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A Poet’s Progress: On the Road Through the Rif Mountains

Barberry Ape, Rif Mountains

While going in search of the wild Barberry apes in the Rif Mountains Ibrahim has some advice for us: “Never trust a monkey.”

The slave trade began in Africa in the 16th century, with members of one tribe selling its conquered enemies. One horse equaled ten slaves and one slave equaled two camels.

In the 1950s, the French discovered that the bedrock of Morocco was made of fossils caught in sedimentary rock millions of years ago when Morocco was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The Moroccans knew how to find these stones, but since the Koran has no mention of fossils, they thought they were selling minerals to the French. That is why the roadside stalls selling fossils are labeled “Minerales” even today.

The life of a nomad revolves around finding pastures and water for their sheep and goats year-round. There must be water but not too much water, there must be sun but not too much sun. The Berbers have a saying, “Rain in summer is wealth.”

But in the last twenty years the weather in Morocco has gone crazy. One hundred millimeters of rain—nearly ten times the average yearly rainfall—can fall in an hour, and there are winters without any rain or snow at all. Floods have swept repeatedly through the Ourika valley, washing away entire farms and families. It is no longer legal to build a house in the floodplains without government authorization.

And there’s the sudden cold. Last winter set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in the mountains. Unprepared for the cold, several hundred nomads died that winter crossing the mountains, trying to reach their summer pastures or find water for their flocks.

And there’s the sudden heat—summers are hotter and drier than ever. A nomad is used to the heat, but the last two years Morocco has been reaching temperatures difficult for even a Berber to bear.

En Garde, Erfoud

September 17, 2010: Fes, Morocco

A group of children are sitting on a long concrete slab in front of a building in the medina of Fes. One of the girls—about seven years old, dark and unkempt—leaps up and runs in front of me, yelling at me in Arabic, pushing against my stomach with her tanned hands, walking backwards. I realize she is almost exactly Zoe’s age, that this would be Zoe if she were born in Fes. A teenage girl rounds the corner, almost running into our group and leaps backwards to avoid contact and spits on the ground between us. It’s been explained to us that we must ask people if we can take their photos but still several of our group point their cameras at the locals as we walk quickly down the alleyways of the old city. Walking behind them I can see the people react violently against being photographed, bringing their hands up in front of their faces, scowling and looking away, waving their hands to scold us, or spitting at our feet as we pass. One shopkeeper rushes after us down the street, grabs a man from our party, points to the camera and makes him erase the photo. A young European woman comes up to me and says “Bon jour.” I smile and say “Bon jour” in reply, and she begins to yell at me. Even though I’m not carrying my camera, with what little French I know I can tell she’s asking me if I’m having fun, photographing the locals with no more courtesy than if I was visiting a zoo. It is explained to us that locals dress up in authentic costumes from their family’s historical caste—like the waterbearers and the musicians—and that this is how they make their living and they expect to be paid to have their picture taken. You should always negotiate the price first, Ibrahim tells us, and he recommends five dirhams, or about sixty cents. He says that if you wait until after the photo is taken, the price often rises dramatically to 100-150 dirhams, and sometimes they both ask for payment, whereas if you negotiate beforehand it’s assumed that it’s for both of them and they will share. I wait on the bus and watch one couple from our group walk up to the waterbearers and take some video and photos with them. When it’s over they turn their backs and walk away, ignoring the commotion behind them as the waterbearers follow them to the edge of the park, hurling insults in four different languages at their backs and shaking their fists. Boys of many ages are playing soccer in a dusty lot in front of the 17th century ruins outside Erfoud. A sudden yell of “En garde!” and I watch as one of the boys aims a soccer ball at my head. It drops and takes a weird hop and I have to leap out of the way. The closest boy—maybe seven years old—shrieks and imitates my clumsy leap, scolding me with a singsong nursery rhyme in Arabic, his eyes crossed, sticking out his chest, his hands on his hips, wiggling them back and forth in an exaggerated pantomime of a sex act as the other children shout and laugh. When I walk down a street leading away from the center square, away from the group, the locals fall silent, staring as I pass. When I look up and smile, they continue to stare as if I’m not actually standing in front of them, as if I don’t exist, as if I’m a phantom, an apparition projected on a screen. When I leave the medina, I almost immediately lose my way in the increasingly narrow one-way streets, until there is room for only one to pass at a time—the one nearest to a doorway stands sideways on the stoop, allowing the other to pass—never entering an alley and leaving it headed in same direction. I am the only tourist in this part of the medina. I know where I am for only a few steps before getting lost again. Other than when I am doing something forbidden have I ever really been alone?  Whatever I wanted this is what it is, one street and then the next, going nowhere in particular, over and over again. Whatever I see will in a moment be gone. What was once in the distance is what I’m walking through and I’ll never be able to walk fast enough or far enough to walk out of the frame. As the sun sets, the details begin to disappear. Long hours of empty desert, baked earth, withered grass, bones and dehydrated fur, the sting of woodsmoke, the dunes constantly changing, the sharp edge of rocks, the sky distorted by the wind, the moon a part of this place as much as the cliffs and valleys. The horizon glows with heat and the sky slowly turns red and black and distant herons arc across it. Soon the evening is a blank. Ibrahim warned me, “No one has to tell you that when you see a spinning cloud of sand headed in your direction that it’s time to move indoors.”

Underground Doorway, Meknas

West African Music: Volume I, Number Two: Senegal

Track 1: Lam Tooro, Baaba Maal From “The Palm Sampler” Palm Records.

Baaba Maal is a guitarist and percussionist born on November 12, 1953, in Podor, Senegal, on the Senegal River. His father was a fisherman, so it was expected that he would become a fisherman as well. But he studied music from his mother and his school’s headmaster instead, and then studied music the university in Dakar, and did his post-graduate studies at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. Returning to Senegal, he studied traditional music with a blind family griot, Mansour Seck, and performed with the band Daande Lenol. His 1994 recording of “Firin’ in Fouta” brought salsa and Breton harp to the party, and it launched careers by both Positive Black Soul (rap) and the Afro-Celt Sound System. In 1998, Brian Eno produced some tracks on “Nomad Soul.” Two of his songs are featured on the soundtrack of “Black Hawk Down” and he performed at Bonnaroo in 2010.

Track 2: Wake Up (Afro-Fantabulous Mix), Beef Wellington, featuring Youssou N’Dour, Neneh Cherry, Eugene Snowden and Swamburger. From “Open Remix”

One thing that strikes me is the tenor of the political songs from Africa. These are people knowing they are crossing a line, that they are putting their lives and their family’s lives in danger by recording and releasing their songs. Fela watched government troops throw his 84-year-old mother out of a window to her death. Yet people still choose to gather around songs like this one, because there is comfort in knowing they are not alone in their suffering—especially when someone has been able to give voice to that suffering. For those who decided to put their lives in danger in order to sing these songs it must have seemed the choice was either to act out or never to have lived at all. When Fela stood on the stage, his life in danger, and continued to sing about resistance to those who beat him and murdered his mother, inspired an entire branch of African musicians—still in existence—to speak out as well. And during the years when no one dared sing a song like this in public, the songs still circulated among the villagers on cheap cassette tapes.

Track 3: Baayo, Cherif MBaw. From “Desert Blues 3 (Disc 1)”

Cherif M’Baw is a singer and acoustic guitar player from Ziquinchor, the capital of the south Senegal, born on Christmas Day, 1968. His father was a craftsman and it was expected he would become one as well. Instead he enrolled in a traditional music course at the Conservatory in Dakar, where he learned how to play guitar. In 1994, he traveled to Paris for a contest organized by UNESCO, and finally settled in Paris, making his living singing and playing acoustic guitar underground at the Metro. In 2003, he appeared on a sampler put together by the underground railway authority. He has appeared with Omar Sosa and Carmel McCourt.

Track 4: Hymne for African Unit, Colobane  No info.

The only thing I can find out is that Colobane is the name of a commune in Dakar, Senegal, of over 60,000 people.

Track 5: Sama Guitare, El Hadj N’Diaye No info, but I think this is from a Putumoyo collection.

El Hadj sold cola-nuts in the Dakar markets and later became a student of economics. He starred in two films by Sembene Ousmane—“Thiaroye” and “Guelwar”—both about how Senegalese soldiers were sent into battle by the French, only to be betrayed and abandoned later. He learned how to play an electric guitar and began performing at cultural activities run by a company whose name translates as “Hold your head up.” The lyrics of “Sama Guitare (My Guitar)” translate as:

My xalam (short-necked lute), my guitar
Oh! I like you
I love you
You are the one
Who will never leave me
Unless I must leave
Only death could separate us
Deep in the cold night
As you break my solitude
And I caress your strings
For sure you are my love

Track 6: Mali Ba, Habib Koite.” Desert Blues 3: Entre Dunes Et Savanes (Disc 2)”

Habib Koite is a singer and a guitarist who was born on January 27, 1958, in Thies, Senegal, to a Mandinka family of musicians. He joined the Bamako National Institute of Arts and became a conductor in 1978 after only six months of playing. He graduated in 1982, and formed his band Bamada in 1988. Bamada is the slang name for a resident of Bamako, and translates as “in the mouth of the crocodile.” Bamada includes Keletigui Diabate on balafon, and also includes talking drums, guitar, bass, drum kit, harmonica, violin, and calabash.  He sings in English, French, and Bambara. His Latin-styled CD “Baro” and its song “Nanale” won the Radio France International Discoveries Prize in 1992. In 1995, his album “Muso Ko” made it to #3 on the European World Music charts. When people signed up for Microsoft Windows Vista program they got two free tracks from Koite. He has performed and recorded with Bonnie Raitt.

Track 7: Souleymane, Ismael Lo. From Wadiour (1990)

Ismael Lo is a guitarist and harmonica player who was born in Dogondoutchi, Niger, on August 30, 1956, to a Senegalese father and a Nigerian mother. Shortly after he was born, the family returned to Senegal. He studied at the School of Art in Dakar. He joined and quickly left a popular group called Super Diamano. His 1990 album “Ismael Lo” and its single “Tajabone” made the European charts. “Tajabone” was featured in Pedro Almodovar’s film “All About My Mother.” In 1997, he starred in Moussa Sene Absa’s film “Tableau Ferraille.” In 2002 he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. The film “Shake Hands with the Devil” about the Rwandan Genocide begins with his song “Jammu Africa.”

Track 8: Igne, Lucky Diop From “African Voices: Songs of Life”

Ndongo Bahoum Diop was born a member of the Diola tribe, in Ziguinchor, Senegal, in July 1964. Everyone who is born into the Diola tribe is automatically a musician. He began performing in public when he was ten years old. He played in his high school marching band, and they won numerous championships. During his last two years in high school, he collaborated with Solo Cissokho, a famous kora player, by adding sabar, bougarabou, seyrouba and djembe rhythms to the music. In 1987, he moved to Dakar, enrolled at the University Check Anta Diop of Dakar as an English student, while at the same time creating the first UCAD band. In 1988, he joined Zinzou’s “Les Ballets Africains.” In 1990, he returned to school, this time to the Douta Seck National Conservatory of Music, Dance and Drama, where he studied the dances and music of different ethnic tribes in Senegal, and took courses in balafon, kora, sabar and djembe. In 1991, he became active in the university’s theatre group, and joined Le Ballet Kouyakou and the African Dance Company. By 1992, he was teaching African drumming in the most reputable schools in Dakar. Through the YMCA International Exchange Program he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teaching drums, songs, and dances. In 1996, he performed at the Epcot Center of Disney World in Florida for five days. In 2009, Lucky started a “Drum Circle for World Peace,” that was the first of its kind at “Summerfest” (the world’s largest music festival, according to Wikipedia). The program soon expanded to other festivals such as Bastille Days, Mexican Fiesta, Brady Street Festival, Wisconsin State Fair, and many others.

Track 9: Ray mbele, Orchestra Baobab. From “Pirates Choice”

Orchestra Baobab was a multi-ethnic, multi-national club band formed in 1970. At the time the music of choice in Senegal was Cuban, combined with traditional griot music and the Mandinga and Casamance styles as well. Their popularity fell with the public’s turning away from colonial or foreign music and the band broke up 1987. But 13 years later their music was rediscovered by the Europeans, and they reunited in 2001.

Orchestra Baobab grew out of the famous Star Band. The Star Band played at the Dakar hotspot, Miami Club. When the Baobab Club opened in Dakar in 1970, six members of the Star Band were lured to the new club, and the Orchestra Baobab was born. In 1997, the Baobab Club went out of business, and the orchestra had to try to find other places to play. The music that essentially put the orchestra out of business was a new movement whose star was a young Youssou N’dour. It’s ironic that the Orchestra’s 2002 reunion album—“Specialist All Styles”—was produced by N’dour. The CD also included N’dour and Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer on vocals. It is no accident that the CD would feature Ferrer because not only had the band written a song in his honor for the album, but the same man who brought them back together was also responsible for getting the Buena Vista Social Club back together in the ‘90s—World Circuit Records producer Nick Gold. During the 2003 VHI1 film “Trey [Anastasio] and Dave [Matthews] Go to Africa” they both sat in with Orchestra Baobab. They won the award for best African artists and the critics’ choice award at the 2003 BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards for “Specialist All Styles,” their first release in 16 years.

Track 10: Emma, Toure Kunda. From “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 2”

Toure Kunda was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal. His elder brother Amadou was a singer and musician as well. With his twin brother (born 22 days apart), the three moved to Paris and soon began touring Europe as a trio. When Amadou died in 1985, the two remaining brothers continued on as a duo. In 1992, they were invited to play for Nelson Mandela at the Courtyard of Human Rights. In 1999, they recorded with Carlos Santana on his “Supernaturel” CD and toured with him as well.

Track 11: Toxu, Wasis Diop. From “Toxu” 1998.

Wasis Diop was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1950. He left Senegal in the 1970s to study engineering in Paris, but joined another Senegalese musician, Umban Ukset, in forming the band West African Cosmos, which he would leave in 1979. He lives in Paris and writes in French. He had British chart success with “African Dream,” and one of his songs is featured on the soundtrack to “The Thomas Crowne Affair.” He has recorded a version of the Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime” sung in his Wolof language.

Track 12: Lees Waxul, Yande Codou Sene & Youssou N’Dour. No info.

As a young boy, Youssou N’Dour fell in love with the voice of Yande Codou Sene on the radio. In 1995, he recorded an album with her. Even late in life she was known as the Grand Dame of Serer music. Today, she is still part of the official entourage of President Leopold Sedar Senghor, singing for state visitors and performing during presidential elections. At all other times she is a member of the small fishing and farming community where she was born, performing baptisms and circumcisions. “Lees Waxul” is a song of praise for her marabout—a learned holy man—and her religion.

Barberry Ape, Rif Mountains

Article by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


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