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.

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.