Egypt 1979

 

It is simply incomprehensible and surreal what is going on in Egypt right now.

“Egypt court sentences Al Jazeera journalists”

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/egypt-finds-al-jazeera-journalists-guilty-201462373539293797.html

I don’t offer any easy analysis here, merely a fond personal recollection of way better times. Egypt was the first Islamic country I ever traveled in. I was there during Ramadan in 1979.  I arrived at the Cairo airport from Athens around 1:00 a.m. I was startled to see so many people there to greet the plane at that hour in the night thrusting cards in our faces and waving their hands wildly directly outside customs. I wound up following the first hustler who spoke English and offered me a place to sleep, way down into the belly of the city, in a place called the Gresham Hotel that cost 1.85 Egyptian pounds a night. I can still recall the huge cockroaches that scuttled off the tops of the bed into every dark corner of the room the minute he turned on the light to proudly present my room. All night long car horns were blaring non-stop, just like in Athens.

The next day I began to take it all in. I saw mendicants crawling down the middle of the main street.  In the train station 500 men were down on prayer mats facing Mecca.  Cairo was utterly chaotic, draft animals and cars sharing the streets.  I heard one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, the call to prayer of the muezzin. I’d never been any place like that.  I’d read a lot about ancient Egypt before going there.  I was in no way prepared for modern Egypt.  But I never felt alarmed.  I felt welcome everywhere.

What I remember the most about Egypt is how great people there were.  Behind the Pyramids I met a guy selling hash.  He had none of the high-pressure sales pitches you quite often get in places like that, just a really nice down-to-earth Egyptian guy about my age.  I had the most incredible photo of the two of us standing in front of the Great Pyramid that I lost within a month of returning, as with so many other precious things.  That was still in the era when they allowed people to climb all the way up the narrow walkway of the Great Pyramid into the King’s Chamber.  I remember how claustrophic that walkway was, and how I was so bent over the whole time.  I know I must have been telling myself “soak all of this in” but of course you never fully can.

When I got outside the guy was still there hanging around. We walked over to the Giza village, where I took the photograph above.  All the streets were dirt then, I bet they aren’t now.  We ate excellent falafel from street vendors.  Everyone was so laid back and friendly.  Afterwards we took a wild taxi ride at breakneck speed out into the country to the small village he was from.  I bought a carpet.  With his friends it was all in sign language.  We all had tea.  I can’t remember exactly how I got back to my fleabag hotel, although he probably arranged a taxi for me.

That falafel was definitely a bad idea.  In the middle of the night I started exploding out of every bodily orifice, my fever reaching 104 degrees.  What followed was one of the most miserable weeks I’ve ever had, a violent dysentery that came back over and over again during the months that followed.

 

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Two days later I bought a 2nd class overnight train ticket from Cairo to Luxor.  I spent several days there.  I was barely able to eat anything other than entrocid, my stomach was still so sensitive.  I was travelling on $15/day so I rented a bicycle and rode it out through the desert in 120 degree heat with bottles of water strapped to the bike. I rode it to Karnak through small villages alongside the Nile, children running alongside me.

The streets in Luxor were dirt.  I stayed in a small downtown hotel for 4 days and became friends with the hotel owner, also about my age.  We kept in touch by letters for a year or so.

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It’s hard to describe the awe one feels in a place like the Valley of the Kings, or in Karnak.  And so hard to describe my feelings upon hearing in 1997 that Islamists had massacred tourists there.
  I oppose fundamentalism everywhere, in every form.

Postscript: I quite often read books related to the place I am traveling, one of the simplest pleasures in life. I was reading “Justine” on that trip for the first time, from Lawrence Durrell’s amazing “Alexandria Quartet.”  One morning before I got sick I splurged on the breakfast buffet at the Nile Hilton, which someone had told me was supposed to be fantastic. It was! I had three full plates of food. Afterwards I wandered into the gift shop and noticed a short row of perhaps 20 books for sale. Thinking I might at least maybe find something on Egyptian history, I went over to see if they had anything interesting. What a peculiar twist of fate. Throughout the late 1970s I had been looking everywhere for a copy of the complete 3-volume set of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” Previously published in the U.K., only the first volume remained in print in English.  For months (before the age of the internet no less) I had been trying to find the set through U.S. and U.K. used booksellers, without any luck.  Right there in front of my eyes, next to a stack of pyramid-shaped nicknacks, was the entire Musil set! 

 

Sufis

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All this talk of Sufis, reminds me of jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick, who came along at an interesting time in my life and who reinforced a lot of my own feelings about music and musicians.  In 1976 or thereabouts, while I was living in Boston, I studied for a year or more with Mick, with whom I developed a really special friendship as well.  I didn’t really “study guitar” with Mick.  Mostly we talked about purposefulness and watchfulness.  I brought my demos over and Mick played guitar solos on them.  We talked about a myriad of things, including the music we liked and why.  (I read a great Jazz Guitar Life Mick Goodrick interview recently where he mentioned that Mike Stern “studied” with him a few times during that same period, where the two of them mostly just talked about psychology, which sounds a lot like what my “lessons” were like.)

I still recall the day I arrived at Mick’s house the first time.  I found myself in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon, with Mick leaning back in some kind of Lazy-Boy recliner in the far corner.  I said “I’m Bill Gable, I called you on the phone, I’m really interested to see what I can learn from you,” to which I think Mick responded “If you’re at all confused about what you need to learn, why are you here?”  And so our friendship began.

Mick was reading a lot of Sufi stuff those days and some of his music and thinking was probably influenced by it. I’m thinking of his wonderful composition “Mevlevia,” off the Gary Burton Quintet “Ring” album (with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Bob Moses and Eberhard Weber). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mevlevi_Order. For another great example of Mick’s writing and playing during those days, check out his extraordinary ECM record “In Pass(s)ing,” with Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette and John Surman.

During those years I was playing over 250 gigs a year and keeping fairly active “Gig Journals.” Mick and I used to often talk about how the most interesting aspect of playing live gigs was watching what was going on around us in the room.  Sometimes I would recount to Mick things I had seen at gigs and we would crack up together. I plan on sharing the occasional Gig Journal on this blog over time. (As an odd aside, during breaks at gigs during those years, I read the entire Will and Ariel Durant “The Story of Civilization” series. I basically can’t remember any of it now, which I must agree is not an altogether good sign for what may lie ahead.)

Watching the Sufi concerts night after night at the Fes Festival, I often found myself wondering why on earth Sufis have been so persecuted, often for their ecstatic music, including in recent times by the Taliban. http://freemuse.org/archives/1721.  In the room pictured above, I began writing lyrics to a song called “All Are One” that wound up on “No Straight Lines,” inspired by Rumi and Hafez, two of the greatest Sufi poets. My favorite verse, which I later was forced to take out because the song was getting too long, was:

if it’s my time I’ve had my say / I’ve had my fill of music already / So take me now oh and by the way / Do you know the changes to Rock Steady?

I’d put Aretha up against the Taliban any day.

Sufi Nights

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Every night long after the formal Fes Festival concert ended an informal, unadvertised concert series took place in a courtyard in the Medina known as “Sufi Nights.” I hear it may no longer take place. If so that’s truly a shame because many of the most memorable musical performances I heard in Fes that year took place there.

During the performance I videotaped above, about halfway into the song a few Sufis leaped up from where they were sitting and starting dancing ecstatically. The guy in the white djellaba was so huge, easily 300 pounds, way outsizing anyone around him. It was really moving to see him jumping up and down so joyfully, it already being about 1 a.m.   There is a documentary out that features music and footage from the 2002 and 2004 Fes Festivals (http://www.soundofsoul.org/show.asp?content_id=14402) that incorporates footage of this same guy that very night.

But for me by far the most memorable Sufi Night jam was the one the last night of the festival. From my travel journal:

The final evening of the festival the local Sufi group from Fes was scheduled to play and the moment was extraordinary. All of the space anywhere near the stage had been taken by those of us willing to sit on the hard ground for a couple of hours in wait, most of whom were locals and probably Sufi. The week before, the U.S. government had released the first images from Abu Ghraib, which Donald Rumsfeld had warned were going to be superseded the following week with even grislier images. The local police had swept the streets before the festival, but given Moroccan hospitality it is no surprise there was nothing resembling any tension between anyone in Fes, and particularly not in the medina, which seemed infused with an eternal calm. Around 1:00 am we heard the blaring zurnas announcing the musicians’ arrival. They had decided to enter the courtyard playing and had already reached a fevered pitch by the time they snaked through the crowd directly in front of me. One of them carried a burning brazier and a handful of sparks blew into my face as a drummer tipped the head of his darbuka too close to the coals trying to raise its pitch. There is no finer thing than to be a musician.

Fes Festival 2004

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Any album represents a journey. This particular one more or less began in May of 2004 at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music. Every evening long after the concert ended the most incredible jam sessions occurred in a private garden inside the medina, where each night a new Sufi group from a different region in North Africa played its trance music for hours. Afterwards I stumbled home through the dark alleyways and lay in bed unable to sleep, reading Rumi and Hafiz, Mohammed Choukri, Driss Chraibi and others. Holed up every day inside the medina at Riad Al Bartal to avoid the scorching mid-day heat I embarked on this journey working on the first of many songs I would compose for this album.

It was an amazing couple of weeks. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Alecia Cohen and her circle of world music journalists, who were great company. Earlier that year returning from MIDEM I sat next to Alecia on the plane from Cannes to Paris and we discovered we were both going to be going to the Fes Festival and kept in touch. At that point she was still running her magazine Global Rhythm, which was one of the sponsors of the festival that year. She later wound up moving to Morocco, she loved it so much, where she started a travel company called Travel Exploration.

Fast forward to 2011, in the overdub phase of “No Straight Lines,” my wife and I spent a couple of weeks travelling throughout Southern Morocco with Alecia and Hossaine Amiri booked through Travel Exploration. It was great getting another chance to hear a bunch of Gnawa and Berber music again and inspiring to finally make it that part of Morocco I’d read so much about. The photo below is of our bivouac out in the Sahara, as the sun was finally fading from view.   What a world, what a world.

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No Straight Lines – The Album As A Journey

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After many years of hard work, I have finally finished another album, called NO STRAIGHT LINES. It was substantially written during my travels in Spain, Morocco and Portugal – inspired by the incredibly rich music and literature of the Western Mediterranean. All songs were written by me. I sang most of the vocals and played guitar, Portuguese guitarra, some cello and percussion on the project, which was produced, arranged, mixed and primarily engineered by me. It will take a few more months to get it out into the world, but it’s definitely on its way.

Many years ago an A&R friend of mine observed that rather than getting bogged down thinking about records as overly precious things, they should simply be seen merely as biographical records of particular periods in our lives, nothing more. There is a lot of wisdom in that observation, and a lot of promise inherent in it too – the promise of turning the page on the past, of new beginnings. But when it takes as long to make an album as it did mine, that statement takes on a different significance. And I knew then as I know now that I have always seen records, at least singer-songwriter ones, as precious.

As people who know me recognize, I have faced major distractions over the past 15 years – brought on by a sometimes demanding legal career separate and apart from music. So whatever else might be said about No Straight Lines, it represents a major accomplishment of dedication and focus. And yet I am not alone in this. Many musicians are struggling these days and it’s not unusual for artists’ albums to take years to complete in-between making ends meet.

While I am preparing “No Straight Lines” for release, I have been clearing my studio out in preparation for the next project. It’s amazing, the many piles of books, folders and notebooks filled with ideas, that still litter the place. The making of this record was a very personal journey, as they all are. As the collage of travel mementos at the top of this page illustrates, many things and many places went into its making, with many long and riding roads, to quote you-know-who.

This blog is going to explore many things, ranging from music to literature to travel to friendships to copyright law to mass media to food to politics to philosophy, all of which played a role in the making of this album. Even if they only tangentially apply to No Straight Lines, I like the idea of writing about things I have long been interested in. So here we go…