African Tour Diary, pt 2

Sunday, February 8:
“All people who believe in God are Muslim. The problem is that people want to interfere and create differences. People say I am Muslim, I am Shiite, I am Suni, I am Christian, I am protestant, I am orthodox, I am Jewish, etc… but all people who worship God are the same religion. It all comes from the same source. The Koran says that all people who believe in God and worship God are Muslim. There are no differences. People are people.” This is the radical Islam of our Moroccan musical collaborator Barry, which he explained to JJ, Jason (a fellow American traveler), and I at our seaside breakfast table this beautiful sunny morning. Barry spontaneously erupted into this passionate and captivating lecture touching on Moroccan history, the problems of Islam today, conspiracy theories about the world bank, Charlie Hebdo, the ten commandments, the importance of science and technology, and an optimistic vision of a future free of religious, political, and racial divides as JJ expertly translated and Jason and I sat and listened, both intrigued and entertained. Though his words often went to fantastic places, these were not the wild ravings of a madman— Barry was well-read and had discussed and thought about his opinions long before this moment. Though critical of the powers that be and frustrated by the rifts between religious sects, time and time again in this animated discourse he returned to the uplifting idea that people’s ignorant and violent attachment to their particular denominations will fade away in the face of the increasing international connectivity provided by the proliferation of the internet and technology. When I asked him how these ideas related to his music, he smiled and mentioned the title to one of his hit songs that we had performed back in Rabat “the song ‘Ma Zal Yeji Al Kheir,’ it means better days will come.”

Around 1:00 we packed up our instruments and departed for a roundtable discussion with a group of local musicians and artists. Represented were instrumentalists, singers, dancers, a filmmaker, a comedian, and even a magician. I was particularly grateful to hear from an old man who had began singing professionally in Nador in 1967, when there were very few musicians in town, and even fewer places to play. As each shared their story, I could see that everyone was passionate about their particular project or medium and about their region’s art and music in general, but they were disappointed by the lack of support from the government. The conversation quickly shifted to a heated debate about the need for more government money to be given to Moroccan artists and eventually to Moroccan politics in general. Ignorant of the Moroccan political landscape, we in the band were essentially spectators to this spirited discussion. It has become clear however that although it is a Constitutional Monarchy, Morocco is in many ways a socialist country with public money being spent on things such as education, infrastructure, sports, healthcare, art, music, and more. The complaint of the artists in this room was that much more money was being on programs other than art. This was all fascinating, and yet to demonstrate how little we could relate, I chimed in and said that in America, music is almost solely supported by the private sector (one glaring exception being the American Music Abroad program that we are currently on), and that if artists want to perform or create, they always start independent of any government help. Time and time again this trip has shown us that while the same human spirit and intense desire for expression exists everywhere, there are very real differences in the institutional structures and obstacles that artists experience around the world.

After a quick bite to eat, and a brief choppy face-time session with my sister back home, we travelled a short distance to the sight of our show. I’m not sure how the others felt about their equipment— we have different amplifiers, keyboards, sound-systems, and drums at every show depending on what they have provided us— but I was happy to see a nice 60-watt Marshall tube amp waiting for me. Thus musically, I felt most confident and comfortable about this show because I truly enjoyed the tone of my guitar (it makes a huge difference sometimes). We played a similar set to the one in Rabat, and though the audience numbers were a bit smaller than the show two nights before, the ones who were there were very into the performance. We called up the dancers who were at the earlier discussion and they break-danced impressively along to our song “Chills.” Before our closing song we again invited the audience up to the stage for a massive “selfie,” which like in Rabat turned into an opportunity for the audience to stay on stage during the last song. I love this— having people dancing along and interacting with us while we play brings and already energetic song to a great new height.

Monday, February 9:
Corey, Piph, and I again started the day with a vigorous workout, this time on the beautiful Mediterranean beach that faced our hotel (hopefully by the end of the tour my biceps look like Piph’s). After we finished, Piph and Corey waded out knee deep into the sea, yet I felt it more appropriate to sprint and dive in triumphantly. The water was cold and took my breath away, but it was incredibly invigorating and joyous; I mean when will I get to do this again? After breakfast we packed up the bus to go to the town of Nador.

When we arrived we went to a foundation that works to get African immigrants to Morocco legalized and more integrated and accepted in Moroccan society. We sat down and met two Nigerian immigrants, one Cameroonian, and one Ghanian. We learned that they had previously had luck finding jobs and work in the big cities of Casablanca and Rabat, but that the congestion, pollution, and cost of living proved too high so they moved north to the much smaller, quieter town of Nador. The trouble they were now facing was that of both personal and institutional racism against black immigrants— whereas in Casablanca they were accepted and welcome, in the much smaller and more conservative Nador, they were repeatedly denied the papers necessary to live and work there and literally given no choice but to scrounge and forage for food while living in a large makeshift immigrant camp in the nearby forest. My heart broke as I sat and listened to their story and saw the real desperation and acute sense of injustice on their faces. The Moroccan head of the foundation, an extremely warm and kind man name Misham (I’m certainly not spelling that right), assured them that the four of them in the room with us soon would have the necessary papers, and that there was something to hope for. Yet he emphasized that the problem is more systematic and greater political change needed to take place to remedy this sad situation. I felt almost embarrassed at how relatively easy and good my life has been in relation to their plight, and wondered to myself what I could I (merely a guitarist) do to make it better. Yet when the conversation briefly turned to music, one of the Nigerians named Victory said that “music is a powerful media, it can be used to spread messages like ours all around the world— it can inform and change people’s minds.” We invited them to our show that night and bid them a sober thank you and goodbye.

By many measures, this night’s show was the worst of our tour so far. The equipment was broken and bad, the sound quality was poor, and there were few people at the show; yet there was a clear moment that redeemed the show for me. When we launched into our one reggae song, some of the immigrants from the foundation joined us on stage and danced blissfully along, and I saw an expression on their faces that I hadn’t seen earlier in the day: happiness. This is why music is good and important— not for any utilitarian reason, but simply because regardless of what else is happening in the world and in their lives, it makes people happy.

After the show we were given the surprise opportunity to visit Spain for dinner! The town of Nador sits right on the Morocco-Spain border, so we were able to drive to the border, fill out some minimal paperwork and walk right into another country! We found a delightful Spanish restaurant/bar where we drank Spanish wine, beer, and champagne, and enjoyed countless delectable Tapas. It was somewhat surreal to travel such a short distance and experience a very distinct difference in architecture, food, and language. I’m having the best time.

Tuesday, February 10:
This morning we drove to Berkane from Nador and visited the Dar Shabab in Berkane, an arts, music, and sports facility for teenagers and adults. We arrived to find the site decorated with pictures and posters of us, and were given an impressive break-dancing display by some of the guys there. Dar Shabab boasts the current Moroccan champion of “freestyle football” (a fusion of breakdancing and soccer ball tricks) named Tigrouu, who gave us an amazing show. After the performance, we sat down for a question and answer session with about 35 people who were very interested in our lives, music, and message. At the end of the session we spent an extra forty-five minutes just talking to and taking pictures with everyone, and a couple of us were happy to exchange contact information with some members of the fairer sex.

After Dar Shabab we drove to the Oum Lkora English Language school to perform for and talk to the students (ages 12-18). We had very low expectations for the show when we saw our performance space: a small classroom with a basic sound system, three tiny amplifiers, and no drum-set. Piph was contemplating not using the band for fear of poor sound quality, but Paul came to the rescue with his drum machine, which he ended up playing manually with his fingers. As we were setting up, around fifty students squeezed into the desks and against the walls of the room— we learned later that the adjacent room was also packed to the walls with about eighty additional teachers and students (a camera man filmed us in the classroom and it was played live on a large flatscreen TV for everyone to see in the next room). The program started with two girls reciting expertly worded opening remarks in English, delivered strongly yet with a hint of charming teenage self-consciousness. We played our songs “zone out” and the interactive “something to tell you” (there is a call and response “hey, hey” during the chorus) and despite our less than ideal soundscape, everyone absolutely loved it. During the following Q&A session one girl gave us a delightful compliment: “Thank so much for your music, my ears are still happy.” They then asked us many excellent questions such as “what subjects do Hip-Hop artists rap about?” (Piph’s response: rappers talk about many of the same topics, but can be on either side of the fence about that topic. For example the topics of either money or relationships could manifest either as ‘I have it and I’m proud’ or ‘I don’t have it and I am struggling’); “What is the greatest experience you have ever had playing music?” (Paul’s answer: Honestly this right now is the greatest musical experience I have ever had. Being here and playing for you and meeting you and learning from all of you is the best experience.); “Many of our parents think that we should not listen to rap because they think it will teach us bad words and phrases, what do you think we should tell them to change their mind?” (Piph’s answer: There is good and bad music in every genre. I used to always come up with examples of bad words and ideas in music that my parents liked to get them to let me listen to rap. Also, just play Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe for them).

After the question and answer session we played two more songs. The first was “Feel Alright,” a song that relies heavily on our two stellar singers back home, Bijoux and Dee Dee. Lacking our professional voices, we quickly taught all the students the basic vocal line to the chorus and they all picked up on it impressively fast. I got chills when on the final chorus we in the band cut out and let the hundred students all happily sing the part in unison. Our closing song was the boisterous song “Untouchable” which features amongst other things heavy distorted electric guitar. I quickly cranked my tiny ten watt amp to full gain to achieve the desired level of sonic crackle. We launched in to the song and by the first verse I had blown out the poor little amplifier. It didn’t matter— the kids were already so invested in the song that it would take much more than that to derail the show. I quickly made an executive decision and unplugged Dre from his tiny amp (he was also running through the sound system) and plug my guitar in to it in plenty of time for my solo. Paul punched away at his rectangular, drum-machine, Piph rapped from room to room, and students stood on their desks to get a good view. Everyone was screaming by the end of the spectacle.

After the show was over we invited everyone into the next room for our signature mass “selfie” with the band. We huddled together and took the group picture, and what followed was a seemingly endless avalanche of pictures and signatures for each band member. We spent literally more time taking pictures and talking with the students one on one than we did on the official performance and program— it seemed every single one of them wanted a photo with every single one of us. Strangely, it was simultaneously ego-inflating and humbling to experience all of this. Obviously we enjoyed being treated like the Beatles coming to America, yet upon talking to the students I quickly realized that these were much more than star-struck teenagers. This was a special school in Berkane in which students are pushed and work extremely hard to learn a non-native language (English) in order to merely have the chance to go to a good college and get a decent job, opportunities that I was essentially born with. The students were smart, ambitious, and kind, and it was truly touching to interact with them. One shy 16 year old boy waited patiently for enough picture takers to clear away from me to tell me about how he writes songs and has a friend who plays guitar, but that they are both very afraid when they try to perform in front of people. I told him sincerely that I too get stage fright but that it helps me to just focus on the music. Sometimes the crowd is overwhelming but it always helps to remember that I am just playing music with my friends— in some ways the crowd is secondary. He then showed me a song that he wrote (a love song); It not only moved me that he was sharing such a personal part of his life with me in hopes of advice and validation, but it also truly brought me back to my own first feelings of deep untainted admiration for another person. “When I see you I melt like ice-salt in a glass of water”— don’t steal that line, it belongs to the next great Moroccan songwriter. A bit later a girl sweetly asked me “what can I do to be different?” After clarifying that she wanted to be ‘different than everyone else’ and not ‘different than she currently is,’ I gave her a most Sesame-Street worthy answer that I nonetheless felt was true: “Just be yourself. Everyone is a little bit different anyway, if you follow you’re heart and just be yourself, you’ll not only be different, but you’ll be happy.”

After a million more pictures, we finally made it back to the bus, and ecstatically recounted our day in Berkane as we drove to the nearby city of Oujda where we would be playing the next day. Dre, the longest lived member of the group, claimed that it was “the best experience of (his) life,” and I find it hard to disagree with him. There was so much love and positivity exchanged between the band and the students. We checked into our rooms and then met in the Chinese restaurant in the Hotel Lobby for a late dinner. We ate and drank wine, and then went to a sleek club/hookah bar next door to celebrate our day.

Speaking of which, there are some great stories from this trip that are better left unwritten. Ask me about them when I get home.

Wednesday, Febraury 11:
This morning, Corey, Piph, and I made a spectacle of ourselves by doing our morning workout in a busy city square that borders our hotel and the Oujda train station. Despite our proactive start, for most of the day it seemed that we all felt a bit sluggish. A few of us were feeling the specific effects of the previous night’s outing, but it was the week and a half of travel, talks, and shows that was beginning to catch up with all of us. On top of this, I know I certainly felt sad that this was our last full day in Morocco.

Our first order of business for the day was to go to the Oujda English quarter and speak with some young people at the English library there.When we arrived, a library official explained to us that for many years the region that we were in (called the Eastern Region, or Region de l’Oriental) was extremely neglected by the Moroccan government, but that the current King, Mohammed VI, has overseen a great increase in economic development and cultural programs there since the early 2000’s; The library was part of this development. We took our seats at the front of the room, flanked on one side by a comically large banner of King Mohammed and President Obama waving and smiling before a backdrop of the American and Moroccan flags. For about half an hour we answered questions covering who we were, how we met, what our songs were about, what our aspirations were, and what we had learned from Morocco. We took a group picture, gave out free CD’s, talked to them one on one, and invited them all to the show that night.

When we arrived at the Oujda performance hall we were immediately impressed by the equipment and stage setup— this was going to be a good show. So we thought, yet we quickly found that the auditorium produced extremely heavy reverb and was not necessarily built to host bands as loud as ours. On top of this, the sound guy for the venue proved either extremely stubborn or extremely unskilled in giving us our desired volume and EQ for the show, a problem that was more than exacerbated by the language barrier. Furthermore,during the show Paul’s foot pedal broke, and we accidentally switched up the order of the setlist. Despite these difficulties we put on a decent show and the medium sized crowd was very pleased. Some local officials even took time during the show to build up the importance of us being there and the great cultural progress that was being made in the town— One man was particularly proud of a little girl who had won a recent athletic competition and invited Piph to kiss her forehead, which Piph politely obliged.

The day’s show and talk proved to be merely brief but pleasant distractions from the bittersweet awareness that we would soon be leaving a place that had given us such a wonderful experience. Even with the many gorgeous landmarks and exotic food, the best part of this trip by far had been the people we had met and connected with. From the humble and caring Misham in Nador, to the adoring students in Berkane, to the hip-hop group we met in Rabat, to the random cab driver who recognized Piph and I from the day before and came up to us just to say hello, the people we met in Morocco were almost invariably warm, kind, and sincere. Yet I think I can speak for the band (except of course for the one of us who found his Moroccan soul-mate) in saying that there are two people that we will miss most from our time in Morocco.

JJ Harder, the Deputy Cultural Attaché for the US Embassy in Morocco, made our trip work. He was a mid-thirties Iranian-American from Nebraska who resembled Jake Gylenhal with a curled up hipster mustache. He was only supposed to be assisting his Moroccan boss for our trip, yet when his boss suddenly became ill, JJ took on all of the responsibilities— this included translating (both French and Arabic) for us, making sure we kept our schedule, finding great restaurants for us, giving interviews on our behalf, talking with various logistical contacts, and helping with virtually any random small errands or questions we had (we will certainly be recommending he get a raise!). Yet on top of all that, we all just sincerely enjoyed hanging out with him. He was sharp, funny, and seemed to have a very natural knowledge people and places— likely a result of having lived in or travelled to dozens of other countries. We had great conversations with him about travel, music, books, religion, race, and politics, and great experiences with him at restaurants, shows, and bars. When we said goodbye, I felt like we had lost part of our team.

“Barry is legendary!” I heard JJ exclaim on more than one occasion. Our second beloved friend we met in Morocco was of course our musical collaborator. Barry was truly larger than life, a fictional character in the flesh. He was a somewhat short thin fellow in his mid-thirties with wild curly hair, a loud infectious cackle of a laugh, and a near permanent smile pressed on his face. He was known in every city that we went to, and yet he was as humble, natural, and sincere as anyone I have ever seen (despite his fame, I think he wore the same two outfits the whole week). He flowed easily both into our musical and personal lives as we ate, drank, laughed, and performed together. Barry was indispensable to our recreational life in Morocco, escorting us to clubs and bars where he invariably got us all in for free. Most of the time Barry was a happy jester, yet he could easily turn a switch when necessary and speak seriously and intelligently about the problems facing Morocco and the world. Barry chain-smoked, joked, argued, danced, rapped, sang, and stole our American hearts.

Au revoir Morocco.

Thursday, Febrauary 12:
Today we left Morocco, and traveled to Algeria. The Morocco-Algeria border is closed to land-traffic due to a long standing dispute over the area known as the western Sahara, so even though our Algerian destination would have been a mere two hour drive from the eastern Moroccan city of Oujda where we were staying, we instead we had to fly to Casablanca on the opposite side of the country, and then after a long lay-over fly to Oran, Algeria. This would have been a somewhat difficult journey regardless, but this day ended up offering a consistent barrage of travel frustrations.

We met in the lobby of our Oujda hotel at 4:30am so we would have plenty of time to check out, drive to the airport, and make our 7:00am flight. The hotel clerk (who spoke no English) somehow ended up charging Corey three times over for his room, and neither he or we could explain the full situation do to the language barrier. Eventually Marc assured us that Corey could work it out with his bank and the AMA association, so we continued on to the airport. We then arrived at what looked like a closed airport and soon learned that yes indeed our driver had taken us to the wrong airport. Eventually we made it to the correct location, and got our tickets in the smokey airport (Morocco resembles America 60 years ago in this sense— everyone smokes everywhere).

We arrived in Casablanca before our airline’s ticket booth had even opened for the day so we found an airport cafe and all fell asleep with our heads on the tables like schoolchildren. Then we stood in a massive unmoving line for about an hour waiting to retrieve our tickets, and found our gate. After spending the rest of our Moroccan money on exotic potato chips we began to play the waiting game. It was soon apparent that our flight was delayed, yet no one seemed sure of why or when it would arrive. Exhausted, we fell asleep on the floor against our bags and I even laid on top of my guitar case for a nap. We waited at least an extra two and a half hours, before we were finally told that our gate had changed. The huge waiting mass of us then migrated to another section of the airport where we waited another two hours for a plane to arrive.

Finally the plane came, we boarded, and took a mere hour’s flight to Oran, Algeria, yet the nightmare was not over yet. We took a bus from the plane to customs where we filled out information cards and waited in a long line to meet the customs officers. It seemed that as soon as we made it to the final stretch of the line people began to unashamedly cut to the front of the line. We didn’t let anyone in near us, but couldn’t stop those in front of us, and as Americans in a foreign country certainly didn’t want to cause a scene by too aggressively opposing anyone. It was an exasperating mess of chaos, amplified by the extreme fatigue we were all experiencing. After an hour in that terrible line, we were finally approved for entry and went to meet our US embassy contacts— Fatma (a kindly and peppy Algerian woman), and Ida (a kindly and peppy American woman). We drove to perhaps the most luxurious hotel of our journey so far, checked in, and then enjoyed some much needed sleep.
All things considered, difficult travel days like this are a small price to pay for the wonderful opportunity to travel to these amazing countries.

Friday, February 13:
Today was a much needed day off. We ate breakfast and even though it was raining we went out to do some sight-seeing around Oran. First we drove up a tall hill to the Fort Santa Cruz, where we saw the striking white Santa Cruz Chapel and marveled at the prominent statue of the virgin Mary that sits atop the church tower. At the top of the fort we looked down upon a gorgeous sight of the city and sea (Oran sits on the coast of the Mediterranean), while a single profound prayer melody rang out clearly from a town mosque (Friday is prayer day). We next went to a long pretty beach just as the sun was coming out to take pictures, collect sea-shells, and draw messages in the sand; Fatma even stuck her feet in the chilly water. After the beach we had lunch and tea at a nearby restaurant and then packed up for our hour and a half drive to the city of Tlemcen (sounds like Clemson but with a “T”).

Between my bus-ride naps, I enjoyed watching the lush green hills of the Algerian countryside roll by my window. The sight was wonderful, but I also felt excited by the feeling that I was seeing something rare, almost forbidden to my American eyes. Relations between America and Algeria are good of course— my mind was exaggerating things— yet it is true that few Americans will ever see the sights I am seeing. Algeria is not even remotely the tourist destination that Morocco is, and Ida told me today that there are so few American visitors to Algeria, that we will surely be the first Americans some Algerians have ever seen. Whereas in Morocco it sometimes felt like we were there simply to enjoy a fun foreign tour, here I am reminded that this is indeed a diplomatic journey. Thus, I realize have the great honor and responsibility to represent the people of America how I know a great many of us to be: as kind, creative, collaborative, hard-working, intelligent, and open-minded people.

Saturday, February 14:
Today was our first official program day in Algeria, and I can already tell that this is going to be a much more structured week than our time in Morocco. We departed at nine am for the Palais de la Culture (a cultural center and large auditorium inside a beautiful Algerian palace). There we had a long and somewhat grueling sound-check with the best equipment of the tour so far. This was perhaps the first time I’ve ever had a sound-check the day before the show, yet there were many kinks to work out so I am very happy to have done so (the fact that we did speaks to the organization and foresight of our program coordinators Ida and Fatma). Except for an hour lunch break, we spent the next five hours rehearsing with the local rap duo “Ali Big Show” (who will perform with us tomorrow), meeting and talking to high-school students who were there working on a film project, and jamming with the Algerian funk-rock band “Dar Kside” (which although it does sound like the phrase dark side, actually means “house of poems” in Arabic).

We then went to the local market where I bought a “Hand of Fatima” necklace, which Fatma explained to me is a local good-luck charm meant to ward off the evil eye; Piph and Dre bought some perfume for the special women in their life back home (don’t worry ladies, Piph just bought it for his mom); and we all chipped in for some much needed laundry detergent. After our shopping session we took a gondola ride from the heart of downtown directly to the luxurious Renaissance Hotel where we have been staying. The hotel literally sits atop a fortress, so when we arrived we had a breathtaking view of the city sitting under a magnificent sunset sky. Whether it is by beautiful sights like this or the many wonderful people I’ve met here, time and time again I am reminded of how incredibly lucky I am to be on this amazing journey.

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