Life Abroad

Africa's Day In Calgary (2)

Monday, August 12

I am woken up early to meet up with a TV interview appointment. Afrikadey! is billed to feature on a cable TV station’s breakfast show and Kwasi and I are still the only artistes in town to carry the burden. Kwasi blasts away at his drums, I sing my songs and twang my unconventional guitar, belting out the message clear and loud: Come beloved Calgarians, Africa calls, come feel the beat!

Also on song is Alemayehu Argaw, a much travelled Ethiopian painter who presents lovely breathtaking paintings under the theme ‘Colours of Ethiopia’. In halting English, Alemayehu chats away with the press crew and later joins Kwasi, Dawodu and I in sipping (and pretending to enjoy) a fresh brew of Ethiopian coffee as part of a special coffee ceremony for the cameras. While the TV crew rounds off, I befriend the youthful owner of the cafe, Yohanis. Despite having lived in Canada for seven years (and in Italy several years before that) he still hungers for the familiar streets, smells and sounds of Ethiopia where he grew up, “You know Ethiopia is the original home of coffee, it was first grown on our land and now that it has become the drink of the world, everyone seems to have forgotten that bit of history…sometimes when traffic is low here, I sit down and look out through the windows and think of home…”

“Have you never gone back?”. I prompt.

“Oh, I did, some time ago…but everything’s changed. Africa changes so fast, while you are out here thinking you are priviledged, your contemporaries back home are going through amazing growth and positive changes…and no matter how long you live here it doesn’t really feel like home especially in the long cold months…”

I have lived in Canada only one year but I know where he is coming from. David soon comes in to drag me out to our next engagement, playing out in the open at the pulsating heart of downtown Calgary, Stephen avenue where busy execs, the white collar types and everyone who breathes in the downtown core seems to come for a lunch break (the show is aptly called the ‘brown bag lunch series’).

Kwasi is first to go on accompanied by his bosom friend, Willie, who also happens to be a certified chef when he is not playing drums. I ride on the excitement created by the duo to do a set of three poems in my aged flowing agbada .We round off with a jam featuring more people on the drums with and on the riotous rhythm created I chanted my ode to Yoruba traditional religion. Afterwards, we mingle with the audience and give some press interviews. I find myself facing a large matronly white lady.

“I am from the Red Cross of Canada, we were hoping you would announce our ‘Help Southern Africa” project during your performance”.

Without missing a beat I ask, “And how do you propose to do this?”

“There is famine all over southern Africa, lots of people are dying of hunger and we need to help…”

“I mean no disrespect, ma’am but I don’t think Africa needs any more hand-outs and donations, what she needs is a fair chance to evolve into the land of promise she is and less of the destructive interference from the western powers”.

She smiles kindly at me. Leaves me feeling foolish and wondering if they are trained to do that…

Kwasi and I get together after the show and spend some time to know each other better. I tell my story in about five minutes but his takes the better part of two hours. When you are fifty I guess you do have a lot to tell. Not that Kwasi looks his age – on first contact and gauging from his exuberance and zest for life, you would imagine him to be in his thirties. But Kwasi has been there, done that…including fathering three beautiful kids with three different woman and spending the last twenty of his years traversing the length and breadth of Canada spreading his message of African culture and brotherhood.

“I’ve been around man. In the early days I formed my first group with some friends. Known as the Ogedengbe drummers, we made so much money on our first tour but the others broke off to pursue different dreams. I kept on and today I can boast of having done all you can do as an African traditional drummer in North America.”

Kwasi’s full names are Boluwaji Kwasi Iruoje, he hails from Sobe near Owo town and his brother is showbiz personality Odion Iruoje. “I’ve always been a tough one, always doing things my way. I go home regularly to pick up new drums and some other things for my trade. Each time I go, I meet with the same resistance, people want to change me, my lifestyle. I am comfortable with what I have achieved here in two decades. I have paid my dues to my people and culture. In a few more years I will return home semi-permanently and spend more time close to the ocean…”

Kwasi is no stranger to the ocean, he lives in the coastal city of Vancouver where he also runs an art shop and gives drum workshops. One notable feature of his long career is his art-in-motion vehicle which he fondly calls ‘the beast’. Painted in all shades of colours and designs, the beast presents a curious and enticing sight. “I acquired this modified 1960 Plymouth Savoy about twenty years ago from a former hippie. The car is forty years old but it still runs well. In fact I travelled the ten hours from my Vancouver base to Calgary in it”.

He gives me a peep into the interior and I come to realize this is more than just a vehicle, it has enough room to take all his drums (which number up to fifteen), his costumes, a little kitchen and washbasin as well as a toilet bowl. “In years past I would drive from town to town for months basically living in this car-truck. When I arrive in a town, I go to a popular park, set up my gear and start playing, within minutes a crowd will gather…”

We bring our meeting of minds to a close with a shared drink then Kwasi brings out some drums. He starts playing slowly. Caught in the moment’s magic, I join in thumping and singing with abandon like a soul possessed. By the time David comes to take me to dinner, my hands are all sore. Dinner will be a Chinese affair with David and his delectable, witty woman but first we stop at his place to pick up Debbie. Just a few minutes into our drive to the restaurant the weather which had been so friendly all day suddenly turned drizzly and chilly making Debbie chuckle, “Welcome to Calgary, Segun. We have a saying here, if you think you don’t like Calgary weather just wait another five minutes…”

We are through dinner in record time and return to David’s to go through his impressive collection of African music. From Manu Dibango to Franco to Yoruba Diaspora (Cuba/Brazil) Orisa music, he seems to have it all covered. I tell him there is only one thing missing: Fela. David appears oblivious of the name or that of any other major Nigerian musician except King Sunny Ade. He is not alone, it often appears as if Nigeria exists in the mind of the average Canadian (if it exists at all) as a country of sit-tight military leaders, Christian-Muslim tension and violence and people who bury adulterous women up to their necks in the earth and stone them to death. Mention Senegalese or Zairean musicians (Youssou N’dour, Papa Wemba…) and faces light up. Try out I.K.Dairo and you meet a blank wall. Fela is quite well known in Montreal (French speaking Canada) but mention of him is often in relation to new, pretentious afrobeat releases by Canadian or American bands.

The same scenario plays out with literature. As a member of the League of Canadian Poets, I am moving in quality circles but I often fetch a blank when I refer to our literary heroes. Once in a while someone remembers Soyinka’s Nobel prize but it’s mostly a hazy memory. This, I guess, may also be because of the undecided state of Canadian literature itself. In all aspects of their lives, Canadians are often caught between being culturally British or American or even French. With so much to choose from, they often decide to just remain Canadian which is a state of being that is hard to define.

At midnight, Dawodu and Kwasi drive up to David’s pad and convince me to come with them to a raving reggae/calypso club where we meet the kids of both men also having a good time with their friends. “Imagine”, sighes Kwasi, “Life is such a strange thing, just across our table, our own kids hanging out in the same club with us…kids grow up so fast and you are still in the same place…”.

We sit there just sipping our drinks and enjoying the music and the room’s ambience. A couple of hours into the fun, when a drunken white girl careens into me and falls flat on the floor, I know it is time to go.

Tuesday, August 13

Kwasi and I begin our community outreach programme. This basically involves going with all our stuff to meet vacationing kids in their schools and day camps. The first performance begins at 10 am at the Thorncliffe Boys and Girls Club. The excited kids run up from their playground and, because it is such a sunny, glorious day, we choose to stay out in the open under a large tree in order to achieve a typical African story-telling setting. The kids, numbering up to fifty join in all the singing and dancing. Kwasi opens up with his intoxicating drumming and I compliment him on the agogo, shekere or the bembe drum. Later, I tell the kids one of the stories of my childhood complete with a song they join in with fervour. We give them time to ask questions which are mainly about the drums and our dresses and language. As we pack up, a bespectacled white man of average build shyly calls my attention “Hi I am Paul, I heard about your performance at the Glenbow on Sunday then I tried to catch you at Strephen avenue yesterday but got there late. Today I took time off work to come here but you chose not to do a poem though I must say I enjoyed the story…”

I apologise and ask him to try and be with us tomorrow morning. We move to another school and go through the same motions. The kids with ages ranging from three to ten years have a narrow attention span. We keep things very tight, my story is short and Kwasi’s routine is compact.

In the evening, I join Kwasi as he leads a drum jam session which is just thirty white adults flailing away at their djembe drums and changing rhythm at the cue of the drum master, a very beautiful event to behold and be part of. These djembe drums which are of Senegalese origin are very popular in Canada and in typical North American fashion, rather than import them from Africa, they now make them in Canada. In my wandering all over this country I have seen all kinds of African music instruments including shekere and Yoruba gangan made with imitation, synthetic materials. My thoughts are that these culture items which were developed by our ancestors should earn us good foreign exchange today but either due to our own lack of desire or focus or because these North American businessmen just like to do what they do best (take an item or idea from us, improve it and then sell it for huge profits in their highly consumption-driven markets), we end up empty-handed.

Kwasi’s opinion is strong on this, “Years past I used to derive joy from teaching white adults my drumming and drum building and repair techniques which took me so many years to develop but once they know one percent of what you know, they go ahead and set up their own workshops, not just taking the business from you because their people are more comfortable with them but also adulterating the art because they do not know enough. With kids, it’s a different thing, you have the satisfaction that you are bringing a bit of the real, beautiful Africa to kids who otherwise would only be taught about a dark continent of poverty, disease and violence.”

We round off the day with an African film titled Karmen Gai (shot in Senegal). Lots of strong sexual undertone but poor editing. Still the quality of production is worthy of the extended applause the film gets.

Wednesday, August 14

With the festival moving to the elaborate music concert phase and new artistes arriving by the day, David’s trips to the airport become more frequent. So I get a new volunteer driver, Micki, a pretty, highly opinionated white lady. Even though I have grown fond of David, I am glad for the change.

We do two schools again today. The first is a group of children of new immigrants finding it difficult to adapt to life in Canada. The partnership between Kwasi and I works perfectly, we get the kids to dance and play some music with us using agogo and sticks. Question time and one kid shocks us, “Why is Africa called the third world?”

It takes three flustered adults to lay that to rest and yet somewhere in that kid’s eyes I can still see a hint of confusion.

I notice a familiar face at the back of the hall. It is Paul and I have disappointed him again. He shrugs it off, “Today’s story was even sweeter and I really enjoyed all the singing and dancing. I guess I’ll just have to get your poetry CD to experience your poetry…” I feel bad to my gut. Sometimes you meet people like this who are just dying to have a piece of your creative output at any price. I wish I can promise Paul a special performance but the programme is so tight…

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