We show up at the venue dressed to kill and are pleased to be greeted by the Ambassador and his wife once again! They came down for a conference yesterday, and actually made a point of sticking around so they could attend our concert. I'm flattered!
We're introduced to a few other dignitaries, et al, and then are whisked back stage where we find our friends from Bantu Jazz and Kundé - themselves all decked out either in jazzy, or traditional gear. The dancers/percussionists are particularly impressive as they warm up together and I dare say perform some sort of pre-show prayer ritual. Serge is absentmindedly doing a little dance step, and I casually mention that I look forward to dancing with them on stage and that "You may be surprised...". He perks up, and offers to show me the step he's doing, and I, always eager for an excuse to shake my booty, jump at the chance. It takes me a few turns to get my feet to agree with my brain (there's a little issue with a beat that gets dropped, and having to start again off of the same foot...) but they seem pleased and impressed at the speed of my progress. So, it's on! Now that they're aware of this facet of my "talents", they're psyched to take advantage of it later on stage. Fine by me!
So - First up - Bantu Jazz. They surprise us by taking the "slow burn" approach to warming up the room. Long chords from the keyboard, low bass notes, and randomized percussion sounds slowly build into a series of songs that are a complex mix of modern western sounds reminiscent of jazz and rock fusion that combine with vocals in and rhythms from their local traditions. I have to say, in a way I'm pleased, because I had been unconsciously "concerned" that if they started with the kind of ruckus they'd played for us earlier, then they'd be a tough act to follow ;-) In this case though, it should work out well for Jeff and I to take it up a notch as they pass the torch to us, and then invite them back to rock out with us in the end.
But first things first - the Kundé folks join the Bantu Jazz on their last "opening act" number. The dancer-storytellers have surprised us as well, decked out in bright colors and covered with skin-whitening clay... one of them makes his entrance by literally slithering onto the stage from under the curtain... I think there's a lot more going on here than we could possibly be aware of, but the language barrier keeps us somewhat in the dark.
Then it's our turn. We too play on the element of surprise. I decide to forgo the use of language at first - using only gestures and facial expression to incite them to sing along with us on "Duke's Place". Apparently, the communication is perfectly clear, and they jump right in and seem to be having a ball! We've decided that at the French Institute it makes sense to do a mix and match of our French Connection repertoire while being sure to also pay homage to our first National Ambassador of Jazz - Duke Ellington.
By the time Bantu Jazz joins us on stage, we've got them in the palm of our hand! So I make an on the spot executive decision to switch the order around a bit, and get them rockin' to "Route 66" with the help of Quamé (keys), Patrick (bass), Serge (percussion/vox) and their leader Calvin on drums. After that, it's time to bring Serge forward to let him show off a bit - during the rehearsal, I'd sensed his itching to scat, so I draw him into a "scatversation" on the Miles Davis classic "All Blues". For one, I'm thrilled to be singing this song in public, because it's one of my favorites from when I was just learning about jazz... and then Serge's scat, seems to be taking on a mind of its own... as I hear the audience responding to his syllables with laughter and other commentary, I realize "he's actually saying words!". I have NO idea what he's saying, but do my best to play along and keep up the illusion of "conversation"... much to the audience's delight!
We eventually get around to inviting the rest of the percussionists and dancers up to join us to "Take the A Train" (audience participation obligée!), but it's definitely time to give them a taste of their own music and language and show that this cultural exchange is a two-way street! Serge and Calvin launch "Meyé Massé" - "I Am Proud" and we take turns singing the beautiful text in various languages. I'm responsible for the English and French translations, of course ("I have reunited with my brothers, we have returned to the source, we shall feast together, I am proud!") but musicians and audience alike are pleased at my efforts to sing a few words in their own language :-)
Somewhere in the middle of this hullabaloo, I'm pulled aside by the dancers who are eager to put me to the test again on these newly acquired danced moves. And the crowd goes wild! Really - I can't wait to see the video and the good pictures that the Embassy folks took (my photos didn't capture it as well) - apparently, this was the high point of the collaboration for the evening!
"Meyé Massé" goes on for awhile, then we wrap it up with "Work Song" (again, very cooperative audience) and good ole "Sweet Home Chicago" to send 'em home singing. A few closing remarks from Embassy staff and the head of the French Cultural Center ("You are welcome to come back any time!") and then we're whisked off for some meet and greet in the lobby. My hand is shaken and pictures are taken with enthusiastic audience members from all walks of life - from everyday people, to dignitaries to high-powered businessmen from Europe and India.
Amy Banda from STV grabs me for a quick and enthusiastic follow-up interview ("If we asked you to come back to Cameroon in 2 weeks, would you?" - "Of course!!!"), and then the other journalists descend, and I'm faced with a circle of about 5 or 6 folks, including our new friend from this morning, Carole Leuwé from Nostalgie. They're all chomping at the bit to interview me about what just transpired - they're particularly fascinated by the strength of our collaboration with Bantu Jazz and Kundé and can hardly believe that we'd only just met earlier that day. I tell them that this is a first for me to be surrounded by so many of them at once ;-) then do my best to graciously respond to their questions and comments. I see that I'm not the only one under the magnifying glass here either, as I catch glimpses of our Embassy hosts, and other musicians being caught in the glare of the albeit friendly journalists' regard.
All good things must come to an end however. It's time to say goodbye to our new musician friends, as well as the Ambassador who'd gone out of his way to hear us again tonight. The local Consul for the city of Douala, Ed Ghallager, extends us a most welcome invitation to join him for lunch the following day, in the interest of helping us fully benefit from our much needed day off. We're looking forward to that, but first things first - we go and get dinner in a local restaurant with the Embassy gang and together celebrate another unqualified success!
Categories: Cameroon Chronicles - Mar 2012