Last week I opened up my blog by boasting about a Tinder date that I went on. I truly meant this only to be an attention grabber before I launched into an exploration of the decline of melody in music. Yet it appears that people were much more intrigued by my date than my musical musings. The overwhelming response to my blog post about the disappearance of melody in music was this: “how was the Tinder date though?” Well much like Fauzio, I aim to please, and so I’m going to indulge your thirst for a vicarious experience of NYC Tinder life and tell you about my date.

I had an incredibly pleasant time with a beautiful young Irish woman who was charming, upbeat, humorous, and delightfully outspoken. Our plan was to meet up at The MoMA, view some art, chat over coffee, and then part ways. Yet after the MoMA we had dinner together, and after dinner we went to a bar, and after the bar we went for a walk, and after the walk we met up with a friend of mine and chatted at a cafe, and after the cafe, we took the subway to my house and watched some Game of Thrones. And no, this was not a “Netflix and chill” kind of situation— get your mind out of the gutter people. It was just wonderful evening filled with really good conversation, laughter, and flirtation.

The truth is I’m not actually telling you all of that because I want to grant you your wish of peaking into my romantic life— (as usual) I have a larger point to make. Believe it or not, me going on that Tinder date, has everything to do with me fighting for the presence of melody in music. That’s right fools! I’m not abandoning my discussion of the decline of melody in music. Stay with me now…

What is melody? The technical definition of melody (per dictionary.com) is “The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.” But more generally what is melody? It is an active statement; it is the part you can sing; it is the part you remember. If you think of a musical composition as a story, as many composers throughout history have, melody is the dialogue and action that propels the plot. Harmony and Rhythm would be more like the setting and pace of the story. And yet if it is such an important part of the musical story, why then are more and more composers in jazz, film, and popular music abandoning clear melodies?

The simplest answer is that it is easier to not write a melody than to write a melody. While the simplest answer is often the correct one, I believe that there is also something more poisonous at play: on some level most everyone wants to be cool, and at some point melody became uncool. I can express this easier with a musical example. Listen to any or all of both of these pieces of instrumental music: Serenade no. 13 in G Major by Mozart and Lizard Point by Brian Eno. One has a very distinct memorable melody throughout, and the other doesn’t really have a melody. Which do you think is cooler (not better, just cooler)? Because it is much more mysterious and abstract I am going to guess that most people think that the Eno tune is cooler. A melody is a clear statement, and a clear statement is rarely going to be perceived as cooler than something more oblique.

We could think of it like this: a melody is like looking up and saying “I love how the sun beams through the trees in Central Park.” As nice and true as that statement may be, it is simply not as cool as just staring off at the trees, silent and expressionless as you smoke a cigarette. Certainly the latter is cooler, but is it better? No way. First of all, smoking is bad for your health. Secondly, you are not communicating anything to anyone else by staring off into space. You’re just living in your own cool, insular, lonely world. And yet we are all victims under the oppressive tyranny of the cool— nobody wants to be considered uncool, and yet nobody knows exactly what it is to be cool, thus many people simply avoid making statements (verbally or musically) for fear of being uncool.

So what the hell does going on a Tinder date have to do with writing a melody or being cool? Well, on Tinder I’m a perfectly cultivated cool guy. I have pictures of me holding a guitar, laying on a raft with sunglasses on, effortlessly posing with a real live butterfly on my shoulder, and an equally cool “about me” write-up to boot. Given the extra time to think up responses I’m also far more clever and witty in Tinder text message conversation than I am in real life. Thus, I could have contented myself to stay at home and just be a cool idea of a person, but I chose (as did she) to actually go meet up with someone and expose myself as a real, flawed human. In person, you hear my goofy laugh, you witness me fumble with words sometimes, and you sense my subtle nervousness and excitement about being on a date. I’m not as cool in person, but I am much more real— I’m someone you can actually connect to. It doesn’t matter how cool someone is on paper, the only thing that matters in romance is how well you connect with someone face to face, and the only way to do that is to get out of the house, go on a date, and put yourself at risk of being uncool. Thus, the acts of writing a melody and going on a Tinder date are both mini rebellions against the tyranny of the cool.

And even the coolest people can rebel against the tyranny of the cool. My friend Epiphany Morrow (musical artist, rapper, public speaker, philanthropist, and entrepreneur) is by all measures a very cool dude. This week Epiphany released his long awaited Legacy Project. Billed as the world’s first “living album,” The Legacy Project is a smartphone app offering an interactive music and video experience which draws users into a unique world of Piph’s creation. You most certainly should download it (just search “big piph” or “the legacy project” in your app store). Despite the fact that many would undoubtedly consider Epiphany a cool dude, the best part about him is that in The Legacy Project and in so many of his other endeavors he too routinely and unapologetically puts himself at risk of being uncool. For it is not because I think that he is cool that I respect and admire Piph (in fact I know him well enough to know that he is actually a closet-nerd)— no, I respect and admire him because he is incredibly genuine, disciplined, and creates art that has true perspective and substance behind it.

You may not see it, but I do: the acts of going on a date, releasing an app, and writing a melody are all important rebellions against the tyranny of the cool. Certainly nobody wants to be uncool, and yet the only actions or statements that have any meaning or weight behind them are those that do put us at risk of being uncool. And here’s the liberating truth: there is really no such thing as cool. When Miles Davis gave birth to the cool back in 1957— he gave birth to a phantom. Cool is simply a figment of our collective imagination. Love is real, beauty is real, laughter is real, and cool is not real. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we’ll being to really live.


Last week I was in a coffee shop struggling to write a blog post about booty, when I started eavesdropping on an amusing conversation. I listened as the shop’s two hipster employees spun a random web of banter (from farmer’s markets to penne pizza to Keurig coffee to that business card scene in American Psycho) and suddenly I had a sad realization: eavesdropping on this conversation was the most interesting thing I’d done all week. I was struggling to write the blog post because I didn’t do anything worth writing about that week— I just went to school, practiced, did my homework, ate food, watched game of thrones, read Harry Potter, and slept. It was a good week— but a boring week to read about, so I was stuck mining my mind for some interesting concepts. But concepts are not interesting— they’re just dead ideas unless you do something with them. So I vowed then and there that the next week I would go out and really do something, because (dammit) I live in the most vibrant city in the world, and (dammit) I need these blog posts to be easier to write. Thus, I’d like to throw out the tired old concepts this week, and just give you a recap of some of the more interesting things I did.

I began my adventures last Friday night by taking a stroll down to Union Square (well known hangout for eccentric characters). I was just eating an apple doing some people watching when I saw a large mass of people circle up and heard someone from the inside suddenly shout “If you’re loving the Cyphers put your fist up, and say hell yeah!” (and naturally all the spectators put their fists up and shouted back “hell yeah!”). I approached the crowd and soon realized that there was a hip-hop beat playing and many people trading freestyle verses over it. Apparently I had walked into a meeting of the Legendary Cyphers, a renowned freestyle session that happens every Friday night in Union Square (read about it here please). Many of the MC’s were wearing Legendary Cyphers shirts, most were just in plain-clothes, and one guy was inexplicably wearing a full Aquaman costume. I learned from their verses that they were honoring an MC called Majesty, one of the founding members of the Legendary Cyphers who had recently passed away. I was captivated by the scene— some of the MC’s were incredibly talented and effortlessly picked up where the previous rapper had left off, then spitting a clever collection of puns, metaphors, and cultural references. Some of the MC’s were clearly amateurs, yet this was obviously a safe, supportive space with the beginners being lifted up by the heavy weight MC’s rather than put down by them. If one rapper began to flounder, there was no dissing or booing—another MC would simply pick up where he or she left off and the cypher would continue. For the roughly hour-long duration that I watched, the rapping never stopped. The beats would change every five minutes or so, yet the MC’s never stopped flowing. As I watched I was constantly aware of the many similarities between this and a jazz jam session, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

The next day I decided to do something I have not done in years: watch an Arkansas Razorback football game. There’s a bar in Times Square called Hurley’s Saloon that hosts watch parties for Razorback sporting events (don’t ask me why). I wanted to go hear some Arkansan accents so I threw on a red shirt and brought my buddy Jonathan along to watch Arkansas get royally stomped by Alabama (coincidentally, Jonathan went to the University of Louisville who is currently having success under the memorably-fired former Razorback coach Bobby Petrino). We sat and drank some beers and I told Jonathan that I wanted to go talk to the people at the table nearby. He seemed doubtful that I would actually cold approach a table full of strangers and introduce myself, but he’s never been to Arkansas and doesn’t understand how small of a world it is there. So I got up and introduced myself to a table of five women (oh maybe it was the “five women” part that made him doubtful), and after some brief small talk I discovered that two of them were indeed in Bible study with my aunt Martha Jane at First Methodist church in Hot Springs, and one of them was an assistant principal at Pine Bluff High School when my friend Epiphany Morrow was a student there. To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell, Epiphany and Martha Jane are “connectors.” They both know a lot of people and a lot of different types of people. I’ve been very lucky to have been propped up and helped along my life’s path by a number of friends and family members who are connectors. Because of this, I too aspire to one day be a helpful connector to many people in my life, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

My week at school passed by with plenty of practice and classwork, and by the time Thursday rolled around I was ready for another outing. A fellow guitar student at NYU named Ben recommended I go see the excellent guitarist (and NYU professor) Adam Rogers perform at 55 Bar with his power-trio Dice. Rogers is mostly known as an accomplished jazz guitarist, but in this band he breaks out a Fender Stratocaster and fully flexes his rock muscle. He still played with his trademark technical skill and advanced harmonic and rhythmic ideas, yet he did so in the context of arrangements of songs by Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, and Jimi Hendrix, as well as some heavy-hitting originals tunes. It was fun and invigorating to see such a great performance, yet watching Rogers play this style of music was inspiring on another level as well. For I imagine that the current generation of jazz guitarists did not first pick up a guitar because they heard a Kenny Burrell or Wes Montgomery album. They were probably first inspired by rock gods like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page and only later seduced by the deep well of musical ideas that the jazz cats provided. Thus, it was great to see present-day Adam Rogers playing something that I imagine a 13 year old Adam Rogers would have enjoyed— certainly my 13 year old self would have enjoyed it, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

I keep harping on this phrase “the topic of a future blog post” to show that simply by going out into the world and doing something (anything really), I have gained, if I want to use them, ideas for at least three new blog-posts as well as concrete experiences to support them. Whereas last week I spent hours upon hours struggling to write a purely conceptual post, this week’s post flowed easily from the pen to the page (and then from the fingers to the screen as I typed it up). Yet because I’m a conceptual kind of guy and I can’t stay away from abstract ideas for too long, I’d like to leave you with what I think is the underlying lesson of this week’s post: The more that you do, the more you that you can do. The more you practice your craft, the more gigs you’ll be able to handle; the more people you go out and meet and invest yourself in, the more people you’ll have to help you in your personal and professional life; and the more you just get out of the house, the more you’ll have to talk about in your music blog. See you next week!

PiphpicThis week at Lucas Murray Music, I’m doing something a little bit different: I am entering into world of Big Piph (aka Epiphany Morrow). I’m not talking about just hanging out with him— I’ve had the pleasure of performing and hanging with Piph countless times. I’m talking about taking a step into the vast universe that he has created for The Legacy Project, the world’s first “living album,” which he is releasing tomorrow. This is Piph’s magnum opus, tying together an album of new music, enough videos to rival Beyonce, and an interactive app for your smart phone. For the past four years I’ve witnessed Piph grow this ambitious little pipe dream into a full blown reality. He has likened executing this project to trying to jump the grand canyon on a moped, and if that is the case, I’ve been a captive audience member eating popcorn on the sidelines, waiting to see either a miraculous landing or a terrible crash. Well everyone, it appears that he is going to make it, and because of that I get to give you a tip of the iceberg peak into the project. Today we are going to take a musical look at one of the characters in The Legacy Project. Enjoy.

Ellie V BackgroundEllie Evans was an extremely gifted student and athlete. In spring of 2006 she graduated salutatorian of historic Little Rock Central High School at age 16; that fall she began attending Princeton University and maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA during her stay; at the end of 2007 she qualified for the Beijing Olympics in gymnastics. Yet after a string of personal tragedies, Ellie inexplicably left school and Olympic glory behind, moved back to Little Rock, and began a transformation into the mysterious woman we see today. Ellie V (as she chooses to be called now) is a modern renaissance woman: one part martial artist, one part computer programmer (or hacker as some have claimed), and one part punk rock icon. She granted me this rare interview on the terms that it would only be about music. It seems she does not want to address the rumors that she has become a consultant for L.E.S. in their “special outreach” division. So, ok. on to the music. Here is Ellie V in five songs:

1. You are at an amazing, lush house party at a Venice Beach mansion. Everyone there seems to be friendly, attractive, intelligent, and having the time of their life drinking, dancing, and socializing. Mos Def and Penelope Cruz are among the guests that are casually enjoying this party. This is the best party you’ve ever been to. You must pick one song that will play every time you walk into a new room at this party. What song do you pick?

Ellie: Let’s Get it On— Marvin Gaye

2. What is the one song you wish you had written? Note: You are not necessarily the performer of this song, but you will receive royalties from it, and everyone who knows and loves this song will know that you were the brilliant person who wrote it.

Ellie: Nothing Compares 2 U— Prince

3. What was the last song that played in your car?

Ellie: You’re With the Wrong One— Fried

4. You are an olympic boxer in Rio this summer about to compete for the gold medal. What song do you play in your headphones beforehand to get you ready to fight?

Ellie: Bring Your Whole Crew— DMX

5. You are 76 years old telling your teenage grand kids that their music is crap, and how much better your musical taste was during your teenage years. What is the first song you play for them to prove this point?

Ellie: Bull in the Heather— Sonic Youth

Finally, Ellie has also granted me the exclusive privilege of pre-releasing her brand new single “eat your heart.” You heard it here first kids. Thanks Ellie!

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 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.

Arkansas Music Abroad: A Tour Diary

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

Sunday, February 1st:

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

Monday, February 2nd:

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

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

Tuesday, February 3rd:

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

Wednesday, February 4th:

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

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

Thursday, February 5:

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

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

Friday, February 6:

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 7:

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