draw us in like quicksand, punctuated by the piercing high-pitched wails of another older woman who sways in rhythm next to her. We are gathered in a circle- men, women wrapped in beautiful printed fabric, kids crowding everywhere you look, and us- in the middle of the village, the locals taking turns dancing in the middle of the circle to everyone’s shouted delight. When one of the dancers ends her turn by pulling Nicole into the middle of the circle, everyone squeals with delight- earlier in the day some of the local women had been showing Nicole and Lara some of their moves, watched by dozens of children who couldn’t wait to see what these strange white people from the big bus would do next. Now one of them was right here in the middle of the circle with all eyes on her, and by extension us: let’s see what these white folks can do. Nicole leaps and spins her way around the circle, the villagers scream and clap, and soon we are all pulled one by one into the ring- I mimicking the stop-start jumping the Showboyz taught us last summer, Lara showing off her moves from African dance class before Zack, bless him, becomes the first person of any color ever to perform “the Worm” at a small African village party like this one.

The next day we all rise not long after sunrise- there is no sleeping in when the merciless African sun is turning the air around your head into an oven as soon as it peeks its face over the horizon- and spend the first part of the day outwitting the heat under the chief’s umbrella and in whatever shade we can find. We also take a dip in the lake that lies a few hundred yards from the village and that we have heard from the villagers has only ‘good’ crocodiles in it. Before we left for Africa, we had all discussed the dangers of water-bourn diseases, of insidious worms that burrow their way into your intestines after one innocent dip in a tempting, cool river or lake somewhere in the African bush. We traded anecdotes of friends of friends who lived with debilitating parasites for months- years, even- all because they couldn’t take the heat and couldn’t resist temptation. We all more or less pledged to each other that we would be strong- no matter what, we would remember that our fragile, alien constitutions were not suited to this environment, this refreshing lake that held unseen intestinal terrors the likes of which we could hardly imagine, and we would suffer through the heat that surely couldn’t be so bad, considering the risks, could it?

It took us about as long to break those pledges as it took to dart through the onion fields that ringed the village, strip off our clothes on the bank of the lake and crash into the cool water, laughing as we splashed each other with the muddy water. We bathed in the lake, we swam out and looked for crocodiles, we yelled “crocodile!” and dived for each other’s ankles and pulled in our best reptile imitations, we brought our shampoo and soap to the bank and scrubbed ourselves clean for the first time in days. Four or five days later, when we travel to Togo, I get the chills, and a fever that gives me the sweats and makes me unsteady on my feet. I blame this lake in Binaba, of course, but even then I don’t regret a thing.

In early afternoon we drive the bus to the nearest market, where we string an extension from the nearest store (a tiny shack selling pharmaceuticals) and pound sticks into the ground for microphone stands while a gathering crowd watches our every move and laughs when I foolishly try to pound the sticks into the ground from the top- the ground here is too hard. Before we even start the show with Local Madonna, we have a huge circle of people watching, fascinated at this improvised entertainment spectacle unfolding in front of them, backed up against this bright green bus that has parked where women normally sell plantains and onions. Local Madonna enraptures the crowd like she did us last night, and many of the local women walk up and paste small bills of money on her forehead while she sings- the local sign of respect for performers. Local Bob Marley (again, apparently his real name) follows, and he’s a revelation- in the same style as Local Madonna but different, rougher, and he plays the small gourd violin and sings against his backdrop of gourd shakers like a master teasing out another aria from a well-worn opera.

The Showboyz follow, and seeing their act here I get where they come from- the crowd is delighted, laughing and practically crawling over themselves to get a better look at JJ eating fire and Isaac breaking beer bottles and eating the pieces like candy. Things get out of hand fast though- crowd control in West Africa does not consist of hired professionals with headsets behind steel barricades, to put it mildly, and when the pushing and shoving in the crowd gets out of hand and the circle of the audience is encroaching dangerously close to the Showboyz and pushing us all up further against the side of the bus, men with ropes begin whipping the crowd back in an attempt to clear some more room for us all, as if this were a herd of cattle that had wandered en masse into the wrong pasture. It’s a shock for us to see, and as the crowd surges back and then sideways, kids running every which way, it feels like a mini-riot is about to ensue right here in front of us. As the Showboyz stop the show and the chaos of the crowd shouting and scrambling from the men with whips grows by the second, our roles are reversed- the crowd are the performers and we the audience, and with our backs to the bus and nowhere to go we accept this role reversal because there’s nothing for us to do about it. The men with whips have only partly beaten the crowd back, and with the show on hold JJ lights his sticks and waves fire at people’s feet, their faces and hands, and all of a sudden the crowd is scrambling to get away, falling backwards into the dust and picking themselves up as JJ waves his fire further down the line. It feels as if we’re riding an unseen border in the air- this could go either way, turn ugly and make us run for cover as we witness an outburst of chaos and violence here in the African dust, or simply blow over as another routine moment in a culture we know nothing about. Within moments it blows over- JJ’s fire has done the trick, the crowd settles roughly into position a few yards back from where it had advanced a few minutes before, and Napoleon strums another riff on his stringed kone as the show resumes. We breathe a sigh of relief that the situation didn’t spiral further out of control while uneasily realizing that beatings and tramplings here are not all that uncommon, and that the crowd here seems to accept that as a part of life.

We are on edge when we finally play, and the crowd, which minutes earlier had threatened havoc as it pushed and shoved its way closer to the Showboyz, is stopped in its tracks. Normally this would be a bad sign for us- non-reaction usually means they don’t like us- but the truth is that here the normal preferences of like and dislike are almost irrelevant. Many of the kids here who have watched us with wide eyes but then cower behind the nearest adult if we stop to wave hello have almost surely never seen many, if any, white people before. If they have, they have certainly never seen ones that play electric instruments and drums and sing through overdriven loudspeakers that balance precariously out of bus windows, blaring lyrics sung by white girls in vaguely familiar African languages. As we play “Ting Be”, a song whose Ewe lyrics had noticeably moved the crowds in Accra, there being a large population there from the Ewe regions to the north and east that understood the language, the sense of cultural collision I feel is so thick I could bathe in it. I am pressed up against the bus, rubbing shoulders with an older African man on my left who stands on a crate for a better view of us, glancing feet away into the eyes of people who eye us with more curiosity than enthusiasm. I can’t help but think that if Martians landed in Times Square and sang their version of a rock opera, the crowd might look at them like this.

Still, there are signs of recognition, of enthusiasm from the people here as we plow through our set. Some of the local women from our village come up and paste money on Lara’s forehead during “Sirena”; when some random strangers in the crowd follow suit it means more than a thousand hand slaps and starry-eyed compliments in backstage American lounges ever could. By the end, a raucous and distorted version of “Kari Buro”, the crowd has closed the circle tighter around us but many of them are now bobbing their heads, and an old man even dances in the center right in front of the girls, inspiring a few other people to follow suit. The sun has set and it’s growing dark, and the trucks and buses whose roofs were packed with people who had climbed up for a bird’s eye view of the spectacle are thinning and some have driven away, and when we wrap up and Napoleon thanks the crowd for us we are besieged by villagers who crowd around us and want to buy cassettes of our music, the ultimate compliment from people who survive on far less each day than the price of a used CD back home.

Eventually we haul our equipment back in the bus and head to the local bar, where what seems like the entire village packs in with us to watch Napoleon and Local Bob Marley climb on plastic chairs and sing while many of us dance and jump around, sweaty and exhilarated. After a while they lead a huge crowd out of the bar and through the streets and onto our bus for a wild ride back to the village- every available inch of bus airspace taken up by ourselves and local villagers who sip our beers with us and pass around bottles of apeteshie, the local gin drink that is fast becoming a staple of our diet here, as Napoleon and Local Bob Marley keep playing music the entire way. The party continues at the village, where we stream out of the bus and dance around the Chief’s Umbrella for Local Bob and then Madonna, who shows up again with her band to perform for us, this time for a more raucous crowd that dances as she sings and which overflows from the village center into the surrounding fields and through the moonlit clay walls of the village. Lara is determined to get the women of the village- who have become our fast friends- drunk, and succeeds brilliantly after sending someone- where we don’t know- for bottles of apeteshie which we all pass around. The women then grab us and dance, we dance in the moonshadow of the bus, we dance in the stone courtyard of the village to Bob Marley and his men who play impossibly intense trance music that makes me realize I have never partied, never been to a rave or listened to anything worthwhile in my whole life up to now. Bongo informs me at one point that the party will continue until we tell them to stop, “they will keep going all night” he says, and I realize that what he means as a warning is instead the sound of angels in my ears, there being nothing and no one on Earth that could make me want this to stop, ever.

The next day at the Zebilla Market there is no electricity (which everyone here calls “light”) in the square, so somehow Zack talks the owner of a local outside bar into having us set up our entire production there (see “Differences in booking gigs”, “Africa” and “America”). Mully somehow wires our entire stage through the one outlet that exists in the whole building, and we play for an outdoor patio of full of sullen men who watch us impassively while sipping tall beers and kids who climb the wall behind us to peer over and see what in the world is going on. The non-reaction may be because we are all horribly out of tune with each other the first few songs- getting horns and stringed instruments to hold their pitch in the African heat and humidity has proven to be a challenge- and because the power keeps cutting out- African electricity grids making us fantasize about the simple joys of getting home to America, plugging an amplifier into the wall and watching it turn on and off every time we flick the switch.

We break to fix our equipment problems and the Showboyz take over. They’re a hit- and it’s moving to see them play again for what is essentially their hometown crowd. The kids are delighted, the adults yelling and screaming in laughter when JJ puts his lit torch out down his pants. We fire up again after their set and things go more smoothly this time, by the end of the set most of the skeptics have been won over- bills being pasted on Alex’s sweaty forehead by the men on our left who rightly appreciate the polyrythmic barrage he has been unleashing on them all night. When Napoleon joins us at the end for our collaborative tunes we even have our own mosh pit/dance floor in front of us, only half of which consists of our friends from the village.

We finish as darkness descends- there being no electricity for light in the bar patio most people just sit around and drink in the dark, and the precious few streetlights outside do little to cut through the darkness. We pack up as Zack returns triumphantly from the bar with our pay- a milk crate full of tall beers, all warm, and all grabbed up enthusiastically as we mill around, take down the speakers we have nailed to the overhead beams for the show and begin to lug our stuff outside to the waiting bus. When we do there is an ugly confrontation with Isaac and JJ from the Showboyz, who have been demanding money from us the entire trip, telling us they will be stranded up here with no way to get back to Accra if we do not give them more money. It all boils over when Isaac screams at Zack in front of a lingering crowd as we’re almost ready to leave. “It’s all about money, fuck you! Everything with you is about money!” he screams. It’s for show, since some of the crowd is his family from the village, and since Zack has, at that moment, just finished giving Isaac one hundred American dollars. It’s bizarre and unsettling too- a reminder of how complicated relationships are here and how even musicians who struggle like we do to pay our rent every month in San Francisco are rich white Americans in Africa. It’s also a deterioration of our relationship with the Showboyz- the original reason we came to Africa in the first place, and certainly the only reason we came here, 20 hours by bus from Accra in the middle of nowhere. As we pull away and settle in for the long drive to Accra we all face the fact that we will embark on this next leg of our journey here very much alone.

Leaving Accra

If it has sounded so far like we have taken a giant leap into the unknown, improvising madly like Coltrane blowing through choruses as we find some way to conduct business and further our mission in an utterly alien environment, it’s true.

But our experience so far is about to seem as routine as my morning stroll for coffee on Bernal Heights in San Francisco, New York Times under my arm. The second part of our journey has begun, and as we bounce along what passes for an interstate highway here to the north of Ghana (stretches of paved road mingle with stretches of pure dust, all of it bumpy, and some of it just a narrow asphalt lane that winds through villages that are little more than rows of shacks and open sewers by the side of the road) we are truly walking the plank into an alien sea.

Last night our new, expensive rented bus pulled up at the house at midnight and the sight of it practically smacked us full in the face with the enormity of what we are about to do. Hanging around Accra- noisy, chaotic, African, but still, at its heart, a city more or less like any other- is one thing. Being driven by Africans in an enormous coach bus into the bush, where we vaguely plan on setting up our instruments somewhere outside and playing African music for people who, if they have seen a white person before have surely not seen them doing anything like this, is another. In other words, we are graduating yet another level up in the school of We Don’t Know What We Are Getting Ourselves Into.

Before the bus arrived last night we had the most stressful meeting of the tour, triggered by the fact that the various promises, leads and vague assurances by government officials and private businessmen regarding a donated bus that we would travel around in and demonstrate the wonders of biodiesel and alternative fuel had, over the previous few days and after in some cases days and weeks of meetings, phone calls, proposals and finally just plain pleading, all come up empty. A two-day mad scramble for wheels attached to anything that could carry roughly twenty people and a mountain of gear and luggage, which led us to a friend of a friend named Chambas and his bright green 20 year old (at least) coach bus, had us back on course. Staring us in the face with this bus rental though, was the prospect of real financial ruin, which was only excacerbated by the fact that it seemed that everyone we knew was in some way or another demanding money. This now included J.J., Issac and Joseph from the Showboyz, who were demanding money to make the trip up north with us to their village. Never mind the fact that it is their village, and the fact that this whole leg of our tour, centered around the Showboyz returning home accompanied by a white American afrobeat band from the USA, was ostensibly their idea. Never mind also that their claims of extreme financial hardship- while bearing some undeniable truth relative to the typical Ghanaian/American relationship- ring a little hollow when Isaac rides a shiny motorcycle, JJ has a state of the art Razr cell phone and Napoleon’s TV and stereo system are far more expensive than mine are back in San Francisco.

Still, abruptly switching course at this point and refusing the bus would mean canceling our hopes of doing anything we came here to Ghana to do- namely travel around and play music. The prospect of traveling to northern Ghana and playing music in an environment far removed from the Western World also still held as much allure for us as it first did when the Showboyz broached the idea last summer in the U.S. So we bite the bullet and wait for the bus, and reluctantly hammer out a compromise with the Showboyz that has us giving them far less money than they ask for with the understanding that they are only accompanying us up north and not afterwards to Togo, Benin and Nigeria if we are crazy enough to take this trip that far off the path of sanity.

Before we can ride off into the night though, there is the ensuing chaos of figuring who is going on the bus with us. Taking everyone who wants to go would involve people riding on the roof of the coach for lack of space- nearly everyone who has been hanging around the house with us has assumed they are getting on, with many of them even showing up with their bags packed. This leads to some uncomfortable confrontations- Costodia, the champion welterweight boxer whose liason with Liz has made her and us uncomfortable, and Odai, who doesn’t really contribute much of anything, are out; Francis and Annas, the young cousin and brother of Napoleon who want to go back to their home village, and Bongo, who, well, cracks us up, are in. It’s a reminder that the laid back attitude and roll-with-it atmosphere we’ve been cultivating through osmosis here only goes so far: failure to take the reins at crucial junctions such as these will cause our already precariously balanced carriage to go careening off the tracks into some dark gulley.

Passenger list decided and bags and equipment finally packed, we leave in the middle of the night, cramming into uncomfortable bucket seats and trying to sleep twisted around like plastic pretzels, 27 of us in every nook and cranny of this bus that is luxury for Africa but surely third or fourth-hand on an American interstate. As Accra receeds into the night behind us, so does the stress of our shattered financial budget and the tension from the unresolved nature of our relationships with the Showboyz and all our new friends here. Screw it, we decide. This is no time to be pulling our toe out of the water.

African Health Care

I sit on the steps of the Mannah Mission Hospital, which, according to the bronze plaque prominently displayed right here on the entrance steps, is supported in part by the generous contributions of the Wills Family of Nashville, Tennessee in their mission to provide an effective blend of compassionate medical care and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On this last count the establishment is top notch- services in the hospital lobby have begun, in English and Ga, to the morning congregation exactly at 8 AM, as promised by the numerous signs tacked to the wall. Not so for the first, as the doctor who was promised to arrive at 7 AM is nowhere to be found and Asia, a friend of Lara and Nicole’s from Colorado who has by coincidence been visiting Ghana right when we are, now lies in a sweltering air conditioning-less ward in back with an I.V. in her arm and vague assurances that the doctor will be in soon, this morning, don’t worry.

Despite this, it’s a step up from last night, Asia languishing with a fever in a second story room while Napoleon’s mother cooks up a traditional herbal remedy and Nicole and Maya set aside natural herbal supplements, none of which do much to change the fact that Asia looks for all the world like the illustration next to the dictionary definition of malaria. Later she was taken to a clinic, where a doctor prescribed pills for malaria treatment, which she promptly vomited after leaving. Arriving back to our house she looked as drained, flushed and out of it as ever, and I finally decided enough was enough and hustled her into a cab with Bongo bound for the nearest hospital. Jarvis, the eye-rolling, eternally drunk attendant at the house, tags along in the cab at the last minute- for what we’re not sure since comic relief at this point seems a little beside the point. We bounce down tiny dirt alleyways to one clinic- it’s closed- and then to another, the Mannah Mission Hospital, which seems as hidden away and hard to find as a CIA outpost. The matronly nurse on duty refuses to treat Asia, claiming that they cannot treat malaria without a test to determine whether it is in fact malaria, which cannot be done until morning she says, so go home and put her to bed because she looks fine anyway.

This last point is, in fact, partly true- Asia does look relatively OK, but I know that this is more due to her graduating with honors from the School of Looking Better Than You Feel than to any improvement in her condition. When I protest that Asia has been vomiting and hasn’t eaten in three days, the nurse loudly berates me for failing to look after this girl who was in my care. She’s right, and strikes a nerve in me that knows we should have swept Asia up and into the arms of Western Medicine at the first sign of trouble, instead of leaving her behind while we all went to Labadi Beach and tested race relations on stage in between puffs of African marijuana and swigs of African beer, and then in the care of Napo’s mom, Nicole, Lara, and Maya, all of whom were convinced that herbs could cure anything. “How dare you let her no eat for days? This woman who is supposed to be in your care! For shame!” she yells at me.

“Is there a remedy?” asks Jarvis, his eyes rolling and his croaking voice sounding like it’s his first utterance in days.

The nurse, unsure whether Jarvis is referring to Asia’s condition or to my supposed carelessness, looks at him quizzically. Bongo and I, unsure whether Jarvis knows he is in a hospital right now, ignore him.

The nurse, apparently deciding right then that Asia was entitled to have a say in this discussion of her health, asks Asia how many times she has vomited, and as Asia answers her I walk away into the lobby, figuring that my presence and hot-headedness will only inhibit the conversation between Asia and the matronly nurse, which at that moment was surely leading the nurse to conclude that Asia was, in fact, sick with malaria and would prescribe her the necessary shot which would enable all of us to jump in the same cab that took us here and return home with Asia, healthy and triumphant.

At that moment Bongo beckons me back to the room, where I learn that the nurse has in fact relented but now says Asia must stay overnight and have an I.V. drip in her arm so that she can get her strength back and be treated by the doctor at 7 AM tomorrow. Asia, no doubt weary and sick not just of her condition but also of so much discussion of it, readily agrees that this sounds like the best plan, and before Bongo, Jarvis, the cab driver and I leave I promise to return and keep her company in the morning.

On the cab ride home Bongo tells me I did the right thing, that it was right to bring Asia to the hospital, that every September he gets sick and that even the Ghanaians get sick from malaria and have to be careful. I tell him I am worried that Lara and Maya refuse to take any malaria medication- just like Asia- because it isn’t natural.

The next morning I wake at sunrise and catch a cab to the hospital on my own. When I get there the matronly nurse demands to know why I did not bring Asia any food- food apparently being an added extra as far as hospitals here are concerned. I head out onto the streets in search of anything that looks like breakfast. Asia has requested bananas and, being new in Africa, I bring back plantains, and then eventually take a cab to a market and find bananas and coco milk with dough balls, all of which takes over an hour and during which time Asia lies hungry and unattended by any doctor in the ward back at the hospital. When I finally get back with the food it is an hour past the time when the doctor was supposed to come and look at Asia, but now that it is 8 AM and time for the services in the lobby all other activity in the hospital grinds to a halt as every single employee and a few of the patients line the makeshift pews and sing hymns and listen to the service.

Which is how I got here, sitting on the concrete steps of the hospital in the growing African heat, passing my time by writing in my journal and ruminating on the link between American bible belt evangelicals and African health care, when Big Nurse appears in front of me, evidently concerned about something for the first time since we met last night.

“Why you no take the service? You no like?” she demands.

In a split second I decide not to tell her I’m Jewish, not to tell her I’m not religious, not to tell her I’m uninterested in Christianity or any kind of religious worship at the moment, and not to ask yet again if the doctor will see my friend soon (since it’s obvious right now where the doctor is).

“It’s all right, I’m OK.” I reply.

“You OK?” she says, sounding perplexed at the thought that I could be OK without sitting in one of the pews in the lobby following the service along with everyone else.

“Yeah, I’m OK.” I say, sounding as confident as possible. Maybe, I think, my refusal of religion will speed the process of the doctor visiting Asia so we can get out of here and get on with being in Africa, since surely Big Nurse doesn’t want any heathens hanging around the hospital. Although maybe, I counter myself, this will only make things worse, maybe I have angered her and maybe I should just bite the bullet and sit in one of the benches for the service. I start to worry as Big Nurse stands before me, considering in her mind my refusal of religious salvation.

“OK” she says lightly, shrugging as she walks back up the steps and into the service.

The service lasts an hour, and then there is another hour of waiting in the heat for anyone to look at Asia, who alternately comes outside to hang out and says she feels fine and wants to go and then gets sick and lies down in her bed in the ward. As the minutes turn to hours, we are told she must get the test to determine whether she has malaria before the doctor can see her, and are given a prescription list of medicine that we must buy before she gets the test. Apparently treatment is conditioned on diagnosis but payment is not.

This leads to me asking at the pharmacy (a window and teller right down the hall from the ward) what all these drugs we are supposed to pay for are, and being told to just pay for them at the cashier desk (prominently positioned in the middle of the hospital lobby) and then come back to the pharmacy to sort it out. Somehow Asia talks her way into being tested in the laboratory (a room down the hall from the pharmacy) without paying for the drugs, which leads us to another round of sitting around in the ward and out on the steps, waiting for a doctor to come and tell her what the test results are, all the while fending off demands for us to go to the cashier and pay for the drugs we don’t know yet if she needs. All the while everything here, except the repeated instructions to head to the cashier desk, happens at the same leisurely pace we have come to expect when ordering food or waiting for a tro tro to start moving. Which means I shuffle back and forth between sitting on Asia’s bed and keeping her company when she feels like keeping her eyes open and sitting on the hospital steps in the precious shade of the increasing midday heat when she doesn’t.

Through it all I talk myself into believing that all of us should see this, touch this, experience and taste this visit to a third world hospital, if only to have the disorganization and chaos make us run straight to the airport or pop every pill and chemical we have as a defense against ever having to set foot somewhere like this again. And this, I am sure, is one of the better hospitals, Africa-wise. There are concrete walls, for example, and a pharmacy here that stocks the medication Asia needs, even though getting them to just prescribe it so we can be on our way has been about as easy as flying through Accra in rush hour, the notorious “Go Slow” period when every road becomes a parking lot and an afternoon trip to buy cell phone units or find a bank gets you home well past dinnertime. God forbid you should get sick in the Sudan, or Sierra Leone. I have to keep reminding myself that Ghana is well off for Africa, and that Accra, a relatively modern city, is well off for Ghana. This is easy to forget when your taxi is navigating a sandbank in the middle of a boulevard, water for your shower and toilet won’t be turned on until next Tuesday and the open sewers that line every avenue and alleyway here smell exactly as you’d think they would.

Indeed, Ghana’s economy being well off enough to attract migrants from neighboring countries like Nigeria and Ivory Coast apparently doesn’t mean it has the infrastructure to support and stock critical services like hospitals in the way we think of that in the West. Asia eventually does see the doctor- late in the afternoon, when she has treated everyone else in the hospital, as she is the only doctor in the entire building. Our annoyance at the repeated nagging by the hospital staff to pay up at the cashier desk was understandable- but so too, when you think about it, is their focus on our paying for the medicine and service they are supposedly providing. I’m quite sure the Mannah Mission receives little if any financial support from the Ghanaian government, hence the adherence to priorities laid out by wealthy Nashville evangelical Christians. At one point the matronly nurse yelled at me for asking, yet again, when the doctor would see Asia. “This is not United States! We don’t have the things you have here in Africa! The doctor will see her so just wait!” I replied that yes, I knew that was true but was only trying to get my sick friend some attention, but the stark differences she so indelicately pointed out only became clearer as the day wore on.

Asia’s test results come back negative for malaria, but the doctor says she does have malaria anyway since she has all the symptoms. This leads to her finally getting the shot she needs and her heading home in the car driven by the family she is staying with on the other side of Accra after dropping me off at the tro tro line, but not, of course, before a final round of wrangling with the cashier at the hospital over exactly what medicine she needs and exactly what medicine she has already taken.


Over a month later, back home in San Francisco, I sit and joke around in a sixth-floor Berkeley hospital room with David, who has emerged from a coma a couple days earlier brought on by cerebral malaria. Feeling sick and feverish a full two weeks after we had left Africa, he checked himself into an immunization clinic, which told him the malaria test was negative and to go home. A few days later, he wisely disregarded that advice and headed straight for the hospital, ending up unconscious in intensive care, his family and girlfriend rushing to airports in Vermont and Kansas, all of us waiting for three days with baited breath and wondering at the seeming randomness of it all until he woke up. As Tracy and I show him pictures from our trip on my laptop and joke about the wires attached to his skin, this sterile, million-dollar room with million-dollar equipment somehow reminds me of the Mannah Mission, its gleaming electronic heart monitors echoing the battered file cabinets in the Mission’s lobby, the wall-mounted TV silently projecting PBS in the corner bringing to mind the ceiling fans in Asia’s ward that spun in the endless losing war with the tropical heat.

David gets better and is eventually home, leading everyone to breathe a silent relief that this didn’t happen in Binaba, or on the road in Togo or Nigeria, where a search for a decent hospital would have turned into a truly life-threatening odyssey. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder- David was sent home from a clinic here in the USA which told him his malaria test was negative and he had the flu. Asia was told her test was negative too, but that the malaria parasites sometimes migrate from the blood to the liver and are thus undetectable. She was prescribed a shot, left the hospital, and that night arrived at our show in the Accra Art Center looking bright and healthy. David went home and languished in his own room for another day before taking things into his own hands and checking himself into a bright, modern and enormously expensive Western Hospital. African health care is unfortunately still a poor cousin, stripped of resources and starved of manpower. But at least its foot soldiers know what malaria is and what to do about it.

African Interludes

African Heat

The heat here is impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it. If you’ve been to Burning Man- that drug-fueled Bacchanalia for Rich White People in the Nevada desert- you think you know heat. You don’t. Here it is unrelenting, oppressive, penetrating and finally unstoppable. The sweat pours off us at night, it pours from us in the morning, it bathes us in the afternoon even while we sit in the shade and drink cool water out of plastic bags. We have sweated non-stop since the first seconds we emerged onto the tarmac at the airport, and after the first few days of unease, frustration and nausea we give in, surrender ourselves to the pouring waves of hot air like a swimmer to the surf, like an outnumbered general staring at the advancing ranks of an infinite enemy. There is nothing we can do. We accept the fact that a new short sleeve guayabera-style shirt will be filthy with sweat and dust in two hours (not that we’ll stop wearing it) and that within minutes of showering by dumping a bucket of cool water over our heads the heat will make us want to do it again (not that we will).

I become convinced while I am here that this is where the laid-back African attitude about everything- things happening on time, things happening at all- is rooted. It is not just that it is too hot to make it much of anywhere on time (though it is). It is that the heat has permeated everyone’s mindsets here just like it permeates their skin, making giving in to the natural flow of things a way of life more than a choice. There is no point in worrying about the heat- unless, I suppose, you are one of the infinitesimal percentage of Africans who have air-conditioning- so there is little point in worrying about other things like a schedule or a phone call. On the main force that faces everyone here all day, every day, there is only surrender- dab your forehead with the ubiquitous colored hanky that everyone here carries, and tough it out.


In America, if you are white and talk black you are a jerk, and probably a racist who insults the intelligence of black people with your failed attempt hip ghetto solidarity (unless you're Eminem). Here, you are communicating more effectively. It's called Pidgen English, and it works. For example, if you need to find an Internet Cafe and you say to someone on the street "Excuse me, do you know where I can get online and check my email?", you will likely experience a minute or so of wild gesticulating before the person tells you something you only partly understand. If, on the other hand, you say "I need Internet! Email! Do you know where is this?" the same person will likely immediately say something like "Ah! You take Tro, there, you tell the mate first junction, there, second floor, you see. You understand?" Which means, pack into the minibus (tro tro) with everyone else, tell the money taker guy First Junction stop so he lets you know when you get there, once you're there you'll see an Internet place up on the second floor, where you can post an update on your Internet site for all your American friends to read who will think you're being alternately condescending, a braggart and showoff, completely off base about everything based on their experiences of Africa, or that you are providing the most interesting insights they've ever read. You understand?


Buying a cell phone plan- with monthly minutes and nights and weeekend cheaper and etc.- is an idea that may as well be from the moon over here (as one woman put it when we told her about 'nights and weekends'- "Oh, nobody in Africa would call all day during the week then"). It is one of the trillions of ironies of a place as desperately poor as this one that just about everyone here has a cell phone. Of course, these phones rarely work, because everyone buys units for them when they can afford them, which is rarely- at least with anyone we seem to know. The other problem is that everyone's phone is constantly running out of batteries, because charging it requires steady electricity and in our case it would require plugging it into the one outlet in our rooms overnight, which would mean unplugging the fan and trying to sleep, which is NOT an option. To combat this, everyone we know is an expert at taking a cell phone apart, removing the chip inside, and installing it in someone else's phone who has more batteries, units, etc. Before I got here I had never seen this done, and yet here it's routine. An example perhaps, of some pretty ingenius creativity in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Or maybe the whole thing is just one more frustrating example of a system that doesn't work in a country where everything seems to be broken or out of service all the time. Take your pick, and depending on the hour of the day and if we can figure out whose chip is in whose phone calling which phone number, we will agree with you either way.

Africa Unite? Not Quite...


The plan was, let's go to Ghana, play the big festival we've got booked, and then ride the wave as things are bound to accelerate from there after we are slapped on the back by every major promoter in the world, dine in style with Rita Marley after our set, and travel like African rock stars for the rest of the month. Well, as we're learning all the time here, there is a new plan born every minute, and it's time for a new plan.

So how was our experience at Africa Unite, the huge Bob Marley birthday celebration that was supposed to anchor our West African tour? Think of it as a meal. To make this dish, start with some stock of a festival so disorganized it makes the worst run hippie festival we've encountered back in the States look like a precisely calibrated military hostage rescue mission. Stir in a helping of several promoters booking their own acts without worrying about coordinating the schedule, and make sure to include a packet of the promoter who had 'officially confirmed' us for the Festival several times being the low man on the totem pole in reality. Add a dollop of our own gullibility in wanting to come to Africa so bad we let go of our normal music business skepticism and forgot the part after 'when something sounds too good to be true...'. Finally, sprinkle a medium sized dollop of rasta politics concerning the only white faces waiting around backstage to perform, and you get Aphrodesia waiting around for 7 hours or so in the African heat and leaving without playing a note.

In a subject for another, MUCH longer journal entry, the ONLY racial tension we have experienced here thus far has been from Jamaican rastas, first at Labadi Beach where several of them loudly confronted us for taking the stage and Peter and Paul for inviting us onstage, and then again at Africa Unite. By contrast, our large and growing circle of African friends hangs around with us all day, and goes with us into town when we have to conduct business so as to "Beat the price down" and "get us African price", among many other things. We are quite certain these people would jump in front of a tank for us if need be- and we would for them without a second thought. And none of us- save for Napoleon and his Showboyz brothers, who are hardly ever around- have known each other for longer than seven days in our lives. They- Sappho, Annis, Francis, Costudia and all the others- were more upset and angry than we were when we were finally told we would not be performing. Which is not to say all the rastas here-who, African or Jamaican, are very different from other Africans- are like that- at Labadi Beach several came up to us with big smiles, hugs and praise after our set, and we met several wonderful rasta people backstage at the festival. But the hostile subtext from some of them is undeniable.

Still, it is a measure of how well things are going for us here that the experience of sitting around all day and not performing was not the crushing heartbreak it might have been. We are disappointed and pissed off, yes, but we are in fact more annoyed at being told to wait all day rather than just told no right away, and we are more than a little amused at the level of disorganization at a festival featuring such major international acts as Damien Marley, Steel Pulse, Culture, and the rest of the Marley clan (an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time for the first act, the crew is still plugging in monitors and affixing red, green and gold balloons to the front of the stage). But the fact is we have already played for more people than turn out to the festival anyway- at the Art Center on Friday with the Showboyz and Kusun, at Labadi Beach, at La Pirogue Restaurant on Saturday, and especially on Metro TV on Thursday morning, for which we are all constantly being recognized every time we go out and walk around. Our experience has turned out to be completely different than we might have expected, but all of us knew that would be the case anyway. And so at Africa Unite we shrug, put our instruments away, and go buy beers for a dollar and listen to Steel Pulse. The heart palpitations can wait.


In America, if you are white and talk black you are a jerk, and probably a racist who insults the intelligence of black people with your failed attempt hip ghetto solidarity (unless you're Eminem). Here, you are communicating more effectively. It's called Pidgen English, and it works. For example, if you need to find an Internet Cafe and you say to someone on the street "Excuse me, do you know where I can get online and check my email?", you will likely experience a minute or so of wild gesticulating before the person tells you something you only partly understand. If, on the other hand, you say "I need Internet! Email! Do you know where is this?", the same person will likely immediately say something like "Ah! You take Tro, there, you tell the mate first junction, there, second floor, you see. You understand?" Which means, pack into the minibus (tro tro) with everyone else, tell the money taker guy First Junction stop so he lets you know when you get there, once you're there you'll see an Internet place up on the second floor, where you can post an update on your Internet site for all your American friends to read who will think you're being alternately condescending, a braggart and showoff, completly off base about everything based on their experiences of Africa, or that you are providing the most interesting insights they've ever read. You understand?


Buying a cell phone plan- with monthly minutes and nights and weeekend cheaper and etc.- is an idea that may as well be from the moon over here (as one woman put it when we told her about 'nights and weekends'- "Oh, nobody in Africa would call all day during the week then"). It is one of the trillions of ironies of a place as desperately poor as this one that just about everyone here has a cell phone. Of course, these phones rarely work, because everyone buys units for them when they can afford them, which is rarely- at least with anyone we seem to know. The other problem is that everyone's phone is constantly running out of batteries, because charging it requires steady electricity and in our case it would require plugging it into the one outlet in our rooms overnight, which would mean unplugging the fan and trying to sleep, which is NOT an option. To combat this, everyone we know is an expert at taking a cell phone apart, removing the chip inside, and installing it in someone else's phone who has more batteries, units, etc. Before I got here I had never seen this done, and yet here it's routine. An example perhaps, of some pretty ingenius creativity in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Or maybe the whole thing is just one more frustrating example of a system that doesn't work in a country where everything seems to be broken or out of service all the time. Take your pick, and depending on th hour of the day and if we can figure out whose chip is in whose phone calling which phone number, we will agree with you either way.

UPDATE 2/8/06, ACCRA, Ghana
So much to tell and no time to tell it. Everything here happens so fast, the chaos and activity and new agendas for our route and plans swirl around and change every minute like dust kicked up from a packed tro tro on the Teshie-Nungua road we ride home every day. We have a bus, a big coach way fancier than anything we have ever driven in the States. It's going to be a little out of control, but screw it- we're in this giant hand of poker so deep now this is no time to blink and fold. This morning we contacted the Gangbe Brass Band in Benin about playing with them there in Coutounou next week, and we contacted people in Nigeria about playing in Lagos as well. We will see how things shape up. In the meantime, we leave for the north of Ghana tonight, with a crew that looks to number about 25 and includes two drivers and a film crew from the largest TV station in Ghana. It will likely be hard to post any updates for some time given where we are going, but we'll see. Today I am on my way to meet the Afro Queen (her real name) downtown about Nigeria and the Shrine, Zack's cell phone is still ringing off the hook with people interested in producing biodiesel in Ghana who saw us on TV last Thursday, and Rene at La Pirogue wants me to come by so he can give me the names and phone numbers of all the government ministers in Burkina Faso who will come see us if we play there. And it all feels absolutley normal.

Later we will write about how our music is received here, and the businessmen who want to plant jatrofa trees to make biodiesel, and spending all day in a hospital with our friend Asia, who came down with malaria, and going to an Ivory Coast party the night they won their African Cup soccer match against Cameroon, and our incredible new percussionist Alex, and walking around and being invited into chruches to hear the incredible music last Sunday, and so many other things it's a good idea I'm carrying around a notebook and pen with me everywhere I go. And later we will figure out how to upload photos from an African internet cafe too. But that's later, and this is now....