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Tangier for Jazz

Tangier needs to be prowled. Tangier needs to be prowled at night. She’s a city that waits, during daylight hours, for the sun to disappear before she presents you with her true character. There’s very little in Tangier for the average tourist, but there are memories. Maybe it’s these memories that attract visitors. The arms of Hercules holding up the twin pillars, for example. I’m more fond of the memories of the beat writers; their stories of drugs, drink, poetry and vanity, indulgence, illicit sex with little brown Moroccan girls. Lies  and thugs and other experiments. It was excellent writing, then, some of the century’s most original work. Now you can sit at the same cafés and read those poets, but there’s no booze being served any more in the town centre. Only old men smoking their kif in pipes, not concerned with anyone else around.

I like that about Tangier: the famous filthy past now lost on tourists and drug dealers, illegal immigrants, poor rural newcomers and rich expats. Tangier won’t compromise for the tourists, it doesn’t clean up well like Marrakesh (they call her the Hooker of Morocco, selling herself for anyone). Tangier has kept it all. The vices are still there to be bought. But it’s a little more sleazy now without the eroticism or intrigue of the International Zone. That’s one face of it. The other face is the gentrified, trendy Tangier of artwork and fashion. The new Tangier that wants a reputation for being a rebel, just slightly outside the mainstream, but without the dirt that comes with such a reputation.

I took the bus from Marrakesh to Casablanca. That bus is only for the tough ones. It’s full of sweat, yelling and slamming on the breaks every fifty meters, trying to sell you hot peanuts for five hours. I don’t want hot peanuts. Just resting my head against the greasy window trying desperately to fall asleep. I pick up my camera in Casablanca, catch the train north. The train gets in to Tangier late. I’m hungry, so I go looking for some cheap food, then music. The Tanjazz music festival  is on. Tangier doesn’t imply Jazz to me, or to anyone, I suspect. Maybe in the 1950’s, but Jazz was big everywhere in the 1950’s, wasn’t it? Now the idea seems incongruous: Jazz in Tangier. But I know Tangier well, and I’m a fiend for live music, so I showed up.

Morocco isn’t a very well organized country, Tangier not a very well organised city. So when I go looking for the first show, I’m not surprised that no one has heard of the venue: the Tanjazz club. “Maybe it’s new?” I ask the man at my hotel reception. He just looks at the name again and says “I won’t lie to you. I’ve never heard of it.” I ask the taxi driver, he thinks maybe it’s a club called Tingis.
“No, I don’t think it’s Tingis,” I reply, “I’m sure it’s Tanjazz.”
“There’s no Tanjazz. Tingis is a hotel with a disco.”
“I don’t think it’s at a disco…” but I have to be willing to believe him. Sometimes taxi drivers here know more than anyone else.
Tingis is a deserted campsite with a bar attached, now closed for the night.
“No,” I apologise, “I don’t think this is it.”
“Yeah, this is Tingis.”
“No, I’m looking for Jazz, I don’t think this is the place.”
“Jazz, or Tingis?”
“Alright, forget this, take me to the casino please.”
There’s another show scheduled at the casino for that night. So by 11:30 I hope I can still salvage the evening and catch the last show. No one in the reception knows where the Tanjazz Club is, even though they’re co-sponsoring the festival. They haven’t heard of the show that night at their casino, either. Then they don’t want to let me in to the casino to watch the music because my shoes are open at the back.
“It’s house rules, you’ll have to talk to head of security.”
“But I don’t want to gamble. I just want to watch the music.”
“What music?”
“The Jazz Festival. There’s a show tonight in the casino.”

I almost get kicked out of the casino. First for my open shoes, then because I’m not allowed to write in my notebook in the casino, then because I argue with the security guard about not being able to write in the casino. It goes on like that for some time, but eventually the music is on so I don’t care any more about house rules. I give up my book and pen to the security guard and take a seat at the black jack table marked “Seats for PLAYERS ONLY.” Another guard steps up to me during the show and asks wearily, “Please don’t write anything.” My shoes are dangerous, my writing’s dangerous, I feel all over like a dangerous man.

I’ll tell you about the music. But first I’ll tell you what bothers me about the pen/open shoe security debacle. The casino is sleazy. I see a kid walking around in dirty trainers. Old men eyeing the girls running the tables: “Should I bet on that? Ha ha ha!” (raising bushy eyebrows) “One…two…three…four! Ha ha ha!”(flourish of the hand)
“What’s your name today? And what’s your name tomorrow! Ha ha ha!”
“I don’t have enough for a five hundred minimum bet!”
No, it certainly isn’t your average high-class casino. But they want to hold on to that myth by giving me a hard time about my shoes.

The truth is, none of that matters in the end, because the music is excellent. I’m seething with the memory of being treated like a criminal, but that’s not important any more once Maxwell Silvapulle kicks open his high-hat with a jogging foot, whips his hands letting them roll over like a dog, and slaps the traps shut. In his breaks, Alexander Tripodi plucks his swing fiddle to pick up the melody; eyes bulging from behind his thick glasses, straining, looking around to drink in the bass line. Suddenly the violin shrieks and Alexander’s eyes are shut tight, imagining the notes pinging off his bow and casting out into the audience. The violin and bass drop out, leaving the drums to just pan on their own. Maxwell brushes the toms like a cook, only the high hat’s “kkksssss…kkkkssss” hinting at the original tempo (you’re lost by this point if you’re not paying attention). All at once the drums cascade, rolling and tumbling, Maxwell sits stiffly upright in his dark suit. His eyes look obliquely out from the side of his head because it’s cocked at an angle, as though he’s bracing for the impact. That’s the long inhale. Then the release as fiddle and bass come back in with synchronicity and that’s when it all lays into a familiar rhythm again. The drummer slumps a little in his chair, relaxes. He can finally see straight.

The next morning I look for the Street Parade advertised. I walk 45 minutes to where it’s supposed to start, and I find all the musicians sitting at the bar drinking beer. I have two, and soon after I fall asleep for a few hours. In the afternoon, I find Fabio Miano and his sextet. “In the middle of all this war,” he tells the audience “I can only find joy in my music,” and he gets an applause. His rhythms are exquisite. His melodies are discordant at times, when he pushes them, and harmonious when he wants us to feel some familiarity. The music jumps, but there’s a sadness in Fabio that even his springing hands and pulsing feet won’t dissuade.

Later that night I finally find the Tanjazz club. Ayoka’s on the stage with a mix of Latin and African tempos, funk and jazz and soul modes; a sound that doesn’t come from anywhere but takes us all away. The floor is full of people recklessly dancing the music into them. All the women are beautiful as the flute and saxophone pull the melody in perfect unison. I’m drinking a beer and feeling so damn sick with this sore throat and cough. It’s my fault, I can’t blame fate or germs. But as long as the music’s playing I’m anesthetized, and I can believe those sounds are the only things alive. At the start of the next morning, half-past two, the crowd cheers “On ne vas pas se coucher!” but we lose, and the lights come on. The musicians go home.

For five days and nights I rise and fall with the trumpets, the clack of the drums propels my feet. Thrilling tunes that make me so lonely, until I remember that we all have music somewhere. In the breaking mornings at the Tanjazz club, I stand out on the balcony listening to the music with one ear and the city with the other. Occasionally, the boys of Tangier stop their bikes beneath the balcony and look up to find the source of that beat, the screaking, the wailing voices of reeds and strings. It makes me want to be a maestro, fingers floating like that, seemingly possessed, epileptic, but producing the sacred music of flawless jazz.

Every morning, the streets of the city are slick with overnight mist, oil, and ocean salt. Kids sniffing paint thinner from rags line the streets. I buy inexpensive coffees and cradle them like elixirs. I want to find a small flat here in Tangier and live in the middle of all the filth and sea water, knowing somewhere in town there’s a sound or a movement that can inspire me. Those kids sniffing paint thinner could do with some inspiration, too.

If you’d like to see more by this writer, try under the name “Saeed.”

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