March 25, 2009
What to say about Benin?
I only spent a week there, but what a week it was. It started off well. Crossing the borders proved no problem for me as I had the correct papers, but Ledzi had to pay at each border crossing as he forgot to bring his ID card. Togo only took a couple of hours to pass, skinny as it was and the familiar sights of roadside sellers dotted the route with their small kerosene wicks to light their wares of coconut and palm oil, shrimps (near the rivers), pineapples and more. Crossing in Benin it was fully night so I couldn’t get a full lay of the land. A simple road led us into the outskirts of Cotonou and seemed like most other West African cities I had been to at first with multitudes of roadside hawkers, traffic going in whatever direction they could find, roadside shacks containing barber shops, phone cards and mobile phones, mechanics etc. We reached our junction and branched onto a road under construction that was filled with headlights of vehicles diffracted and amplified by the suffocating dust. I was glad to reach the modest lodge that rented rooms by the hour (it was attached to a bar) or for the night (our option). Another interesting thing happened on that first day. In Lome(Togo), while waiting for the car to fill up and bring us to Cotonou(Benin) I happened to be chatting with one of the station mates outside the car and mentioned I was from Canada. Hearing this, a youngish fellow in the front seat said that he also lived in Canada (but was from Benin). Through the course of the conversation I discovered that he actually frequents some of the clubs that I have played in Montreal. Further talking into the night as we drove onwards to Benin and we became friendly. He actually found us the affordable “lodge” near his house and invited us to come eat there that evening. Over dinner I happened to mention one of my friends in Canada who has had a remarkable life, Jeik Loksa. After some connection making it turns out that our new friend, whose named is Malik, actually knows two of Jeik’s children in Montreal quite well. With this, we became quite good friends brought together by the small nature of this world.
We spent the day with Malik touring around Cotonou and I got a better survey of this city of Cotonou. First, it probably has the most motorcycles/scooters in all of Africa. Called zemidza, they are the de facto mode of getting around in Cotonou and the rest of Benin. The drivers all dress in yellow shirts and flood the streets, waiting at corners, honking their horns. So at any given time, on a major roadway, a flock of these yellow shirts can rush your way. Reminded me a lot of the autorickshaws of India…especially with the putrid amount of pollution that they emit. One of the drawbacks of this city. And not much order to the traffic. Traffic lights do exist, but what you do in between those stops is anybody’s game. Many zemidza didn’t even have license plates which says a lot. As for the city itself, I could see it was a shadow of what it once was. Not much care for the cleanliness of the streets or the upkeep of buildings. The spirit of independence and the wealth associated with that had faded. But even with its current state of hand to mouth living and trying to keep up with the rest of the world, it had a charm of its own. Not the sad vibe that Lome (Togo) gives me at times when you pass by it’s decaying and crumbling former colonial mansions, abandoned and rarely used government buildings and dusty, old and mostly empty hotels. Cotonou is not as developed as Ghana or Togo however, but is enticing in its own way.
One of the main reasons for coming to Benin was to see what we could find in the way of music and dance many of the people here (the Fon and Adja people esp.) share many historical/cultural traits with the Ewe of Togo and Ghana with whom I am more accustomed with and is the tribe Ledzi comes from. But what Benin is most famous for is it’s practice of vodu/traditional religion. They even have a national vodu/voodoo day. Almost 85% of the population practice it so that says a lot. We headed for the historical city of Agbomey in central Benin. The drive there was interesting. Ever now and again I would spot different vodu houses not found in Ghana, signboards for various healers or diviners, and of course the odd church or two. The land itself is characteristically lush and green with large tracts of bush, forest, plantations and farms. Like many roads in West Africa, each community would specialize in some form of business whether it be the place where charcoal was their specialty, some places was bread, others some sweet pineapple (had a few of those), mortar and pestle (the big ones for pounding yams or grains or palm nuts) or bush meats such as grasscutter (like a giant guinea pig). The most common however was the sale of petrol in litre-sized Coca-Cola bottles of larger gallons. A tad cheaper than that of the gas stations, these sellers are found every few metres and the quality of the product is questionable and I think leads to some of the pollution problems. And sadly, one common sight was one too many burned or crushed carcasses of vehicles left by the roadside….reminders of what can and does happen.
In Agbomey we met a zemidza driver named Alphonse who became our man over the next few days. After finding us a lodge on the outskirts of town, he brought to the official museum of Agbomey which is actually a preserved and reconstructed palace of the former kings of what once was Dahomey. Impressive, the palaces themselves (all constructed of mud and thatch) were sprawling with many compounds. In fact each successive king would build his own palace/complex next to the previous king, who was always buried in his palace grounds, thus rendering it uninhabitable…a mausoleum of sorts. I had to manage with my Grade 12 French, or the remnants of it anyhow, with the tour guide. We saw many original artifacts dating from the 17th century up until the 20th. Ornately carved stools, metal casted staffs, ceremonial items. This kingdom was known for its artistic achievements, especially in carving and metal work (another reason for their dominance and victory in battle). It all gave off quite an aura, especially when you knew what went on here. The kingdom of Dahomey lasted from the mid-17th century up until the beginning of the 20th and two kings in particular are infamous. Glele and Guezo (a father and a son) brought much fame, wealth and power to the Dahomey kingdom. And much bloodshed. The feverishly engaged in the slave trade (one Portuguese canon went for about 15-21 slaves I was told) and executions and human sacrifice was rampant. We were even shown Guezo’s throne which had a human skull under each leg. If you have ever heard of “amazons” well this is where they originated…the special army of the king himself, composed solely of women who had remarkable physical and spiritual strength and a penchant for battle. History lesson complete, and Ledzi quite amazed as in his oral history only 2 kings were ever mentioned not the 8 or so that were presented here, we made for a performance that evening that Alphonse knew about. Approaching the area on the back of the bike we could see the dust flying and drums beating before anything else. And of course the crowds. But these crowds were acting differently…there was commotion, much random movement. We stayed at the edge to see what was going on and when I spied the reason for the tumult I was quite amazed. Some kind of figure, draped in colorful strips of fabric, embroidered with shells, sequins and other shiny things, some form of drapery over the head and a wooden carved head on the back was spinning madly to and fro, side to side, causing the people in its way to scatter with abandon. Accompany this of course was a quartet of talking drum players.
Being the only yovo (white man) there I played it cool. Not sure if this was a funeral, a ceremony of some sort or what the hell it could be I stayed on the fringes, slowly getting closer to the action and swirling dust. Anytime the thing came near, the crowd around me (and myself included) fled away from it. From a “safe” vantage I spied the goings on. There were several of these things (later I found out they are called Egun or Egungun and have origins with the Yoruba of Nigeria) going about, and more slowly making there way to the area, each with a team of drummers. An “attendant” also followed each one with a stick keeping it from getting to close to people. Turns out that these Egun are representatives of the dead and are from the land of the dead. They have many functions from the political, law keeping and acting as messengers of the dead. And it is said that if you touch one, by accident or not, you die. Hence the fear among nearly everyone present when they danced about you. And like most vodu, they like things…money, food, booze and such. Of course, everyone knows that a human being is inside, but it is what they represent which gives the power. And me being an obvious target, was approached by one. Slowly making its way toward me, I knew what was coming. As I had seen it do to some other people nearby, it stopped in front of me, its attendant putting a stick between us on the ground, and I took off my shoes and knelt down to communicate with it. I was told that one is supposed to offer some money when an Egungun comes to you. Respectful person that I am I said no problem and hauled out the smallest bill I had which was in fact relatively large. I was told to wait for some change. Long story short, some other people started to complain that I was waiting and no change had come, meanwhile another Egungun had arrived and the story was relayed. Confusion, commotion and voices being raised. I just stayed put and let others speak. In the end though, we were told that the chief of all these Egungun was on his way and would probably take plenty of money so it might be best to leave for now. A little bemused and confused we left.
Now Alphonse took us to something completely different and equally fantastic. As dusk was falling by this point it was more a shadow of a group of people that we could see under a couple of fluorescent lights. A square compound, with people seated on the ground, on benches, standing, and of course a group of drummers. One building in particular was most striking as it was covered in red dots and had the portraits of two striking looking figures as well as rainbow with a snake’s head. I soon found out that this was a ceremony for Sakpata, the vodu of smallpox and other related diseases, generally worshipped for protection from disease and for the health of children among other things. The drummers were starting cook a bit now, no dancers yet but the music itself was captivating enough. I had the pleasant sensation of not knowing how to process what I was hearing. Seemingly contrary rhythms were combining in curious ways. This was new and foreign and I liked it. The aesthetic of the music itself was related to what I would hear in Ghana but something else was involved in the matrix. But before I knew it, the dancers had started to arrive. I’ll call them dancers but I could tell that these were more than dancers. They came out in a procession. Ornately dressed, mostly in white with hats, many beads, unique metal armbands on biceps, brass double bells in one hand and J-shaped wooden staffs decorated with different sculpted metal motifs in the other, some with bells on the ankles, others with multicoloured hoops around the neck, long beaded necklaces of many colours and variety…..and black eye make-up as well. Some older and some as young as 8 or 9 I guess. This was just the appearance…the dance was something else They danced with vigour… kicking steps, several spins, jumps and pauses that fit nicely with the lead drummer. I could see a pattern between the male and female types, each having defined steps and the more experienced ones adding some embellishments and flair. One fellow in particular had a spectacular style of circular, spinning jumps which made his outfit flare out. It was amazing to watch as it appeared that he was tethered to something and was spinning out and around that invisible thing. With the music, the effect was hypnotic.
After sometime I came to realize that these were more than just dancers, they were actually representing the deities that they served, in male and female form. One deity in particular, found in many parts of West Africa, was legba, the guardian/gatekeeper, who is found at the entrance to every village and some homes. But this was no sculpture on the ground (as he usually is)….it was living breathing person representing and acting as legba. He too was dressed similar to the others but with some differences, including carrying a very large phallus. As usual, my experiences leave me with more questions than answers. This was just in one day. Over the next few days I was lucky enough to meet some other musician families whom I plan on learning from when I return here. I also spent a few more days in Cotonu with Malik and had the chance to meet one Stan Tohon, a traditional musician who is modernizing his art and his present day persona resembles that of American rap star Notorious B.I.G. Went to a concert in Cotonou featuring some of Benin’s best modern musicians which ranged from awful Beninois rap and some lip-synching singers who performed to recorded music, a group of superpowerful neo-traditional brothers and their band, the Gangbe Brass Band (with amplified tuba), and Stan Tohon himself with his large group that featured some of the most energetic body shaking dancers I have ever seen…..and a couple of dancing “little people” (I’m not sure what the P.C. term is these days). It was quite a spectacle, especially when several “big men” came forth to dash different artists with what amounted to be hundreds of dollars.
Much more to come after this, including experiences on how dancing can be a passport, some Ghanaian quadruplets and my Mother in Ghana.