In the Middle of Somewhere

December 11, 2009

I’m sitting in a bar, a beer that I don’t actually feel like drinking sitting in front of me, worn chair under my ass. I’m getting that day-dreamy feel again, staring off into nothingness, not sure if I’m thinking deep thoughts or just blank.

The live band is taking a break, so pre-recorded music is pumping out the speakers, just loud enough to be heard, but just quiet enough to sit unobtrusively in the background if I don’t focus on it. But I do.

It’s “zouk” music. I don’t actually know the real name.* Popular contemporary Congolese-originated music notable for its driving beat, distinctive electric-guitar plucky runs, and a particular dancing style that involves swaying hips and moving your hands in front of you – palms up – more or less like you’re running them through fine sand. How the Congo – a place so tragic and torn – can successfully drive such an upbeat and popular musical form, I do not know.

But I do know this music. Very well. And hearing it here, now – in this bar – feels so comfortable and expected. My head starts to bob a bit. My shoulders sway almost imperceptibly to the rhythm. My body warms to match the tropical heat, my mind swimming lazily, and I reach for my luke-warm bottle of Kili because I’ve left it sitting for too long . . .

– and I grab a mug of cold beer. I shake my head and look up. My cousin is looking at me, a slightly concerned look on his face. I’m not in Dar es Salaam. This isn’t an outdoor patio with cheap Christmas lights and broken white plastic patio furniture.

I’m in Shanghai. The furniture is real wood and that’s an actual piano that the band member was playing, not a taped-up faux-Casio keyboard.

But none of that really matters. Because the zouk is still playing – I did not imagine its tinkling melodies – and I am still another foreigner sitting in a local bar, surrounded by locals and a couple white men with their local-born dates, beer in front of me. My mind is still drifting, trying to make sense of it all.

It’s the music, you see. The music – that triggers memories and sensations of where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and who I am (or was at the time). The music unlocks portions of my brain that I had forgotten about; until I hear strains of a known melody, and then experiences overlap in my mind until I can see the cubby-hole, jail-cell-style Dar es Salaam bar overlaid on the smooth stained wood of this one in Shanghai.

Finding it’s able to handle that, my mind won’t stop there, and now I’m in three places at once: adding a party in Portland. I’m sitting on the couch, a slowly warming can of Pabst in front of me on a home-made coffee table, and I can hear the same strains of zouk music from the $500 speakers. I’m the foreigner here, as well – surrounded by white liberal twenty and thirty-somethings with their appreciation for “world music” and the “diversity” that represents – although I’m the only non-white person attending. Perhaps the only one invited.

So is it any wonder I find myself more comfortable and warm in the first two memories, thousands of miles from home?

* Everything I found on Google when I searched for "zouk" doesn’t seem to be what I’m referring to, but that’s what I was told the music was called, so . . .

** On a slight tangent – everything that came up (image-wise) when I searched for images of "dancing" with "Congolese" or "Tanzania" or something of that nature came up with "traditional," "tribal"-type dancing; which, of course, I never saw any of in the one and a half years I lived in Tanzania . . . and all the Congolese dancers I saw were dancing in a style that matched the contemporary music of the times . . .


One comment

  1. Can I get permission to use “You are Here” as an image on a website?
    Mark Conkling

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