Travel

Sightseeing in a Police State: a Syrian Travelogue

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In the late 1990s, long before the Arab Spring and the massacres of the civil war, I traveled to Syria as a tourist. This is a memoir-ish account of what it was like to go sightseeing in a dictatorship.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

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Talking Zamrock

Last week, I appeared on WBEZ’s Worldview radio show, talking about Zambian psych rock and my recent story for Symbolia magazine. Here’s the segment.

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Meeting Me

keithSymbolia’s short Q&A with me on music obsession, being an artist, and zombie preparedness. I wrote about Keith Kabwe and Amanaz (“Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia”) for this excellent magazine’s debut issue. (Illustration of Keith by the great Damien Scogin, whose answers to the zombie preparedness question show that he’s given it a lot more thought than I have.)

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Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia

symIt’s been a long time coming, but the premier issue of Symbolia is out. This brand-new tablet magazine is all about graphic journalism, and my contribution is the story of Zambia’s psychedelic rock movement and one of its biggest stars, Keith Kabwe–anti-colonial freedom fighter turned dope-smoking rock star turned Pentecostal preacher and gemstone miner. My friend and colleague Damien Scogin did the illustrations, which are out of this world.

Ndola, Zambia, 1974.

The equatorial sun has set and the dusty streets are cooling, but you wouldn’t know it inside the concert hall. The place is suffocatingly hot, packed with people. They have come in their multitudes, from mine workers and secretaries to government ministers, to see Keith Kabwe sing.

The band vamps, propelling itself into the song. The drums set a driving beat, followed by the bass and then the guitars, fuzzed-out and in the red. A klieg light illuminates a long rectangular box at center-stage: a coffin.

As the music peaks, the coffin opens. A skeleton springs out, a boneyard apparition in an Afro and floppy bellbottoms. The audience gasps, then roars its approval. The skeleton grabs the microphone and begins to sing. Another Amanaz show has begun.

You can download the iPad version here, and the PDF version here. The iPad version gives you the full effect, with sound files of Amanaz songs and my interviews with Keith. Both are free, but if you like what you see please subscribe to get the next six issues.

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The Thug

thugartRemember the movie Tsotsi, about a South African criminal? My story, “The Thug,” profiles a real-life tsotsi. It appears this month in the literary magazine Carte Blanche.

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa–Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police–both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

Read it here.

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Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

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Back to Zambia (kind of)

5021821668_4205b3c4d2_bIn this video, Symbolia founder Erin Polgreen gives us a walk-through of the tablet magazine’s premier issue as it comes together. My profile of Keith Kabwe, singer for 1970s Zambian psych-rock pioneers Amanaz, is slated to be in there, expertly illustrated by my friend and colleague Damien Scogin and supplemented by clips of the band’s music and my interviews with Keith.

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Capitola, CA. 12.30.2011

capitola001

Last surf of the year.

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Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto

jimi

My newest piece for Thought Catalog, a meditation on the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, and his use as a catch-all comparison for all sorts of non-Western music.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].”

It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

Read the whole thing here.

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Up from the Underground

5060942255_b637964972_zA couple of weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian ran a story of mine on the 1970s Zamrock scene. Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t much known for its rock’n'roll, but for a brief time in the late 1960s and ’70s every young guy from Lagos to Lusaka wanted to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Zambia, which makes few headlines in the west, was the cradle of this scene, hence the name. It was a heady time–these guys were full-on rock stars, with platform boots, groupies, and wild parties–but the economy tanked, the AIDS epidemic hit, and the scene was snuffed out.

I profile Jagari Chanda, probably the most famous Zamrock star of his day, who sang for a band named the Witch. He now ekes out a living as a gemstone miner in the bush. He’s looking for another shot in the music business. I hope he gets it.

It is a Saturday night in Kitwe, a rough mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt, and the bar is growing louder by the minute. The DJ plays American hip-hop, the beer flows and crowds of young miners, grizzled expatriates and working girls shout over the din.

Once upon a time, every head would have turned when Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda walked through the door. Tonight, nobody realises that the barrel-chested sexagenarian in the leather jacket was once Zambia’s biggest rock star.

(The photo comes from the cover of a self-released compilation Jagari put together. For years, hard-to-find releases like this were the only way to hear the music. Now-Again records, though, has begun reissuing albums by the Witch and other Zamrock greats.)

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