Choir Concert (Wednesday, 2011 May 18)

May 19, 2011

[Here’s another one from Timothy. N.B. laïque means more-or-less "secular"; also, the exchange rate is roughly 500 francs to the dollar.]

Donfack approached me in the teachers’ office: "Oh, Professeur, mon cher," which is how he always addresses me, making me doubt sometimes that he even knows my name. He teaches French part time, and though it’s a public school and as such officially laïque he on occasion wears his little white collar. But then again, he still in the process of training to become a priest, meaning that the collar is technically fashion and holds no power. Not yet.

Having not yet taken his vows might also explain all the young women I see in his company.

"There’s a choir concert tomorrow," Donfack told me. "At three in the afternoon. You should come." Tomorrow then being a Saturday, all I had planned was to sit on the toilet and wash my clothes in a bucket. I told him, "I’d love to," which may have been an overstatement.

As on most Fridays in the village, I left the school at four, stopping by Chez Hombre for a box of cheap Spanish wine on the way home. As though I were still going through the moments of the life I left behind to come here. Back then I’d scoot over to Cork, geek out with the clerk on the new shipment from Argentina or Catayluñia, settle on something reasonable from Southern France and call it a day. I’d whip-up a little seared Mahi-Mahi, watch a Netflix with the old lady, give her a good old, red-blooded American roll in the hay and pass out with a sticky crotch and the empty bottle rolling on the warped hardwood floor. It was routine, but in the best possible way.

The routine is still there, sad and atrophied, it is no less necessary to tell myself, "this is normal. You are living your life. Have a good weekend, you’re free." So on this Friday evening I ate my bean sandwich with relish and drank my two-dollar liter of wine and watched a movie that I’d seen ten times already until the power went out and I stirred in bed as dogs howled and my neighbor yelled at her kids.

The next day I waited until three to walk up the hill to the community center. A little after three-thirty, Donfack arrived on the back of a moto-taxi. I reach out my hand, but he pushed it aside, and pulled me to him. We touch temples, one, then the other, then back again. He was wearing his collar that afternoon. "Professeur, mon cher."

He complained that there had been some scheduling problems — the village elites were meeting at the Chief’s palace — and the concert was being pushed back an hour. I turned to look about, turned back to Donfack, but he was already walking off with two young women in remarkably tight pants.

Down at Hôtel Kuchi I took a seat on the terrace. The terrace behind the hotel was at street level, but the ground dropped suddenly from the top of the hill where the road was built so that, sitting there, you overlook a small courtyard with a papaya tree in the center and remnants from an unfinished expansion of the hotel. The hill then slopes down even further into Quartier Confort in the valley below. The mountains on the far side of the valley make up the horizon — hundreds of mud brick houses bowled in between — so that on cooler mornings in the rainy season, fog settles into the valley, sinking an entire neighborhood under a lake of mist. Despite the piles of gravel and exposed re-bar it was perhaps the most beautiful view in the village. I ordered a beer.

Donfack had been right about the meeting at the Chief’s palace. Just after four o’clock I saw my first victim, the Under Chief from Famtsuet. I recognized, chiefly, his leopard-print hat from the Chief’s Christmas party the year before. He floated out onto the terrace and looked in my direction. I put my hands to my chest and bowed my head, but he didn’t acknowledge me. Perhaps he hadn’t recognized me. He was most certainly drunk.

A second man arrived wearing a pink Oxford shirt and gold, aviator-style sunglasses and followed by his entourage: three well-dressed women (tailored pagne ensembles and natural hair extensions) and a man wearing the ill-fitting suit and stubby tie of a personal driver. The man was visibly drunk as well and argued with the hostess over the price of two rooms. I paid for my beer and left.

Back at the community center Donfack gabbed my hand and pulled me along to have my photo taken with the choirs. I learned that the night’s event was not just a choir concert, but a choir competition: a Battle of the Choirs. He asked if I would sit on the jury. I didn’t want to. I never wanted to do those sorts of things: judging competitions, speaking at teachers’ meetings and the like. But something about the would-be priest — that damned collar… I don’t even believe in a god, but there was still something about the little square of white staring at me like a buck-toothed smile beneath an Adam’s apple nose. "I’d love to," I said.

The first two hours were uneventful. I checked out the decorations: hundreds of handmade paper flags and taped to the wall behind the stage were the words Festival des Chorals in large block letters made of pink toilet tissue. The two MC’s, one short, one tall, both in suits-too-large hyped into wireless mics that chewed their words into an incomprehensible mash of phonemes, static and hum. It went into this phase-shift jag and threw so much distortion that, mixed with the hedonist beating of hand drums, I was reminded of the old jungle-industrial dance tracks JD used to subject me to in high school. At one point the mic picked up the radio. I sat in the front row beside the other two jurists. Each choir made a similar show of dancing up the center aisle and onto the stage. They sang, they lifted their hands, they marched in circles around the stage. The younger choirs incorporated some charming step-shuffle-turn-step-kick routines into their acts. The choirs were mostly women or young girls, and what few young men there were refused to sing, so that the singing on a whole leaned toward the shrill and joyful cries of altos agreeing on a pitch as indecently as pedestrians agree on direction when crossing a street together.

The fifth choir, a group from Balengou, was lead by an old man with a hunched back and a tattered pinstripe suit. His leather shoes were so old they’d no longer hold a shine. He was missing several of his more noticeable teeth, but he belted his simple pentatonic harmonies proudly and with force enough to soar above the voices of his significantly younger choir. The songs the choir had chosen struck me as what I would consider classic choir music — that is, European in style as opposed the the call-and-return style typical of African choir music. The audience, which had grown considerable, whooped and hollered. People stood up and danced up the aisle toward the stage and dropped bills into a cardboard box set at the foot of the stage for that very purpose. When they had finished, the choir exited by the side door, but the MC bounded onto the stage and grabbed the hunched old choir director by the arm and made him take a bow. The old man smiled his colander smile and absorbed the crowd’s affections.

By the time the choir from Saint Jean Bosco parish took the stage, I was checking the time on my cell phone, fearing my inevitable need to urinate. Their last song was a reprise of Ave Maria, during which they broke out their secret weapon: the Virgin herself.

There was a time when I imagined that African culture might in some way resemble African-American culture. Whether it was prejudice or hopeful naiveté that could make me overlook what effect massive diaspora might have on a people’s culture, I can’t be sure. But thinking that an African choir, for no other reason than their black skin, would hit the stage and belt out gospel music, or any other style I’d be familiar with for that matter, was a grave misconception and, frankly, a disappointment. There was no gospel. No clapping on the two and the four. Could it have been that colonization by the French had sucked the soul out of Africa, or had it been the four centuries of slavery and oppression in America that forged the black community into our country’s dominant cultural reactor? It was a question best left for another day. I sat there in my plastic chair with my legs crossed at the knee and a rapidly filling bladder, and stared at the Virgin of Saint Bosco parish. She looked around fourteen, draped in a white shroud, a rosary clutched tightly in her fist, a look of infinite purity and conviction impressed upon her face. The crowd went nuts, as though it were the Holy Mother herself had descended into the room — the heavenly hosts beside her doing cartwheels. Forget that Mary wasn’t a Catholic, or that — statistically speaking — there was a fifty-fifty chance this fourteen-year-old girl wasn’t even a virgin. None of that mattered. It was the symbol. Here it was all about the symbols. I was just beginning to realize that.

We are a symbol-driven people. All of us. They give us meaning. What’s shocking is how well they do. In Cameroon it’s an honorable title from a village chief, a fetish, or an Armani tag sewn to the outside cuff of a second hand suit. For us "modern" Americans, it’s "War on Terror!" the brand name on your cell phone or whether or not you spend an extra 50 bucks for a pair of hemp sandals so you can feel good that some kid in the Philippines makes an extra seventy-five cents a day than the kid who sews swooshes on Tiger Woods’ hats. Money that kid then spends on a knock-off Dulce & Gabbana t-shirt from China.

I’ve been thinking about writing and what it is that make a good story, if any such thing is likely to stagger forth from my trembling, eczema-ridden fingers. Is it realism? Is it a moral, or some kind of theme that pats these happenings into an edible whole? The two are often mutually exclusive. Either way, make of this what you will. These things happened and then something else followed. A whole mess of shit preceded it all, most of which we will never know. I can’t tie it all together without feeling like I’m dumbing it down.

There was an intermission after the sixth choir. Intermission was the debut, the dévoilement, of a CD of songs produced by the local parish. The choir featured on the disk (the home team in tonight’s event) took the stage and sang the title track, "L’Hymn de Saint Joseph." They sang it once through in a three-part choral round. They sang it a second time in a Macossa. Then, for good measure, the priest played both versions over the PA.

And after they’d set the hook good and tight, the bidding began. It became clear why we’d all actually been invited out for the evening, why these women and girls left their villages on foot to participate in this competition. The first three copies of the disk were sold for 10,000, 7,500 and 9,000 francs to the Mayor, the Sous-Prefet and the wife some ministerial delegate I did not recognize.

The priest’s money made, the competition was allowed to continue. The group from Fite Micheal de Saint Joseph was all old women in white, their hair hidden beneath white headwraps — spotless as lambs. The first two songs were more of the same. The lead woman sang stanzas into the awful microphone and the rest of the women joined her on the refrain. Three of the women broke rank somewhere into the second song and snuck out the side door. They returned during the third song to perform their theater. One woman in drag, the caricature of a hunched old man in traditional Bamileke robes, leaning on his walking stick. Following him was a traditional Bamileke woman. She had a rope tied around her neck that the old man pulled as he led her to center stage. The crowd laughed and howled, privy to some inside joke or classic children’s tale that I was too foreign to understand.

At center stage, the man forced the woman to her kneel before him and brandished a dagger from his robes and, miming palsy, held it trembling to her throat.

At this, the crowd again roared. More lost than before, I thought back to all those dusty Sunday School stories and tried to make the connection. Were they twisting the story of Abraham and Issac, replacing the son with a daughter or a wife? I failed to think of other biblical tales of human sacrifice. I was sure they’re had to be others, but I’d been raised Southern Baptist; we didn’t focus too much on those stories of Jews and their brutal god. How could our faiths — given the same source material — differ so greatly?

The old man reached back with the dagger, his palsy exaggerated into a farce. His hand came down, trained to plunge the dagger into the forfeit throat. In mid-swipe, the old man’s hand stopped, frozen. No, not frozen, grabbed. A large hand gripping him at the wrist. I followed the hand up to an arm, a shoulder. Standing behind the old man, dressed in heavenly white, was black Jesus. The audience roared.

He was wrapped in bedsheets with a crocheted afghan around his head and a furry scarf tied around his waist that wasn’t exactly white but a heavily-bleached pink and covered with glitter. He was tall and stood with his back straight as a broomstick. An empty, powerful look on his face. His eyes neither closed nor open. In the uproar, another woman came from stage left and pulled the sacrifice from her make-believe altar and in her place put a bleating kid.

As I was beginning to see the allusion, that Jesus was intervening in the woman’s sacrifice, that her place on the sanguine altar was being taken by a pure lamb (a goat being the closest thing they have to a lamb), the crowd verging on hysterical joy, the pint-sized goat decided he was having none of it. He fought against cord around his neck and broke free.

I’d seen some strange things in my time here. I’d seen two men riding a motorcycle up a hill while carrying a second motorcycle on the seat between them. I’d seen topless woman called a fool in the town square by a man with no pants. I’d seen a mangy bitch lying in the middle of the road, sleepily licking its prolapsed vagina — like a child sucks its thumb — while motorcycle taxis tore by on both sides. But that night for the first time I saw two priests bowl over an old woman in their pursuit of a frightened goat.

When it was all said and done, the scores were tallied leaving a three-way tie. It was near ten o’clock, pitch black outside, and I hadn’t had dinner. When asked how to break the tie, I told them to give it to the guys from Balengou (their act took the least time.) I snuck out back to piss during the closing prayer. Grabbed a fistful of meat-sticks and went home. It wasn’t a routine evening, those are becoming rarer by the moment; it wasn’t even particularly pleasant (goat chasing aside — I laughed my ass off at that) but I was there.

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