African Tour Diary, part 1

Arkansas Music Abroad: A Tour Diary

My name is Lucas Murray, and I have the incredible honor and opportunity to be traveling to Africa with fellow Little Rock musicians Corey Harris, Dre Franklin, Paul Campbell, and Epiphany Morrow. Last winter our hip-hop band Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe applied and auditioned for a state department grant program called American Music Abroad. We were up against over 300 other bands from numerous musical genres, yet we secured one of ten spots in the program. As a result, we are traveling for the month of February to Washington DC, Morocco, Algeria, and Equatorial Guinea to teach young people, collaborate with local artists, and put on shows for local communities. I’ve decided to keep a record of this once-in a lifetime trip both for myself and so that others back home can travel along with us.

Sunday, February 1st:

We departed Little Rock at 7:30 am, each of us scraping just below (or in Piph’s case just above) the 50 lb weight limit for luggage, and flew first to Charlotte, then on to Washington DC. By coincidence a distant relative of mine happened to be on the flight to Charlotte and gave me the travel section of the day’s Democrat Gazette— there on the front page, an article about Morocco. We arrived in DC around 1:00, checked into the Melrose Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, ate a delicious Thai lunch in Georgetown, met with our tour guide Marc Thayer (Deputy Director of American Voices), and retired to our rooms to rest and watch the Superbowl.

Monday, February 2nd:

First thing in the morning we went to the Harry S Truman Building for an in-depth orientation meeting with over seven different specialists at the State Department, who all seemed very enthusiastic about the program and sincerely excited for us. We learned that the seed of this program was planted by the Fulbright-Hayes Act in 1961 which promoted “educational and cultural exchange” with other countries; this makes AMA essentially a direct descendent of the Jazz Ambassadors program which sent Jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and others to countries around the world. We learned about the political and social landscape in Morocco, Algeria, and Equatorial Guinea, as well as social media strategies to connect with people both at home and abroad. We were advised that it was wise to not speak about the other countries’ politics and leaders if we didn’t know what we were talking about, and told that it is safe to assume that “we are always on the record” even when it seems like we are not talking directly to a media source. Yet I found it very refreshing and reassuring that we were not told directly anything we should or should not say while in the countries. They emphasized the fact that we are there to personally interact with the people, provide expertise in our music, and represent the US simply by being the individuals we are. At the end of the meeting we were asked what we were excited about for the trip. Our drummer Paul I think best hit the nail on the head when he said that he has a friend who plays in the band for the world famous singer Ne-Yo, and while they get to frequently play shows in other countries, they rarely ever leave the tour bus or hotel or stage long enough to even meet the people from those countries; we have the opportunity not only to play music in other countries, but also to become enriched by the experience of getting to know the people there.

After our meeting we ate sandwiches while driving to Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, MD to put on a presentation and performance for the students there. We began by performing Pharell Williams’ “Happy” and let some of the kids take turns singing. We then performed one of our own original songs before Epiphany talked about the elements of Hip-Hop and useful qualities that anyone can take from Hip-Hop. He called upon the kids to pick out MC names that were meaningful to them and explain why they picked their names. The height of the program came when we let kids come up and not only try their hand at freestyle rapping but also play our instruments. We started by playing one of our original songs (with Epiphany freestyling) and slowly transferred the microphone and instruments to students by showing them on the fly how to play the basic parts to our song. The kids loved it and I was actually greatly impressed by their ability. They were particularly well prepared for this by the fact that Roberto Clemente is a very forward thinking school that has a rock band class in which students get to sing, play guitar, bass, and drums together in actual bands. Finally, we performed a high energy song of ours called “Untouchable” that truly brought the auditorium down. I hope to have many more experiences like this during the trip.

Tuesday, February 3rd:

Today we flew to Paris. The band spent the last hours in Washington DC making the most of our time: a few of us went to visit the Washington and Lincoln monuments, one of us wrapped up some computer work, and one of us even went on a delightful Tinder lunch date. We departed for the airport at 2:30pm, boarded the plane at 6:00pm, and were in the air at 6:50pm. The next seven hours were spent watching movies, eating airplane food, listening to music, and trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep through our excitement on the crowded plane. We arrived at 8:15am, and it was bizarre and disorienting to see the bright morning sun streaming through the windows of Charles De Gaul airport considering that it was 3:15am where we had just left.

Wednesday, February 4th:

Around 10:00am we boarded our flight to Rabat, Morocco. We all caught some much needed sleep on the flight, but were awoken by a turbulent landing that took two attempts to complete. We made it through customs at the airport without incident and then met Mohammed, our contact from the American Embassy, who took us to our hotel and gave us some excellent sight-seeing advice. We all checked in to our rooms in a cozy modern hotel called Mercure Shehrazade, and then went out to find our first Moroccan meal. As we were walking we saw Morroccan streets filled with blurring lines of cars, bikes, and pedestrians and old buildings filled with modern businesses and services. We found an ATM machine and a restaurant down the street, but I was suddenly confronted with the reality that the little bit of French I learned in college was going to be necessary to use if we were going navigate the Moroccan streets on our own. Neither our waiter nor our menu spoke any English, so I helped everyone place orders using the pertinent food words that I remembered and recognized (poulet, eau minerale, pain, dinde, etc…). We ate some surprisingly tasty dishes, and on the return to our hotel bought some bulk bottled water for our rooms.

After a short regroup at our hotel, Piph and I decided to take advantage of our day off and set out to see some of the sights that Mohammed had recommended. We hailed a friendly cab driver and set a course for the Kasbah de Oudayas (a large fortress city in Rabat on the edge of the atlantic ocean). The cab driver knew about as much English as I do French, so we combined our powers to talk about (or at least mention) music, the weather, where Arkansas is in America, Texas, the rodeo, Bill Clinton, and the Kasbah. When we arrived, we found ourselves surrounded by a breathtaking scene: a huge castle fortress wall (dating back to 1150 AD) overlooking the vast Atlantic Ocean at sunset. We walked inside the walls and found beautiful (though somewhat damaged) blue and white buildings, seemingly unchanged for hundreds of years. We bought and ate a delicious Moroccan donut and walked outside of the Kasbah towards the central part of town. We stumbled upon a huge network of maze-like streets called a medina, lined with a vast market of street vendors selling everything from purses, jackets, scarfs, rugs, jewelery, musical instruments, wooden boxes, freshly cooked food, and more at low and negotiable prices. We wandered through this maze for over an hour, viewing various items and eating four sandwiches before taking a cab back to the hotel to rest for the next day’s work. I am utterly enchanted by this city so far. It seems to be a simultaneously ancient and modern place populated with warm, friendly, fun-loving people.

Thursday, February 5:

Today I woke in time to enjoy the complimentary breakfast in the restaurant of our hotel, a delightful buffet of fresh fruits, vegetables, sliced meats, sausages, eggs, crepes, and pastries with fresh squeezed orange juice and hot mint tea to drink. I could really get used to this. After breakfast we went to a local Rabat theatre to meet and rehearse with the Casablancan musician Barry Maroc for a show tomorrow night. As soon as we all met him (and despite a large language barrier) Barry revealed himself instantly as a warm, happy, sincere and energetic presence. Rehearsal went without a hitch as he was able to sing/rap along to our songs and we were able to quickly learn and play his songs. The result was a solid fusion of Hip-Hop, Reggae, Rock, Funk, and traditional Moroccan music that was extremely fun and exciting to be a part of. We closed the rehearsal with an improvised jam which started with Barry playing a droning groove on a traditional Moroccan Bass instrument. Each of us slowly crept in to the aural landscape, careful to add the right piece to the swelling sound. Barry sang a simple but profound major melody in what I can only describe as a spiritual tone, Dre filled in the spaces with rapid and smooth keyboard fills, Epiphany added a flowing rap verse, I mimicked Barry’s melody while droning on an open guitar string, Corey and Paul locked in on a groove so tight it was almost invisible, and each of us were swept away to that magical, mysterious, ecstatic place visited only by lovers, artists, athletes, and drunks: The Zone. Up until this rehearsal, we were happy to be in morocco, but still quite clearly foreigners everywhere we went; for these four hours, we were at home.

The five of us spent the rest of the daylight basking our music-induced high and taking in more Moroccan sights and tastes. We went to the Ocean and walked out on a huge rock pier, taking pictures and marveling at both the beauty of the endless water and the hundreds of years old Moroccan architecture lining the coast. We explored the markets, ate more sandwiches, and finally took a long walk back to the hotel, exhausted and ready to relax. Tomorrow is our concert with Barry (the first of our tour), and I am extremely excited and hopeful to match the wonderful energy of today in front of a live audience.

Friday, February 6:

Dre, Corey, Piph, and I started the day off with an intense workout at a beautiful park down the street from our hotel. After breakfast Piph and I went in search of a traditional Moroccan bath-house called a Hammam— we followed a recommendation from the hotel staff, hailed a cab, and found the discrete Marasa Hammam in downtown Rabat. Upon entering what looked exactly like a men’s locker room, we were met with confused looks from both the patrons and employees. With much difficulty we discerned that we needed our own towels, soap/shampoo, and probably a swimsuit or change of clothes. We took a loss on the day’s Hammam adventure and wandered back to the medina where we again found our staple Moroccan food, the street-side fried fish sandwich (three each in three days). After the sandwiches we ate dessert (I had chocolate cake, and Piph got a pizza), and then took a cab back to the hotel.

Around 2:30 we went to the cultural center concert hall called Salle Banhini to set up and sound-check for our show. We had to adjust to some screwy equipment and sound engineering, but we worked out the kinks well enough. We then had a roundtable discussion with a group of young Rabat rappers about what it was like to be Hip-Hop artists/musicians in America and Morocco respectively. They were curious about how difficult it was to play shows and festivals in America and explained that in Rabat and Morocco in general it is very difficult for independent musicians to sell music and find places to play shows. They were frustrated with the fact that Morocco often brings in huge international artists and pays them hundreds of thousand of dollars but offers little support for local Moroccan artists (last year Justin Timberlake played one 50 minute show in Casablanca and gave a private performance to the king for $750,000). Piph responded by saying that he spent at least two years selling his own CD’s and performing wherever he could before he started to experience any significant growth and recognition. He also counseled them to meet other like-minded artists and try to collaborate or at least communicate as much as possible with them. I told them that in America and throughout the world it is much easier as an artist to reach an audience via the internet than to wait around to get discovered by someone. They then told us that there are also censorship issues in Morocco, and that an artist cannot say any ill word about the Moroccan King, for fear of prosecution and punishment. Finally one of them asked us very sincerely what we wanted to get from Morocco. We answered that we wanted to interact and perform for/with the people of Morocco firsthand and grow both musically and personally through our experience. I know that I have already learned so much and experienced many impactful moments on this trip, yet I felt humbled by this conversation in particular. I walked away from it with a great appreciation for the fact that it is relatively easy for me to find shows to play in Little Rock and a greater understanding that the climate for musical/artistic endeavors is very different and often much more difficult in other parts of the world.

After the talk, Barry took us to a nearby restaurant where he seemed to know the owners (although it may just be the fact that Barry is famous in Morocco), and we had a delicious traditional Moroccan meal of bread, olives, and what seemed like a dozen different kinds of delicious cooked meats (the skewered lamb wrapped in lamb fat was my favorite). We then went back to the venue where we met the American ambassador to Morocco, who introduced us on stage for the show. Despite the sound conditions being less than ideal, we played well and the energy was high both on stage and in the audience. In the middle of the set we invited the Moroccan rappers we talked to earlier to come up and do a song with us. We couldn’t understand what they were rapping about, but they sounded good and we could tell they were having a blast. Before the last song we invited everyone in the audience (I estimate about 100 people) to the front of the stage for a massive selfie picture with us. This resulted in a bunch of people still standing on stage as we started the last song, which was a little chaotic but also very cool (everyone eventually cleared the stage except for Barry’s four year old son). The crowd loved the show and many of them stuck around to talk to us and to take pictures. I have rarely felt so appreciated after a performance.

After the show we went to the apartment of a US embassy employee named JJ to celebrate a job well done (JJ is a cool, witty, knowledgeable guy from Nebraska who happens to speak Arabic and will be accompanying us on the rest of our tour in Morocco). We drank some beers, had some pizza, and then found it was time to fulfill one of our tour goals for the trip: visit a Moroccan nightclub. Barry, Piph, Paul, and I took a cab first to a bar called Reservoir, where Barry met with some of his friends and after a short stay we moved on to the main event: Club Amnesia. Apparently this is the premier night-club in Rabat and I greatly enjoyed the spectacle of it. There was a slew of sleek white couches with throw pillows, different rooms to explore, loud infectious dance music, flashing lights on the dance floor, and plenty of well dressed people on display. We all danced, drank, talked to the locals, fell in and out of love, and eventually took a cab back to the hotel at a very reasonable 5:00am hour.

Saturday, February 7:

Today we travelled eight and a half hours north to the town of Al Hociema, which sits on the Mediterranean coast. I don’t know how the other’s felt about it, but after the previous late night this is how I experienced the day: I woke up, ate breakfast, got on the bus, slept, got off the bus, ate a camel burger in Fez (it was incredibly good), got on the bus, slept, got off the bus, peed, got on the bus, slept, got of the bus, checked into the hotel, and then went and had a delicious meal of freshly caught Mediterranean fish, calamari, and shrimp with Moroccan wine. Now it’s time to sleep.

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