Sunday, January 22, 2006

Spices, Drummers, Department Stores

After several gospel-themed mini messages from Assegai, I finally got a lengthy e-mail once I told him about the blog and explained that there were a lot of people who wanted to hear regular updates about how he's doing in China, etc. This is what he sent, with the understanding that I'd be sharing it with everyone.
Assegai's message follows:

Well, sometimes I ask myself, " What the Sam Hill are you doin' in China?" The language barrier is a daily challenge, but most folk are fairly patient. Actually my grammar is not too bad, it's the vocabulary that needs major expansion.....
Sometimes when I do drum stuff I get these delusions of grandeur, like I'm the young Famadou, newly arrived in strange Europe, to represent the jimbe culture. Except he spoke French when he got there....
Sometimes I catch the young toughs on the street corners smirking when I pass on my bicycle, and I want to dismount and thrash one to within an inch of his miserable life...then I remember that I'm in China, and that backup is a fantasy.....
Learning Chinese cooking spices has been slow...but I'm eating better all the time.
The guileless curiousity of the little ones is outta sight.......
Playing taijiquan in China is a big thrill...although sometimes I wish people wouldn't stop and stare. It's hard to get any real work done when I feel like I'm on display.
The traditional drum ensemble that plays in the park for dancers is hysterical. Old crusty curmudgeons who appeared to be on psychotropics, or Thunderbird, or something. Lottsa trancing....... One drum that was like a small Taiko, two guys with double cymbals (they were the ones who vibrated the most, probably a side affect of the meds) and a gong player, who happened to be one of my favorite taijiquan people. He's real aggressive. But always shows me a new move, kinda like a guardian angel or something. Wonder of wonders, they let me play the cymbals for a few minutes. When the weather changes, I'll introduce them to some jimbe. It's funny, drummers are always the Earth people, the ones who are hooked on the old ways.
Sometimes it's lonely.
One of my favorite things to do is to go to the department store and act really helpless, so that all the pert salesgirls rush over to help the poor foreigner, whom they think is Will Smith or Michael Jordan. Clearly a lack of scruples on my part, but then, my days as a spiritual giant waned long ago.
These are a few vignettes, here in Communist China. I think you will want to send them along the line, for some belly laughs. If I tried to write down all the wonder, and frustration and joy, I'd be writing till next week.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Assegai in China

Well, Assegai's e-mail posts have been fairly terse, usually amounting to a quote from the Rev. J.M. Gates, but in case there's anyone still wondering how he's faring in China, I think this picture should put any doubts to rest. Not sure what the event was, but it appears that China has welcomed Assegai fittingly.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Well, after more than four years of Soli Soma -- four years of playing djembe music from Guinea, West Africa out of our base of Hartford, Connecticut; four years of trying our best to play these traditional rhythms faithfully; four years of rehearsing and playing gigs around Connecticut and Massachusetts -- we've now got a CD and a place where you can read about us on line.

This comes at a crucial time for us, just as Paul Assegai BabaOni'Lu, the musical director and guiding spirit of the group heads off to China to teach English and study Tai Chi.

Here's a sample from the disc, which is called Foundations. This is "Dunungbe/Konowulen," from the dounounba family of rhythms, commonly known as "the dance of the strong men."

Traditional djembe music is complex and polyrhythmic, with many elaborate call-and-response calls and breaks. And the music and rhythms, and dances and songs that go with it, play an important role in traditional village life in Guinea. In the same way that we recognize the appropriate occasions at which the melodies for "The Wedding March," "Happy Birthday" or "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" are played. Certain rhythms, songs and dances correspond to specific events. There are rhythms for harvest time, rhythms for rites of passage and rhythms for competition. Through studying books, recordings and videos of master drummers like Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate or the musicians from Les Ballets Africains and Percussions De Guinee, we've done our best to understand the particular origin of the music we play.

The djembe has a crisp and sharp sound.
If you're unfamiliar with the djembe, in the last 15 years it's become one of the most popular handdrums in the world. The goblet-shaped drum comes from the Mande, or Maninka or Malinke people of West Africa, primarily from the countries of Guinea and Mali. The drums are carved from a single piece of wood and covered by a goatskin head afixed to the drum using a system of iron hoops and laces. Unlike the majority of African drums, which are played with one or two sticks, the djembe is played with both bare hands.