Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas at work!

The idea of doing something for Christmas seemed almost impossible. We debated whether or not it was worth it. Only in our 2nd month of existence, surely it was too early to showcase our work in Ouidah, but at the same time, people might expect us to do something.

In the end, we settled on a little Christmas Camp. It was three days long and on the last day the students produced a 45 minute variety show with traditional and modern song and dance. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

We brought in four local artists, one traditional dancer and singer, two percussionists, and one artist who dances, sings, and plays the guitar. We selected a group of 8 dancers and invited the choral that was already in place to do the singing. We had some minor attendance problems, and by the time we actually had our variety show our presence was down to 20 (this is mostly the result of communication problems with parents, we’re working on it!).

Wednesday and Thursday morning, we divided up time between the different activities. The dancer, Stanislas worked with the dancers to teach two dances, and the choral to teach the accompanying song. Sim D, a local artist and student, worked on choreography to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and I worked with the kids to prepare Il Est Né (unfortunately, the soloist didn’t show up the day of the concert, so I had to sing the verses) and Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (not all of the music was Christmas music).

Working with children on a performance always causes frustration here and there, but the real trophy is the time of the performance, when the children become 100% serious and really pull off the event. I’m including a few pictures here of the show. Happy Holidays to everyone with love from CIAMO.

Here are a few videos:





Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kaleta Videos. . .

I'll try to write more about the huge success of our Kaleta workshops. In the mean time, here are some videos I thought everyone might enjoy.
John Mark


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waffel House in Ouidah



Speaking of party tents. . .
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Every Weekend A Party

Since I’ve been in Ouidah, I’ve noticed a lot of cultural differences between the north where I lived for two years and the south where I am now. These differences are controlled by many variables. In the north they were mostly Muslim, here in the south they’re mostly Christian. In the north, they were mostly Bariba and Fulani, and here it’s mostly Fon and Yoruba. There is a lot more wealth in the south, because there are better jobs in the cities and they’re closer to where all the imports come in.

These differences can be as simple as the way they greet one another or their version of the “white person” chant. But there are also many complicated differences. For example, women are treated entirely differently here and they often tend to be open willing to speak their mind. But never mind serious matters, the cultural difference I want to discuss today is a bit different. I thus present to you the Ouidian’s affinity for a good party. A funeral, a marriage, a holiday, why not?

Every weekend, I hop on my bike and go on a quick ride to the beach, walk, sit, all the while pondering life and its many virtues. I noticed right away on these trips, they are often complicated by huge tents going up in the early morning. These tents (Which incidentally are usually tarps taken from American billboards for companies such as CocaCola or KCCI Live Action News), often block the most important route in town. They put up a sign “Rue Barré” and sometimes even have people there who try to stop you. Once I went through a tent, and I was forced off my bike. I lied and said I was going to the nearby church, and they let me by, telling me to pray for them.

Under these tents are hundreds of plastic chairs and tables a rented sound system. There’s always a DJ, who doesn’t really know how to use the sound board. As every person enters, he finds it necessary to announce their arrival. In my case, the announcement is usually “Welcome ______, and his friend the yovo!” If I’m lucky they might throw in my title – Professor of Music and Artistic Director of CIAMO! When the DJ isn’t talking, he’s playing unbearably loud music that makes making conversation almost impossible.

But conversation isn’t a worry for me, since they’re likely to be talking in local language, so I listen to the music, watch people, and occasionally glance up and admire Live Action Reporter Carry Shorter. Now comes the part where a family shows how much they really love their deceased and/or married couple(s) (One can fete several occasions at the same party, right?). Everyone has to do the tent, the chairs, even the sound system. The real investment is in food in beverages. The meal takes place in multiple courses. These courses could be considered each a meal unto themselves. First you might get a salad usually including fish or hotdogs, peas, cabbage, carrots and a lot of mayonnaise. After that, you might get Riz au Gras (Jollof Rice), with a good sized chunk of whatever animal was killed for the event. If you’re really showing off, it’s a beef, but a big mutton can be equally impressive. If you’re going for max meat for your money it’s, unfortunately for me, fish. There might be a third course too, if the family is doing really well, which usually consists of some kind of pate, remember that’s the corn flour boiled in water, with sauce and more meat (potentially a different animal).

And of course, beverages are essential. Beverage companies in Benin are still on the reusable bottle system, which I think is fantastic. People bring in cases of beer, soda pop, and water for their guests. Here, if you really want to invest, you bring in bottles of liquor and cans of imported beverages. This is where the party goes downhill for me. I enjoy a nice beer and the beer I usually drink here is definitely not a high quality. When the imports come in you start drinking Heineken, Guinness, and Bavarian. Did I mention this is all free for the guest? If they have it, they keep bringing you more, and, of course, it would be culturally insensitive to refuse, so you drink. “_____ has lost his mother in law. You must drink for him!” I might be told.

Just as the alcohol might have warmed you up a bit, you might barely notice a troupe of dancers (traditional or modern) or a band of instruments or a group of drummers, or any combination of those listed. If you’re an important family member and/or white, the artists will surely approach you and play loudly in your face. They probably won’t go away until you give them some kind of money. The appropriate way to give the artists money is to press it against their forehead. If the coin or bill sticks, that means they’re sweating, ergo doing a good job. This concept isn’t so new to me. During Ramadan up north, drummers would come into my concession and play loudly at 4am until the landlord woke up and gave them money.

I love it. I love the traditions that surround every fête. I love that music and dance plays such an important role in their traditions. I really love it. It’s like an Irish wake to the 50th power. On days where I’m tired of being called yovo, tired of people asking for gifts, a good party takes all those annoyances away.


The elaborately dressed gungun, a yoruba tradition that brings back the spirits of ancestors from the dead. They dance around a circle for a period of time. When they're ready for the crowd to disperse, they begin lunging at the crowd. It's bad luck to touch the gungun, so people run screaming.

Another gungun. They come out 8-10 dancers at a time.

This tent is nice!
The local dancers at a funeral I went to. We're not taking off this hat-puff thing until you give us money.
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