Sunday, February 15:
During and before this trip we’ve been having an ongoing debate about who in the band is “the most Hollywood.” For clarification, the adjective Hollywood as we are using it is essentially the narcissistic quality of behaving like a superstar-celebrity. However, being Hollywood in no way correlates to how proficient one is at their musical craft— we are only talking about superficial and behavioral indicators (e.g. manner of dress, level of showmanship/show-off-manship, number of pictures posed for, and generally how much one enjoys adulation and attention). It is a generally accepted notion amongst us that our singers Bijoux and Dee Dee (who aren’t here to defend themselves) are the most Hollywood, and that our bass player Corey is the least hollywood. Thus, up for debate is who on this trip (from the pool of myself, Paul, Piph, and Dre) is the most Hollywood, and today, our first show day in Algeria, offered ample evidence for all of us to use in the great Hollywood debate.
Piph and I started the day with a vigorous 7:15am workout in our hotel gym. If asked, I think we would both tell you that we workout to feel good, be healthy, and be more competitive in sports, but come on, I think we each want to look good too (chalk it up to being a bit Hollywood). After the exercise we met up with the rest of the group for breakfast and we were off to rehearsal by 9:15. Our wonderful Algerian program organizers, Ida and Fatma, have done an excellent job scheduling practice/setup times into our days, so we had ample time to tighten up our songs as well as rehearse with the Algerian rappers, dancers, and high-school film students that we would be collaborating with in the evening. We then swung by a shawarma shop for sandwiches and ate them on the way back to our hotel.
After some much needed naps, we packed up the bus and departed for the show venue. On the ride there we discovered that our Algerian driver is apparently infatuated with Akon’s sugar coated dance song “Silver and Gold” — the dude played it literally four times in a row. When we arrived we met and fraternized with more rappers and dancers, bonding in the green room over our love of the free tea and pastries set before us. As the crowd filtered in for the show, a young Algerian DJ played a combination of current dance mixes and late 90’s jams —“Maria Maria,” “Too close (You’re Making it Hard for Me),” and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll be Missing You” comprised one nostalgic three song stretch. The Algerian rap duo “Africa United” and rapper “Mister Pablo” then took the stage, rapping and dancing around to their brand of synth heavy party rap (this is what it sounded like—I didn’t quite pick up on the french and arabic lyrical content). We learned later from Ida that this was the first time any of the night’s rappers and dancers had gotten to perform on this prominent stage— this center was usually reserved for traditional Algerian music. Peaking out from the backstage curtain, I was happy to see not only the biggest crowd of our tour so far (props to Fatma for an excellent promoting job), but also the liveliest— many in the large crowd were standing up dancing and screaming for their hometown heroes, who obliged them with some true Hollywood posturing. It was fun to watch.
After a very flattering minute-long introductory video made by the high-school film students, it was our turn to take the stage. Following our show plan, Dre went out first and played an improvised solo; Corey, who would be next, took his time and waited an extended period before ambling onto the stage (Corey’s not Hollywood). Paul and I eagerly joined shortly after and we all began the official intro which immediately segued into the high energy song “zone out” as Piph joined us onstage. Paul, excited at the sight of a really good crowd, clicked his sticks high above his head before beginning his drumbeat (yes that’s a little Hollywood). After a handful of our original tunes, we again brought on the opening act rappers who joined us in performing a Reggae rendition of our song “Same Game.” During the climax of the song, Paul improvised an amazing multi-measure drum-roll with syncopated accents (Paul was happy to perform for the crowd during this show—i.e. Hollywood). We next covered Tupac’s “California Love” while the dancers performed incredible acrobatic breakdancing. Towards the end of the show, we invited everyone to the front of the stage for the massive selfie. Yet before we could even get into position, Dre, wearing his new flashy dark shades, had taken pictures with five different people (Hollywood Dre!). When we began the final song Dre continued his Hollywood lifestyle by posing for pictures and video during the song— he even left his keyboard station in the middle of the song to dance and take pictures, (granted it was during a part when he didn’t have to play). Piph, likely threatened by Dre’s spotlight, attempted to jump into the audience to rap (that’s definitely Hollywood) but he was immediately pushed back to the stage by our Algerian body guards (yes having Algerian body guards is incredibly Hollywood)— “Alright, I’m gonna get down here with you for this verse, ohp, nevermind” I heard him say into his microphone. I even saw Corey embrace his inner Hollywood by moving to the front of the stage and playing directly to the immediate crowd. During my solo, I tried to indulge in the Hollywood games by cranking up and walking out to the center of the stage and I would have gone to the front, but my instrument cable wasn’t long enough (it’s not a very Hollywood instrument cable). The crowd was in an uproar by the end of the show and I’m sure we all felt justified in our Hollywood behavior.
And thus, the great Hollywood debate will surely rage on. In all sincerity, however, I am extremely grateful that everyone in the band is actually extremely down to earth, authentic, and kind-hearted. We enjoy performing and getting into the act onstage, as well as ribbing each other offstage, but the truth is that no one in the band has a difficult personality. I do believe that there are many performing musicians (both famous and not), who enjoy admiration more than music, but I can honestly say that for all of us, the music comes first.
Monday, February 16:
Today was our travel day from Tlemcen to the capital city of Algiers. Before I talk about that however, I’d like to reveal something about our time in Algeria that I felt I could not write about days earlier. Almost as soon as we got off the plane in Oran we were informed that we would not be able to go anywhere without a Police escort, that we would always have to travel everywhere with the whole group (no wandering off on your own), and that we should assume that our emails/texts/facebook messages/phone calls/skype sessions were being viewed or recorded (therefore we should not use these mediums to write or say anything critical of the government). Traveling around Tlemcen, we were always accompanied by at least two (and sometimes up to five) security guards or police officers— I was even trailed into the bathroom by one of them during one of our rehearsals. I’m still not totally sure if this was for our safety, or because we were viewed suspiciously by the government. To be fair the guards and police were pretty friendly and we were actually able to get to know them somewhat; regardless, I’ve never in my adult life experienced such a feeling of lack of freedom. I am able to write this now because I’ll be publishing this while in Equatorial Guinea.
Back to the story: We traveled from Tlemcen to Algiers via a long five hour train ride. Luckily Fatma took charge of the train station employees and was able to secure us our own section of the train. I sat next to her during the ride and was happy to get to know her better— she had travelled all around the world, but was still in love with her coastal hometown of Algiers; she has two boys ages six and nine; she had recently taken up salsa dancing, and she loves to laugh and joke around. During the train ride she even weighed in on the great Hollywood debate (see previous day), ranking us as Dre, Corey, Piph, me, and Paul (from most Hollywood to least).
After we arrived in Algiers, we drove to a local kebab restaurant in a bullet proof embassy van. We’ve decided that one of our cultural gifts to Algeria and Morocco should be the practice of writing down restaurant orders. At the restaurant our orders were all wrong (except for mine for some reason) because this waiter (like many others not used to our picky American tastes) did not write the order down. After hungrily eating our incorrect sandwiches in the van, we checked into our hotel where we enjoyed best internet connection of the tour and settled in for some much needed sleep.
Tuesday, February 17:
Today four of us (Piph, Paul, Corey, and I) partook in an early morning workout— fitness is apparently a priority for Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe. After breakfast we drove to an auditorium located in a shopping mall underneath the grand, famous Algiers Martyrs Memorial. There we jammed with the Algerian Blues band King Melody (who played a nice rendition of Eric Clapton’s “You look Wonderful Tonight”), and worked up a nice collaboration with local hip-hop/reggae artist Joe for the following night’s show. We were particularly happy to work with the most talented and accommodating sound crew of our trip so far, who provided us each with our exact volume and equalization specifications.
Yet the real treat of the day came when we were taken to the U.S. Embassy where Ida and Fatma work. To prevent us from stealing government secrets, we had to leave all of our electronics (aside from our instruments which we would use later) at the opening security check. One of us took this as an opportunity to flirt with the cute Algerian security officer who ex-rayed our bags (there is no Tinder community in Algeria so we have to engage the opposite sex in real life). Inside we had a lasagna lunch at the cafeteria and then went to the Embassy’s Information Resource Center (IRC), a library and media center that organizes numerous programs and events in order “to provide authoritative, up-to-date information to the Algerian audience on U.S. policy, and to promote public awareness, and facilitate mutual understanding of political, economic, trade, cultural and environmental issues” (from the Algerian US embassy website). There we had a stimulating and open discussion with Algerian university students and adults who were interested in learning more about American culture (luckily they all spoke English, so we could speak directly to them without the aid of a translator). We talked about why they liked or disliked Hip-Hop, our inspiration and reason for pursuing music, and our goals for the future. Upon they’re request, we finished by performing a stripped down rendition of our song “Feel Alright” with Paul beating on a table, me playing the Embassy’s acoustic guitar, and Piph rapping.
After our group discussion we packed into the radio room and did a podcast interview with the lovely Selma Mouloudj (a senior biology major at the university, English teacher, Embassy employee, and Fulbright scholarship hopeful). Despite Selma’s best efforts at professionalism, the band was having too much fun and we often took the interview to outrageous and off-the-wall places— I know she’ll have to edit out much of the hilarity of this interview but I still greatly look forward to hearing it. We then had a short hour to rest, check email, and chat with Selma before setting up in the Embassy’s atrium to perform at a party for the Ambassador and other state department employees. At the party we played a handful of our songs, met Ambassador Joan A. Polaschik (a very pleasant, fun woman who even helped us out with one of our songs), watched other local artists perform, enjoyed drinks and H’orderves, and even shared the stage with a band of embassy employees for a fun rendition of the classic American song “Wagon-Wheel.” This was a wonderful event that seemed to bring everyone in attendance a lot of joy— the Americans in attendance were grateful to experience a small taste of home, while the Algerians enjoyed getting to see an immediate glimpse of American culture.
After such an eventful day, we were happy to ate a delicious Pizza dinner in the comfort of Francois and Ida’s home. Ida played the bartender, and Francois the DJ as we talked about their college age kids, travel, and the great day we had just enjoyed.
Wednesday, February 18:
Today we had nothing scheduled until the late afternoon. The others rested, worked, and refreshed but I took this as an opportunity to continue the stimulating discussion about life in Algeria with Selma Mouloudj that we began the previous day. After her morning class at the nearby University, she joined me for tea at the hotel lounge. There we discussed two subjects familiar to most twenty somethings (she is 22 and I am 26): 1. Relationships 2. What to do after college life. Though we had similar desires in each area, I quickly discovered that she has obstacles that I have never had to consider. She explained that she plans on getting a master’s degree in Marine Biology and that eventually she would like a job that would allow her to travel. She badly wants to go to grad school in America for the high quality education and because she loves American culture (first learning to speak English by watching American TV shows like Beverly Hills, 90210). However, Algeria has the strange custom of not recognizing foreign degrees, so some of the most hard-working and talented Algerian students who earn degrees abroad, even at the most prestigious American and European schools, find it difficult or impossible to find jobs in their field when they return to Algeria. Even so, Selma is considering applying for one of the 5 or 6 Fulbright scholarships given to Algerian seniors each year which would allow her study in America.
Juggling school, two jobs, and résumé building has left Selma little time for that other great element of young adult life: dating. Yet it seems that even if she did have time for a boyfriend, she would face other difficulties in finding and maintaining a relationship. She told me that most young Algerians date, but that they cannot tell their parents because there is a strong cultural taboo against pre-marital sex and relationships (parental influence seems to extend much further in Algeria than in America—often people will simply live with their parents until they are married). The situation is especially frustrating for women because any female suspected of not being a virgin is considered essentially unfit for marriage. Ironically, she knows young women who have been directly and unromantically asked for sex from men on multiple occasions. She said that she simply wants to find someone nice to date who she can talk to and understands her, yet she’s encountered a world that has shunned public relationships and offered only casual encounters. During this trip I’ve been consistently reminded of the many gifts I’ve taken for granted while living in America, and after my conversation with Selma, I’ll certainly add the freedom to date to this growing list.
Around 4:00 we packed up and headed back to the performance hall to prepare for our show, and it was here that we discovered that Piph had been feeling sick since the morning. While Corey, Paul, Dre, and I conducted sound-check and rehearsed with the rappers who we would be collaborating with in the evening, Piph rested backstage. As showtime approached, Piph was in a feeble state and found it difficult to even speak with the many artists, officials, and fans coming and going before the show. Ida attempted to help feed Piph some healing energy by massaging some acupuncture points and I offered him some medicine my doctor sister had prescribed me in case of travel sickness. Miraculously, Piph was able to muster enough energy and adrenaline to put on a great show with us for the large and energetic Algerian audience. Having seen his pained face and sickly demeanor before the show, I was amazed that Piph was able to power through and perform at such a high level.
Because he was feeling especially weak after the show, we dropped Piph off at the Hotel (our stringent security measures were relaxed in Algiers), and then jetted on to a Hookah Bar/Restaurant to eat and celebrate our final night in Algeria. There our conversation with Ida and Fatma echoed my discussion with Selma earlier in the day. After Corey curiously asked about romantic life and dating customs in Algeria, Ida (the American) first responded that young people do not date and then Fatma (the Algerian) quickly countered with “of course Algerians date!” Ida was simply articulating what she had seen and heard from many Algerians— on the surface it perhaps does appear that there is no romance in Algeria. Fatma however, having grown up in Algeria, was quick to reveal that she had dated her husband before marrying him and that most other Algerians do in fact date. It seems that it is sometimes easy to mistake a country’s public policy for the actual behavior of that country’s people. Yet I’ve been inspired on this trip to see that despite economic, religious, social, and governmental barriers, people will invariably find ways to satisfy their need for art, music, education, and romance.
Thursday, February 19:
We bid a groggy goodbye to Algeria early this morning. Waking at 4:00am, we were in the air and on our way to Paris by 6:30am. Unfortunately Piph’s sickness had not resided and he was feeling especially drained having slept very little and eaten nothing since breakfast the previous day. On the plane we had the most intense health scare of our journey when Piph fainted in the aisle on his way from the restroom back to his seat. He quickly regained consciousness and the nurses gave him a cocktail of medicines to keep him afloat until we could land. For better or worse, I was asleep in another part of the plane for this ordeal, and only learned about it when I met Marc outside of our plane. However, by the time I saw Piph he was already joking about the two petite French stewardesses trying to support his huge limp body. Marc gave Piph a few options: 1. check into a French clinic, 2. fly back to the U.S., or 3. continue on to Equatorial Guinea as planned. Piph instantly chose the latter.
Thus we said goodbye and thank you to Marc, who was returning to the U.S. — he had been extremely helpful in navigating the first two legs of our voyage and promised to continue to be in communication with us if there were any questions, concerns, or needs during the rest of our trip. Before he left, he gave me multiple Paris medical contacts to use just in case Piph’s condition worsened. We located our gate and then I went to find Piph some much needed food and water. Feeling better from the medicine he received on the plane, Piph was able to eat and drink, and we all made it on to the plane feeling encouraged. I passed the time on the plane by sleeping, watching Scarlett Johansson destroy people in the in-flight movie Lucy, and talking to an adorable four year old Cameroonian girl and her mother (the little girl and I basically had the same french language skill and bid each other “au revoir” and “a bientot” multiple times at the end of our flight). Piph was feeling a good deal better, and we landed in Malabo, E.G. without incident.
Stepping off the plane we immediately felt a sensation we hadn’t felt in weeks: heat. We were happy to encounter an orderly scene at customs, which was even expedited for us by someone hired by the U.S. embassy. We then met embassy workers Michael (an American) and Piedad (a local) who would be accompanying us this week (they are the Equatorial Guinean edition of Ida and Fatma). After checking into the hotel, Paul, Dre, Michael, and I drove to the U.S. embassy housing where two fellow Americans named Lauren and Cormac had prepared us a delicious chicken taco dinner in their home (Piph and Corey were feeling tired and sick so they stayed at the hotel). We all got to know each other while watching Sportscenter on American TV, an extremely comforting experience amidst our foreign adventure.
Friday, February 20:
Our morning drive to the U.S. Embassy offered us our first breathtaking glimpse of the giant inactive volcano that stands above the island. We also saw an impressive array of large, extremely modern buildings lining the road from the hotel to the embassy— Oil was discovered in E.G. in the mid 1990’s and there are parts of this tiny country that exude great wealth and extravagance. When we arrived at the Embassy, we overlooked the sound-system and then met with Ambassador Mark Asquino for a fascinating lesson on the History of Equatorial Guinea, which he claimed is “perhaps the most unique country in Africa.” He explained that E.G. was originally colonized by Portugal before being traded to Spain in exchange for land that would become part of Brazil. Spain later leased E.G. to England to run as a haven for freed African slaves. The English helped foster a flourishing agricultural economy in E.G., yet when they attempted to purchase the country, the Spanish (who had done very little in E.G.), oddly refused. Thus, while broken “Pidgin English” is still widely spoken here, Equatorial Guinea is the only African country whose official language is Spanish (there are numerous indigenous languages that are still spoken here as well). E.G. was finally granted independence in 1968. Unfortunately, the country came instantly into the control of a ruthless dictator named Francisco Macías Nguema who ushered in a ten year “reign of terror” which saw mass killings and economic decimation in the country. In 1979 Macías’ nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema overthrew him and became the new President of E.G., a position he still holds today (he is Africa’s longest serving dictator). Thus, Ambassador Asquino stated that the history of E.G. is in large part a history of trauma, “first the trauma of colonialism, and then the trauma of dictatorship.” Yet he told us that he truly can see hope for this country in the many talented and open-minded young people that the country boasts. Furthermore he framed the importance of our visit by stating that American musicians almost never come to E.G. (the last group to visit was a gospel band that came five years ago) but that young people love Hip-Hop and many may consider our visit “the cultural event of the year.”
After our conversation Piph, Corey, and Dre visited the embassy nurse for some much needed medicine and care and soon we departed for the tiny nearby town of Rebola. On the drive over Piedad told me that Rebola means “lots of kids” in Bubi (the name of tribe/language native to the island portion of E.G.), and when we arrived, I could see why. In front of the Rebola cultural center were over a dozen small, raggedly dressed children (ranging from roughly 2-6) dancing, playing, and wrestling with each other. The town as a whole was, for me, reminiscent only of scenes I’ve seen on television— brightly clad women with buckets of water balanced on their heads walked down a single dirt road which was lined with small houses made of cheap aluminum siding and makeshift parts. Atop the cultural center’s upstairs balcony, we met and rehearsed with some Bubi rappers, but our practice was abruptly interrupted by a funeral procession for an old woman who had died that morning— her casket was slowly driven by in a pickup truck as well over 100 people trailed behind on foot and together sang a beautiful west African Hymn. When all the people had finally passed by we stood speechlessly marveling at the breathtaking moment of community we had just seen.
After rehearsal we went briefly back to the hotel and then returned to Rebola to see the town’s name again affirmed— about 80 small children were there sitting and waiting patiently for the outdoor show to begin. The local rappers soon started the show as the already large audience continued to grow. Though I had virtually no idea what they were talking about, I was very impressed by the rhythm, stage presence, and delivery of many of the Bubi rappers as they energetically performed in front of the two impressive cultural center murals at the back of the stage. When it was our turn, we were pumped up to perform for the fun and energized crowd, yet as soon as soon as we struck our first collective chord we blew out the mixer that was amplifying the keyboard, guitar, and bass. It appeared for a moment that Piph was going to have to perform without the band, but our sound guy soon found and connected us to a backup sound system. During the wait a group of Rebola’s children began performing a choreographed dance routine in order to pass the time. After finally getting reconnected and amplified, we made our second attempt at starting the show. Despite less than desirable equipment, we played a well and had a blast performing with our Bubi collaborators in front of an incredible crowd (the largest of our tour so far). On the way back to the hotel we reflected on the enormous number of children at the show, the technical difficulties, the language barrier, and the distinct scene of the show and we all agreed that it was likely the most unique show we’ve ever performed together.