Tuesday, November 18, 2014

14 Songs Covered by an 'Original' Snob

I brought a bass guitar with me to Madagascar. In part because there is a wanna-be ethnomusicologist inside of me who wants to explore Madagascar's musical traditions in the baritone, tenor, and alto musical registers. But also because I hoped I might be able to get into a band—as a shortcut to a social life.

I have yet to pick up and play a valiha or a sodina, but I did get scooped up by a band pretty quickly: I am now bass playing with the MADBAND. At least I was as of last weekend.

MADBAND at Georgios' Acropolis
Pink Floyd played Pompeii? That's so cute. MADBAND played Georgios' backyard.

I'm not sure whether MADBAND is (a) a degraded, casino-playing shadow of it's former glory—with barely a shred of its "classic" lineup, or if it is (b) a fluid living organism that is constantly evolving—never looking back. I've heard both descriptions.

I've more or less decided not to think too deeply about this existential question.

With MADBAND, I just try to be a journeyman bassist for once in my life, rather than my usual role: the prima donna creative director. I show up as prepared as I can be and play what I know, and wing it through the rest—happily playing for free beer.

MADBAND and Mandals
Me, rockin' the mandals, as always, between the unarmed guitarist and the banjo picker.
It's not quite that simple. In my life as an amateur (and once a barely-pro) musician, I have mostly played and learned music written by myself and/or my fellow band members—as matter of principle.

Bluntly: I'm an "original" snob.

More honestly: I'm a songwriter posing as an adequate bass player.

Brutally honestly: I'm a lazy musician who writes songs.

So this "journeyman bassist" business is a reach for me. I don't arrive in a cover band preloaded with a catalog of songs in my head and at my fingertips. Nor do I have the musical training to wing my way fearlessly into any song. Fearfully, yes, but not fearlessly.

MADBAND at Bar Mojo
At Bar Mojo - Expats, many miles from home. need their cover songs

Learning these cover songs has given me a chance to evaluate them, learn from them, and in some cases appreciate songs to which I never gave much thought—even songs I once actively disliked.

Here is a random sampling of the songs I have learned for MADBAND. There is something valuable in each one.
  1. Van Morrison — Moondance

    I never used to like this song, but I do now. I don't play it very true to the album recording. I just walk all over that Am chord through the verse. Yes, even I can walk a bass over one chord.

    Some of my most fun moments with MADBAND have happened locking with Steve, our Malagasy drummer, on this song.
  2. Traffic — Dear Mr. Fantasy

    What is with this song? It's inexplicably a classic. It's been covered by The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Why? I couldn't tell you. The lyrics are dumb, the bridge is dumb and comes too early—plus the bass part is sloppy.

    Yet my lukewarm feelings toward this song make it more fun. I feel no loyalty to get the bass "right." Dave Mason didn't, why should I? I wing this one, and always will.
  3. Squirrel Nut Zippers — Hell

    In contrast, this one, with its calypso rhythm, is one I try hard to get right. Fortunately, it's not hard to do. The bass part is just an eight-bar loop repeated until the song ends. The hardest part is paying attention so I don't miss the end.

  4. Atlanta Rhythm Section — Spooky

    This song is in a dead heat with Dear Mr. Fantasy for dumbest lyrics. I never liked this one before either—but it's like a gateway drug to becoming a jazzhole. I've dabbled with jazz on and off, and don't believe I'm at risk of becoming addicted.

    We have great soloists in MADBAND, and I play my part pretty straight so I can listen to the rest of the band. That makes the song pretty satisfying.
  5. Old Crow Medicine Show — Wagon Wheel



    Before I actually had to hear this song more than a few times, I somehow managed to learn that it is a cover-band cliché. But I learned nothing more about about it. (I didn't know, for example, that it's sort-of co-written by Bob Dylan.) It seemed like a major liability to my original snobbery. The challenge is getting over myself. It's not that bad. It's even good. I like the lyrics.

    There: I'm over myself.
  6. Eric Clapton — I'm Tore Down

    Two words that have always been my parachute ripcord: blues jam. Where did Ted go? This bass part; the main riff; the only riff is so... Stupid! But don't I profess to embrace the stupid? And didn't I just say I'm over myself?

    This song, more than any other on this list, requires a particular mindfulness—a Zen Guitar state of mind:

    "Play one note on one string and pour in every ounce of your heart and soul. Then repeat."

  7. AC/DC — Highway to Hell

    I have learned this song, but the opportunity to play it hasn't yet presented itself. What I appreciate about it is how the brothers Young tightly arranged this song. It's highly controlled, but the effect is uncontrolled. It's a minimalist masterpiece.

    When the time comes to play this, I won't improvise a single note.
  8. Steppenwolf — Born to Be Wild

    Talk about your cover band clichés. But when I put on the headphones and started to learn this one, I found a kindred spirit in the late bassist Rushton Moreve, who lays down a four-measure bass phrase under a two-measure guitar phrase—exactly the kind of thing that I like to do.
  9. Lou Reed — Walk On The Wild Side

    This song draws attention to my fretless bass. It's dead simple to play. A million years ago I took a bass lesson from Felix Sainzone lesson. I was 18 or 19 years old, still living at home, and I couldn't afford lessons, so I didn't call Felix back.

    But Felix taught me to play double stop elevenths on the bass, and I've never lost my fascination with playing them.

    This bass part is all about two double stop elevenths, played over and over again.

    There are actually two bass parts on the recording. Both parts are played by Herbie Flowers, who came up with two bass parts so he could get double paid for the recording session.
  10. The Commitments — Take Me To The River

    This is not the first time I've been in a cover band. A long time ago I was briefly in three cover bands at once. It was the last time I felt in demand as a bass player. In these three bands, everyone but I was a grad student at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. One band called itself "The 59th Street All Stars." This band was basically inspired by the movie, The Commitments.

    That was when I first learned the bass part for this song as best I could. The bass player on this whole album is pretty phenomenal.
  11. Little Feat — Dixie Chicken

    Not much to this one, other than the quirky and deceptive chord progression. The lyrics are much more clever than I ever would have considered them to be.
  12. The Rolling Stones — Sympathy For The Devil

    This is a very active bass part. Thank you, Bill Wyman.

    Even for an original snob, I've learned surprisingly few songs by The Rolling Stones. (This and Jumpin' Jack Flash are the only ones I can think of.)

    What surprised me most about this song is the lyrics. They aren't quite about what I always thought they were. For a song about the devil, the lyrics are quite humanistic—rejecting the idea of pure evil.
  13. Nancy Sinatra — These Boots Are Made For Walking

    What producer let through that cheesy descending bass gimmick? This campy three-chord song has no right to be as good as it is.

    I don't need babyfaced Nick Cave to tell me this song is cool.

  14. Playing this song is a guilty pleasure, performed in public.
  15. Santana (featuring Maná) — Corazon Espinado

    I first learned about Maná from the contractor who renovated my kitchen, almost a decade ago. But I never knew about this mega-hit, Latin-Grammy-award-winning collaboration with Santana.

    This song just kicks ass.

Am I cured of being an original snob? No, no, no...

But this is fun—lots of fun. I don't have to teach anyone their part, or arrange any music. I just show up with my bass, as ready as I can be.

Antananarivo Street Kids
And the local music critics seem to approve.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tsara is not Ssarra and Other Observations on Language

If you know what raffia is, then you know almost as much of the Malagasy language as I do.

Raffia is the only Malagasy word I've come across that has made its way into English. I nail that one every time. Unfortunately, it doesn't come up very often.

Tsara Be Guy
We'll come back to this ridiculously photogenic guy in a minute.
I'm learning Malagasy, but right now I can't even remember how to say, "I'm learning Malagasy."

I'll look it up...

Mianatra teny Malagasy aho!

But one word I noticed right away—with a bit of PTSD dread—was tsara. The "t" is silent, and it rhymes with the last two syllables of "Guadalajara."

More than 3000 miles away, in the language Kamtok, a word for "white man" was ssarra—which also rhymes with "Guadalajara." (Cameroonian Pidgin English is known as Kamtok by those of us who wish to elevate its linguistic legitimacy.)

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, I learned to hate the word ssarra.

Ssarra was sometimes used innocuously, as in, "I'd like to buy that ssarra a beer." Other times, it was hissed from the mouths of punks—not quite as an epithet, but with inflected meanness and disrespect; as if to say, You are The Other!

And 20-plus years ago, ssarra was a symbol for why I did not extend for a third year in the Peace Corps. My love-hate relationship with life in Cameroon swung constantly along that spectrum. But back then I never quite learned to manage the emotional spike I would feel when I would hear, Sssssaaaarrrrrrrra!

My brother Matt, who teaches a course in cross-cultural psychology, loves to retell to his students about the time I was on my motorcycle in Cameroon, gliding slowly and carefully down a muddy, deeply-rutted road. As I passed a Cameroonian kid, perhaps 18 years old, he called me ssarra. I reached out with my left hand and smacked him on side of the head. It was a gentle smack, as smacks go, with a gloved open palm.

Ali vs. Foreman
Not like this, which is how I think my brother likes to describe the incident.
I looked back to see the kid I had smacked smiling at me, as if to say, Touché! Not much different, as I recall, from the smile on the face of the ridiculously photogenic guy at the beginning of this post.

But I was shocked at my own action. I'd finally succumbed to the temptations of the mefloquine demons in my blood. I looked down at my gloved hand and asked myself, What have I become? I did some serious introspection after that, which helped to moderate my emotional responses to the s-word, and cultural adjustment in general.

So, this year, when I contemplated living in Africa once more, 20 years later, I had to ask myself, Am I ready to deal with that bullshit again?

I decided that, yes, I was.

I had matured and mellowed; that I could deal with whatever equivalent Malagasy word I would be forced to endure.

That word in Malagasy, by the way, is vazaha, and it rhymes with "buzz saw."

And so far I have never heard vazaha spit at me with the same cutting inflection as ssarra.

Vazaha just means "foreigner."

On the other hand, tsara (the Malagasy homonym for ssarra) means "good" or "good luck."

All over Antananarivo you will see the word tsara in marketing—on billboards, on taxis, on packaging.

Tsara Noodles
Basically these are ramen noodles. And I trust that they are tsara.

Look again at the first photo of the ridiculously photogenic guy selling baked goods from a bicycle. It's emblazoned with Tsara.

Tsara Be Bike
I think my PTSD is cured.
Because tsara means "good," logically, there can be no negative connotation of tsara. The old emotional trigger, if it had any potency left, has no power here.

Aho is not Ajo

Aho is pronounced "ow" like, "Ow, I stubbed my toe," and not "ah-ho"—as in the God-forsaken Arizona town, Ajo, whose name also means "garlic" in Spanish. (In Arizona, the pronunciation of Ajo serves as a shibboleth to distinguish long-timer Arizonans from vazaha Arizonans and other tourists.)

But in Malagasy, aho means you are speaking in the first person: Mangetaheta aho (I am thirsty), Tsy mahay teny malagasy aho (I do not speak Malagasy), or Poritra aho, Ny olombelona tsy akoho (I need to pee).

Linguistic Tourettes

Along my life path, I have collected random words from many languages without ever learning to speak any of these languages even slightly. Yet, when I am stumped for the word I actually want to say in French or Malagasy, suddenly some other word will emerge from the language trunk in the cluttered attic of my brain.

It's a weird and involuntary phenomenon.

I want to say Thank you, but out comes Shokron (Arabic). I don't freakin' know Arabic.

I want to say No thank you, but out comes Hapana (Swahili). I don't freakin' know Swahili.

I want to say Be careful, but out comes Peligroso (Spanish). I don't freakin' know Spanish.

I want to say mango, but out comes nachos (Tex-Mex).


That one I can explain. I've joined the Nachos for Breakfast Club, which is actually not nachos but mangos for breakfast. I originally mistook a plate of mangos on a co-worker's desk for a plate of nachos.

I've adopted the practice of picking up a kilogram of mangos on the way to work. There's a nice woman at work who will cut them up into bite-sized chunks for me. I call her La Nacharista. I'm not sure, but that may actually be Spanish, meaning "the woman who makes nachos." Like I said, I don't know Spanish, but I know it better than anyone else in the office.

Chopped mangos at my desk
Don't think I won't try hot sauce with this someday.

Ever since then, my mangos-for-breakfast-eating co-worker and I refer to mangos as nachos—just the two of us.

But I like to believe that I have contributed to the evolution of Malagasy. Generations from now, Malagasy may know chopped up mangos as nachos.

And so language evolves, just as you knew the word raffia.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Recipe: Rice with Wathafakavagot Sauce

When I got home from work tonight, I was soaked with rain from my bike commute through Antananarivo.

I got out of my wet shoes and clothes and into my slippers, a teeshirt, and sweatpants shorts, I made myself comfortable.

It was then that I realized that I had no food in the house.

Almost no food.

There is a little Malagasy neighborhood restaurant less than 100 yards away, but I wasn't going to leave the house. I was dry and finally comfortable. I was going to make do.

Rice with Wathafakavagot Sauce


  • Red rice: 1/2 cup
  • Mint Tea: One bag
  • Water: 1 cup
  • Tiny-ass red onions: 5, diced.
  • Olive Oil: 1 splunk
  • Peanut Butter: 2 (or was it 3?) rounded tablespoons
  • Salt: 5 shakes. Crap. Is it clumping? Make it 8 shakes.
  • Black Pepper: 4 big shakes, because you wish you had...
  • Cayenne Pepper: None. Try not to think about it.

Make a cup of mint tea. Don't drink it.

Pour the tea over the red rice in a saucepan and then cook the rice in the mint tea.

Shut up. Just do it.

In a frying pan, heat up the olive oil way too hot and then throw in the onions. Watch them turn black before your eyes. Oh shit. Stir.

Throw the peanut butter into the frying pan and stir it into the onions as it melts.

Rice with Wathafakavagot Sauce
The lid should fit neither pot.

Add salt and pepper to the gooey mess. Prepare for the worst. Taste.

Could be worse.

About the time that the onion-peanut mixture starts to turn into a thick sludge, check the rice. Still a bit crunchy? Who cares? Dump it on a plate.

The rice should taste a little bit minty, which will counteract the bad breath effect of the onions. Not that anyone will notice.

Scoop out the onion-peanut sludge onto the rice.

Get a beer out of the fridge.

Eat. Drink.

Variation: To turn this into a traditional Malagasy dish, quadruple the amount of rice and use a different sauce.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.