INSHALLAH-MY TRIP TO MAURITANIA
When I was young, there was a common belief that travel broadened one’s horizons and to be a well rounded and cultured adult, you must range far and wide-something to that extent. In fact my parents gave me $1000 and a book called ”Europe On Five Dollars A Day” with a round trip ticket in and out of London when I was 20 years old to foster that conviction. (By the way I dutifully went through Europe with some playing in between visiting museums and staying at youth hostels, but more of that in a future newsletter celebrating forty years of travel.) I stand firmly behind that advice and in fact will go a bit further and state that not only should one travel but that every so often, it is important to experience a “third world country” meaning one off the beaten path. The reason is simple: one cannot appreciate how things are in other, less fortunate parts of the world by television and other media. One must feel a place to come back with a vivid impression and something of value, all towards putting perspective into what is going on in the world and what great fortune and luck we have being born into privilege as we know it.
A few years ago I went to El Salvador along with a mission trip sponsored by the local church where I live and where my daughter and wife are members. It was of course an eye opener to see what is happening in that part of the world, the conditions of daily life, etc. (My diary of that trip is on my web site in Past Newsletter Archives, Issue 2 in 2004.) But for decades I have always felt the desire to experience the real desert, as in the Sahara. Before I describe this incredible journey, there’s a related story.
I was living in the Bay Area in 1976-77 and one day went to a so-called psychic center where you would be told about your past, present and future-sort of an upgraded palm or tarot card reading. One thing stood out when I asked if they see anything with music in my past lives. They saw me in a circle of people, dancing, wearing white robes, surrounded by blazing sun and heat in a desert setting. I have always felt that somewhere in my DNA and past lives, there was a time in the desert playing a straight “horn” of some sort. Going to the desert has naturally been on my mind for decades.
In the late 90s I began thinking about it with my very good friend from France, Jean Jacques Quesada and finally decided to do it sometime as a gift to myself for my 60th year. There was of course Morocco and Tunisia as possibilities, but not much else because of political and cultural reasons. But the idea of visiting Mauritania in northwest Africa which was part of the French colonial system came to us and when we looked into it, seemed like a safe place that though it was not a heavy tourist center did have the possibilities to have a guide accompany you into the desert. Twice the size of France with a population of three million and a moderate Islamic government, we decided to give it a try. By chance, with Mike Brecker’s passing during the IASJ convention, saxophonist Ric Margitza who has been living in Paris for a few years came by the booth to commiserate about Mike. I asked if he wanted to go, so there were three of us.
This trip was definitely one of the great experiences of my life, right up there with going to India thirty years ago. Following are some impressions:
Six days driving around the Sahara camping out, living in the sand, witnessing changes of landscape ever few hours; sand always in your body, mouth and mind; blazing sun; hours of a four by four truck bouncing up and down over all kinds of topographies-small and large dunes deserts, miles of rocks only, mountains like Wyoming, an endless deserted beach; the truck undergoing a major breakdown but somehow getting out of the situation in a timely fashion with the guide (Sidi) walking several miles while we sat under a lonely tree for shade; five hours later a “taxi” arrives to take us to the next stop and somehow in this little village, the truck was fixed and driver Lemrabot showed up in the middle of the night ready to go the next day; daily malaria pills, yellow fever shots, avoid all water, etc; Sidi and Lemrabot could somehow drive for hours without any landmarks and find their way finding tracks of another vehicle in the sand; tall, thin men dressed in blue robes with handsome faces; beautiful women all wrapped in colorful draped fabric; the cheche which covers the head and face and is a necessity in the blowing sand (and takes several lessons to learn to wrap on one’s head); vocal music, especially Dimi Mint Abba, the leading female singer that is played incessantly everywhere with a definite blues vibe lying somewhere between African(Senegal is directly south of Mauritania) and Middle Eastern type Arab music; by chance coming upon a political rally in the city of Atar with singing and incredible dancing accompanied by hands on pots or the ground, dishes,etc., and a kind of out of tune ukelele-guitar; men and women seated separately, dancing with amazing grace like birds and gazelles; no alcohol or drugs present, only a joyous vibe between the people and total acceptance of our presence; the hot African “armatam” or continental wind blowing from inner Africa to the west; the full cosmos at night with Orion and the Dippers dancing in front of our eyes; several nights accompanied by a full moon providing our only light (besides flashlights); no hot water, no toilets or showers to speak of; driver and guide doing nightly prayers; the most friendly people to us and each other; even at the ever present police checkpoints a hand is extended and a polite “bonjour” offered; in the midst of a desert landscape, suddenly some green grows (calotropis-don’t touch-poisonous) meaning there is water and people can and do live nearby; nomads wandering with their camels (every family must have a nomad representative to keep the tradition alive); driving in a whiteout meaning a minor dust storm, having no idea how the driver could even see the road; fact:sand is actually white but the sun’s effect on the iron in the sand turns it brown; completely undeveloped and deserted beach where we slept one night after eating the best grilled fish (capitaine) ever; great conversations and hang with Ric and Jean Jacques as well as with Sidi and Lemrabot; early to sleep, early to rise and then drive just for the sake of driving with continuous bumping for hours; constant stopping to build a fire and drink cups of sweet mint tea, even at gas stations; me dancing with the mother of a clan who came out of nowhere one morning where we slept in an “auberge” a sort of “hotel-motel” (not really) and immediately started playing the boxes and furniture while singing; dunes, both high and low that can move by 10 feet from season to season because of the wind. often shaped like crescents (symbol of Islam); a kid with what looked like muscular dystrophy crawling across the sand; ancient caravan routes, cities from seventh century; heat that only is a hint of what it is like in a few months (130 in the shade); standing in front of a large dune in the “white valley”; tents and concrete huts (for storage of food) in the middle of nowhere always with goats and camels around; for some periods of driving no seeming signs of life (glad we didn’t get stuck out there!!); seeing the oldest Koran in western Africa from pre 10th century; original Arabic calligraphy accompanied by the museum guide singing poetry for us in the Chinguetti library (one room as big as one of our bathrooms lined with boxes of texts); seeing the “old” city of Chinguetti which disappeared centuries ago because of the blowing sand; the main city of Nouakchott bordering on organized chaos with no traffic lights or rules, dirty as can be, but somehow working; throngs of men standing around; marketplaces with no one buying anything; goats eating paper and cloth; men taking “baths” in the street with bottled water; every minute someone coming up to you to buy something with nothing much to purchase in any case except more bread; old Mercedes all over the capital with places to fix cars and get tires everywhere (every Mauritanian must know how to fix a car); being entertained by a an extended family with us joining in on some Indian flutes I brought during the evening in the middle of nowhere; every night the three of us playing the wooden Indian flutes I brought during the sunset hours; watching for mosquitoes but seeing none; “salaam malekoum”-a kind of greetings to all in Arabic; truly believing in the expression “Inshallah” meaning “as God wills it,” feeling completely comfortable, pain free and relaxed as if this was a kind of “home” to me in the past; a lot of staring at us but not one bad vibe; the guide and driver know everyone meaning the country is basically an extended family; with Ric and Jean Jacques listing songs we don’t like to play; imagining a Saturday Night Live skit with the premise of jazz musicians on a sightseeing bus tour accompanied by Midwesterners-tour guide is Dan Akroyd, driver is John Belushi, jazz guy is Eddie Murphy with Gilda Radner as his old lady; Will Ferrel and Jane Curtin and are Mr. and Mrs. Midwest (John and Mary); Chris Farley is the bus driver; hilarious situations on the road; etc; finally, promise to return again and play with Dimi next time.
Observations: Black people in charge with no paranoia for a change; everyone dressed the same with no obvious distinction of classes (except government of course); family culture front and center ties the people together even in poverty conditions; bottom line is that this is a completely different world which was a privilege to experience; in the desert there are no rules, only what works for survival; the way people improvise to live shows that anything is possible; the desert is THE most elemental of habitats-clothing isn’t even necessary; the obvious truth is that life is a lot of luck, meaning where and when you arrive on the planet. Check out Dimi on video:
FRANCE-THE LAND OF THE HAND SHAKE AND BONJOUR
There are certain aspects of French culture that are absolutely happening. (I don’t have to enumerate other less favorable traits!!) One is the fact that every day and anywhere you go, the first thing you do is shake hands with everyone, or a two/three cheek kiss. Though this might seem a bit formal, it does help to clear the air at the beginning of an encounter as well as establishing a level playing field for all those present, no matter what their relationship might be or become. As I mentioned above, even in Mauritania, a former French colony, before asking for your passport, the gendarme shake hands and say “bonjour.” In general, the French are among the most polite people I have encountered with constant “pardon moi” (excuse me) even when it is hardly necessary. Leaving restaurants is always accompanied by a good night and thank you. These are some redeeming qualities from the old world which do make a difference.
After Mauritania I had a few gigs in France and Belgium with a variety of wonderful musicians: a small big band led by arranger Christophe Del Sasso with part of the repertoire being his arrangements of a few of my more chromatic pieces; a few nights at the main local club, the Sunset with bassist Riccardo Del Fra, drummer Simone Goubert (killing!!), Bruno Ruder, a young, very unusual, original pianist and Ric Margitza sitting in. Mostly standards, these nights were burning. Finally a small tour with pianist Jean Marie Machado’s trio, a musician whose compositions I really enjoy playing, many of them with a strong “fado” or Portuguese folk influence, reflecting his mixed Moroccan and Portuguese heritage. That is the great thing about Europe which one encounters often. The musician’s heritages are all mixed up and of course reflected in their music, something not so common in the States and usually quite challenging to adapt to. One concert began with a bunch of students playing completely free-where else would that happen but France?
Finally, I gave a three day master class at the Paris Conservatory which centered around a performance of Gunnar Mossblad’s big band arrangement of Coltrane’s “Meditations Suite” which was excellently played by the students. But most interesting was a day spent with the classical saxophonists who study with Claude DeLangle who I highlighted in a newsletter from last year, commenting on his incredible playing on a CD called “the Solitary Saxophone”. My teacher, Joe Allard went to the Paris Conservatory and studied with Marcel Mule, the original teacher who began the classical saxophone department at the Conservatory. It was a great honor to be with Claude and his students, direct descendants of the original sax line.
They were kind enough to practice and perform several of my chamber pieces-for soprano and cello, soprano and viola, sax quartet and a duo for soprano and alto (all published by Advance Music). Of course, I have played and in some cases recorded these works, but hearing these incredible classical saxophonists play this material was an eye opener. When I first wrote these pieces, the late Hans Gruber of Advance Music insisted I be very exacting with dynamic, tempo and expressive markings-matters that for most jazz music are left to the performer. But classical guys like and require all these notations and believe me, after hearing them play my pieces, I am convinced of the value of spending time notating such things. Let’s put it this way. If you write a pianissimo going to a fortissimo for two notes tongued hard followed by several notes slurred together, you WILL hear these specifics really played perfectly. To put it succinctly, I never heard my music like this before and it was a revelation. We had a wonderful time together talking about the differences between the classical player who at first must find the inner voice of the written music and THEN use their artistry to transcend the notes; whereas a jazz artist takes the written notes as a starting point to immediately reveal his or her own individual voice. Different but the same!!
OM SHALOM:With two performances at the Deer Head Inn and the Bluenote, drummer Mike Stephans, a new transplant to the area where I live in the Pocono Mountains brought his arrangements of Jewish melodies in a new CD release with the great title of "Om-Shalom." Accompanied by bassist Scott Colley and the great Bennie Mauping, we had a lot of fun with tunes ranging from "Dayeinu" to "Bei Mir Bist Du Shon" and and even "Hava Nagilah." It was a real pleasure to look back on my heritage with an up to date point of view. Details on obtaining the disk:The best link to use is:www.michaelstephans.com. Click on WORDS, then on the CD cover for OM/ShalOM. That will take you right to CD Baby. Many track samples are available for listening. The CD costs $19.95, and includes postage and handling.
KEVIN MAHOGANY: I had the distinct pleasure to do a concert with the great singer, Kevin Mahogany at the Berks Festival in Pennsylvania. Billed as a revisit to the Coltrane-Hartman collaboration, we of course did a few of those tunes, but others that Harman or Trane recorded. As Kevin said, the repertoire we chose could be what the two giants might have recorded if they continued working together. Kevin is a true baritone (in the line of Arthur Prysock, Billy Eckstine and Hartman) with a voice as smooth as silk and one of the best scatters I have heard. I look forward to more performances together.
JAZZ DISPUTE AND THE ERRAND BOY: In my last newsletter I recommended the You Tube segment where a guy is acting out an argument motion by motion matching the blazing Bird and Dizzy heard in the background; check out the classic Jerry Lewis (a comic genius) on You Tube in a segment called the “Errand Boy” where he does something similar to a big band tune. There’s always precedent somewhere.
COLTRANE MASTER CLASS: A reminder to past attendees of my annual Saxophone/Chromatic Master Class held each summer at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, this is the 20th anniversary which will center on Coltrane and is restricted to only past participants. Please get in touch ASAP if you are interested.)
LEROY JENKINS: Though I had only a passing acquaintance with Jenkins, he was one of the most important of the avant garde movement for decades, highlighted by his instrumental choice, the violin, not common by any means in jazz, straight or avant garde.
QUEVA LUTZ: This was a woman who really cared about her club, the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, New York. She always kept the ticket price reasonable, ran a loose but structured environment and was very supportive to a whole clique of young, up and coming New York based players. I enjoy playing there for its ambiance and direct contact with the people. She will be sorely missed. (Will be there with my group April 6 and 7.)
REDEMPTION-Quest Live In Europe (Hatology)
Recorded at the Sunset in Paris and in Switzerland during our first tour in fifteen years during the fall of 2005, this CD is absolutely burning with both standards and originals. I am glad to say, that not withstanding the hiatus, we ( Billy Hart, Richie Beirach and Ron McClure) haven’t missed a step and with maturity, we have actually improved. Available thru:
The Jazz Loft: http://ssl.adhost.com/jazzloft/baskets/hathut.cfm
DownTownMusicGallery, N.Y.N.Y.: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jazz Record Mart, Chicago: email@example.com
STUDY HABITS:I often get older students who are predictably concerned about being late in the music game, especially in our time when there are so many young whiz kids around. I tell them that of course there is nothing one can do about a late start, but that an older person has more discipline and when they apply themselves to learning something, there is more concentration which in a way makes up for the loss of youth and its affinity for processing new info. Lo and behold, an article from the NY Times about the pitfalls of “multi-tasking” (doing more than one thing at a time like driving and talking on the cell phone or listening to the ipod and making a phone call, etc.) Check out this item of research:
“A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code. The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cell phone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy. The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on,” said Martin Westwell, deputy director of the institute.”
April-Dave Liebman Group at the 55 Bar, NYC; Concert and lecture for John Coltrane at East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, PA with Ravi Coltane, Billy Hart, Phil Markowitz and Cecil McBee; Dave Liebman Big Band at University of Michigan, Hope College (Michigan) and University of Toledo, Ohio; Dave Liebman Group at the Falcon Arts Center, Marlboro, New York and The Deer Head Inn, Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania; master class and concert at Musichochschule Lucerne, Switzerland; European tour with “Different But The Same” featuring Ellery Eskelin, Jim Black and Tony Marino
May-With McCoy Tyner at the Melbourne Festival, Australia; with Mike Nock at the Jazzworx Institute,Brisbane, Australia