“What if a lion comes by our campsite?” I asked. My friend Linda had run motorcycle safaris to view wildlife in the bush country of Kenya for several years, and I was hoping she’d say we were still too far away from our destination in the Samburu tribal lands for that to be a concern.
“That’s very unlikely,” she said calmly. “And if one does, he’ll only be looking for food…”
Until then, I had never thought of myself as food even though I knew she was referring to what we had brought to eat. We had driven north from Nairobi in a jeep she had borrowed and stopped at dusk to pitch our tents, build a fire and cook some supper.
“In all the years I ran the safaris, there was only one lion and just a few other times when animals came into the campsite. They never bothered the people, just tried to get at the food. Don’t worry – nothing bad will happen.” Her assurance was accompanied by a laugh that was gentle, not the nervous kind that reinforces anxiety. I admired her composure and sense of place as we continued conversing after the meal. Facing another day of driving over rough roads, we retired early.
But I was worried. I was new to this land of world-class predators, and she had no advice to offer about preventive measures other than not bringing food into my tent. So instead of falling asleep, I tried to think about what I could do to protect myself. We had no guns, and I wouldn’t have known how to use one anyway. My only weapon was a Swiss army knife with a blade that was great for cutting fruit but nothing much tougher. I accepted the fact that if a lion got inside my tent, I would fast become a carcass, so I switched my focus to what I might do to keep the beast on the other side of the flimsy fabric that was my house that night. This was my temporary territory, an observation that inspired an idea.
“Pete – what are you doing?” Linda asked from inside her tent.
“I’m marking my territory the way animals do,” I said as I peed my way around my tent, having just enough to complete the circle. “You might want to do it, too – I’ve got nothing left.”
“That’s sweet of you to think of me, but no thanks. Try to get some sleep – we’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
She was clearly unimpressed with my initiative and frankly, I didn’t think it would stop a lion either. I did manage to fall asleep for a while, but woke up in the middle of the night. I pulled down the door flap and looked out, gladly noting that there were no predators circling our site. I walked toward the jeep, thinking about substituting the thick steel walls of its cabin for the thin cloth of my tent.
But then I looked up at the sky and saw more stars, many more than ever before – amazing in their clarity and brightness, uncontaminated by any trace of artificial light because of our remote location. So many stars, so densely packed in the black void of space! We were near the equator, widening the view, offering a glimpse of infinity. Star-struck, I lay down in the back of the jeep and gazed at the sparkling sky. This part of the jeep was open and unprotected above its low sidewalls, but my mind was elsewhere now. I drifted into a heavenly sleep that ended around sunrise at the sound of Linda’s voice.
“Smart move, Pete! That box you slept next to is where I put our food. Lucky you!”
We had planned a morning stop to visit one of the local Samburu chiefs that Linda knew from her safari business. She spoke Swahili and acted as an interpreter after introducing me to the chief, who then brought us to meet the village elders. We all sat on the ground around a blazing firepit, drinking fresh milk from a gourd that was making its way round the circle, and talked about how they resolved problems within the tribe. While working as a novice trial lawyer a few years before, I had volunteered for an experimental mediation program and was intrigued by this approach to dispute resolution, so different from the adversarial legal tradition in which I had been trained. In Africa, I was hoping to gain some insight into the origins of mediation, perhaps even pick up a new technique or two from some old masters.
Their lives seemed much less complicated than ours, at least on the technological plane. The tribe’s spearmaker did his work in a way that probably had changed very little in the last few thousand years. But a simpler way of life did not mean there was any shortage of disputes. Tension within the village had to be addressed because their society was based on collaboration, and everyone lived so close together. Arguments between a husband and wife or among siblings were especially disruptive, but any dispute could tear the social fabric of the village if it dragged on unresolved.
Sometimes the chief or a respected elder would talk with each disputant separately, shuttling back and forth like a mediator until an agreement was reached. Sometimes the chief acted more like a judge, hearing both sides and then deciding who was right. The end result for judicial decisions was often a feast, with anyone determined by the chief to be a wrong-doer required to slaughter one of his cattle and prepare the food. Punishment and ritual celebration of re-established harmony, all in one day!
Afterwards, Linda and I headed off to a wild animal reserve on another portion of their tribal land. It was hot and dusty, the many holes in the road making the ride slow and bumpy. We picked up an African hitch-hiker, a young man in some type of uniform. He explained in choppy English that he was a policeman and that his unit’s car had been broken for a while. He was going to a village down the road to make an arrest for murder, news which made us glad we were picking him up on the way there and not back.
A few hours later, we stopped to take a break in a small town about halfway to our destination. Linda went off to get a cup of tea, but I had decided to drink some canteen water, walk around a bit and take a music break with my fiddle. As I stepped out of the Jeep, my attention was immediately drawn to a nearby commotion – a loud, animated argument between two Samburu women, tension on the faces of several onlookers, a screaming baby. Here there was need for some mediation, but I felt blocked by language and culture. I watched the escalating discord for a few minutes, then thought about my original plan for this break, and I wondered….
I sat on a rock some distance away and began to play, somewhat timidly, an American folk tune. Heads turned. There was a momentary pause in what had been non-stop shouting, then another. Encouraged, I started to play louder; and the shouting began a steady decrescendo. By the time I was halfway into the tune, some of the onlookers were drifting over in my direction. Before I slid into the last note, the arguing had ended and the baby was no longer crying. I launched another tune without stopping to catch my breath. The rest of the group moved toward me, eyeing me with curiosity.
I smiled. Several of the Samburus smiled back, then some started to clap along with the vigorous folk tune I was fiddling. People began dancing to the music and moving with its rhythms. We grew into an increasingly festive crowd, joined now by the combatants of earlier on. I noticed a tentative grin from one of them, and when I saw the other join in the dancing, I knew I had done something good.
Linda returned after her tea break, somewhat startled by the scene before her. I kept fiddling, and she threw herself into the dancing. When we climbed back into the Jeep a little while later, there were waves, smiles and laughter all around us. It remains the most enjoyable mediation I’ve ever done, wordless, magical…
2. An Escape
I did not start out as a musician or a mediator. I started in the high-powered litigation departments of large corporate law firms in New York City and San Francisco, where entry for the previously unwelcome children like me of first generation immigrants was provided by ivy degrees, where wealth and status were the rewards for playing by the rules. One of the rules is that you work long and hard to advance the interests of major corporations in high-stakes legal battles. These were the 1970's, and American Airlines did not like the federal government’s new regulations on noise pollution – I and others like me wrote memoranda of law that helped them limit laws designed to protect human health. The big oil companies were being sued by the Attorney General of California for price-fixing – I suspected they were fixing prices, but wrote the brief that helped them win a minor procedural battle in that protracted war. The partner supervising my work, a congenial man, called me into his office and told me that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, that most of the other oil company law firms had based their briefs on mine, and that I would be on a fast track to partnership with work like that.
But I didn’t want to do work like that. I wanted to play music, travel and have adventures. So I lived simply and saved every dollar I could from the salary the firm paid me. About a year and a half later I had saved an amount that I thought could modestly support me for a year or so of living abroad. My sell-out was goal-oriented, none the better for that but carefully calculated to fund my escape. I wanted some structure, however, in all this upcoming uncertainty – perhaps I could study for a while in an Italian music conservatory, hoping they would somehow overlook that I was an unqualified amateur folk fiddler. If that didn’t work out, perhaps I would explore Europe, or spend time with the part of my grandmother’s family that still lived in the mountains of central Italy and worked the land. There was also the possibility of traveling to more exotic places, all in search of new experiences. My mood rode the common pendulum that swings between excitement and anxiety – it was all so up in the air as I boarded an inexpensive flight to Luxembourg.
3. The Lady of the Lake, and Two Weddings with Jams In-between
Kenya was the first of the exotic, post-European places, and it took years to get there. Not long after arriving, I boarded the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombassa, the colorful city on the Indian Ocean. I had been on the coast for a few days the week before and heard about a luxury beach front resort whose manager was a folk music enthusiast. I had stopped by, fiddled him a few tunes and arranged to perform there a week later in exchange for a free stay at the resort. He said he’d set things up and do some publicity in the interim.
Stepping up into that quaint English train at the Nairobi station was like stepping back into the colonial past, with well-preserved railway cars proudly dressed in burnished wood and white linen. The train featured an immaculate dining car noted for serving excellent food. I reserved a place for the last dinner sitting and enjoyed the striking scenery that began soon after leaving the city – stark trees growing in bushland, wild animals sometimes nearby. Later, I found myself assigned to a dining car table opposite a young African woman. It was my custom to carry my violin with me as I moved about, both as a theft precaution and conversation starter, and I placed it under the table against the wall.
“What instrument do you have in your case?”
“Are you a musician?”
“Yes; and I really enjoy hearing local musicians as I travel around. Any advice on where to go?”
“I like music, too. I grew up with it all around me.”
“I am Luo; my tribe is the most musical in all of Kenya, we have so many musicians. And we have a kind of folk fiddle, our most important instrument, called the orutu. Have you ever seen it played?”
“No, but I’d like to. I think I’ve heard it on the radio here. I’m always interested in seeing how the fiddle and its relatives are used in different musical cultures.”
She was from the Lake Victoria region on the opposite side of the country, but had gone to college in England and then found a job there. Her tribal name was something like Atiena, her Christian name Joyce, and she was back in Kenya for a month of visiting family and friends. She was twenty-four, bright, attractive and curious, with a radiant smile and an honest laugh. Our dinner conversation flowed along with the wine to the rhythmic rumbling of the rails. Afterwards, as we left the dining room, she issued an invitation.
“I’ll be visiting some friends in Mombassa for a few days, then relatives in Nairobi. But after that, I’ll be home with my mother in Kisumu. She has a small hotel there. If you go to Lake Victoria during your visit to Kenya, come stay with us. You will hear some really good music there!”
My concert the following night went well, with an enthusiastic mixed crowd dancing to the up-tempo fiddle tunes and country waltzes I played. Afterwards, a few guys pulled out guitars and African drums, resulting in an impromptu jam session. They played in some pop styles whose chord progressions were simple enough for me to join in the music-making.
The food, drinks, facilities and services were all at a level far beyond what I was accustomed to, and all FREE. I ordered the best meals, enjoyed a steady stream of fresh-squeezed tropical drinks, took wind-surf lessons from a master African surfer, sailed their boats and explored nearby coral reefs. This was my first gig since leaving Europe, and I hoped I would be able to negotiate similar arrangements later on. I had already learned that work permit restrictions would prevent me from being paid, so bartering was the way to go.
Joyce had given me the phone number of the relatives she’d be staying with in Nairobi, and we met at a coffeehouse in the city center several days later. About a week after that, I stepped down in the Kisumu bus station following the long ride from Nairobi, eager to explore the Lake Victoria corner of Kenya and hoping to hear some live orutu music. I also wondered what might happen if Joyce and I spent some more time together.
I went to her mother’s tiny hotel, met Joyce’s cousin, the front desk clerk, who told me that Joyce had been delayed in Nairobi and would return late that night. Her mother and some other cousins joined us, and I asked where I could go that evening to hear live music. As her relatives described a show at a nearby upscale hotel, it became obvious that it was created solely for tourists. I asked for a place where the local Africans went to hear Luo music. They told me about a club on the outskirts of the city and where to catch the bus that would bring me there.
The club’s main room had a restaurant and bar, but I heard music nearby and followed my ears to an adjoining room filled with people listening, at times dancing, to the music of a Luo nyatiti player. The nyatiti is a type of folk lyre, with strings on a frame attached to a gourd that serves as the resonating chamber; the player plucks a melody line from the strings and uses his toes, some of which are ringed by thick steel discs, to tap out a rhythmic accompaniment on the base of the gourd. This musician often sang verses, all in the tribal language, which the audience reacted to with a mix of applause, comments and occasionally laughter. Sometimes people came up to him, put some money in the basket by his side and talked to him. They then stood by as he sang verses that seemed directed at them. Though I couldn’t understand the words, the interactive vigor of this music was immediately appealing.
“I see you, too, are a musician,” said a middle-aged African man sitting across the table from me. “I can tell by the way you are moving your head and feet.”
I had also walked into the room with my fiddle case slung over my shoulder before resting it under the table, but had no reason to doubt his motivation in starting a conversation. I was the only white person in the place, and in fact had seen only a handful of whites so far in Kisumu. Aside from Africans working in tourism and services, most of my personal encounters since arriving in Kenya a few weeks before had been with other whites or in settings where the races were mixed; I was eager to have some experiences more African in hue.
“Yes, I play the violin. Can you tell me what he’s singing?”
“This is our traditional music. It was originally about singing the praises of the chief. Now, the musicians more commonly improvise verses about our political leaders, especially during this election campaign that is underway.”
“Yes. I’ve noticed all the political activity. I’ve gone to some of the party rallies – very festive, and each time the politicians gave some money to the community leaders.”
“Oh yes, that’s expected. Did you notice how people sometimes put money in the singer’s basket here? They then get to hear him sing their praises, or perhaps those of their favorite politician. Sometimes they just give him a topic - he makes up verses on that topic while he improvises an accompaniment on his instrument.”
I was grateful for the cultural insights he provided as our conversation continued, and curious about whether the musicians dared to be critical of those in power, but backed off when he seemed uncomfortable with the subject. I had noticed that a photograph of the autocratic Kenyan president, Daniel Arap Moi, hung in many hotels and restaurants, including this one. Earlier travels in the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe had taught me that is more likely an indicator to be careful about what you say in public places than a sign of respect for a benevolent leader.
One of the waiters pointed to my violin case and asked what it was. When I took it out, no one seemed to recognize it; some asked if it was a small guitar, others looked like they wanted to hear it, so I played a few hard-driving American fiddle tunes and was happy to see them clapping and dancing to the music. The nyatiti player spoke only Luo, so I told him through my new friend how much I enjoyed his music and then sat back and enjoyed the rest of his performance.
The next morning, I met Joyce. She told me one of her cousins was being married later that day and would I please bring my violin to play during the traditional African ceremony in his village? Would I? I mentally kissed my fiddle while saying “Of course!”
The village was about a twenty minute drive outside Kisumu. Just before arriving there, we stopped in the tiny village where Joyce had been born and where her father, now in his seventies, still lived with several of his wives and children. His original home was the thatched mud hut in the middle of a semi-circle of five homes. As he added new wives, her father would build a new home for each wife and the children he would have by her. The most recent of the homes had amenities such as tin roofs and white plaster on the exterior walls, the most recent wife a woman not yet thirty, with several small children running around. Joyce was one of six children (all now adults) by his second wife, who by some unexplained circumstances left the village for the small guest-house that she now owned in the city. They were separated, but still on good terms. The father would move among the simple homes in his compound, overseeing family and business matters, while his wives did the farm chores and tended the crops and cattle that sustained the entire family. It struck me as not a good place to be a woman, but polygamy was quite common in this part of the country, formed the foundation for their social support network and somehow co-existed with the Catholicism they also practiced.
In fact, the wedding party would soon arrive from the morning service in Kisumu’s Catholic Church, so we left for the nearby village of Joyce’s uncle, who had a similar compound. He was the father of the groom and, as the oldest of several brothers, the leader of their clan. The traditional marriage celebration began just after we got there with the ritual welcoming of the bride to her new home. The wedding party entered the village and slowly walked toward the house of the groom’s mother to receive her greeting, but occasionally took some backward steps - marriage was not something to be hastily undertaken, nor would its course necessarily be a smooth forward progression. The group sang the whole way, alternating between rhythmic Christian spirituals, heavily syncopated traditional songs honoring the newlyweds, and call and response chants led by a strong female voice. Several times people broke into raucous, joyous yelps that seemed derived from bird or monkey calls.
We wound our way around the village to a rustic, open-air tent where the exotic feasting moved from ears to taste buds. While we filled up on freshly prepared Luo dishes and beverages, various rituals were enacted under the leadership of a master of ceremonies. Many involved the giving of gifts or placing of money in a basket on the bridal table. From time to time, a family elder would make a celebratory toast or speech. The ceremony leader would direct the group in a type of ritual applause after each of these - sets of three loud claps, with the number of sets determined by the leader’s opinion of the quality of the speech. There were humorous moments, too, as when some of the women showed the bride the correct way of carrying baskets on her head. The nyatiti player I had seen the night before was there, improvising verses about the newlyweds and married life which evoked more laughter.
As the only white person among the more than one hundred guests, I was an object of some curiosity. Joyce asked me to play something when the African musician had finished his performance, and I fiddled a few rhythmic American folk tunes. In addition to some dancing, each of these elicited spontaneous applause rather than the tripled claps I had heard before. Joyce told me that meant the guests enjoyed it enough to respond immediately rather than wait to be led in the ritual claps.
The celebration continued through the afternoon with festive mingling, though at a more relaxed pace. I had good conversations in elementary English with some boys who had recently graduated from the high school nearby. They liked growing up in a small village and the extended family bonds created by polygamy; there seemed to be no practical distinction made between siblings and cousins. In fact, they found it curious that I occasionally tried to clarify which category they were referring to. They each hoped to have several wives, but it was getting harder because you had to have a certain level of wealth to attract them and jobs were scarce, virtually non-existent in the villages. They all hoped to find work in the city, but without good contacts, that would be difficult. When I asked how the women felt about polygamy, they said it was what they all were accustomed to, what they all felt comfortable with, male and female. Joyce’s renunciation of this traditional system conveyed a different message. Their society was changing, but for now at least, breaking out of the old ways required moving away.
Dusk settled as things wound down. I asked Joyce if there was any place we could go to hear some live music on the orutu, the African folk fiddle she had told me about during our train ride to Mombassa. She checked around and the two of us, along with her girlfriend Alala, headed off in her mother’s car for some villages on another side of Kisumu. As the night turned black, we drove for almost an hour through increasingly remote countryside, with some stops for further inquiries by Joyce and Alala. Apparently, there was an orutu player who lived in the area, but no one seemed sure if or where he might be playing. After a few dead ends, we pulled into a village without electricity that had at its center a well-constructed mud and wood building. The single room inside served as a general store and restaurant, its few tables illuminated by the gentle glow of candles and lanterns. But my ears pulled me quickly toward a large courtyard, lit not only by lanterns but torches as well, pulsating to a vibrant music.
The beat was insistent, infectious and multi-faceted, an amalgam of cross rhythms produced by a half dozen Africans, some slapping home-made drums, others banging together blocks of wood or pieces of steel. In their midst was a young guy vigorously drawing a bow back and forth across a single-stringed instrument. The string was attached at one end to a stick inserted into a gourd, which anchored the string’s other end and allowed its sound to resonate. This was the orutu, the only melody instrument of the group but also an equal partner in the creation of this music’s torrential rhythmic waves, visibly expressed in the body movements of all the musicians. The audience surrounding them moved and shouted in time with the music. Some of them danced – alone, with partners, and in larger groups, too.
The raw vitality of it all immediately swept me inside. I eagerly listened and moved along with them. Again, I was an object of some curiosity, both as the only white and because of the (to them) strange-looking instrument case by my side. When the musicians stopped for a break, some of them pointed to my case. I showed them my violin, started playing and was excited to see first one and eventually all the percussionists join in, laying heavily syncopated African rhythms under Ragtime Annie, a straight-ahead, 4/4 time fiddle tune. We smiled amidst the applause and comments from the audience.
The musicians began playing again and beckoned me to join them. I fumbled around quietly for awhile, unsuccessfully attempting to somehow blend into this music that was unlike any I had ever played before. Earlier that year, I had worked hard on improving my limited skills as an improviser, but now I felt frustrated at not being able to better engage this extraordinary opportunity.
I stopped and listened more carefully, trying to analyze what I was hearing and seeing. The heart of this intoxicating music was its rhythm. The orutu player was making low-pitched sounds that at times seemed to have simple melodic contours but which were always highly rhythmic. When I began some rhythmic noodling with a few random pitches on my bottom string, things got better, but with a grafted-on quality. How could I make what I was playing sound more organic?
I noticed the fluidity of his bowing and wrist movements; my eyes became laser beams, all my attention focused there. When I made motions with my bowing wrist that were similar to his, we fell into the same rhythmic grove and then really took off. It was as if the melody notes from our two fiddles didn’t matter much; there was no chord progression to figure out and follow, indeed no harmony at all, just two contrapuntal lines, creating both consonance and dissonance, blending together over the most hard-driving cross-rhythms I had ever heard. When I got in the rhythm, I got in the music. We all smiled, our bodies swaying to these joyous sounds. As my confidence grew, I relaxed more and let my ears shape the melodies and rhythms now flowing freely from my fiddle.
My spirits soared. At one point, the orutu player and I exchanged instruments and each briefly played the other’s fiddle. What fun we were having! My portable tape recorder was being repaired in Nairobi – shit! what a time for it to be broken – but that made it even more important to savor this experience as it unfolded. Did we play for an hour? Two? More? I had moved outside of time.
Until Joyce abruptly pulled me back in.
“Peter, we have to leave.”
“We have to go now,” she insisted.
“But making music with these guys is so much fun. We’re all having such a good time. Can’t we stay? I’m ready to play all night.”
“Yes, it sounds grand, but we have to go right away.”
She pulled me aside and lowered her voice. “See that group of rough-looking men in the corner of the courtyard over there. Alala and I overheard them talking about luring you outside and beating you up.”
Alala added, “They are going to steal your money and your violin, too. We must go.”
I was stunned. Instantly persuaded, too. It was clearly time to not only come back down to earth but also get out of there as quickly as possible. This would be a much different trip without my fiddle. My money supply was already limited, and I disliked violence, more so when the victim would be me. The three of us slipped out of the courtyard and moved briskly through the inner room. Were those guys that got up in the corner following us? We quickened our pace, then ran to the car, never looking back. We threw open the car doors, jumped in and sped off into the night.
During the ride home, I remained on an emotional high but the feeling of musical ecstasy from earlier on had been transformed into a burning anger. There I was having one of the peak experiences of my life, and it came to an abrupt end because some guys had decided to rob me. Why couldn’t they just enjoy the music like everyone else that was there?
It took me a while to gain some perspective on that evening. What was for me an incredible musical opportunity was for some of them an economic opportunity. Money is usually trump, especially where it’s very scarce, especially if you’re not playing the music but just there, watching some outsider passing through having the time of his life, a white westerner’s life that makes money much easier to get. Yeah, I could rationalize what happened. But that night I was pissed.
It took longer still to move beyond that way of thinking, to arrive back at a feeling that expresses what that evening truly means for me. On one magical night, I stepped into a world radically different from mine, amid people I could not even say “Hello” to, yet made sounds that enabled me to speak with them in a joyful wondrous way, thanks to music. That is what really happened that night. The rest is just background noise that’s often there in one form or another, but that we should never allow to define our experience. The memory of that evening always brings a feeling of exhilaration and satisfaction like no other.
It was well past midnight when we got back to the city. Alala and Joyce shared a room down the hall from mine at her mother’s guest-house. The three of us sat on their two beds, talking. The playfulness in their conversation and easy way of laughing gradually restored me to a positive mood again. I got up to use the bathroom in the corridor and said good night, but sitting on the flushable throne got me thinking. There had been a warmth in Joyce’s eyes when she looked into mine, and in the smiles shaped by her thick lips. I decided to go back to their room.
They had turned off the light but were still talking to each other in the dark, now in Luo. I knocked, entered and sat on the edge of Joyce’s bed, holding her hand.
“Yes, I’d like that, too, Peter, but not tonight. I’m too tired. Alala will probably have you in her bed.”
“Peter, come here,” said Alala. I was speechless. By the moonlight coming through the window, I saw Alala approach me and felt her stroke my hair. “You are a lion. Come to my bed.”
I’m not a lion – too short of stature and conflict-averse, among other dissimilarities. Alala just wanted to get laid, but I wasn’t interested – I liked her joviality, but not the rolls of fat on her body. Anyway, I was attracted to Joyce, wanted to be with her, and gently said so while thanking Alala for her offer.
Joyce began to tenderly rub my hand. I leaned over and kissed her - her full lips seemed to swallow mine. We were soon wrapped around each other. I tried not to think about Alala being there. Joyce had meaty legs, compounding her earthy sensuality. When I found myself between them a little later, I got excited and turned out to be much more a gazelle than a lion. Things would go better in the following days, but hoping it would wind up that way didn’t provide much consolation that first night.
“I know how you people really feel. We’re all just no-good niggers. Doesn’t matter whether we’re here in Africa or there in America. Niggers. And look at what you did to the Indians! You killed them just like your nigger slaves, didn’t you.”
How do you convince a racist that you’re not a racist? It can’t be done. There was no point responding any further to his relentless attack, so I walked away. It had started almost a half hour earlier with simple enough questions from him, the kind that had often served as bridges into interesting conversations throughout my travels – “What brings you here? How are things going?” – but there was an edge to his tone that I hoped could be softened by turning the subject to my enthusiasm for the local folk music. His response was a clear indicator of where this discussion was headed.
“What do you know about our folk music? Nothing! The orutu you say you like? It’s a gourd – not like your fancy vi-o-lin, is it? You’re just slumming, boy. Picking up experiences to brag about back home. That’s where you should have stayed!”
Though he directed his aggressive comments at me, his glances and asides showed they were intended to impress the other men in the room. These spectators nodded their approval as they watched me squirm in a futile attempt to pull something positive out of this encounter. It was my last afternoon in Kisumu, and I was waiting for Joyce to get back, minding my own business in the small lobby/bar of her mother’s hotel. They all had drinks in their hands, their eyes bleary, their words sometimes slurred. For a while after the onslaught began, I attempted a reasoned counter-argument, admitting that racism was a reprehensible part of American history, focusing on the progress of the civil rights movement.
“Crumbs!” he shouted. “Don’t you feel ashamed, whitey? You enslaved us, turned us into disposable pieces of property. That history is still too near. How would you feel if we had done that to you?”
Joyce later told me he was a local politician who drank there every weekend with his entourage - a neighborhood big shot and his courtiers passing time, looking to amuse themselves. They always drank too much, she said, and I shouldn’t let it bother me. But it did.
Black and white. They provide a dramatic color contrast, and the same was true of the two weddings I attended during my stay in Kenya. When I returned to Nairobi from Kisumu, I stopped by a cooperative gallery run by several women as an outlet for their artwork. Linda had been a member of this cooperative and suggested I look them up. I had already done that right after arriving in Kenya, had some pleasant visits with them, and popped in now to just say hello.
“How was your trip to Kisumu?” asked Vicki, a chirpy divorcee who was firmly rooted in upper-class colonial society.
“Great, but I’ll have to tell you about it some other time. I didn’t sleep well on the overnight train back, and I’m headed to my hotel for a long nap."
“Well, we’re headed to a wedding at the Stilton estate. It’s out near Mount Kenya and there’s just enough room in the car for you and your fiddle.”
“Sounds like fun, but I’m too tired for anything other than a nap.”
“This will be more than fun – it’s THE society wedding of the season. Interesting people, great food. Come on, you’ll have a grand time. The bride is a good friend and I know she’ll enjoy your music.”
Six of us, including one African, piled into Vicki’s car, then stopped at her house for a quick lunch and to change clothes. I pulled out my last clean shirt, brushed the dust off my shoes, and used a wet cloth to transform a food stain on my chinos into a ghost-like ambiguity, hopefully below the threshold of perception. Scandalous society gossip provided the entertainment during the two hour ride to the Stilton estate. It had a magnificent setting on a gentle slope, with a stunning view of Mount Kenya glistening in the bright sun. The road leading up to the stone and iron entry gate left me with the impression of being in an earlier era, entering a plantation - black workers lined the roadside, smiling and waving at us.
On the other side of the gate, a large gathering of wealthy colonial descendants engaged in civilized conversation, though occasional bursts of laughter provided evidence that this was in fact a festive event. A string quartet played in the background, tastefully restrained in both the selection and execution of their music. Like many of the guests, the table linens were a bit stiff. Black servants moved discretely among us, carrying trays of hor d’oeuvres imported from Europe. A handful of African guests, obviously well-to-do, seemed at ease in this crystalline ensemble but somehow also out of place. They were surrounded by mazungas, a word used by Africans to refer to whites but that doesn’t actually describe a color. Among the many definitions I heard, the most common was “the hurried ones.” When whites draw racial distinctions, we use words of color - black and white - a superficial difference that tells us nothing about character. The Africans instead focus on differences in the use of time – rather than “whites,” we are mazungas, the ones in a hurry.
The bride was from one of Kenya’s most prominent settler families, the groom a German engineer who had come there on an elaborate work project and liked what he found. The numerous toasts, invariably witty and literary, provided an excuse to drink still more of the French champagne our hosts had specially shipped in for the wedding. Gift-giving was hidden from view. A band began playing dance music, but there was more discussing than dancing to be had from this sated group. As Vicky promised, there were many interesting people to talk with, but also much silent scanning of surrounding territory by bored faces. Hours later, when she asked me to fiddle a few tunes, the bride (who was very down-to-earth despite her blood line) danced with some of her friends. But by this point, not even music could turn around the steadily decreasing pulse of these weary celebrants. I put my fiddle back in its case.
It was late when we got back to Vicky’s spacious house, which by night more resembled a fortress. She had a private security force of several Africans, all armed with guns, some with automatic weapons. As we approached, one of them opened the large steel gate to her property, which was surrounded by a high solid fence topped off with barbed wire. Had I not noticed this heavy security earlier in the day? Vicky said there was always an armed guard on duty, but more of them at night, when the incidence of break-ins was high. This was an affluent white suburb outside Nairobi, and virtually all the property owners hired their own black mini-armies to protect them and their possessions. Vicky’s guards made the rounds of her house in a business-like fashion, but I found the open display of weaponry unnerving, and wondered how reliable this security system would be in times of turbulence.
Our sextet formed a circle on comfortable cushions in the middle of her living room floor and passed a joint around. The conversation made its way back to the scandalous behavior of their upper class colleagues.
“Did you see that cute little snit that Nigel is running around with now? I can’t believe he brought her to the wedding; she must be at least twenty years younger. I wonder how Maggie felt.”
“Well you know that Maggie started it by fucking one of her security guards, so don’t feel bad for her. But the guy she brought with her was obviously just there for show - I think he’s the lawyer who does her divorces.”
“That guy is a cocaine addict…”
I had little to contribute, but in my now more relaxed state, listened with interest to their tales of colonial decadence. Just as I was beginning to feel bloated by dissipation, my attention drifting, Vicky turned the conversation toward something strange and mystical.
“Did you hear that Charles is back at it again? I can’t believe he even survived.”
Charles was a middle-aged Brit who had moved to Kenya many years before. A sensitive vegetarian and contemplative soul, he chose to live off the land out in the bush country. Gradually, he developed deep spiritual feelings about his place in nature and the unity of all life forms. He put these beliefs into practice by taking long hikes in the bush, unarmed, among the wild animals, predators and prey alike, walking and talking with them. As his story spread by word of mouth, he became a charismatic, cult-like figure, the man who walked in peace with lions. People sought him out, eager to have his aura of serenity envelop them and cleanse their souls.
But then a lion attacked him, biting deeply into his flank, leaving a grossly unnatural curvature in the side of his body and a definite demystification of his persona. Had he been spiritual and brave for so many years, or merely stupid but lucky? People viewed him differently afterwards, though he apparently did not feel that way about himself. After a long, painful convalescence, he returned to walking with the animals. But only he knew if it is was with a fear not there before.
4. A Different Kind of Artist
I am at the other end of life now, traveling again as I did in my youth, alone and with my fiddle, in search of a different kind of experience. But I can’t find what I’m now looking for, a traditional music club in the lively Taksim district of Istanbul. I’m apparently not the only one lost - when they see that I don’t understand their question to me in Turkish, two men ask me in accented but good English about a place they are trying to find. They are well-dressed business types, late thirties, engineers in FIAT’s international division, one from another part of Turkey, the other from northeast Greece. They also tell me they are staying at the Intercontinental Hotel and are at the end of a week-long conference, out to enjoy their last night in the city. I explain that I, too, am looking for a place, and we walk together toward the tram station. We chat pleasantly about their jobs and my extended Mediterranean journey, now well underway in its senior edition. When we see the club I am looking for, they say they have heard of it and suggest we get a beer there. It’s basically a restaurant with a strolling music group and a beer garden where we sit down and order three drafts of Turkish beer.
They refer to their wives and kids, but from some comments they make about women, also sound like they might be on the make. Our conversation is animated, much of it about European soccer, international business practices, and Turkish food. They are both very simpatico. I try to pay for the beer but they don’t let me. They joke that I can pay when they come to Italy, but this is their home territory. They want to take me to a bar near their hotel which they say has good music, and where we can close out the evening with a traditional drink of Turkish rakki.
“You’ve been here almost a week and still haven’t had rakki?”
“No, but I’ve noticed how popular it is.”
“You must have some. There’s a good place near our hotel; I pay for the cab.”
They hail a cab that takes us to a place on the area’s main boulevard. It looks classy on the outside and is dark enough on the inside to take a few moments of eye adjustment. There are rotating lights splashing color around, illuminating a few women dancing on a low platform to recorded European pop music. I am disappointed that this isn’t the folk music I was hoping to hear, but they already have a corner booth for us and I don’t want to offend my hosts by complaining. They put me between them and order our rakki along with several trays of snacks and fresh fruit, because “in Turkey you never drink rakki without also eating.”
We drink the rakki and continue our conversation. The Turk gets up to go to the bathroom and comes back a few minutes later with three women, all in their 30’s but already showing excess mileage beneath heavy make-up. One of them sits next to me.
“You’re from America? You have a nice time here?”
I’m not interested in extending the evening by conversing with new people, especially given what I suspect is now underway, but don’t want to be rude in case my suspicions turn out to be unfounded.
“I like Istanbul very much.”
“When did you arrive?”
“Can I have a drink?”
“Ask him,” I say, pointing to my new Turkish friend. “He brought me here for a rakki; he’s our host tonight.”
She continues looking at me as she again asks “Can I have a drink?”
It’s clear now what is going on, though at first I look for reasons to believe it’s not really happening to me. These guys are so likeable, our earlier conversation seemed so pleasant and authentic. I’m too smart, too experienced to fall for a scam that I had read about just days before in a Turkish guide book at my hotel.
“Can I have a drink?”
The prey is always a guy on his own, usually older; the predators always have a clean-cut business look. After ingratiating themselves, they take the prey to a club where he is wined and dined in the company of younger women, then told he has to pay thousands of dollars. If he refuses, strong arm tactics normally follow, including being taken into a back room for hands-on persuasion. Here I am, armed with this advance knowledge yet now in the middle of a booth, surrounded by two of these con artists and their three female accomplices. My anxiety level quickly shoots up, my initial thought – how stupid of me not to have put the pieces together sooner. But recriminations can come later; right now I have to get myself out of this jam, hopefully without giving up too much money or suffering any physical pain.
I launch a high road initiative, telling them how happily married I am, how uncomfortable I now feel, and that I am leaving. Why I ever thought that an appeal to conventional morality would work with this group remains a mystery. Instead, they close in around me and insist we continue to “enjoy the evening”. I try to match their insistence level and decide there’s no harm in some reality based discussion.
“Listen - I know what’s going on because I read about it. You guys invited me here, and you placed the food and drink orders. You’ll be better off spending your time on others because I’m leaving.”
As I say these words, I look around. It’s dark but I notice one other prey, also older. He seems to be going along with things, though it’s not clear if that’s out of naivete’, resignation, or something else. One thing is certain – there are no alliances to be formed in this room; I’m on my own. My insistence produces one positive effect, though.
“OK. OK” says the Greek. “We’ll get the bill and each pay our share. Divide it by three.”
I am slightly hopeful that the special rapport I believe I have developed with the Turk will result in some mercy, but my alleged share of a few drinks and some snack food comes to almost $500. Should I be grateful that it is not a multiple of that, as the guide book indicated it might be? Should I try to get the number as low as possible and then internally declare victory?
The bill is presented to me by the burly club manager, who stands at the open end of the booth. Flickering candles draw my attention to the scar and pock marks which give character to the area between his very short black hair and square, steely chin. From the way the others look at him, I know that this is the man I must negotiate with. My engaging “friends” from the enjoyable earlier part of the evening are apparently mere employees, or perhaps agents on commission.
As I move toward him, I first try a tough, rational approach.
“I’m not paying; the price is ridiculous and these guys told me I would be their guest.”
That produces a sneer from him as the other two tell me we all have to pay our share. I decide to try a conciliatory gesture.
“Look, I don’t want trouble. Maybe I could pay $20; that’s a fair amount for what I drank and ate.”
He and I are now face-to-face. His words are heavy, his tone threatening.
“You pay your part. If you don’t want trouble, you pay me now.”
Two points from the guide book now enter my mind: the back room might very well be my next stop; and the “Tourist Police” is the agency that deals with these kinds of scams. I tell him if he doesn’t let me go, I will call the Tourist Police. He grabs my arm and gives me a menacing look as he more deliberately repeats his last words “You pay me now!”
I surprise myself by breaking free of his grip - an adrenalin rush can do a lot, even at age 64. I pull out my cellphone and, in the most earnest voice that I can muster, again threaten a report to the Tourist Police as I move with false confidence toward the door.
“Take him to the back office, boys.” Those are the next words I expect to hear, but instead, he hesitates. Over the sound of my pounding heart, I hear him mutter something, accompanied by a waving-off hand gesture. I run out the door, not looking back until I jump into a cab half a block away. No one is in hot pursuit, and I am awash in feelings of relief and self-congratulation.
Why did he let me go? I was outnumbered by younger, stronger men. If this had been a film noir scene, my threat to call the police might have produced guffaws and comments about the local cops also being on their payroll. But tourism is an important part of Turkey’s economy, and the Tourist Police were given jurisdiction in this sector to protect against the negative effects of these kinds of scams. Did I fortuitously invoke an authority that is both feared and incorruptible in a part of the world where that combination may be hard to find? Was that bar already on some kind of watch list? Since it was only 11 PM, perhaps it was just too early in that night’s harvest to fuss with a cranky sucker who hadn’t run up much of a tab yet.
Of course, the next day I thought of several other things I could have said that would have left me with no doubt that my successful escape resulted from ingenious quick-thinking on my part.
“Here’s your bill back, and I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m going to tell you. I’m a stubborn, savvy lawyer, and I always get even with people who cross me. I’m visiting a good friend here with an important position in the American Consulate, and we will have the authorities shut down your so-called business tomorrow unless …”
I developed numerous variations on this theme (the only accurate part of which was that I did have a law degree), occasionally asking myself two things: Why am I spending hours on this now useless exercise? And why are we so much more clever about how to deal with situations when it’s too late to do anything about them. The value of learning from mistakes might provide some comfort and has its own evolutionary justification, but I’d rather get it right the first time.
I did wind up being less hard on myself about falling for a scam I had read about just a few days earlier. In addition to being thoroughly engaging, these guys were absolute masters of their deceitful craft - their appearance, the low-key entry, the naturalness of the mid-game conversation tailored to my interests and subtly handled to avoid raising suspicions about ulterior motives, the fluidity of the transitions from one stage of the hustle to the next… Now that I’m thinking about it, their entry ploy – asking about directions in the local language before using English – was the same one that Barcelona pick-pockets profitably used on me at the beginning of this trip several months before. It disarms you by making you think that they believe you to be a local instead of a tourist. And why didn’t their eagerness to pass a few hours with someone almost twice their age get me wondering about motivations?
Vanity provides one explanation – when you think you’re likeable and interesting, no red flags get raised when others (seem to) want to spend time with you and also pick up the check. But probably the main reason is that I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with strangers during my youthful travels as a wandering musician that my guard is down, perhaps permanently. There is an interesting symmetry in my running into talented rip-off artists at opposite ends of this Mediterranean trip - Spain and Turkey - and opposite ends of the con man social spectrum: scruffy street pickpockets in Barcelona and smooth business hustlers in Istanbul. I briefly wonder whether this double dose might make me hesitant about interacting with strangers during future travels. We do tend toward caution as we age and add to our experience base. But earlier experiences can be much stronger than later ones, because they have shaped parts of our character that become anchors in our sense of who we are. It takes decades to get those, and they are not easily dislodged.
So I don’t expect to be raising my guard much. But then, it’s not hard to be philosophical about getting conned when the total cost for being exposed to memorable performances by two teams of consummate international artists playing on different fields in different leagues is so low - the 50 euros lifted from my wallet in Barcelona, with nary a bruise in either place. I’ve paid more for many a boring baseball game, and once got hit by a ball.
5. Autumn Odyssey
My early travels as a roving musician did more than lower my guard with strangers. Music opened doors to life-changing experiences for a young man in search of adventure and self-definition. Decades later, with kids grown and an understanding wife, what started as simple curiosity about what it would be like to be a white-haired wandering fiddler has matured into a decision to try it. Not to re-capture the adventures and emotions of before (though some of that would be nice, too) - more rather to observe and reflect, free from the youthful pressure to be the protagonist. Free also to focus more on something beyond the sensual pleasure seeking that so easily dominates young adulthood. Some traditional cultures advise going off in search of deeper understanding after completing one’s primary householder responsibilities. I learned much from the world and its peoples before undertaking those responsibilities, and I wondered what they might teach me later in life.
Risks, too, must be factored in. But the risks of improvising a musical journey abroad that concern me at this stage of life do not involve con men, nor (as before) wondering how I will pay my way or put a career together afterwards. Instead, I wonder if the crustiness of age and habit will keep me from trying for what might be; if comparisons with the freshness and intensity of my earlier travels, especially in their peak moments, will result in disappointment and boredom. Important decisions about time and place must be made, too. The Mediterranean feels like the right setting because the more I have come to know its people and cultures, the more fascinated I have become. As is often the case with big plans, the main question is now or later; but later often means never, and the problems recently diagnosed in my right hand threaten my long-term ability to play the violin, so the time must be now, this fall...
© Peter Contuzzi 2010-15
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