Thursday, August 18, 2011

A dream come true?

Jean, tied up in an all-day workshop, encouraged me to find someone to keep me company during the day. I pinged Pierrick, who offered to pick me up in downtown and hang out. I met him and his friends, who then whisked me off to Bakongo, their neighborhood. Bakongo is only a couple kilometers outside of downtown and is the artistic hub of Brazzaville. It houses the Marche Totale, a sprawling flea/farmers market that is famous in the city. You can buy just about anything there, you just need to wade through the endless procession of knockoff handbags, shoes, and clothing.

We sat down for drinks at an outdoor café/restaurant. There are many of these such cafes around, typically just a covered space with plastic tables and seating.

Hanging out at these places appears to be a national pastime of Congo. As I’ve come to discover, there are people that just spend their entire day sitting in the shade, shooting the shit with whomever happens to join them. They are not independently wealthy or inept, they’re probably just unemployed and have nothing else to do. It’s interesting to observe the hobbies of a people that have intermittent electricity access and cannot afford books, computers, TV, etc. I imagine that passing time without spending money can be quite challenging.

Back to my story. We are soon joined by a small gang of other friends. Fortunately, one in the midst, Manaset, speaks English almost fluently and was friendly and eager to translate. With his aid, we talked about Congo, its people, native languages, musicians, drums, etc.

Pierrick then asks me if I’m ready to learn drums. I wasn’t sure if I understood him correctly.

“Your drum lessons. Ready?”

Uh. Yes. Absolutely. Abso-freakin-lutely. Then we’re off to the more residential part of Bakongo, an area populated by compounds surrounded with tall concrete walls. This has been a common style of urban planning in Africa. Being intensely family-oriented, people often elect to live in compounds with their extended family. The walls are presumably to ward off thieves, judging from the barbs or broken glass that adorn the top.

We arrive at a compound and enter into a space that could have been Mr. Miyagi’s had he been African. A couple of trees, drums lining one side, and a wide, cleared space at its center to accommodate dancing.

Pretty soon I’m into my first drum lesson, learning how to play the ngoma (a ~4-ft tall drum with diameter of maybe 12”). It is the traditional drum of Congolese dance.

I spent three or four hours there, learning from my teacher (he was the seated man in the far right of the picture), and watching a dancer’s rehearsal. The rehearsal interrupted my lesson, but I was okay with it because I was treated to a showing of many different Congolese dances. (Each dance is determined by the rhythm and has a story behind it; for example, Assombi is an energetic dance originally performed in preparation for war.) I even worked in some video, which I hope to eventually post for private viewing. The highlight was the dance instructor, a rather haggard man of probably 50 or 60 years, a many whose time in the African sun has not aged him favorably. No number of years could prevent this man from dancing. When he demonstrated for his pupils, he did so full-out, moving with a finesse and grace that lived just beneath the surface of his apparently decrepit frame.

By the conclusion of the evening, we had established a plan. I would move in with Manaset and his family, who live in the neighborhood, and take lessons every day in drum and dance from local artists.

This may be a dream come true.

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