Thursday, September 09, 2010

Oak Street bootmakers

Blue lined loafer, bought at Tenet, Southampton. Nice joint. Two inch cuff, Vic Firths, Sansui transistor amp, Aints vs Vikes on the teevee.

Lined vs unlined loafers, pls discuss.

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Location:Basement, Alonsoville, Baltimore

Friday, August 27, 2010

More from Krasner-Pollock house

Flying Point Beach, Southampton

In the early 80s during beach weeks at Virginia Beach--second week of June, as I remember, the first week Richmond private schools were out for the summer--we'd rent hovels a block or two off the beach and ask a young, "cool" teacher to be our chaperones, thereby convincing our parents that all activities that took place while we high schoolers were away would be those approved by these erstwhile adults. It never worked out that way, of course. Impossible for me to imagine anyone allowing their kids to do that today, thought I suppose it still happens.

I was reminded of the beach weeks of my youth when I was digging out a butt-pit for my towel, something that is evocative of those distant, clueless times. After sleepless nights we'd trundle out to the beach, dive in, ride a few waves, and spend the next hours sleeping. Someone figured out it was a lot more comfortable to dig a body-shaped hole into the beach. They were right. Thank you, whoever that might have been.

If the below photo was instead a video you would see young MRC twitching, deep in rem.

TMC, also asleep.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Tom Wolfe

While browsing in Bookhampton in Southampton last week I noted that an elderly gentleman standing to my right wore a tailored sportcoat made of what appeared to be a gossamer-thin white linen half-lined in seersucker. The buttons on his sleeve, four of them, were functional and not decorative. A great swoop of white hair rose up from a high-forehead; he wore white trousers, white canvas deck shoes (they looked more like Keds than Sperrys) and, incongruously, a cummerbund. The latter was the tipoff: Of course this was none other than my fellow Richmonder Tom Wolfe.

author photo

I admit to freezing up and not approaching the man even though we'd have had plenty to talk about. My father, as a youngish lawyer in Richmond, wrote up the elder Mrs Wolfe's will, with young Tom's assistance; later in high school I painted a family friend's house and one day a large envelope tumbled in through the slot bearing a calligraphic pen and ink greeting done up in rococo flourishes that I recognized immediately from our family's copy of Wolfe's In Our Time, a book I loved as a youth and still love now. I knew the family still kept up with Wolfe--I think the mister was a classmate of Wolfe's in high school--and I admit now to being fascinated then by my sudden proximity to greatness, to fame.

I waited excitedly for the installments of Bonfire in Rolling Stone and the first book on tape I ever heard was John Lithgow reading the rather different version of the novel that appeared later in the 80s.

In fact I've always been fascinated by Wolfe's position in the literary cosmos even as I don't always agree with him. I took his side in the great Three Stooges debate less because I disliked Mailer, Irving or Updike and more because I liked the theater; I liked believing that the opinions of writers, even if they were beating one another up, could still garner attention in the broader forum. Who would those writers be today? Franzen vs. Lethem vs....Whom? Eggers?

Katie Roiphe tried but this one didn't last long.

There's an impish quality to Wolfe that mostly goes unnoticed, a mischievous subversiveness that poked holes in Irving's and Updike's pretentious broadsides, and I believed that Wolfe was in on the joke while the others were taking their roles as literary lions too seriously. He knew it was theater. He was trying to reconnect the act of writing fiction with a broader populace that exists somewhere north of WWF and Snooki and well south of the wealthy, neurotic and solipsistic characters that inhabit much of Irving's fiction.

Here is an interesting interview with Charlie Rose.

I regret not saying something to him now and maybe being invited over for a drink. I regret not saying something to Jennet Conant on the street the following day even though I was enjoying her book The Irregulars. I regret that we're not still there, on vacation, able to watch James Salter read in East Hampton this weekend.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pollock's studio

Studio floor.

Bogen w/ kt66's

Neat little horn. Altec?

Tabb in the sweet booties.

Found myself unexpectedly moved by the visit to the Pollack-Krasner House in East Hampton over our vacay. Much to think about.

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Back in the Saddle

A quickie. Been a long time, so long I'd assume anyone who had any interest in reading this so many years ago have moved on.

Last Spring I took a deep breath and bought not one but two pair of Quoddy shoes from O'Connells in Buffalo. I bought the 3 eyelet boat moc and the boat loafer. For those not in the know, these are handmade in Maine and far pricier than your average Topsider.

Both have been returned and exchanged due to workmanship issues. Above is a photo of the loafer. See where the stitching is separating between the strap and the upper?

Bummed, I am.

Worse, this will be the second pair of Quoddys I've exchanged this summer: my first pair, the 3 eyelet boat moc, were sent back due to the extreme pull-up of the Horween chromexcel. One shoe looked brand new, the other five years old. This was less a problem with Quoddy's workmanship and more an issue of sourcing from Horween, and I didn't really hold it against Quoddy. They are, by all accounts, a standup firm, and who among us doesn't love Made in USA? Who among us won't pay a few frogskins extra for quality?

Who among us doesn't have a ten year old pair of LLBean mocs made in El Salvador that we paid 40 bucks for that are still in perfect condition? Well, I do anyway...

Ethan at O'Connells exchanged the first pair without questions. I'm fully expecting him to do the same with the loafers.

More later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ornette Coleman's Tears

In the early to mid 90s I went to see Ornette Coleman and Prime Time play at the Duke Ellington theater in DC. My friend Futch had bought the tickets and come up from North Carolina with his girlfriend at the time and two of the seats were excellent, up front center as I recollect, while the third was not quite a nosebleed but up there on the mezzanine. I was happy to take the mezzanine seat and let the lovers get down close to Mr. Coleman; it was Futch anyhow who'd first told me to listen to Mr. COleman's music--I think I chose Chappaqua Suite or one of those improvi records--which I was none too wild about. But soon after I listened to Tomorrow is the Question and Something Else and The Shape of Jazz and soon everything else about Ornette Coleman became clearer and I could listen to all of his music with pretty clean ears (even Dancing in Your Head!).

ANyhow the show was great. Denardo was magnificent of course, powerful and driving that chariot, the skootelly-doot guit player with the big goofy George Benson-style f-hole and pleated khakis was pretty far out but certainly part and parcel of the beautiful weirdness of the show and of course the tabla player sitting there in full regalia--sitting right there on the floor in front of Denardo--well, it was all too much. And then Mr. Coleman, light, elegant, a still dancer, standing up front and center.

At some point I recognized from my seat way up there that Coleman would periodically stop blowing into his alto sax and bow forward, touch his chin to his chest almost, his shoulders shaking...between songs he'd look up at the audience in a pose I can only call beatific--face upturned, seemingly joyful at the praise from the audience's acknowledgment that we knew or could feel something was being made right there in the Ellington Theater that would make all of us different afterwards, a group rite--and his face would be shining in the lights, his eyes closed.

After the show I met up with Futch and his gal and we walked into the DC night. Futch asked if I could see Ornette Coleman's tears from up where I was sitting, that he was crying throughout the concert.

"Was he upset about something?" I asked.
Futch looked at me.
"The opposite I suppose," he said.

Have been away for awhile; will get back now.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Lion in the Road

In all the time I knew him, I saw my grandfather in two primary costumes: his pajamas/bathrobe and a business suit. He wore his pajamas every morning while making us bacon and eggs, his leather slippers softshoeing on the oft-sand scattered linoleum. The kitchen faced east; sun broke through a huge magnolia in the side yard. This was in Hampton, Virginia, located where the James RIver empties into the Chesapeake. Every day en route to my cousins' house on Chseapeake Avenue we'd pass the historical marker describing the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, which took place right there in front of my cousins' house. After making breakfast my grandfather, who we called Big Daddy--emphasis on the "Big" and not the more pimp-like "Daddy"-- would take a shower and put on his suit, always wearing a hat and overcoat, say goodbye to everyone and walk to a door in the upstairs apartment my mom and her brother mostly grew up in, open the door and walk down a flight of steps to his office, which was on the first floor. He owned and ran a funeral home, all of which lay below the apartment. Cousin Bryan taught me how to play Super Freak on the chapel organ. I'd seen more dead bodies by the time I was 7 then most Americans who have no tbeen to war see in a lifetime. Adults tried to hide it from us but kids are curious. One body still haunts me, a fat woman, completely naked, in the white-tiled lab, the embalmer looking up from the gray body.

I don't mean to start off my first address to the interweb in months so morbidly. I don't have death on my mind any more than you should, which is to say, constantly. Anyhow, I was spooled back through time in a very pleasant way as a result of this interview with David Berman. My grandfather, who died in 1985, my freshman year at college, was an extraordinary man who I think about every day, literally. I couldn't go to the funeral because of ice storms acros the South. I've never felt guilt, if you wondered.

I met Berman for the first time sometime in the early to late mid90s, in Charlottesville, when he and Will were first getting together to plan out the Silver Palace record...actually, I think they were prepared to record, as I have a very dim recollection of guitars and mics, maybe even a DAT, a mixing board, a stool on an oriental rug. Tea bags. Maybe they did make some songs. Chris and I had driven out rte 20 to Berman's rented place, Will and Paul were there, and a friend or two. Will and DIanne were responsible for supper; it was a baked rice dish that I've eaten with the Oldhams before, maybe a family recipe, grandmother perhaps, where you bake the raw rice in liquid and vegetables. There was a big bottle of jug wine, some beers. It was summertime so the woods around crowded you even when you weren't near to them; insects creeched from the swollen greenery. We watched the Heidi Fleiss documentary. Berman was arguing with Paul, challenging him to defend Can, who Berman loathed. Paul was using the Henry Jamesian mechanism of "I like Can; that is enough", but Berman was having none of it. Hectoring--where does that word come from? Wasn't the Iliad's Hector the only honorable guy in the whole war?--anyway, hectoring comes to mind. We were all younger then, but Paul most so, and Berman is a tall cat with a good loud voice that comes out of his mouth with a directness and an absolute lack of confusion that I've always admired...Paul, having grown up with Ned and Will, had long ago learned to defend himself but at the same time you could tell that having someone yelling at him about Can, forcing him into the position of explaining why he liked Can was jarring, used perhaps to more intensely quiet lines of questioning--Defend them, Paul! Berman yelled. Why on earth would you like such a shitty, pointless band? Explain it, please. I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why this band is so great, and you're not doing a very good job of it, either.

Since then Berman's always occupied a part of my mind that I don't always want him occupying. We are friends in a distant but tangible way in such a way as you might be friends with twenty people; there's that sense that you know someone well enough, but not too well. He did not answer any of my emails for a year after I made passing reference to the Ravens' beating of the Titans in the AFC championship a few yrs ago, nevermind that I entirely agreed with his negative assessment of the Billick-led Ravens, and I even think that in the Pitchfork interview he subconsciously utilized the word I used to describe the Ravens so many years ago, which was "unlikable". He pestered me to send him a copy of my languishing Mali book so I, at great expense, made a copy of the thing and took it to him in Nashville when I did a few tiny things on the Best of Palace record last winter. When I asked him a few weeks later if he'd read it he yelled at me in an email, accusing me of being an asshole for "dropping such a huge book in his lap". I suppose this was at the height--or the depths--of the lifestyle abuse referred to in the Pitchfork interview.

Even so, there's a very short list of people whose modes of navigating life seem unique and admirable to me, and whose work seems to reflect some distilled essence of their lives rather than an ironic put-on or "art exercise", and Berman is one of those people. Perhaps the line between "ironic put-on" and "distilled essence" is remarkably thin, so thin as to be invisible. Who's to say one can't create the illusion of "distilled essence" as I suppose Ryan Adams, Sons of Leon, the Magnolia Electric guy, and Jay Farrar attempt to do?

Many might accuse Bonny Prince Billy of art-school artifice, of too rigorous an application of intellectual concepts of identity to his music-making, but anyone with an even remotely objective take on what Will's been doing for the past 15 years knows that the opposite is true. There's a corny stereotype about the great artist being physically unable to do anything but exactly what they're doing--the assumption that the great artist is unable to make the compromises that you and I make hourly in obeisance to the life of the consumer gods --but in the case of both Will and Berman I believe this to be true. Then there's that notion that people occupy their place in contemporary mythology not due to any effort on their part but because unknowable conditions and forces have eddied them to where they are, sort of dropped them off in some tidal pool not of their choosing. Maybe this is it more than ambition or desire. Who knows. Oldham and Berman. I could see both of them being lawyers but certainly not antique store owners, or label magnates. It's not even an issue of purity, a moral concept I think both Jew and Catholic alike would take issue with, but instead limitations and an ability to focus energies (at least in Will's case). I'm not saying this any better or more honorable than what you and I do, for as we all know the line between stupidity and solipsism and selfishness and childishness is all one, and choosing instead to settle in to Cohen's House of Mystery, like Sam Gamgee at the end of Return of the King, as anyone who's done it knows, is the wildest, weirdest, hardest adventure there is, infinitely more difficult than being by yourself and like a little lost boy leaving everything behind every few years...

In the early 90s a friend worked at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. One morning before opening--it was early, just past dawn--my friend, broom in hand, was interrupted by a banging on the door. A man stood there, hooded in a grey sweatshrt and matching grey sweatpants. A skinny woman with long red hair that sprung out from her head in a sticky halo not unlike cotton candy stood impatiently behind the man sucking intently on a cigarette. He wore white Chuck Taylor hightops which my friend noted appeared brand new, glowing there in the dawn; also, interestingly, the man, for even though the creature was slight of frame is was clearly a man, the way it bounced on its toes as it stood on the other side of the plate glass, had a white towel draped around his neck, on the outside of his sweatshirt. The woman finished one cigarette and lit another.

The museum had had a problem with homeless loiterers using the bathroom. My friend yelled at the guy, threatened to call the cops, told him then politely, embarrassed, maybe considering that the guy might in fact be a visitor, that they opened at 9. THe figure nodded and began to shadow box. The woman shook her hair; her mascara began to drip; she stubbed out her cigarette.

After a half hour or so the guy banged on the door again. My friend approached the door with nothing like anger but wanting instead to settle the man's impatience, to prove to the man and woman that they'd have to wait until opening. But then he knew he would open the door, because the man was Bob Dylan and he, my friend, already had tickets to the night's show at the Mosque. Dylan asked for the lyrics to Dixie; my friend gave him the lyrics from a faded folder and gave him a tour of the museum.

That night Dylan opened the show with Dixie but he did not sing the lyrics.

A number of years ago we played some shows in California with a band called the Supreme Dicks . They'd gone to Hampshire College at the height of the 80s hippy revival and said they'd come up with the most obnoxious name possible mostly in order to tweak dorky earnest hippie sensibilities of their liberal Yankee counterparts. One of the Supreme Dicks looked familiar to all of us. (Another guy in the band was perhaps apocryphally the source of Buck in Chuck and Buck ). We grew to like the Dicks quite a lot. Sweeney played drums for them. I've already mentioned that in LA Sweeney knew somebody who invited us over for a swim. So we drive up into the Hills to a producer's house. A starlet was there, pretty but with bad skin, and Adam Goldberg , who sat poolside reading a gigantic tome made out of pressed leather whose pages were yellowed and crumbling. So intent was he to figure out the book he did not look at us as we all striped down to our bathing suits. This is where I saw Sweeney try to jump off the diving board; Liz Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance was there--she was the road manager for the tour--and this is also where Ned splashed Goldberg with the cannonball (in retelling this story, now referred to twice in this account of things now and past, to someone who knows Goldberg, I have learned that what I understood to be arrogance was instead nerves; AG was a big fan of Will's...the tailor re-tailored).

There's no reason to pretend that the upcoming exposure of the familiar Dick--Sam Dylan, son of Bob and Sara, brother to Jakob and Jessie, the guy who directed Kicking and Screaming and How High-- might hold any import whatsoever, but as Berman claims in his interview, it's often more important to be a witness rather than the witnessed; these little nodes of information are recorded in public places and the public translates them as they will...on the same tour we ate Indian food with Phil Ochs' daughter and watched Cher's son play a video game that involved maneuvering a skateboarder through a cityscape.

PS: I'd totally forgotten about that nut-job who followed the Dicks up the whole West Coast dancing and gyrating. Apparently he's the Kapelovitz who started the page. Any clarification on the issue would be appreciated.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Sniff My Freedom

I am truly enjoying this book right now, by Max Rodenbeck.

My good friend Gordon over here decides to do something and by golly he sticks with it, through thick and thin, including putting up pictures and words every day for those of you who make it a habit to wander from one of these blogs to the next, while at work or play. Me, not so good: Some people not have way, I guess.

But below, in lieu of freshities, and again in honor of Gordo's stick-to-itness, another excerpt from the long lost Mali book (I will honor the dailies soon with fresh words):

I happen one day across a group of musicians I know gathered casually around a checkerboard and so I sit and play with them while they pass the ngoni from one person to the next. Chris and Tabb are walking through the marché together and I am excited to be able to yala---to wander---by myself. A young unsmiling man in bubu who will not tell me his name, calling himself only Le Vieux (The Old), takes the ngoni from my friend Amadou’s hands. The other players whisper behind their hands, “Donso.”

Within Banimotie and Wasulu society the donsos are given a great deal of respect for their very devotion to the donso lifestyle, to the sacrifices they make, and for their dedication to that part of the donso’s code that disallows them from entering mainstream Malian society. Hardcore donsos don’t run cigarette stands, they don’t sell bread, they don’t fix bikes. In short, they don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Being a donso is not a hobby but a complete lifestyle choice, and clearly Le Vieux is having second thoughts about playing for the curious tubab. He doesn’t sing and seems caught between wanting to impress me with his skill on the ngoni and breaking the donso’s code of performing during the day without his uniform. At first he plucks sheepishly at the ngoni, not even opening his mouth, avoiding my gaze. I play the nkerenye with him, using a blunt homemade knife in lieu of a nail, and soon he is playing dizzying runs on top of a low E drone that sounds like a harmonium. Upon finishing he hands the ngoni to someone else and walks away without a word.

Not too long ago I was invited to a donso ceremony in Kolondieba, where the barefooted donsos, all wearing brown mudcloth uniforms with the odd, baggy jodphurs, hats, and matching frocks, fetishes dangling from their lapels, gathered behind a central leader holding an ngoni, who began to play. They commenced to shuffle forth, snaking through the crowd in a neat half-step dance, some playing nkerenyes, ngonis, some holding their muskets aloft, huge and ancient with primitive handmade stocks and long scarred barrels. The leader sang the first few lines of the song. His fellow donsos added a repeated vocal chorus, sometimes consisting of a line from the song, sometimes a nasal whine consistent it seems with a gospel chorus’s amen, naamooaaah or namooo. A sort of secondary donso’s acknowledgement of the primary singer’s vocal and intellectual power, the phrase, I am told by a regional Peace Corps volunteer, might also be a slang version of I hear you. An emcee with an ancient microphone and a long cord walked next to the hunters, holding the mic up to the lead ngoni player. A distorted howling came from the single horn speaker placed above the crowd.

Throughout the ceremony, the hunters reached into pouches hanging around their waists to retrieve goathorn-fulls of homemade gunpowder, which they dumped by the ounce into the barrels of their guns. They’d squeeze off a shot, another, as great billowing revolutionary booms whose echo had the percussive depth of a cannon rolled like great iron drums across the expanse. Kids scattered with cries and regrouped holding hands to ears, now transfixed upon the hunters. Rings of smoke drifted upwards and directly I smelled the pleasantly acrid scent of gunpowder. Incidentally, when hunting en brousse, each load is handpacked with powder, wadding, balls and ignited by what in many cases appears to be a flintlock. I am sure I have seen flintlock rifles out here en brousse, and I could see many of the old donsos in Kolondieba thumb-cocking their pieces before they held them up in the air. Surely some of the men have come across more contemporary firearms but others, without question, are using rifles that are all but homemade. Bullets are expensive: they only fired blanks during the show, just powder and wadding. Off to the side an old man followed them with a large tray of black powder. Presently he put it on the ground nearby so they could easily scoop into the powder and refill their pouches without much interruption of their progress through the crowd.

I am reminded of a story an American who worked for a small company that supplied funds for building rural schoolhouses told about a donso he met while building a new schoolhouse. Naturally, the villagers said to him, it is tradition in most villages to invite local hunters to any important ceremonies to sing and to play their ngonis and nkerenyes and to have a feast. The American agreed to pay for the donsos, a few chickens and bowls of rice.

So, as he said, one afternoon out among a low collection of mud huts in another village outside of Bougouni, the hunters gathered, already drunk, in a cluster of rare shade and without any acknowledgement to one another the ngoni began and a strong voice rose from the crowd. They began to parade in a tight circle in the courtyard of the village. Between them lay the communal pan of gunpowder, from which they periodically filled their muskets. Some were too elderly to do more than shuffle along, heads down, while others danced foot to foot. Some punctuated the singing with enormous blasts from their rifles.

A., the American, continued the story. He said that the donsos were very drunk and firing one salvo after the next. Huge fireballs of flaming wadding rained down on the group like spent fireworks as the hunters kept firing. He noted with concern that the calabash full of gunpowder seemed vulnerable to attack. Balls of fire were raining down upon all and it seemed only a matter of time…And of course a ball of expelled wadding eventually ignited the calabash of gunpowder. A crackling explosion followed. One of the hunters dancing close to the flaming pan reached for it, hoping to extinguish the fire in order to save precious gunpowder, and was burned horribly, third degree up both arms.

Our acquaintance watched, horrified. The man’s life was clearly threatened; he was clammy and going into shock. A., half-panicked, motioned to his nearby motorcycle but the hunter refused the two hour ride to Bamako, refused the thirty minute drive to the aid station at Bougouni, refused any sort of help from the American whatsoever. He was whisked off on the back of a bicycle by a brother donso, holding his streaming redblack arms into the air.

Later the American visited the hunter in a darkened hut. The man’s burns were severe, his arms caked and oozing pus. He moaned terribly and had a high fever, attended to by hunters with medicaments and powders. They brushed the flies away from his wounds with a goat’s tail. The American, smelling in the close air of the hut the reek of rot and death, asked again to help. Again the hunter refused assistance.

A month later the American returned to the village expecting to find the old donso dead. Instead, the American was greeted by the hunter, his arms scarred but fully healed.
“Needless to say,” said the American, “we don’t let the drunken donsos come to any more school opening ceremonies.
“And,” he added, “some villages have refused to allow us build schools there for that very reason.”

One afternoon Chris, Tabb and I pile into a Land Rover with literally twelve other Malians and leave Bougouni for a village called Bougoula. It’s about an hour and a half from Bougouni, and easily an hour of it is spent on one of the innumerable dirt roads crisscrossing the brousse. In the way back of the truck Malians are piled atop one another like luggage. At one point Tabb begins to look peaked; we unload him from the truck just as he vomits onto the ground. He is starting to get sick regularly, but we remind ourselves that he isn’t even two, and don’t all toddlers get sick? I clench my teeth as he retches again into the ditch, and as the haphazardly piled Malians in the back watch us through the window. Chris wipes his mouth with her shirt. We pile back into the truck.

We get to Bougoula when the sun is straight above us. It is unimaginably hot. Crowds of children gather around Tabb. What was once a cute ritual has become an invasion: initially Tabb loved the attention but now he is frightened when the crowds of children push in on us, and buries his head in my shoulder. Little brown hands reach in only to touch in what can only be described as a very unchildlike tenderness, a conscious attempt, it seems, to be delicate and to not paw. After the children rush him he looks over his shoulder and sees that the crush has dissipated. He climbs down from his perch and ends up playing unknowable games with other toddlers and young children, running through the shaded side of the courtyard of the village. Someone points to the kids.

“Ça c’est bon,” he says, winking at us. “Baashi-te. It is fine now. It is safe there.”
“Safe?” Chris asks. “What are you talking about?”
“Serpents,” he says. “The snakes are only deep in the forest, not on the edge.”

Presently a jester-donso bounds out from the forest. Two dancers wearing antelope-masks, the chiwara, follow closely behind. We hear the sound of drums and presently a three-man jembe and doundoun troupe lopes out of the shade. Chris, Tabb and I are seated in homemade chairs on the front row in a band of shade as just a foot from us the yellow earth seethes with heat. A woman griot follows the dancers and sings the praises of the VIPs in attendance, Bagayoko, Berthe, a few men from the cotton factory (this is after all a ceremony honoring the agricultural gods). We are the only non-Malians there. The great griots of Mali’s history, including Mali-founder and folk-hero Sunjata’s own Balla Fasseke, are men, though today the most popular singers in Mali are women, many of whom sing with pop-style accompaniment the long, oriental melody lines of what I hear in Bougoula; Oumou Sangare, Rokia Traore, Nahawa Doumbia, Djeniba Seck, all of whom have roots down here near Wasulu. In fact, Nahawa Doumbia lives not far from us in Bougouni.

The jester-donso begins to whip 2 antelope-masked dancers into a frenzy, helped by the syncopated explosions of the sweating drummers. One of the dancers spots us among the crowd—-a tubab man, woman and child—-and leaps towards us, curious, his head held cocked like a young goat. He clutches short poles on which he balances his muscular torso in an eerie and dead-on accurate portrayal of a bounding animal. He is channeling the chi wara—-chi means “men”, “between”, as well as “farming”, while wara means wild animal—-the mythical antelope-beast born of a woman and a snake who, some say, descended from the heavens to teach agriculture to the Bamana peoples. It is not yet hot season but already the villagers are preparing for it and for the rainy season following by beseeching the gods to be sure to send rain…Through the thin slits in his mask I can see his eyes wide and glittering, twitching manically to the beat of the drums. Behind him the drummers play a slow, loping beat, somehow ominous and off-kilter, like a wounded animal limping into the shade. The dancer peers at us more closely, his head turning eerily on his neck, as he becomes this curious spirit-animal. Dust clouds rise and billow across the yard. Tabb sinks into Chris and begins to wail.

The jester, thus emboldened by the cries of his prey, screams and leaps and following this sudden signal the jembes begin a furious salvo and catch the dancer’s feet. The chiwara dancer’s head remains completely still, his eyes locked on mine, as his feet thrum the ground below. Tabb is fully wailing now. Around the dancer’s ankles are braces of hundreds of bottlecaps, which hiss and shake like a prehistoric armored animal shimmying in the dust. The loud drums echo across the barren space while a hot merciless wind pushes rivulets of sweat into my eyes. The band of sun has crossed into our previously shaded spot. I can almost feel my bodily chemistry being re-worked by the heat, by the excitement of the performance, and I can almost hear the reversion of my molecules to some baser state. Sometimes I feel like I have to grip my chair all the more tightly or else I’ll find myself leaping up and dancing with the animal-man.

This is no show for the tourists; there are no tourists in Bougouni. This is no empty ritual, but instead is a mystical reconditioning of the people of this village to bear out the hot season once again with strength and patience, and a beseechment of the gods to bless the crops once the hot season ends. The Sahara is creeping ever closer. Little over a decade has passed since the last deadly drought resulted in the death of the majority of livestock in the entire country of Mali. Granaries stand empty in barren fields. Cows’ hips jut evermore sharply from their scarred hides. Children’s bellies protrude, phallic malformed bellybutton flesh dangling lewdly from drum-tight abdomens.

This is what we in the West have lost, completely.

Girls with buckets of water continue to follow the goat dancers, splashing it into the dust with their fingers. Still sizable clouds of dust rise angrily from the dancer’s feet. I have my shirt over part of my face but am staring at the mask hanging in front of my eyes; the jembe players behind appear to be rising from clouds of smoke. And before me the dancer remains planted, his powerful legs hammering the earth like pistons, his head yet unmoving.
Intimidation, standoff, the ancient peering into the future.

Late in the afternoon we eat tige dege na, a peanut-based stew, from the huge communal bowls with the villagers. As we eat with other village elders and Malian VIPs young village children stare at us from a few feet away. They will only eat after we have finished. It is difficult to break apart a large chicken breast with only one hand but every time my left hand drifts towards the bowl I can feel ten eyes instantly upon it. In any case Tabb reaches in to the bowl with both hands and shovels handfulls of rice into his shining lips, nodding with pleasure as the children point to him and laugh.

We arrive home as night is falling and collapse into our beds. The harmattan howls outside; next door the donkey knocks and snuffles against its stall. When the wind and the donkey calm there is little but a great, lonely silence.

I speak to Chris, telling her about my perceptions of the day, about the thrilling dancers, the jembe drums, the seriousness with which the villagers’ seemed to take both the chiwara ritual as well as our presence at it. It is more clear to me now how difficult it would be for someone like Moussa, or any other Malian student or teenager with a passing notion of the Wu Tang Clan or New York or Bill Clinton, who is interested in joining the modern world outside of Bougouni, to separate themselves from this powerful human magic in order to make better sense of the plastic modern world. There is something purely frightening and collectively nightmarish about this essence of man-as-animal, this shade of that dancing ur-beast lurking at the root of everyone’s heart, that forces one to recognize how easily our ancient past could obliterate our plastic future if we might, Kurtz-like, succumb to it. The ritual we witnessed today makes our contemporary world seem ridiculous. One feels one’s self being dragged backwards into the earth’s harsh breast; the modern world and all its glossy, repressed greed makes less sense.

I wonder about the donso-jester. He was wearing the donso’s uniform but didn’t play an ngoni, and seemed more an enabler, a guide, and less a real donso. Perhaps a bogolan costume festooned with gris-gris does not a donso make. The drummers were incredible, I say to Chris, eyeing the mosquitoes already gathering on the net, their hind-legs hiked up like elbows, working against one another like oil pumps. And did you see the beautiful jeli? Those infinitely black eyes, that knowing, pre-fall smile, but still so innocent somehow…a country girl who knows nothing of the world outside of this village but knows more, perhaps, of man…I wonder what’s going on with the band back in Baltimore. I’m in a sort of droning trance.

Then Chris twitches, snores; she is sound asleep.

But I cannot join her, not yet: I am unable to erase the frightening image of the dancer’s manic eyes from my imagination.