Friday, December 19, 2014

Santa Claus is Coming to Tana

This will be my first Christmas in ten years without Nasty Santa--a plush-toy, bare-chested Santa in boxer shorts with a grumpy face.

When you squeeze him, he says things like, "Screw milk and cookies. Where's the whiskey?" and "Squeeze me any harder, I'll drop a yule log."

Nasty Santa is the merchandization of one of JibJab's early characters, back when JibJab was pure, crude, and edgy; back before they had a viral hit during the 2004 Presidential campaign with a video called "This Land." JibJab subsequently pulled back all of their most offensive content and recalibrated instead for mere Simpsons-level irreverence.

It's pretty hard to find Nasty Santa online anymore. Gone are the classics "Who's Your Papua?," "Dr. Pecker: Proctologist," "Miracle on 234th Street" and of course, "Silent (But Deadly) Night."

Yes, JibJab still features a Santa character, but he has toned it way, way down.

And my Nasty Santa toy is packed away in my storage unit half a world away.

The other day I was on my commute home from work in Antananarivo, when what to my wondering eyes did appear...

Nasty "Salto" Santa
"Crack the holidays with all your teeth." It's not funny in French either.

It's Nasty Santa! In all his bare-chested glory, and peddling snack crackers. I had some Salto crackers today, and just like the Nasty Santa I fondly remember, there were tasteless.

But if JibJab is going to sanitize you and sweep your crude, but funnier, past under the rug, you could do worse than retiring in Madagascar.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Getting Robbed Made Easy

You've been warned that when something sounds too good to be true it probably isn't true. But this proven system will work for anyone.

Follow my five-step system and you will discover just how easy it is to get robbed.
  1. Get a bunch of cash from an ATM and put it in your wallet
  2. Invite a stranger into your house
  3. Place your wallet out in the open
  4. Leave the stranger alone with your wallet for a few seconds
  5. Give the stranger a banana and send him on his way
The other day I was expecting a house guest—my first in Madagascar. I tidied up the house and got my guest room ready. But I was out of cooking gas. This anticipated guest, she offered to cook, and didn't want anything keeping that from happening.

I strapped my gas bottle to my bike rack and prepared to head to a local propane dealer: A store called Jovenna—the 7-11 of Madagascar.

Propane by Bike
Pumped a lot of 'pane down in Ivandry...
A neighbor kid came up and asked me if I was really going to ride my bike like that.

He seemed skeptical that I could actually do it. He suggested instead that I buy the propane from his uncle, just around the corner. I told him I knew of the store, but it was closed that day.

1. Get a bunch of cash from an ATM and put it in your wallet

I did a couple of errands, including withdrawing 200,000 Ariary ($77 US) from an ATM. Then I returned home just as it started to rain.

I closed the gate behind me and started opening the door to my place when I heard the gate buzzer.

Ah!, I think, It's my guest. Don't want to keep her waiting in the rain.

So I went to the gate and opened it and instead of my guest, it's... some dude.

Charlie Chaplin
A lovable tramp—but no hat, mustache, tie, or vest. And Malagasy.
Actually, not much like this at all.

I figured he was here to see one of my neighbors, so I just let him in the gate.


He started talking to me in Malagasy. I tried to talk to him in French. We were getting nowhere, but we were getting wet from the rain. I thought he mentioned something about gaz—gas! The neighbor kid must have told his uncle I needed to buy some gas.

I explained, in French, that I just bought some gas. Sorry, pal. Maybe next time.

2. Invite a stranger into your house

He didn't understand. I motioned that he should follow me to my house so I could try to explain inside sheltered from the rain.

He eagerly helped to remove the gas bottle from my bike, which was my first oh shit moment. Maybe this guy isn't the uncle. Maybe he's just some dude who thinks a vazaha (foreigner or white man) would pay for a little help with a heavy gas bottle, in spite of the fact that the vazaha clearly was managing well on his own—bike and everything.

But he was in my house by then, and still not understanding a word that I was saying.

I carried the gas bottle into the house by myself, saying, "Thanks, but I'm good." He continued saying things to me too, and I continued making no sense of it.

I tried to tell him that he was welcome to wait until the rain let up, but I didn't need anything. I was thinking that I would just go about my own self-sufficient business and he would eventually say veloma and leave.

About this time was when I noticed the smell of alcohol on the guy.

I carried the gas bottle into my kitchen and put it in place under the counter. There was plastic shrink-wrap around the nipple of the bottle, so I reached into my pocket for my Leatherman knife. But, as usual, my wallet was in the way.

3. Place your wallet out in the open

So I removed my wallet and put it on my kitchen counter. I hooked up the bottle, and then I began wash the vegetables I had just bought.

Sur Eau Instructions
In accordance with recommended sanitation guidelines.

The dude meandered into the kitchen and I started to wonder if I would have to get more assertive with this guy to get him to leave. But before I did that, I thought I might try see if my landlady could talk to this guy and find out what he wants.

4. Leave the stranger alone with your wallet for a few seconds

My landlady lives in the apartment directly above me. I went to my front door and contemplated ringing her doorbell, and standing in the rain until she either answered or until I determined that she wasn't home. The dude in my kitchen was out of my site for maybe 10 seconds.

Instead I came back in the house and called my landlady on her cell phone.

"There's a dude in my house, and I don't know what he wants. Can you talk to him?"

She agreed. I put my phone in his hand, and he talked to her for a less than a minute.

When he handed the phone back to me, he still... didn't... freakin'... leave!

5. Give the stranger a banana and send him on his way

So I thought, maybe there's some culturally appropriate way of letting this guy save face before I throw him out. I offered him some bananas. He said yes. I started to break off two, and he stopped me and said he only wanted one.

He smiled and went on his way.

With my wallet.

I don't actually think this guy intended to rob me. I think he just wanted to hit up a vazaha for some beer money, and suddenly found himself alone with a whole bunch of beer money—about $50 in Madagascar money plus a couple of debit cards, a credit card, and an Arizona driver license.

And my house guest? She texted me and said she'd instead be spending the night in a medical unit on account of "mad poops."

It took me until the next day to realize my wallet was missing. It took me another day to conclude that it wasn't just misplaced somewhere in the house—after about five absurdly thorough searches.

I was also told that in Malagasy culture, "If you offer a man a banana, it means you want to suck his dick." A Peace Corps Volunteer told me this. I'm not sure I believe it. If I were into that sort of thing, it would seem too good to be true.

6. (Optional) Report the theft to the police

This step isn't very easy. It takes a long time and there's a lot of paperwork. But it's necessary to make a claim for reimbursement. I will be getting my $50 back.

I don't recommend this step for everyone.

Antananarivo Police Station Goat
But if you like goats, it's a rather pleasant experience.

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.

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.