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The Works of Jed Appelrouth
Jed Appelrouth

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Guinea and Morocco

For the last two years I have been learning the rhythms of West Africa in my Thursday evening drumming group: songs such as Yankadi Makru, Djole, Lamba, Sentay, Sourcenay, Mamaya and others. Many of these intricate, multi-layered rhythms originated in Guinea, the home of our drumming instructor, Aly Camara. Aly organized a drumming trip to Guinea, and I jumped at this chance to play the djembe alongside fellow students and masterful drummers in Africa. In addition to signing up for a week in Guinea, I added on 10 days in Morocco with my dear friend and travel companion, Larry Golson, and his close friend from Asheville, Mark Hinton.


Before my trip, when I envisioned "drumming in Guinea" my head was filled with National Geographic fantasies: playing my drum in a small village in front of a giant fire, as people danced and music echoed under a starry African sky. A lovely image, but several steps removed from the reality of Guinea, a third world country, where scenes out of Disney's Jungle Book are few and far between. When I actually landed in Guinea, and disembarked from the Air France flight, all it took was a few draughts of smoky Conakry air to wipe clean all of my Jungle Book/National Geo- fantasies. Inside the baggage area, I met two members of Aly's family, soldiers, in full military fatigues, who helped me circumvent the hassling officials and leave the airport without having to pay a bribe.

Outside the airport, throngs of people were sitting and lying on the parking lot in a scene that was both smoky and surreal. We slipped through the buzzing masses of money changers, crammed into our taxi and headed to the home/compound Aly had rented. As we drove through the city, I was taken aback by the lack of street lights on the main thoroughfare. Then I realized there were no lights anywhere. It was a Friday night, thousands of people were walking about, but the power grid had collapsed yet again.

The street signs of the main drag disappeared as the asphalt transitioned to earth; we were now officially off the map and approaching the compound. There was no actual street address for the compound, as there were no street signs. Accordingly, without addresses, the majority of Guineans never receive a single piece of mail. We arrived at the compound, and I was happy to meet my drumming friends from Atlanta; Brad, my roommate; and members of Aly's family.

After a restful night's sleep and a fruitful breakfast I headed up the street to our open-air drumming site. The instruments were lined up, and I found the speckled-skin djembe I would play during the week. From our spot we could see the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Lizards darted by on the walls, dogs caught up on their sleep, a nameless sheep wandered about, unaware that he was bound for the dinner plate (the "pet" sheep are the ones lucky enough to be given names); chickens and roosters clucked and little children mulled about as we played.

Each morning and afternoon we played with a group of highly skilled African drummers, many of them were Aly's former students; others were members of his immediate family. The interlocking rhythms and uncommon time signatures of the Guinean music proved a challenged. I struggled to keep the beat in 12/9 time, and keep my part distinct from the other moving parts. The changes were frequent: bridge, first accompaniment, break, second accompaniment, back to the bridge, third accompaniment. I tried my best to follow the constant changes. I was amused to see lizards doing push-ups to the beat of our drums. We mixed and matched the different accompaniments and traded them back and forth. It was such a challenge to keep them separate, and so easy to fall back into the dominant rhythm. When we were finally able to keep all the layers working independently, the music sounded so rich.

During the music sessions, my knowledge of French proved to be quite an asset, allowing me to communicate with the Guineans and translate for my American friends. The guys from Guinea translated all of our names. Clearly Jed needed to go, so everyone called me Balikay. It took me a while to adjust, but I eventually liked having a new name.

We spent most of our time in the compound, but on several occasions we headed into the city. We crammed into taxis, Guinea style: a driver, 2 in the passenger seat, 4-5 in the back seat. HOV on steroids. Drivers in Guinea are extremely opportunistic, and lanes quickly appear and disappear based on momentary openings in traffic and the size of the cajones of the drivers. As we drove through the city streets, we witnessed mobile commerce in action. Lining the streets, vendors pitched their wares: phone cards, chewing gum, little plastic bags of water, dish towels, pillows, Kleenex, even undergarments. Many of the transactions that took place were quite humorous. I watched one vendor complete his transaction covering 50 meters of tarmac, running after the customer's car, negotiating and making change on the go.

Sunday afternoon we attended a performance of the Marveilles de Guinea, the group Aly used to play with during his youth. In downtown Conakry we gathered into a giant covered space to observe some of the finest drumming and dancing Guinea has to offer. The masked dancers recreated classic Guinean stories with their powerful, expressive movement. As the music changed, the stories evolved. I could hardly believe what these musicians could do with the same instruments I that I struggled to play! Such grace, power and speed! And who needs LA Fitness when you have Djembe fitness? Dripping with sweat and totally ripped, the drummers made incredible music while getting one heck of a workout in the process. Towards the end of the performance, I was called to the center by one of the Marveilles dancers and I had the chance to get my African dance on. I tried to keep up as best I could. It was a ton of fun, and I think I showed the Guineans that we djembe-playing gringos can shake it down.

The show ended, Aly gave a rallying speech to the performers, and we returned home. On the drive back I noticed a colorful scene at the fishing pier. I asked Sedoubha, Aly's brother, to accompany me to the pier so I could take some sunset photos. By the water's edge I spoke French with many of the young men and fisherman who were cleaning their nets. They were incredibly friendly and gracious. Several of them asked me to take their pictures, which I would send back to them.

The next morning, inspired by the previous day's Marveille performance, I opted to join the morning dance class. The musicians played Sentay, one of our drumming group's standards. Carl and I learned the steps of the dance. It was all quite angular: knees and elbows and exuberant gestures. We both had a great time and a great workout.

The day after Marveilles, we took a trip to the market to get fabric for our garments and cooking supplies. Riding to and from the market, I was taken aback by the copious amounts of trash that littered the streets. Giant pits of burning trash tainted the air and rendered the sky a perpetual grey. Never in my life, have I seen so much trash in a cityscape. Nor have I ever seen people discard trash on the ground so casually, without an instant's hesitation. At one point, I was vainly looking for a trash can to discard two soda bottles I was carrying. Several of our Guinean counterparts asked me why I was carrying trash and told me to simply throw it on the ground or into the ocean. Wow! That's one custom I do not want to bring back to the US. God bless our trashbins, landfills, and garbage trucks!

And did I mention how amazing it is to have reliable utilities? Each evening around 6:30, everyone sat around waiting to see if the power would come on, wondering how long it would last if it arrived. One evening, when the power came on, the children screamed for joy in the streets,"the lights are on!" as if they were screaming for fireworks on the fourth of July. These joys, though heartfelt, were often short-lived. Within a minute the grid might collapse again. Thankfully our generator kept us free from the whims of the grid and kept the AC running during the evenings.

We tried to be vigilant with our health, popping our daily Malarone to avoid the Malaria buzzing around Conakry, drinking bottled or bagged water, avoiding food that was uncooked. The meals were simple: rice; cassava in its many incarnations; baguettes, left over from the French Colonial era; tough, hardscrabble African Chickens. Trying to cut the tendon on an African chicken was like cutting through a steel cord with a butter knife! But they were tasty! I had a hard time adapting to the local practice of eating from a shared central plate. So many pathogens, so little time! I may be a germophobe by Guinean standards, but I'll always be partial to the one-man, one-plate policy.

Monday night we were entertained by several of the musicians, Aliya on balophone (grandfather of the xylophone) and Sedoubha and Mohammed on gongomas (giant hollowed out gourds with 4 metal keys, cut from saw blades). The music was wonderful. Several people started to spontaneously dance to the music. Many of the songs were directed to individuals in the audience, i.e. "we're going over to Balikay's house to party the night away." The musicians would sing to each one of us, in turn, using our given African names, pointing to us, smiling and laughing. Everyone had so much fun.

My last day in Guinea I took a trip to the Loos islands with Muhammed and Sedoubha. They brought their gongomas and played songs as we drove around Conakry looking for elusive ATMs and African masks and also during the boat ride to and from the Islands. On the boat, I was quite amused when all the Guineans flicked off and yelled obscenities at a boat full of Chinese fishermen, who then returned the obscenities and launched plastic bottles towards our boat. Apparently there's more than a bit of tension regarding the Chinese exportation of Guinean fish to Spain.

When we arrived on the main Island, the guys advised me to hide my camera. Any officials seeing a camera like mine would surely demand a bribe. I hid the camera on several occasions, but I was finally spotted taking pictures, and an "official" approached us to offer us his "protection" and a "tour of the island." He requested a bribe of 100k Guinean Francs; the guys got it down to 60k, which did the trick. The tour was hardly inspiring. Every time we passed another run-down building, our guide would offer up the same commentary: "It's old, and it used to belong to the French."

The kids on the islands were great. They all wanted me to take a photo (photolalla! they cried out as they swarmed to me) and show them their picture on the small screen. The adults were less enthusiastic, so I was more discrete with my Canon. Walking through one village, a throng of children gathered to me- wanting to hold my hand and touch my clothing- all the while calling out "white guy" in Sousou. We finished the tour, hid the camera a few more times after our "protector" had left and hopped on the boat home. During the return trip I tried my hand at the gongoma and held a decent rhythm while the guys sang songs to me. Every time I heard the word "Balikay" or "Atlanta" amid all the Sousou, I cracked up. This was one of my final and favorite memories of my trip to Guinea.

The ultimate memory of Guinea was being sprayed with insecticide by a flight attendant inside of the Air Moroc flight. Yechh... But I realize those mozzies have Malaria and are willing to travel. A short hop to Gambia and a jump to Casablanca, and I met up with Larry and Mark.


In Casablanca we met our overzealous, though well intentioned guide, Hamid. We grabbed a quick cafe and learned our first Arabic phrases: Shokrun (thank you) and Saahaar (to your health). We picked up a few additional phrases and greetings, but the hands down favorite was Meshy Mooshkill (No problem). We played with Messy Moosekill for days.

We loaded up the Forerunner and headed east to Meknes, then to the Roman ruins of Volubilis for sunset photos, and finally to Fes. The riads (B&Bs) we stayed in were all lovely, but Riad Yacout, in the heart of Fes, was exceptional. As a bonus, we had the riad completely to ourselves! During our entire trip in Morocco, most everywhere we went, we were the only tourists: we savored the relative privacy afforded by the off-season.

Dinner gave us our first glimpse of the dozens of flavorful Moroccan salads. Breakfast was carbohydrate heaven: nearly a dozen varieties of breads, pancakes, and pastries were arrayed before us. After breakfast we met our "guide," Hassan, who would take us through the labyrinthine Medina of Fes. Little did we know that the theme of this "tour" was "sell the gringos goodies." We took a quick stop in the Medersa el Attarine and marveled at the intricate mosaics and woodwork. From there we headed straight into an ambush.

Under the guise of "seeing the best view of the medina" we were led into a giant carpet selling co-operative and were sent up to the rooftop terrace. Mid-day sunlight precluded our taking any salvageable shots, so we went back downstairs to find Hassan. Our guide was nowhere to be found, but the sales team of the century was ready to go to work. "Please, my friends. Have a seat."

None of us jet-lagged travelers were ready for the game, and these guys smelled it. They went to work. They insisted that we sit down and take tea. They offered us their blessings of friendship and welcome. This was not about selling- this was "sharing" their culture. They flattered and joked with us. Then they dove into tales of the impoverished 1250 women who depend on the sale of the rugs for their livelihoods.

Suddenly the carpets began to literally fly off the stacks, onto the floor, one after another. "We didn't come to buy rugs." "Please, just take a look, no obligation." "You cannot take just one...Make me an offer...How about a million dollars?...Polite laughter..." Then after 20 rugs were arrayed before us, our interest was actually piqued. (Hmmm...maybe I could use a rug, and it would be a nice souvenir...) The lead salesman insisted that we make an offer on multiple rugs- at least 3- rather than one at a time. Did we actually want 3 rugs? Was this our game plan? Before it was over, I ended up buying a rug, Larry walked out with a pair of rugs. Mark, a sales consultant by profession, was in awe of the seamless tag-team sales approach.

Once we agreed to purchase the rugs, the fees appeared: a fee to use our credit cards, a "tip" of 300 dirham ($36) to the guys who were packing up the carpets for transport! Later we learned that a tip of 30 dirham ($3.60) would have been perfectly adequate. We were so green, and so thoroughly carpet-bagged in our first Moroccan transaction.

As we walked out of the rug shop, mildly disoriented, we began to process what had just transpired. As clarity returned, I began to recall some of the rules of the game I had learned during my carpet buying days in Turkey: Drop any and all emotion. Ignore every attempt at manipulation. Listen to the first offer and counter extremely low. Stick to your price. And finally walk out when the negotiation is stagnant. Nearly every time, the vendors will come after you, especially during the off-season.

We regrouped and headed to the next stop on our "tour," the leather tanneries. This time we had our game faces on and were ready to play it our way. I found a stylish suede Jacket, and Larry and Mark found matching black leather jackets. As expected, the shop owner opened with exorbitant prices. We did some quick calculations, decided what was reasonable and we counter-offered. His eyes bulged, as he responded with my favorite expression of the trip: "My friend, you want a Camel for a Donkey's Price." How brilliant is that!!!!! I do want a Camel for a Donkey's price! In subsequent negotiations I would actually open with that phrase to set the proper tone. Inevitably, the negotiations came to a standstill; we began walking down the stairs and out of the store, and we reached the street level when the merchant came running after us to match our price. We were honored with the designation that we had negotiated like Berbers!

Eventually we determined that the majority of vendors will sell their wares for 40% of the initial price. So that became our standard. Take the price, multiply it times .4: simple enough. Mark won the negotiating prize of the trip when he was able to get an inlaid wooden platter for .22 of the opening price. He might win a guest spot on Pawn Stars with his negotiating prowess.

By the time our tour was finished, our wallets were significantly lighter, and the Forerunner could no longer cruise along in 5th gear, given our newly acquired cargo. We drove south towards the Sahara. En route we stopped to shoot pictures of harried, peanut-addicted monkeys. After a roadside meal of lamb and beef, hot off the grill, we found an iphone hook-up for the car radio so we could take a breather from Hamid's mix tape of Gypsy Kings, Berber Disco, and Celine Deion. We passed the foothills of the Atlas mountains, captured some great sunset shots of the rolling hills, and ended the night in Merzouga, Hamid's hometown.

Hamid was quick to let his Berber shine as he chucked his western garb and donned his pointy-hooded, sand-resistant, homemade Jillaba. Merzouga was clearly a Berber town. We drank plenty of Berber Whisky (tea), used the Berber Toilet (au naturale, in the woods), negotiated for the prized Berber Price (camel for the goat's price) and took out our luggage the Berber way (letting everything fall all over the place). We learned "Berber" was derived from "Barbarian," and we eventually developed a sense of kinship for these hearty people.

Our morning in Merzouga consisted of a headgear fitting, a trip to the local mine and a performance by a group of Sudanese drummers. Fresh off my Guinean training, I was excited to join in and smack the djembe to the Sudanese beat. That evening we met up with our Berber guide, Hassan, and his 3 camels. I chose the cantankerous camel, suffering from indigestion and not too happy to see me. Larry and Mark picked the more mild-mannered beasts. We headed into the Sahara for our sunset tour, which concluded at our private campsite. After a Berber dinner and evening tea, night fell on the Sahara. I suggested a night hike to Larry: we spotted the highest dune we could see and took off towards it.

As we walked deeper into the dunes, the moon climbed into the sky, encircled by a stunning 360 degree halo. The air was cold, but we were sweating from the effort of hiking up and down the great dunes. After an hour, the summit was still a distance away. Clouds began to cloak the moon, and we decided to return to camp, lest we find ourselves hiking in complete darkness. We managed to navigate back to the camp using the stars and lights of the distant city.

As dawn broke, Larry was the first up and out to photograph the warming dunes. By now, we were no strangers to the dunes, and we were running everywhere trying to capture shots while the light was just right. Satisfied with my morning shots, I decided to return to the camp, but realized I had wandered quite far from the camp. I struggled to find familiar landmarks to guide me. Eventually, however, I made out the sound of a distant drum. I followed it, and eventually arrived at camp. Our guide, Hassan, had intentionally called us back with his doumbeck: classic desert technology. After our morning tea, it was time to return to the riad. At this point, our asses could not take another camel ride, so Larry and I decided to exit the desert on foot.

Back at Riad Nezha we cleaned up, dined, packed the car and then drove west. We passed Berber towns (more camels, women in more colorful garb) and Arab towns (more donkeys, women in jet black garb). Mid-morning, Hamid embarked on the most outlandish monologue of the trip: the cognitive/biological differences between men and women. Women's brains are different than men's brains. Apparently "science" has shown that woman can think/remember, or they can talk, but they cannot perform these two tasks simultaneously! Hamid had watched a scientific TV program about this. He told us that in a Muslim court of law, whereas a single man can be a witness, two women are required to give testimony that will be accepted by the court. A single woman's testimony cannot be accepted at face value. Hamid insisted that it's just "science." Larry, Mark and I looked at each other in complete disbelief!

Our drive took us through the Valley of the 1,000 Kasbahs, through the Todra Gorge and finally into the stunningly beautiful Dades Gorge. Dades Gorge, also known as the Rose Valley, is home to a rock formation known as the Monkeys' Feet. At sunset, we arrived at the monkeys' feet as deep shadows began to descend upon the blood-red valley, while the full moon rose and hovered in the sky.

That evening we stayed in a West-African-themed hotel, the Xaluca Dades: a chorus of drums signaled our welcome into the hotel. The cuisine was outstanding and marked a point of culinary transition for our tour. At Xaluca, we officially swore ourselves off of Tagines and couscous. Having consumed tagines every lunch and dinner for five consecutive days, we were tagined out; from now on, our diets would be tagine-free.

The next morning, we returned to tickle the monkey's feet anew, but the light wasn't nearly as cooperative as it had been the previous evening. We certainly had fun scampering around the rocks with our cameras blazing for several hours. We headed towards Marrakesh and noted the great city of Orzazate, the movie capital of Morocco where films like Babel, the Mummy, Jewel of the Nile, and Alexander had been shot. But Orzazate, more importantly, gave us our most reliable running joke of the tour. In a thick arabic accent: "Either it's this, or Zazate." That joke had seriously long legs. Or maybe we had simply consumed one tagine too many.

From Orzazate we made the journey into the High Atlas mountains, passing through the epic Tizi Ntichka pass. In Marakesh we hankered down in Djamaa El Fna square to grab grub, listen to music, and watch the fully clothed belly dancers, wrinkled fortune tellers and skilled snake charmers ply their trades. We shopped and ate our way through Marakesh. Restaurant Row was fun: dozens of barkers, some quite physically aggressive, jockeying to lure customers into their establishment. I loved one barker who kept hounding couples, repeating "Sorry. Promise. No Touch." The second night we managed to find a sit-down cafe where the three of us ate a satisfying dinner of soup, bread, and desert for a grand total of 28 dirhams ($3.41).

The next day, Youssef, our savvy guide, gave us a great tour of the city. The haggle-free, state-sponsored department store was a highlight as were the Majorelle gardens and the Yves Saint Laurent museum.

From Marakesh we turned south for the mountain town of Imlil. Upon our arrival, we proceeded to hike up to our accommodations perched on the hill, Kasbah Toubkal. We hiked at sunset and then again at sunrise, where we met a snowstorm while ascending the footpath towards Jebel Toubkal, the 4150m mountain, which towered 3000 meters above the valley. Hamid thought my new Vibram five fingers toe-shoes looked just like Monkey's feet, but they provided great traction on the mountain! After the hike, we relaxed in the Hamam, a hot water fest where you pour buckets of hot water over your neck and shoulders again and again, until you become silly putty: so relaxing!

After Imlil, our trip quickly came to a close. We drove the final leg back to Casablanca and headed directly to the enormous Hassan II mosque, which was beautifully illuminated against the night sky. Apart from the mosque, Casablanca was dirty, and generally uninspiring. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were nowhere to be found.

The next morning we took to the skies with our cargo and our memories and our memory sticks. It was another great trip: Some adventure. Some culture. Great company and some solid photos! As always- if you've made it all the way to the end, thanks for coming along for the ride!

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