Riffing on the Tradition: Caravan, a riff from the Horn of Africa
I had some brutal travel this week on Clarinet Road. I left West London around 6 p.m. Wednesday to fly overnight from Heathrow to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. I was with a five-person coalition bound for the fifth Hargeysa International Book Fair. A late arrival Thursday morning required a frantic dash to make our connection to Jijiga, where cars would drive us to Hargeysa, Somaliland. An autonomous state that proclaimed itself independent from greater Somailia after the fall of Siad Barre's dictatorship in the early 1990s, Somaliland is the most stable part of the region.
Things went smoothly until the Ethiopians delayed us at their border for nearly four hours because of a visa technicality with two in our group. I passed some of that time on the Somaliland side, chatting with rifle-wielding, otherwise hospitable members of the Somali Police Force. In the end, our group split up and two of us continued the drive, largely on unpaved roads, to Hargeysa so I could rehearse with Somalian musicians for the book fair.
I was ambivalent about splitting the group, but it was important. I would be performing well-known Somali music with important musical figures on Friday morning, and needed the practice. To prepare for this occasion, I had already met several times with Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeydi, the King of the Somali lute (oud or kaban) at his modest London home.
A gruff, no BS octogenarian, Hudeydi patiently taught me several compositions one phrase at a time. I've had the fortune to know several musicians like Hyudeydi who make it obvious upon meeting them that music is the sole explanation for their longevity.
With barely half an hour to settle in and wash the Sahara off my face, I went to my rehearsal. It began informally in one of the hotel's private "dinettes" with my sheepish explanations of why I was there and demonstrations of what master Hyudeydi tried to teach me. Fortunately, the singer Faysal Mushtake, an important pioneer of contemporary-traditional Somali music whom I was quite keen to meet, was "very satisfied" with my efforts. He and the other musicians helped explain things that Hyudeydi couldn't when it was only the two of us. I tried to understand important elements of performance practice, how songs start and end, responses to the vocals, rhythmic timing, etc.
Finally, when Hudeydi arrived, it was quite magical. Years had left his visage. It made sense. He was home. Unlike in London, practically everyone here knows him and knows his significance. The younger musicians at the rehearsal revered him, studied him, basked in his
musicianship. A young woman helping Hudeydi get around translated for me now and then when Hudeydi would speak of his songs, some new, some old. A few years younger than the King of the Oud, Faysal had great anecdotes as well. The multi-lingual vocal star, who spoke damn good English, was also an expert teacher of Arabic literature and poetry.
Getting to meet the two of them was a true pleasure. I had to deliberately push thoughts out of my mind of wishing that our music community had a similar depth. This, the week that we lost our beloved Uncle Lionel Batiste, made that difficult to escape. The few reminiscences I heard over the Internet on WWOZ and news reports like one on NPR, annoyed me that Uncle's legacy was quickly becoming his "personality" much more than his music.
I won't belabor that point. I certainly don't want to take away from anyone's memories of hanging out with Uncle Lionel on Frenchmen Street. But, watching younger musicians in the presence of masters learning about their music, their history, getting fueled by traditions upon which to build their own music was inspiring.
It's something we should pay much more attention to for the next generation of New Orleans masters.