Ben Wright, banjo picker with Henhouse Prowlers has agreed to share occasional reports from the band’s African adventure, touring with American Voices program on behalf of the US Department of State. Here’s his first dispatch.
So much has happened in so little time here in Congo Brazzaville. We flew in on Friday night as the sun set and vanished so quickly. Rushed through the airport by Embassy staff, we were brought to a reception at Deputy Chief of Mission Strother Murray’s house for an incredible Congolese meal with several dignitaries, including the US Ambassador to Congo. Everyone was warm and understanding of our lackluster appearance. Jetlagged and still not understanding where we really were, we fell into our hotel beds.
We rose early on Saturday morning and went straight to work. A van picked us up and we headed to a rehearsal space to spend several hours rehearsing with the local band Muningu. (They’re on i-Tunes and amazing. Check them out.) Collaborating with such utterly different music and truly incredible musicians was exhilarating. That night we put on a show to about 200 locals and expats. The locals howled when we sang a chorus of a song in the native language of Lingala, and the ex-pats beamed at hearing American bluegrass. The night ended with the local beer (Ngok) at a wonderful restraunt with new friends.
Up again on Sunday and whisked away again, this time into the outskirts of Brazzaville to one of many orphanages in the city. 40 children living in a 40 x 40 room were singing with their music teacher when we arrived. It took your breath away, again and again. They sang for us, we sang for them…then we all sang together. The teacher told me he had never heard of a banjo when they told him we were coming, so he looked it up in a dictionary. The children sang a song they wrote for us and we played our instruments behind many of their songs.
They danced to some of our tunes. Putting it all in words does the experience so little justice.
A mid-day break brought us to the bank of the Congo river. A spanse of water so huge it puts the mighty Mississippi in perspective. On the endge in front of us were locals doing laundry and swimming, and across the river was Kinshasa, (Democratic Republic of Congo) drarfed by distance. Just as we were leaving two small boys jumped into the massive rapids and disappeared down the river just to show off.
Lunch at a Lebanese restraunt was followed by a quick stop at a local market, then we rushed to meet with a group of handicapped musicians.
FOCEB played stunningly beautiful and raw music on several hand made instruments including a guitar and bass (with homemade strings, no less). They talked of their struggles with being hadicapped in Africa, how it’s even a bigger struggle here. Most of their songs were (after translation) about asking people to accept them for how they were born and not to pity them. They asked us to say hello to other people in the states who were handicapped and especially to people that do the work that they were doing, trying to bring awareness to their plight. It’s hard to describe what it was like to play with them, to feel their music. They sang Mourning Dove with us and the energy in the room was fierce.
We ended the night at a music club with authentic Congolese music. The Ambassador and Deputy Director of Missions came again and we spent time getting to know them. We danced the Rumba, thankful to be in the Congo.