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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Entering the Desert

Tree, Fes

In the afternoon I rest under the branches of a giant tamarisk tree, searching the sky like the locals for signs of rain, chewing on a blade of bamboo. I am silent for a long time as the afternoon  slouches by. The valley soaked with rain looks unhappy. Ibrahim says “In Morocco it is always either too hot or raining. There is no other weather here.” Moroccan women of any age are rarely seen during the day, but an hour before sunset they come out and sit on their front steps doing laundry or preparing food, barefoot, gossiping with their neighbors. Sometimes in the evening the women of the village—young and old—gather under trees while the boys and men sit in chairs around an open door, listening to talk radio, smoking and arguing. My notebook is open but I’m not writing. The splatter of rain on stone. The gray sky. The yellowish light. The Moroccan rain melts instantly into the Sahara. The air is colder. Surfaces shimmer. Silver windows. Wrought iron railings. A metallic sense of black. Red and white tiles shining, the air smelling of damp stone, wet rubber and wet leather, wet cedarwood, wet limestone and adobe. A frog hops from under the dripping greenery to cross the cool cement. The buzzards have stopped singing, bats circle the palm trees. There is lightning without thunder deeper in the desert. The rain is coming down thicker than before, snapping hard against the windows. The room is black and it is dark outside—the fuse has blown again. I strike a match. There is for a moment something yellow two inches long scurrying across the tiles into the shower, something shivering in the light—then a darkness that is somehow even more complete.

Jewish Quarter, Fes

September 19, 2010: Ouarzazate, Morocco

The air conditioner in my room suddenly starts banging and hammering and clanging loudly, pieces of white plastic shooting out of it onto the floor. I rush to the remote control and shut it off, go out to dinner, and stop at the front desk on the way back to my room. I explain the situation to the desk clerk. He asks me if I turned it off and I tell him “of course” and he tosses a passkey to one of the guys hanging out at the desk, who takes me back to my room. When we get there he unlocks the door and leaves it wide open and walks over to the air conditioner and turns it on and it starts right up and isn’t making the horrible clanging sound and he turns it off. I look behind the TV to show him the bits of plastic that came out of it and the only thing there is a puddle of water. “That’s funny,” I say. “No it’s not funny” he says and finds the TV remote control and goes through the channels one by one until he comes to channel six. It’s a sports channel and he points to it and says, “Foosball.” “But?” I say, picking up the air conditioner remote control. “No,” he shouts, wagging his finger back and forth in front of my face and taking the remote control from me and putting it in a drawer. He points to the TV, “Foosball.” Then he’s gone, leaving the door wide open. I stand for a minute wondering if he is coming back. Is it safe to use the air conditioner? I don’t want to watch foosball in Arabic. A modestly dressed young woman is seated in a television studio, her black curly hair falling past her shoulders. Across the table from her sits a short angry man. When he stops shouting at her, she answers his questions looking down at her clasped hands, at her forearms crossed upon the table. He interrupts, startling her. She swings her head away from him, waving away his question, but he catches her attention by snapping at her again. She stutters, attempting to qualify something she’s just said, which only makes him madder. The atmosphere is claustrophobic—she backs away from him as if he’s physically threatening her. She becomes more careful and deliberate in what she says, her left hand waving less confidently, her left index finger tapping at the table for emphasis, the movements of her head becoming small nervous leaps away from him as he continues to yell at her. Then she snaps and turns around to face him, cornered, hands spread across the tabletop as if they are holding her upright, like a cat striking a pose that says “I will not retreat”—or a Grizzly making herself as large as possible, barking now, protecting her cubs. I turn off the TV and pick up the novel I’m reading—<em>The Sheltering Sky</em> by Paul Bowles—leaving the door open in case he’s coming back. After about fifteen minutes, there are sounds in the courtyard of a couple returning to their room next to mine, so I get up and close my door. But it’s the kind of door that won’t clasp unless it’s locked, so I just leave it open a tiny bit so that if he comes back it won’t be like I locked him out. I read until I’m sleepy and finally go to sleep around eleven. When I wake up, no one’s been in my room as far as I can tell. I turn on the air-conditioner and it works perfectly, and continues to work perfectly until my last day in Ouarzazate. Suddenly it begins to make the same loud crunching noise and pieces of white plastic begin shooting out of it again. I turn it off and look behind the TV and see that the white things shooting out of it aren’t pieces of plastic, they’re chunks of ice.

Portico Roof, Mosque, Ouarzazate

Music of Western Africa, Volume I: Part Three: Mauritania, Benin, Bukina Faso, Ivory Coast

Track 1: Nebine, Malouma. From “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 3”

Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah was born into a griot family in Mauritania. Griots were musicians whose responsibility was to preserve the history of their tribe in poetry and song. Her songs are not about her tribe’s history, however, but about social issues concerning modern Mauritanians, like AIDS, vaccinations, illiteracy, and women’s rights.

Track 2: Almaryood, Abdel Gadir Salim No info.

Abdel Gadir Salim is a folksinger born (best guess) in the 1950s, from the village of Dilling, Sudan in the Nuba Mountains. He trained in both European and Arabic music at the Institute of Music in Khartoum, beginning with the oud. By 1971 he stopped composing urban-styled music and began writing country tunes. He sings in both Kordofan and Darfur, and rarely writes his own lyrics. Although many of his songs are socially aware, the fact that they are classified as traditional songs keeps him out of trouble with the Islamic government of Sudan. Some of the beats in these folk songs are in 6/8 and are modeled after the gait of the camels. He is often classified as Egypt Pop. “’Jeenaki,’ or “The Return of Geese,” describes how the sight of geese is a welcome indication of rain in the desert of river-scarce Sudan, where flocks of geese alight to drink from pools.”—Wikipedia. Salim appears either solo or with his band, the All Stars. Throughout most of his career—from the mid-‘80s through the mid-2000s—he was an international performer and the headmaster of a school in Chad at the same time. In 2005 he recorded a CD with Sudanese rapper, former child soldier and Christian convert Emmanuel Jal called “Ceasefire.”

Track 3: Mwashah, Hamza El Din. No Info.

Hamza Ed Din was a Nubian oud and tar player (upper Nile frame drum) and singer born in Toshka, Egypt. He studied at King Fouad University (now the University of Cairo), then studied at the Popular University and at Ibrahim Shafiq’s Institute of Music. He continued his studies after graduation at the King Fouad Institute of Middle Eastern Music, where he learned to play the oud. Then, with a grant from the Italian government, he studied western music and classical guitar at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. He emigrated to the U.S., where he worked as a recording and concert performer and taught ethnomusicology in several American universities, including the University of Ohio, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival in `1964 on U.N. Human Rights Day, and he appeared on a LP of the event that was released by Vanguard Recordings. In the ‘80s, the Japan Foundation paid for him to travel Tokyo to make a comparative study between the Arabian oud and the Japanese “biwa”. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart produced his album “Eclipse.” He appeared regularly with the Kronos Quartet. I was working at Sounds True when we were excited to be releasing his “A Wish” CD in 1999. His music has been used by many ballet companies such as Maurice Bejart Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Molissa Fenley Dance Company and Lines Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco. He created music for the play “The Persians” directed by Peter Sellers.

Track 4: Yarab, Malouma. No info.

Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah was born in Mederdra (best guess, the ‘60s) into a family of griots, the daughter of Moktar Ould Meidah, a prominent traditional musician as well as a highly skilled poet, and the granddaughter of Mohamed Yahya Ould Boubane, also a poet and master of the tidinit (a small traditional guitar used by griots). Her parents taught her the basics of harp playing. She started to sing at a young age, and performed at the age of 12 (the age at which most young girls from good families are supposed to be married). At the age of fifteen, she was performing on her own. But tradition insisted she be married, which she was, and it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that she was to appear onstage again. She came back playing traditional songs with modern instruments but also began to write her own songs as if they were equivalent to the traditional songs she continued to sing, but they concerned subjects women were not supposed to speak about, much less sing about in public—feelings of romantic love, of the difficulties of married life, of the inequalities she experienced as a woman. She has spearheaded AIDS campaigns, vaccination programs, literacy movements, and women’s rights … and it isn’t easy being the spokesperson for women’s rights in an Islamic country.

Track 5: El Nabi, Tiris.

Track 6: Kalicom, Julien Jacob. From “African Groove”

Jacob was born in Benin, and moved to southern France at the age of four. As a teenager he sang in a pop-rock band called Anaphase, before moving to Nice and studying literature, poetry, and spirituality. Then he became an itinerant musician in order to meet and hang out with his heroes Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, and Al Jarreau, finally moving to Paris. In the mid-1990s, he moved to a small town in Brittany, where he wrote a series of books and wrote songs.  As a poet and a spiritualist, Julien Jacob has created his own language because he thinks the sounds of the words can create word-like associations in the listener’s head and so create a song that is individual and meaningful to each listener individually, instead of a group of people listening to one person’s story.

Track 7: Djon Maya, Victor Deme From “Victor Deme” Chapa Blues.

Victor Deme was born in Burkina Faso, a Mandingo who inherited music from his griot mother. His father was a tailor living in the Ivory Coast, and Victor went into that business as well, while also singing at several different clubs every night. He began to appear regularly with the Super Mandé Orchestra, led by Abdoulaye Diabaté. His manager even started a label—Chapa Blues—in order to release Victor’s music. Chapa Blues recorded in two rooms separated by a truck windshield on a 16-track console, a studio that has since recorded some incredible music. “Djon Maya” is a song pleading for tolerance among the various peoples of Africa.

Track 8: Mangercratie, Tiken Jah Fakoly “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 3”

Doumbia Moussa Fakoly was born into a family of griots on June 23, 1968, in Odienne, Ivory Coast. He formed his first reggae band—Djelys—in 1987. His songs reported the news of the day during the turmoil that was the Cote d’Ivoire at the time, and he had to leave the country and settle in Bamako, Mali. He was expelled from Senegal after criticizing their president. He has recorded with Steel Pulse, Amadou and Mariam, and Dub Incorporation. A Elaine de Latour film on Tiken—“Africa’s Reggae Legend in the Making”—was released in 2009.

Woman’s Scarf, Ouarzazate


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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