NYEAfterthought1 copy

Last week I took us on a sad ride through the first three stages of grief for the Afterthought’s closing. We all know grief isn’t complete without the full five stages (sure I know some sources list seven stages of grief, but writing about more than five is above my pay grade), so I’m going to continue my process of grief for you this week with the final two sages (depression and acceptance). A word of caution: it is going to get worse before it gets better. If I were you I would turn away from this blog post right now, go outside and eat an ice cream cone.


I played solo guitar at the Afterthought nearly every Sunday morning for the past two years and I performed there countless wild nights with bands such as That Arkansas Weather, Mellow Dee Groove, Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe, Sean Fresh, Good Foot, and Rouxster. Both in the restaurant during brunch or in the bar at night, I loved seeing and talking to the regulars who helped make the Afterthought the wonderful community that it was. I also grew so fond of the employees at the Afterthought who (whether they realized it or not) always provided me with acceptance and encouragement. The Afterthought closing is a significant loss for me financially, but a far greater loss in terms of a home, and a family.

Furthermore, I truly came to identify with The Afterthought. I’ve been on tour with bands both in the U.S. and abroad and I consistently play at nearly every major venue here in Little Rock. Yet whenever describing my livelihood to someone new, the first thing I would mention was that I played solo Classical and Jazz guitar every Sunday at the Afterthought. For this consistent gig at a reputable restaurant and bar lent me an air of credibility that helped alleviate the insecurity I have about being a professional musician. Other professions have prestige built in to the name: if you tell someone you are a doctor or a lawyer, you can then rest in a content silence, knowing that the person is somewhat impressed. If you tell someone that you are a musician, that same silence seems to scream “explain yourself!”. I used to fill in that silence with a description of my musical activities at the Afterthought. Now what? I have a blog? I’m recording a song every week that only 20 people listen to? I’m playing at Whitewater tomorrow?! (It is true I am playing at Whitewater tomorrow with Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe if you readers want to come).

In the Afterthought I’ve lost a job, a community, a place to express myself, and a part of my identity. This is truly depressing for me. Yet it is even more depressing when I think of all of the employees, patrons, and musicians who are experiencing these same feelings of loss.


As much as I loved The Afterthought, I realize that it wasn’t perfect. And as sad as it is that The Afterthought is closing, I realize that it is closing for a reason. I’m not here to tell you everything that lead up to the Afterthought being sold and closed because I truly don’t know; but I do know that there was a big fireplace in the middle of the bar that oddly divided the space, that the piano was perpetually out of tune, and that there was an electrical socket falling out of the wall on to the stage. Some of the Afterthought’s imperfections added to it’s authenticity and charm, but it is possible that the Afterthought was trying to prop up too many quirky flaws to be sustainable. It’s time for a change.

I admit that I insulted the owner of Mylo (and new buyer of the Afterthought) in my last blog post— I was partly trying to be funny (as I do), partly expressing a true criticism, and mostly just being a brat— but I am actually hopeful that he will be successful in reviving and sustaining the Afterthought. Whatever your (or my) opinion is about Mylo Coffee co., it appears to be a thriving business, and it is encouraging that the owner of that business bought the Afterthought. Furthermore, one of my musician friends (who also frequently performed at the Afterthought) told me just this morning that the owner of Mylo asked to meet with him to talk about the new Afterthought. This makes me happy— not every venue owner would think to or be willing to meet with musical artists to discuss plans for the venue. I wish the owners and operators of the new Afterthought all the best, and believe that they will put in the thought and effort necessary to make the Afterthought a thriving venue and community hub once again. By the way good Mylo people, I too am available to lend you my thoughts about the new Afterthought if you care to hear them— I certainly have opinions.

As difficult as it is for me to drive by a now vacant Afterthought, I understand that I now have a great opportunity (and necessity) to explore other musical endeavors. Although I loved that place, my identity, livelihood, and sense of musical community are not dependent on The Afterthought and never were. For I am not a musician at the Afterthought; I am simply a musician, and I can and will play music anywhere. I thank the Afterthought for all it gave me, bid it a fond farewell, and wish it all the best in it’s afterlife.

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)


Music is everywhere. No I’m not talking about the song of the birds, or the gentle hum of the breeze—I’m not being poetic. I’m talking about that REO Speedwagon song playing at the gas station, or Tears for Fears at the grocery store, or the Spoon album playing at the coffee shop while I’m writing this blog post, or me tuning out the Spoon album at the coffee shop with some Lamont Dozier in my headphones. With only a few rare exceptions, it appears that where there are people, there is music playing. This is great right? I love music, you love music, so it is only natural that we would want it playing everywhere.

No, this is not great. First of all, music is often playing at the supermarket, and liquor store, and restaurants to make you spend more money— this isn’t a conspiracy theory, the effects of music on purchases have been studied, tested, and verified since the 1960s (here’s a layperson-friendly article on the topic if you care to read it). The fact that corporations are using music to affect our purchase habits is certainly alarming. Yet as a musician and lover of music, I am disturbed by a more general fact: when music is playing constantly, we tend to value it less.

Music is perhaps the single richest human endeavor. Interchangeably or all-at-once music can provide a means of communication, an expression of emotion, a spiritual devotion, an ecstatic experience,an affirmation of one’s culture or group, a catharsis, a way of healing or countless other things. Music activates neurons in more areas of your brain than almost any other activity (and that’s a nearly un-paraphrased sentence from this article). Music should be revered for the all-consuming entity that it is. Instead we offer it up like free mints at the end of a Tex-Mex meal.

Before the proliferation of recorded music and stereo systems,respect for music came more naturally. To experience music a person would go to church and hear the mighty organ and choir, or go to the symphony, or meet in the town square for an after-work jam, or listen to a family member play piano, or sing songs with your friends (I”m certain that this is an over-simplification of musical activities in the past but you get my drift). Music was the most captivating form of entertainment and a relatively rare treat by today’s standards. Today we have constant access to music through computers, smartphones, radios and stereos and many of us wield this power like drunken kings, constantly bombarding our ears with a schizophrenic onslaught of tunes.

Furthermore, I think that there is a direct correlation between the ubiquity of music and a decline in dancing. In some African languages the word for “music” and “dance” is the same. In American English, perhaps we could use the same word for “music” and “driving.” Today music turns up in places that are not appropriate for dancing just as often as places where dancing is encouraged. There is probably some up-tempo music playing at the grocery store right now, but you won’t see anyone dancing to it. This socially forced denial of dancing carries over even to places that are deemed appropriate for dancing. I’ve been to (or performed at) too many live shows where the band is laying down some clearly danceable grooves, and the crowd is just motionless, cerebrally listening. I think that this is just what happens when you’ve been listening to music all day but haven’t busted a single move— you didn’t dance during the day when you were listening to Beyonce so why break the seal at the Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe show? (shameless plug number one)

However, there is still hope for music. One arena in which music is still respected and fully enjoyed in our culture is at weddings. During the ceremony, music propels the movement of this still sacred ritual, and people are quite often moved to tears when they hear the first notes of the bride’s processional. Even after the ceremony, music still sits on it’s rightful throne; through some magical combination of booze, feel good songs, and joy for the newlyweds, wedding receptions still manage to get people to really cut loose on the dance floor. I absolutely love weddings for this reason, and I am extremely excited to get to travel to Eureka Springs this Saturday to play at a wedding reception with my band That Arkansas Weather— we’re available for hire by the way (shameless plug number two).

Yet you don’t have to wait for a wedding to start respecting music. Unfortunately you can’t turn off the music at the grocery store or Starbucks, but you can turn it off in your car; and you can take your headphones out once in a while; and you can turn it on in your room and really let it grab you by the bones; and you can come to the That Arkansas Weather show Friday at the Afterthought and dance til you feel better (shameless plug number three and I’m out).

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman



For the past seven years I’ve been living a double life. On the outside, I’ve appeared to be a dutiful college student, guitar teacher, and performer— learning, teaching, and playing music that others have written. I’ve played with numerous original music groups along the way (Ezra lbs, The See, Velvet Kente, Rouxster, Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe), but I was never the primary creative force in any of these bands, merely the guitarist. My dirty little secret is that I’ve been writing my own music and lyrics since high school. I have numerous reasons for hiding this shameful activity: it’s egotistical, it doesn’t make money, there are a million better songs, I don’t want people to dislike my art (or dislike me for producing it), and my songs are never as good as I want them to be. Yet I realize that I am not going to stop writing songs anytime soon— truthfully, writing, recording, and performing original music is my most pressing desire. I could continue to conceal my creations, but I would be cheating both myself and any potential listeners. Thus, I’d like to refute my reasons for not releasing my work and then share two Indie Pop-Rock songs I’ve recorded this year.

It’s egotistical. Of course it’s egotistical. My lyrical content is all about my life. I’m writing all about my personal hopes, heartbreaks, connections, and philosophy because that is what I know best and what carries emotional weight for me. Furthermore, the act of writing anything to be shared with others is always at least partially egotistical. Whether it is in this blog or the music I write, there is a consistent voice behind the overt content that simply says “hey listen to at me! I have something important to say.” This is fine. I don’t think I want to hear an egoless song because I wouldn’t believe it were authentic— perhaps a small number of spiritually enlightened people have learned to live without ego, but 99% of the world has not. Furthermore, without ego you don’t have the feelings of desire, ecstasy, vengeance, lust, frustration, confusion, depression and triumph that tend to make for a good song. To quote the late writer and instructor William Zinsser, “writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use it’s power to keep yourself going.”

It doesn’t make any money. Truthfully this is a big reason that I do not spend more time creating and sharing my work. I teach and perform other people’s material because that is what people pay me to do. If I were paid handsomely to write and record songs then I would do it all the time. Yet even in the absence of payment, I do find time to create original music and yearn to do it even more often. This is because I don’t see the art of music as merely a means to a payday, but experience it as a way to explore and release my desires and emotions and ultimately satisfy my basic human need to be creative. There may even be benefit in not getting paid for my art (said the guy not getting paid for his art). If I needed to make money writing songs, then I would need those songs to appeal to whoever were buying them— all of a sudden my freedom to express myself would be narrowed by the need to appeal to my buyers and my songs could become watered-down and emotionally ineffectual. On the contrary, right now I can write and record literally anything I want (be it sad, experimental, obnoxious, long-winded, sloppy, offensive, etc…) and I think that often the best art is produced in this space of ultimate creative sovereignty. Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to make money on my music. I do, and even use this desire as motivation to create. For although I currently get paid more to teach and perform than to create, in the long-term I know that it is original music that could make me the most money (through record sales, commercial licensing, movie soundtracks, etc…). In short, no my original music doesn’t make me money right now, and I don’t need it to for it to be a satisfying personal activity, but I do want it to.

There are a million better songs. Sure there are. But there are a billion worse songs as well. I don’t necessarily benefit from turning songwriting into a competition, but I do listen to a lot of music, and I do often think “I could write a better song than that.” Even more often I think “that’s offensively unoriginal.” In the least I know that I have a unique perspective and a unique voice (I think everyone does if they are honest with themselves) and I am going to try to express it in my songs because no one else will for me. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if these are better or worse than any other songs— they are different, they are mine.

I don’t want people to dislike my art. This is my biggest hindrance to actually sharing my work. I admire people who seem to not care what others think of them, but by my nature, I can’t help but care — I really want people to like me. When someone listens to something so personal as a song I’ve written, it’s easy to feel like their judgement of it (whether good or bad) is a judgement of me as a person. My mom, a terrific realist painter, once gave me an empowering book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland; amongst many other “observations on the perils and rewards of art-making,” they addressed the need to detach yourself from your work. You are not your art. Your personal value, strength, and identity as a human doesn’t come from any particular symphony you’ve composed, still-life you’ve painted, or nude you’ve sculpted. Certainly during the fervor of creation you can become one with the piece, yet as soon as you share it with the world, it has a life of its own— people will view it, share it, judge it and interpret it through their own personal filters. You too will change, grow, and create new work, so there is no use in identifying yourself with a piece that is no longer representative of what you are. Thousands of people could love or hate your art, but it is up to you to love yourself and keep creating. Finally, the goal of creating art shouldn’t be to make something that everyone will like. Musicians who have tried to appeal to everyone have ended up making middle-of-the-road elevator music. It is better for some to love your work and some to hate it, than to have everyone kinda-sorta like it.

My songs are never as good as I want them to be. I could talk about this phenomena myself, but someone smarter and more experienced than me has already said everything I want to say about the matter. Enter Ira Glass: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

And so in the spirit of closing the gap between my killer taste and my amateur output, I’m going to share two songs I’ve recently recorded. In truth these are only rough drafts. I recorded these songsall on my own and I know they can be improved by professional mixing/mastering and live drums (although my sampled drum tracks are pretty charming I think). My plan is to record an album’s worth of songs on my own (which allows me to flesh out all of the parts) and then re-record them with my friends Daniel Olah (drums) and Brad Birge (bass) at Jason Tedford’s Wolfman Studios (none of them know this yet by the way). I’m sharing them with you right now in part because I think they’re catchy and you might like them, yet also to push myself to continue to record. If people like these songs, I’ll be encouraged to record and share more; if people don’t like them, I’ll be encouraged to record more and improve. Regardless, my secret is out now, and I am going to keep recording. I have too much material that I’ve been sitting to not release it into the world. I hope you enjoy!

(lyrics below)

Jesus Burger

you wear a shirt you bought today

you sport a hat and morning shave

you get your style from magazines

and style your hair like him onscreen

you only scream when watching sports

you dream just like a sleeping corpse

you only kiss when you are drunk

your love is sinking or it’s sunk

these garish gods

they pave the way

for passive people

passing days

Jesus burger

Buddha fries

savior sugar


you get your comfort from TV

you get your words from what you read

you eat your lunch at nearly noon

you only speak when spoken to

work all day for dollar bills

and go to sleep by eating pills

you cannot speak and so you text

you can’t make love but still need sex

these garish gods

they pave the way

for passive people

passing days

Jesus burger

Buddha fries

savior sugar

sure tastes nice

these garish gods

they pave the way

for passive people

passing days

Jesus burger

Buddha fries

savior sugar


Sweat Machine

I got nothing but time for myself

but you got something for me I can tell

pocket room but there’s nothing to sell

you got something

tell me

your secrets surely will compel me

to wear your darkness on my short-sleeve

to let me drink the blood I need

whatever you need

will only grow up from this black seed

will always be there when you breathe

will always be there when you breathe

I got nothing but time for myself

but you got something for me I can tell

pocket room but there’s nothing to sell

but you got something for me I can tell

stop now

you had another evil thought now

but we both know that it’s your heart’s vow

you signed up for this when you came down

when we came down

somehow we showed up in the same town

somehow you knew just when to spin around

and now I’m spinning with you… with you

with you with you with you with you

with you with you with you with you

with who with who with who with who

we’re through we’re through we’re through we’re through

I got nothing but time for myself

but you got something for me I can tell

pocket room but there’s nothing to sell

but you got something for me I can tell

pay no mind as I talk to myself

I’m just trying to say something else

pocket room but there’s nothing to sell

but you got something for me I can tell

Saturday, February 21:

With the end of our journey in sight, Piph, Paul, and I sat at breakfast and marveled at the many wonderful sights, sounds, and learning opportunities that this trip has offered us. For instance, our previous day in the village of Rebola, with it’s small makeshift houses, joyous children, and moving funeral march, had highlighted both what we’ve taken for granted in America (i.e. clean running water, air-conditioning, internet, transportation, education etc.) and what we dislike about America (i.e. isolation and lack of community). We all agreed that this trip had put things in perspective and made us see that there was little to complain about back home. Piph, the most experienced traveler of the group, explained that after similar musical expeditions to other countries, he realized that he did not want to associate with consistently negative people. Later at lunch, Corey echoed this sentiment by expressing that he did not want to simply return to the complacent doldrums that sometimes pervades the Little Rock music scene. We’ve seen people on this trip who are accomplishing so much more, with so much less money and resources than many of us back home. Indeed, talking to each band-member, I’ve realized that we’ve all experienced this trip as a reminder of how much more we believe we can do with our lives and our music. None of us feel that it is time to rest and pat ourselves on the back, but rather it is time to be even more proactive: to write, to record, to practice, to go back to school, to learn a new language, to volunteer, to fight against injustice and to become who we truly want to be.

In the afternoon, we drove to the French Cultural center to rehearse with some local rappers for the evening’s show. Though they had never heard our music before, five different MC’s were easily able to do rap verses over our songs. This and other rehearsals during this trip have served as evidence of how universal Hip-Hop has become. We haven’t had to teach anyone how to rap, perform, or represent Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has been spreading around the world on its own for years now. From what I’ve seen, the tiny, obscure country of Equatorial Guinea, brimming with talented rappers and dancers, is a perfect example of this trend.

In the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal on the relaxing patio of the French Cultural Center —I had steak with creamy mushroom sauce, fried plantains, and San Miguel beer (a ubiquitous Spanish beer in Equatorial Guinea that I grew to love). After dinner, we shuffled in to the center’s concert hall and watched the main event of the evening: a two-on-two breakdance battle tournament! Dancers taunted each other with acrobatic flips, popping-and-locking, and incredible feats of strength and balance all to the beat of the DJ’s tracks. I tried to work on this tour diary from the balcony, but realized I couldn’t turn my eyes away from the amazing display of coordination, skill, and energy on the stage. Before the tournament’s winning team was announced, we took the stage to perform a short set. We heavily featured the local rappers we had rehearsed with earlier and the crowd (already worked up from the amazing dancing) was loud and supportive.

After the show and a brief rest at the hotel, we went out with Micheal and Piedad to partake of the local nightlife (wich Piedad explained is most enjoyed by people in Malabo between the hours of 1 and 7am). We went to a brightly lit bar, eccentrically decorated with roman pillars, paintings of Buddha/beautiful west African women, and all topped off with a green laser-light dancing on the ceiling. There we sampled local palm-wine, danced with Piedad, her sister, and their friends, and stayed out until our 3am curfew (imposed by our Embassy driver).

Sunday, February 22:

Today we luckily had plenty of time to sleep off the previous night’s party. Our first event was to meet with an Equatorial Guinean street-workout group called Barbarrio at 3pm (or 15 o’clock as I like to call it). We heard from five members of the group as well as the program’s organizer named Sese (pronounced “sesay”). We sat poolside at the hotel as Sese explained that Barbarrio’s purpose is much greater than providing fitness for young people— it is about acquiring skills like teamwork, communication, English, and discipline which will be useful for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, she explained that they execute their training within a Hip-Hop context— using minimal workout equipment and taking turns to improvise and perform rhythmic workouts to the beat of Hip-Hop songs. When we heard from the five teenage members of Barbarrio (speaking in their best English), the most common sentiments being expressed were that “Barbarrio is like a family,” and that “it is good to work out alone and be in shape, but it is much better when you do it with a group.” I responded by repeating the same ideas about music and our band: “of course it is good to play and practice alone, but it is best when you can make music with others,” and that indeed “over the course of this trip this band has become like a family.” After our discussion, they gave us an impressive demonstration of a typical workout which incorporated difficult pushup and parallel bar routines using our song “Untouchable” as the soundtrack. Next they encouraged us to get in on the workout and showed us different dips and core workouts that we tried out. At one point after a vigorous (and self-centered) workout synced up to my own guitar solo, I decided it was necessary that I jump in the pool with my jean shorts on (much to the chagrin of Michael, who was ready to escort us off to the next event). I went upstairs to change clothes so I missed Piph nearly completing a difficult 180 degree turn on the parallel bar (however, there is video of the attempt if anyone is extra interested).

We all got changed and went to have drinks and hors d’oeuvres with the kind Ambassadorial couple Mark and Jane Asquino, who hosted us at their large, modern home inside the US embassy. There we learned about their travels to central Asia, and talked to them about our musical and personal lives. They showed us pottery, clothes, and art they had collected around the world and we humorously attempted to play some of the African string and percussion instruments they displayed. The food was delicious, the drinks were generously poured, and the conversation was delightful. At one point, Paul exclaimed out of the blue something like “this is incredible, wow.” After we all exchanged warm goodbyes and gratitude, Paul explained outside that he became overwhelmed by the realization that his life could have been very different, but that certain choices (going away from home for college, devoting himself to drums, staying in Arkansas, etc.) had lead him to this wonderful moment we were all having together.

We returned to the hotel room for a poolside jam session at sunset with local Equatorial Guinean musicians. We began with a funky Afro-beat jam lead by local legend Alex Ikot on drumset and a talented young guitarist named Elvis-Bob. Another great hand-percussion player named Gafar played along while Corey and I listened and adapted our playing to the novel but infectious rhythms. Next an incredible young singer named Nelida Karr, who also happened to be married to Elvis, joined us on a West Africa infused rendition of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime.” Alex then summoned up the bass player for his band and we in tomorrow maybe took a refreshing moment to be the audience members for a stellar ensemble of musicians. Everyone played masterfully, joyfully, and tastefully as the band supported one of the best voices I have ever heard in person— Nelida sang with such precise control over her gorgeous full voice that it was difficult to believe that she is only 25! If you don’t believe me (and yes I have been accused of hyperbole from within the band), I have audio evidence of just how amazing this group was. After a few songs, we joined them again for a Hip-Hop jam with Nelida singing an improvised chorus between Piph’s freestyle rap verses. Unfortunately it began to rain so we had to pack up early, but I retired to my room with the rhythms and melodies of the evening still singing in my head.

Monday, February 23:

Our first order of business today was to check out the equipment we would be using for wednesday’s show at the Malabo Spanish Cultural Center. Similar to nearly every stop on our voyage, the equipment at the center was not quite up to the same standard as what we’re used to back home, yet by this time we were veterans of making due with what we’re given. Like many times before, Corey looked at his bass amp, surveyed the rest of the equipment, and uttered a resigned but confident “we’ll make it work.”

After our equipment check, we drove over to a vocational school in Maloba where we sat down for a talk with a large audience of young adults, all wearing lab coats (blue for students, and white for teachers). The enthusiastic crowd encouraged us with loud applause for seemingly every introduction and answer we gave. At one point we asked the audience if anyone knew what Hip-Hop is. Five or six students approached the front to give the answers, most of them replying something similar to “it is a way to express yourself and talk about the experience of being on the street,” yet everyone was especially impressed when one of the students confidently stated the four elements of Hip-Hop which Piph had been describing since day one of this trip: “Rap, DJ, Graffiti, and B-Boy.” We then invited some of the students to the front to showcase their own rap skill, and about six students took turns rapping while Paul made a beat on the table with his hands. Their was an interesting variety in both flow, demeanor, and lyrical content— we learned later from Michael (who understood the Spanish), that one young man was very positive and had thanked us for being here in his rap, whereas another took the opportunity to disparage and attack white people (and I clapped for that guy!). We finished the session with Piph rapping his own verse and a massive group picture with the students. We then got a chance to take a hard-hat tour of the facility where we saw students learning skills like metal-working, electronic engineering, wood carving, and cooking in preparation for good jobs that could support them for the rest of their lives. In a country marked by a huge disparity in wealth between the super elite and the poor, this school seemed to be a very good and potent drop in the bucket.

Next we packed up and departed for the airport in order to fly to the city of Bata on the mainland. We flew with the Equatorial Guinean airline Cieba Air, who conducted their airplane safety demonstration in Spanish and French. I’ve heard it all before so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the words, but I realized that this was the first flight that I’ve ever been on that had no English language demonstration. This was a minor detail, but a major reminder of just how far away from home we were.

We were on the ground in Bata a mere thirty minutes after takeoff, and then checked in to the seaside Hotel Ibis. For dinner we went to the restaurant at the Bata Spanish Cultural Center where we would be performing the following night (Spain is still a major diplomatic influence in E.G. and has some of the finest facilities for cultural programming on both the island and the mainland). There we met with four foreigners who had been living and working in Bata— three of them were Spaniards working at the cultural center, and one was a young American consultant named Elsa who grew up in Mexico, but spent her senior year of high school in Dewitt Arkansas of all places! After expressing the appropriate level of amazement at this coincidence, I enjoyed getting to know her more and talking to her friend Quico, the Spanish Consul in Bata, over a delicious dinner of locally caught fish.

Tuesday, February 24:

Today Piph, Corey, and I conducted our morning workout outside on the wide walkway next to the Atlantic ocean. The oppressive heat and humidity of the tropical country made for perhaps our most intense and difficult workout yet— it took me an hour to stop sweating.

We met up again with Elsa for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in town, and let her order us a large family style meal of hummus, baba ganoush, beef, chicken, salad, olives, bread, and a San Miguel beer for me. As we were waiting for our food Elsa described the excessively relaxed attitude of Equatorial Guinean waiters— “Once I ordered pizza at a restaurant and they then waited an hour before telling me they didn’t have pizza, and sometimes you’ll order one thing and they’ll just bring you something different.” Sure enough, right on cue the waiter brought me Heineken. Oh well, que sera, sera. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the restaurant owner insisted on treating us to some complimentary papaya and pineapple for dessert (E.G. has the best pineapple), which I washed down with a potent cup of Lebanese coffee.

We then went to a walled in orphanage which contained it’s own school and residence halls— if the children are not adopted at a young age, they are allowed to live and go to school here all the way up to high-school. The large campus was contained by tall stone walls, and on the inside

we saw playgrounds and many buildings which were pointed out to us as classrooms, residence halls, an auditorium, and more— though everything was a bit rundown, Elsa assured us that this was a nice facility for Bata. We met with some administrators of the school there, and although the principal seemed actually a little confused at our presence and definitely disappointed that we were not dancers, he quickly assembled a group of about 80 high-school age students for us to talk to and interact with underneath the shade of a large outdoor covering. We sat down in front of them, with Elsa and Pieadad strategically placed amongst us to do the translating. We introduced ourselves, gave the background of our band and Hip-Hop (expertly translated by Elsa), and then began to ask and field questions. Although shy at first, they told us which American Hip-Hop artists they liked (Eminem, Lil Wayne, Tupac), repeated back the four elements of Hip-Hop, and by the end of the talk some of them had sufficiently loosened up enough to try their hand at freestyle rapping— the crowd favorite was a teenager who didn’t really rap or freestyle, he just repeated the phrase “chopina, chopina, chopina!” to which the crowd shouted back “chopin!” (this was both hilarious and awesome). Next, at the request of the students, Piph rapped a verse to his song “Untouchable” while Paul held his phone speaker up to a megaphone and played the instrumental track out loud. The crowd of students erupted and we were all consumed by swarms of picture takers and and autograph seekers (I apologize to the girls whose shirts we signed— I know that seemed like a good idea at the time). Even Michael, Pieded, and Elsa were asked for pictures and autographs (which they of course obliged).

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make it back to the car un-photographed, we finally rounded up everyone and drove off to do some brief souvenir shopping. We found a street-side trinket dealer and Elsa helped us all haggle and procure bracelets, carved wooden animals, necklaces, coasters, and bowls. Piph and I also dipped into the grocery store across the street and purchased some Cuban Rum and Italian Wine.

After the shopping spree we drove to the Spanish Cultural Center to check out the equipment and rehearse with local rappers. We’d gotten very good at this routine by now, so it didn’t take us long to conduct the soundcheck and work the two Batan rappers into our act. We booked it back to the hotel in the bullet-proof Ambassadorial SUV that had been our conveyance around Bata, rested, refreshed, and prepared for the nights show. We arrived thirty minutes before showtime and were met with a massive empty room— not a single audience member. We set up and then waited backstage, anticipating a sorry show. Yet, the day was saved when a group of about thirty teenage girls (students from the school we visited earlier), showed up and filled the seats— soon after even more people showed up so that by showtime, we stood before a very decent audience. We had planned on playing a slightly shorter set, but the crowd was so into it that we ended up playing all of our songs. Elsa took the stage in her rock-star attire and helped us conduct the crowd-participation portions of the show, teaching the audience to sing our song “Feel Alright,” telling them to shout “hey!” along to the chorus of “Something to Tell Ya,” and inviting any dancers to the stage for the song “Chills.” The latter made for the highlight of the show: about a dozen young audience members on stage dancing along as we watched and played— Elsa even stayed on stage with us to bust a few moves (“I see you Elsa!”).

Feeling hot and high after the fun show, we were met with a shocking surprise when we found out that someone had tried to break into the Ambassador’s SUV during the show. This was a lousy attempt at criminality on a couple levels: for one, our driver Diosdado was standing right there watching the whole thing unfold; for two, the would-be robber tried to break bullet-proof glass with a crowbar (poor guy barely scratched the surface). We didn’t want to wait for the police to show up, so we went to Quico’s nearby apartment, dropped our equipment off, and walked on to the (possibly) famous “Freedom Tower” for dinner in a revolving Italian restaurant (which we requested they stop revolving because it was making us sick).

Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, the service was textbook Equatorial Guinean (slow and inconsistent) and the long wait time afforded me more opportunity to get to know Elsa. She described the culture shock of arriving in Dewitt, Arkansas for her senior year of high school, where at 18 years old she suddenly lost the privileges of drinking and going clubbing and gained an overly-protective host-mother and a school ripe with racial tension. Despite encountering a slew of real life negative Arkansan stereotypes, she did manage to make friends there and even visited Hot Springs last year to be a bridesmaid in one of her Dewitt best friends weddings— it was at this wedding that Elsa met our one mutual friend/acquaintance: Claire Nichols (shout out to you).

When our food finally came, I was proud to be part of the only group of Americans eating dinner at an Equatorial Guinean revolving Italian restaurant. After dinner we continued our unique journey by being the only people to hang out in the club downstairs— the bartender roped us into staying with some free tequila shots. We busted some brief moves on the empty dance floor, which was surrounded by mirrors on the walls; Elsa explained that this was because in many central African clubs women will dance facing the mirror, watching and waiting for acceptable dance partners to approach them. We all drank another drink and continued to discuss the peculiarities of life in Equatorial Guinea until it was time to depart for some much needed sleep. This will not be news to my bandmates, but I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa.

Wednesday, February 25:

Today we flew back to the island of Malabo for our final show of the tour. Did I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa? I have met some very impressive and inspiring people on this journey and she is certainly near the top of them. She is a consultant working on development in Equatorial Guinea, much needed because the country’s massive oil wealth sits in the hands of the elite minority, leaving over 70% of the citizens to live on $2 a day. Despite it being an underdeveloped country lacking in western comforts like running water, electricity, air-conditioning, and internet, whose citizens can be cold and distrusting of foreigners, Elsa chose to go to E.G. because her work is needed there and she believes her work could actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. She lives and works in a harsh reality, yet amazingly maintains an extremely upbeat demeanor— when I asked her how she manages to be so happy in such difficult circumstances, she said one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve heard during the trip: “I just make my own sunshine.” Time and time again on this trip have I been humbled to meet people either with less wealth or heavier burdens (often both) than I, who nonetheless have truly learned the art of happiness and continue to live and work hard.

After landing back in Malabo, we had nearly a full day to rest and recover before our show. I took the opportunity to sit by the pool and work on this tour diary, punctuating my paragraphs with dives into the water; I stayed there long enough to work up a nice sunburn.

Around 6:00pm we again arrived at the Spanish Cultural Center and conducted a brief set up and sound-check. Corey, Paul, and I then went and had cake and coffee at the restaurant, and enjoyed watching a Barbarrio street-workout unfold before our eyes— this time there were about 25 Babarrio boys and girls (I was happy to see that the group is co-ed) taking turns doing various incarnations of pushups, pull-ups, and dips. Backstage we grouped together and prepared for our final show in Africa. Everyone was loose and ready to put on a great show, continuing a running joke which began at our first show in the Equatorial Guinean heat that we were all going to perform shirtless. Babarrio opened up the show with a ten-minute workout routine set to music; after each person completed a difficult set of maneuvers Nelson, the strong 17 year old leader of Barbarrio, would shout “Uno, Dos, Tres!” and the rest would answer “Barbarrio!” When they completed their whole demonstration he again shouted “Uno, Dos, Tres!” but this time Nelson’s countdown was met with “Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe!”

We played a loud energetic show to a nearly packed house, relishing playing a show we had perfected over the course of the month. Multiple times I looked around at my bandmates to see them either dancing, smiling, or both. Gone was any self-consciousness attempt to be more or less Hollywood than the other— we were all in this together, and we played one of our best shows of the tour. When it came time for our boisterous closer “Untouchable,” I saw Dre and Piph really considering taking off their sweat drenched shirts. I’ve been of the “give me an inch and I’ll take a mile” mentality for much of this trip, so I went ahead and stripped my shirt off right there in front of the foreign audience (which the Ambassador was sitting in no less), and before I even had time to turn around, Dre had followed suit… then Piph… then Paul. Corey just sunk his head— “are these guys really doing this!?” I read clearly on his face. Halfway through the first verse and Corey had (halfway) followed suit, lifting his shirt above his head, and by the second verse he had reluctantly completed his unveiling. There we were, Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe, valiant, sweaty, shirtless, American. At the end of the song, encouraged by the rest of the band, I stretched my unaccompanied closing solo well past the limit of tasteful length and dropped in a Star-Spangled Banner quote for good measure. For me, this was absolutely the most fun show of the tour, because after a month of playing, laughing, and working everyday together, it was the most connected we felt as a band.

We made it back to the hotel in time for one more buffet dinner at the “Teatra” restaurant that had become so familiar to us over the course of our Equatorial Guinean stay. We ate and joked around with the hotel staff who had greatly warmed up to us during our week there, and halfway through dinner we were joined by our friend and Barbarrio organizer Sese Site. She passionately pleaded with us to not simply make this a one time trip to E.G.— “what you have done here has been positive, but you need to follow up again and again. The youth here have a lot of pain and frustration below the surface, and they need help finding constructive community activities like workouts and music. You could have a huge impact here.” Piph then explained that while we would like to help, our program (AMA) sent us here as a one time occurrence, and we do not have the money to come back here on our own. Furthermore, we can only help if there are people here in Equatorial Guinea who will be proactive in any potential program and who want us to help. Yet in the end we all agreed that we would try to find a way to continue our exchange with the Equatorial Guinean youth and would absolutely look for grants and programs that would allow us to return.

After dinner, we all went to the hotel bar (Piph, Paul, Dre, Corey, Piedad, and I) to have a final celebratory drink together. Dre and I ordered beers, but we were all a little turned off by the high price of drinks at the bar, so Piph went to retrieve the Cuban rum I had bought the night before and the young bartender kindly let us use glasses from the bar to pour our own booze in. I poured us all healthy portions of rum, and we took turns contributing to a massive band toast: “here’s to the being in Africa!” … “here’s to a great experience, and many more in the future” … “here’s to having the best possible band—there are other great musicians out there, but I don’t even want to look for them”… “ditto!” … “here’s to not really knowing you guys at all before this trip, but now considering you some of my best friends” … “CHEERS!” Piph, Corey, and I went in for a sip, but saw Dre and Paul take the whole cup down, so the three of us followed suit. Despite tossing back a healthy two shots each, we were all pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the Havana Club rum (something we’ll hopefully all get to enjoy soon in America). We finished the bottle while marveling at the many amazing sights we’d seen, the wonderful people we’d met, and the amazing fact that the five us had spent 25 consecutive days together working and playing and that there had been absolutely no drama or flare ups between us. This was a special journey.


Thursday, February 26:

Today our flight back home didn’t leave until night time, so it made sense to our program organizers to have us do a couple more talks before we left. Logically I understood this, but the fact was that after a great last show and a rum-drenched late night recap of our journey, we were prepared to fly back home and start afresh in Little Rock, carrying the lessons we learned with us. It seemed like the scheduled events resonated with our tour fatigue. The first was a talk at the university in Malabo with an English class, where neither the students nor the teacher (nor us for that matter) seemed to know what we were doing there. We dragged through the conversation, took a picture, and left confused. The second event was another talk with an English class for all ages in the English quarter of town. Here they were better prepared for us and we had a pleasant talk about music and life in America, yet all of us knew that we were ready for the flight home. Finally we ate a delicious dinner of American sized portions of pizza, chicken wings, cordon bleu, burgers, and pasta at a nearby restaurant and went on to the airport. We began our return journey at 9pm Equatorial Guinean time, flew to Paris, then to Detroit, and finally arrived in Little Rock around 5pm Friday evening (central standard time). We were seven hours ahead in E.G. so you can do the math on how long this voyage actually took (I don’t want to think about it).


I think if you re-read this diary (I’m certainly not suggesting you do that), you would find that the most frequently used word was “experience.” I’ve used it as a verb, adjective, and noun countless times, and that word once again is the one that best sums up my time here: I’ve experienced three different countries, eleven different cities/towns, dozens of beautiful sights, and hundreds of impactful people; I come home with a deeper knowledge of the world— I am truly more experienced; and I can honestly say that this was the best experience of my life.

I know that if you asked the other members of the band they would affirm how meaningful this trip was. Yet what is fascinating is that while the magnitude of the trip’s effect on us was similar, the character of the trip’s effect was different for each of us: for one, it reaffirmed and energized his current path; for another, it revealed people and things he needed to let go of in order to progress; for another it showed him how fortunate he was, and made clear that he needed to hold on to someone special; for another it cut through the superficial stressors of American life and showed him that people are what is most important; and for another it showed him the true purpose of musical performance and what the future should look like.

I want to offer my sincerest gratitude to American Voices, the State Department, Marc, Bahri, JJ, Ida, Fatma, Selma, Michael, Piedad, Elsa, Sese, Epiphany, Corey, Dre, Paul, our sound engineers along the way, the many artists we worked with, and all the wonderful Moroccans, Algerians, and Equatorial Guineans that we met along the way for helping make this such an amazing journey.

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.