Thursday, September 15, 2011
Written by Chad
Biking back to site at dusk is like showering in bugs. Hands clenched on handlebars, I bulldoze through the fog of flies that snag on my arm hair and divebomb deep within the inner recesses of my nose. Each insect with its own personal death wish to penetrate one of my facial orifices or create a new one. And even after I've had enough mouthfuls of thoraxes and wings to curb my pre-dinner appetite, my stuffy nose forces the choice between eating billions more bugs or keeling over breathless. Come to think of it, maybe that bright headlamp on my forehead isn't such a swell idea.
Approaching village, I hear distant Jula jams reverberating from the stereo system of our village's own dance club, the Maquis. Even though the beats have begun to blast forth, everyone is obligated to sit tight for three more hours. This preemptive music serves as an advertisement for the party at 11, drawing in those wild-eyed youth better than a pied piper. Meanwhile for the wallflowers and non-partygoers among our two-thousand-person neighborhood, the music must be endured stoically, like waiting out a tornado. For at least two nights a week, no nook or cranny of the village is sanctuary from the Maquis' thumping bass.
- Tana and children in front of the Maquis
You'd wonder what kind of dance club entrepreneur would inflict this kind of noise pollution on a commune of hard-working farmers who need their beauty sleep. Oddly enough, the Maquis is the pet project of a retired banker named Fatagoma (the Jula equivalent of the name Junior) who brought his fortune home from the city. Among the kindest and most respected community figures, he's always donning his trademark white sleeveless undershirt and playing cards on the back porch when I pass by. With him at the helm, I'm convinced that his dance club disturbing the peace is a non-issue--that tuning out loudness must just be a universal trait here.
Anyway, when I finally arrive home, I spend a few minutes scraping the film of bug guts off my skin. Dinner plans are mentioned, but I've already stomached enough winged protein to last me till breakfast. It's 9 PM, so we head out early to the Maquis to get good seats for the special event tonight: a "playback." What is a playback? We don't know at this point either, but our good buddy is slated to be in the center ring.
Another friend Tata intercepts us exiting our courtyard. Because she's deaf, she's probably not aware of the cacophony sounding from the Maquis, but I'm sure she can sense the air of anticipation. Outside the door to the club is its own social scene with droves of kids loitering, each lacking the wherewithal to procure the 40-cent admission price. When they ask me "cent francs?" I pretend to hear "ca va?" and respond "ca va bien." Now we're inside where the president of a local theater troupe "Youth Solidarity" is emceeing. Mic in hand, he ushers in guests over the loudspeaker. A special table sits in front of the stage, soon to be occupied by two judges.
Once 11:30 rolls around, Siaka the judge explains what's about to go down: these are the semifinals in which four groups of local youth must compete with their prepared theater sketches and later with their prepared playbacks. Still no idea about what a playback could be. The youth groups have selected their own names (for some reason entirely in English): Black Junior, Sniper, Black Power, and Small King. Siaka has difficulty pronouncing "Le Small King," so Tana and I keep hearing "less milking." On Siaka's scorecard, he writes it as "Smell King"--an honest ESL mistake, not a sign of favoritism.
The 15-minute theater sketches span topics such as HIV/AIDS, the fickleness of material wealth, and the dishonesty of electioneering politicians. If a sketch exceeds its time limit, the DJ will begin to drown out the dialogue with music, similar to a lengthy Oscars acceptance speech. The sketches feature multiple scenes of comedic shouting matches, bumbling love-stricken flirtations, and unconscious dudes being carried to the doctor.
Tana and I can piece together contextual clues, but the plotlines and dialogue to us are as murky as dishwater. Since each sketch is entirely spoken in Jula, we probably understand less than our neighbor Tata, even given her deafness. Sidenote: it's important, I've learned, when you hit the stone wall of anti-comprehension, to fish for other aspects to appreciate. I've been honing this skill ever since high school when Latin Club held me captive for three hours of an untranslated German opera called Elektra. Since then, precious few have experienced first-hand what me snoring in public sounds like.
Finally the stage is set for the playbacks to commence. At this point I have enough curiosity to kill a litter of cats. A playback, it turns out, is kind of like karaoke or slam poetry--it's West Africa's own culturally unique performance medium. Well, almost unique. Tana admits that she saw something similar at a gay bar in the States "but with more costumes." I didn't ask. So here's my definition: a playback is where performers lipsync to a song and act out their interpretation of its lyrics. It's like a live music video, choreography and all.
So, the audience has been pretty tame throughout the theater sketches, but once the first playback song comes blaring through the stereos for all the village to hear at 1 AM, the crowd's cheers rise to record decibels. The energy each troupe puts forth dancing and going ballistic could well surpass any live shows of the famous musicians they're lipsyncing to. One well-planned playback features frozen scenes, each coming to life when the lipsyncer sings about it. In the grand finale a giant handheld Africa is carried stage front towards the judge table.
Recognized as one of the most spirited performers, our buddy San of the troupe Black Junior takes home second place, gaining entry into the finals. The plot of his playback is story we all know: he passionately professes his love to the apathetic dame in the seat while sporting a cloak and a McDonalds shirt underneath. The shirt is revealed in a dramatic Superman-esque way at the climax of the song when the singer sings something offhand about McDonalds. I must say, I've NEVER seen lips more in sync than San's:
Tata and San walk us home at 2 AM. He's still rocking out his McDonalds shirt and cloak when he invites me to help harvest his cornfield at 6 AM, but I have to, uh, wash my hair then. It's okay--he's still ecstatic from the judges' announcement moments earlier.
The next night when visiting Siaka's house to discuss his tapioca business, he shows off the elaborate 45-point grading system he used as judge. He reflects on what a difficult decision it was. We agree that the playback is a truly inspiring and underappreciated art form. Look out, America: playbacks are the next big thing.
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