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Famous in Guinea-Bissau: In Africa, Berkeley Band Becomes ‘Non-Militarized Face’ of USA

June 20, 2016
by Marica Petrey

Drenched in sweat, I rushed to pack up my cello before the crowd stormed the stage again. It was dark, and all the dancing had filled the hot air with reddish dust. We’d just finished our set, and I couldn’t wait to get my gear locked up in the van so I could relax. But as I knelt down to pick up my rosin, the mob of kids rushed my bandmate Brendan and slammed his back against the wall. By the time I turned, a sea of hands and fingers were rippling over his entire body. Only his face was visible as he thrashed right and left, eyes closed, mouth open, holding his arms up as high as he could. It looked like a shot from World War Z.

Of course they weren’t real zombies, but in my mind hordes of overly excited kids can be equally terrifying. They were trying to get their hands on the promotional flyers he was handing out, and they weren’t just going to cry and whine for them like the overly sensitive brats I’d taught back home. These kids were wiry and tough as nails, from the village of Jarra-Soma, The Gambia, and it wasn’t every day that they could get free stuff or watch a live band perform. In their excitement, they’d stampeded, and the chaos was spreading. Our Oakland-based band of five, Mad Noise, was traveling under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, but our newly assigned officer hadn’t anticipated the need for security. One glance at the expression on her face told me we were on our own.

In State Department parlance, we were now “cultural diplomats” or “musical ambassadors”—the nonmilitarized face of the United States of America.

By now, bass player Chris and singer Khalil were surrounded, too, and our sound engineers were angrily pushing the kids off and away from the stage. Then without warning, a small hand snatched Khalil’s glasses off his face and disappeared into the crowd. Great. Now our lead singer could barely see, and the generators running the electricity were not going to last much longer.

TIA. This is Africa. It was an expression used frequently by locals and ex-pats alike, anytime things didn’t go as expected—which was always.

We were on the last leg of our West African tour, and I was still having trouble believing I was there. Earlier in the year, we’d auditioned for American Music Abroad, a State Department–funded cultural exchange program. It has its roots in the same program that sent Duke Ellington abroad as a musical ambassador to Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Hundreds of bands had applied in 2015, and we were ecstatic when we found out we’d been selected. For most of December, we performed and taught workshops in Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and The Gambia. In State Department parlance, we were now “cultural diplomats” or “musical ambassadors”—the nonmilitarized face of the United States of America.

Superficially, at least, we made a fittingly diverse poster band, but for those who knew us, these fancy new roles were comical. We’ve got a supernerdy black guy on guitar, Khalil. He’s always playing video games. A sensitive white guy from Sacramento on bass, Chris. He loves hanging out and being nostalgic. A Chinese-American from Texas on trumpet, Brendan. His mission in the band is to annoy me and then laugh maniacally when he succeeds. Then there’s a Filipino skater dude on drums who goes by Mogli. He is so cheerful and bouncing off the walls all the time that I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with him. Finally there’s me, a half-Japanese girl from Wyoming. I play cello, but mostly I just try to keep everyone from accidentally killing each other, breaking things, or showing up to the wrong gig. Somehow, music brought us all together while we were still at UC Berkeley, and five years later the journey landed us here—in Africa with some of my best friends, playing music, put up in mostly five-star hotels, and getting paid for it. Holy shit.

The schedule could be exhausting at times, but for the most part, this was no hardship tour. I’d wake up in a huge fluffy bed surrounded by luxurious marshmallow-like pillows. (Back in Oakland, I didn’t even have a bed; I slept on the floor to save money and space in my tiny room.) In the mornings, a delicious breakfast would be served to us by waiters dressed in starched uniforms. Twenty minutes later, an embassy driver would pick up us and our instruments from our hotel. Then we’d enter the “real world,” weaving through dirt roads filled with potholes, avoiding goats, passing through various military checkpoints, finally arriving at our destinations—often a French or Spanish cultural center or a high school. Other times we arrived at completely dilapidated buildings that were missing walls. Then our audience would show up: sometimes kids, sometimes adults, sometimes musicians, sometimes not.

Music would always cut through the initial awkwardness and linguistic barriers. Within minutes, we Americans, or Guineans, or Gambians, or Senegalese would all become just musicians. Music allowed us to connect and suddenly feel like old friends in a way that I suspect is impossible for most diplomats to achieve. In Ziguinchur, Casamance, we collaborated with Hardcore Side, a hip-hop group that raps in Wolof. Within an hour, they were freestyling over our songs, and we were adding live backup and beats to theirs. It was so easy. In Batete, a village in Equatorial Guinea, we played for an orphanage run by Paraguayan nuns. By the end of the show, the kids were dancing and laughing, and as we started to pack up, they all began singing for us—at least 200 incredible voices rang out and filled the mostly open-air auditorium. It took all of my strength not to tear up. The nuns told us that the kids were singing as many songs as they could so that we would stay longer.

Workshops, collaborations, and performances like these happened during the day; then in the evenings we’d usually put on a bigger show. These could be for vastly different audiences. One hour we’d be talking to music teachers and students who’d taught themselves from YouTube because there were no music schools. Then we’d find out that all 40 of the musicians shared a single drum kit because the country didn’t have a music store, either. An hour later, we’d be shaking hands with embassy officials dressed in suits and ties, then performing for a cocktail party held in a gorgeous air-conditioned compound. A few hours after that, we’d get hyphy with more musicians and perform for wild crowds who knew how to get down and dance.

Later that same day, I discovered a ruffled rooster tied up underneath our outdoor stage. We felt guilty about playing so loudly on top of the traumatized bird. When soundcheck was finished, one of our shoeless sound engineers grabbed the rooster by its feet and took it home for dinner.

In truth, it wasn’t much different from what we did at home—play music, meet people, make them happy—we were just doing it in radically different environments. My head would be spinning by the end of each night. We’d come across so many jarring juxtapositions of poverty, wealth, animals, humans, architecture, landscapes, smells, food, and personalities that I felt like I was in an absurdist play. Once, while exploring the street markets in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, we found a woman selling bush meat (mostly whole antelope carcasses), as well as giant snails, each one as big as two of your fists put together. The snails were all piled up on a rug on the ground, and each time one emerged from its shell and tried to squirm away, the woman would smack it with a long switch until it retreated. While she had her back turned, we noticed one making a slow run for it (as snails do). We named that one Gary.

We like to think Gary got away.

Later, in Guinea-Bissau, I found myself in front of our hotel lobby, holding my cello and staring at a green plastic bucket filled with bleach water. It was an “Ebola prevention station.” Right behind it was a giant Christmas tree.

Later that same day, I discovered a ruffled rooster tied up underneath our outdoor stage. We felt guilty about playing so loudly on top of the traumatized bird. When soundcheck was finished, one of our shoeless sound engineers grabbed the rooster by its feet and took it home for dinner. Right after that, we played an epic show for a crowd of 3,000 people.

Back at the stage in Jarra-Soma, it was close to midnight by the time we managed to make our getaway in the vans. The sound engineers and some Peace Corps volunteers had helped clear the kids out of the way. Some parents launched a hunt for whichever child had stolen Khalil’s glasses. We sat down for some food and flies were buzzing around my plate when our embassy official wrung her hands and timidly informed us that our rooms would not have running water, electricity, or soap. Seriously? I’ve done enough backpacking to enjoy traveling without nice things, but we were exhausted, loaded down with musical gear, and slathered in a mixture of sweat, child grime, goat hair, chicken feathers, dust, and generator fumes. And then there was Brendan, who simply could not live without soap. Or hand sanitizer. Or tissues. Or allergy medication. Or lots of other things.

“Look, I’m bleeding!” he moaned. “They bit and scratched and then one of them grabbed my balls! Hard!” He showed me his finger. The cut was… tiny. But yes, the kids had actually drawn blood.

“Am I going to get rabies?” he asked, worried.

“Oh my God. No, Brendan. You’re not going to get rabies. Well, maybe. That would be your karma for farting on me all the time and naming every goat in Africa ‘Marica.’”

“Can’t we just take the three-hour drive back to the capital?” he asked our officer. We’d gotten used to the five-star hotels and regular showers.

“No. It’s too dangerous to travel at night,” she said. “We could be attacked or shot at. We have to wait until morning.”

“TIA, guys. TIA,” said Mogli, who seemed to be amused by how upset everyone was. Chris did look furious, and admittedly, I took some evil pleasure in the thought of him and Brendan having to tough it out for the night. I wanted a hot shower too, but I also loved it when the unexpected happened. That’s when it felt like real adventure.

I felt the worst for Khalil. He was sitting next to me, picking at his dinner, barely able to see, yet still so sweet and gentlemanly about everything—at least outwardly. If I’d lost my only pair of glasses, I’d have been raging. Way out here, you couldn’t just go get another pair.

Then suddenly, a boy came running in from the street yelling and waving something up in the air for all of us to see, “I found them! I found them!” They were a little bent, but yes, they were Khalil’s glasses. “I found the boy who took them and brought them to you!” We wondered whether or not he’d taken them in the first place, but he was too cute to blame, so we thanked him, then hurried out to find a bar of soap before the tiny shops closed.

My bandmates and I ended up spending most of that memorable night sitting in some cracked plastic chairs, staring up at the beautiful desert sky filled with stars and mosquitoes. Time seemed to stop.

Damn. How did we all get here? we laughed. In a few days, we’d be heading back home for Christmas, to our small but committed fan base in the Bay Area. Our local shows were always high-energy, but the crowds during the West African tour had been way bigger than anything we’d ever drawn at home, and their responses overwhelmingly appreciative. Here in Africa, people constantly rushed up and grabbed us for autographs or selfies and asked about the music. We stood out. We were different. We were special. One of our favorite Cultural Affairs Officers, Nitza, joked, “Let’s print you all a shirt that says ‘I’m famous in Guinea-Bissau.’”

At times, being a musician is hard. Being in a band is even harder. It’s costly, unstable, an emotional roller-coaster. Even if you make interesting, original work, it often goes unappreciated and ignored, especially if you can’t figure out the business side of things. The beauty of this tour was that I was constantly reminded of how lucky I was just to be a musician and to be in a band (even if I do decide at least once a week that I hate all my bandmates). The musicians we’d met and played with on the tour had fought against all odds to get where they were. Despite the utter lack of resources, they were incredibly skilled, mind-blowing performers who stayed vulnerable and connected on stage, who shared their music instead of just showing it off. And now here we all were, together, being creative, inspiring each other in spite of our differences.

Traveling, training, and performing internationally over the last few years has taught me one thing about art—you cannot stop it. Humans have to be creative, no matter how dire their situation is. But playing music is a lot like other high-adrenaline adventures: Once it’s over, once you stop playing, you wonder if it all really happened. Our West African tour still feels so near and so distant, so tangible and so imaginary, but it reaffirmed why I chose this itinerant life in the first place. Music tells me that I’m alive, that I can feel things and connect to other people, regardless of where we’re from or what we’ve experienced in life.

It also taught me that beds are really nice and worth the money, even when you’re broke. So as soon as I got back to Oakland, I treated myself for Christmas and bought one. 

Marica Petrey is a frequent contributor to California and California Online.

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