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A night out in Dar es Salaam

Falling off the bench positioned outside the barber’s shack once was embarrassing, twice was mortifying, especially as my unreliable perch was situated on a main road along which the people of Msasani drifted to work. My fall was far from private, yet nobody made comment. Seconds later, sitting on the bench, observing the rules of balance and awaiting my shearing, I was actually rather disappointed that my peculiar presence had now been accepted to the extent that even tumbling into the dust twice was unremarkable.

Always a great believer in cheap haircuts (on account of the fact that simple is best when it comes to my tonsorial arrangement), I had found a man with electricity, clippers and a mirror, who would do his best for the sum of one thousand Tanzanian shillings, forty five pence in sterling. Along with his mirror and clippers, I had detected a nascent ambition, which I respected, and this last fact was what drew me to his door and my subsequent conflict with the bench. The barber was a young man, short and of severe expression, who possessed a defined physique not normally associated with the practitioners of his profession.

With the help of painted wooden boards that surrounded the former office chair on which he motioned I should sit, he was creating his own barbershop. The legend on the street-side wall read ‘Brother Kutz’, a printed price list was tacked next to the door and inside pictures of footballers, wrestlers and rappers, cut out from a multitude of old magazines, presumably showed what potential (in the fullest sense of the word) styles were available. I got a number three buzz cut; I decided to save the dreadlocks for another day.

The haircut had been part statement of intent (an expression of my occasional puritanical leanings), and part attempt to appear presentable when taken out to a night of music and air kissing at one of Dar’s premier hotels. Not all is dust, degradation and mere existence in Dar. There is now a lot of money around and while this wealth is yet to find expression in improved public services, it has driven the development of additional opportunities to display one’s affluence. Hotels have been refurbished, clad in new coats of gleaming glass, restaurants abound and companies seek to stamp their identity on any event that is deemed to be indicative of aspirational chic. This is done with no subtlety and little restraint, but the troubadours are in no position to complain and the promenading public are unconcerned, if not oblivious.

Much use had been made of elemental contrast – black and white – to try to create an intimate atmosphere in the venue for the Saturday show. Black drapes hung from the walls; tables, chairs and supporting pillars were covered in white material. Two large round tables were situated opposite the stage, four metres the separation between the two at the most, behind which rows of chairs radiated out towards the rear of the room and the arrangement of glasses that marked the bar. Though the stage should have been the focus of the room, the two tables bulging into the geometry of the chairs presented a definite challenge, posing the question as to who were of the greatest importance: the artists or certain members of the audience? Illumination from multi-coloured spots lit the room and lines of fairy lights wound round the pillars, which, exposed above the drapes, gave the impression of being constrictions of illuminated barbed wire. As my friends and I entered, a nervous warm up act bent over the microphone singing of her troubles; people sat stiffly in rows and the air conditioning blew cold.

“I am sorry if I offended any of you here tonight, but that’s just life,” said the entertainer as she left, having railed against the poison of corruption to a room full of businessmen and politicians. The night was dying. But just as I was wandering whether the room could get any colder, the main act took to the stage; the hum of conversation warned them of a dangerous indifference in the audience. That indifference did not last long.

The impact of the band’s arrival was as if someone had kicked down the door and let in a blast of hot, exuberant, Sowetan summer night. The light softened, the filters changed to oranges and reds, and harsh lines were blurred. The music that came forth was soft, but strong. The rhythm was insistent, and the base supported the gentle contours of a melody that rose and fell, taking us far from the pretension of the beginning into a happy state of shared pleasure.

My foot began to tap and I guess that my smile assumed a rather inane occupation of my face. Looking around the room, one could see a relaxation begin to breakdown stiff posture and formal expression. Heads began to nod and the extended silhouette cast by the people stood at the back of the room was broken as bodies swayed and hips shook. Even the grandees on the top table responded, the rhythm an irrelevance as they moved to their own beat. I narrowed my eyes and amused myself further as their jerky movements made the whole arrangement appear to be a crude automaton.

The music was winning!  The vocalists, one in voluminous black and the other dressed in a sumptuous claret, led their band and directed their audience with such joy that for a moment it was easy to believe that there was nothing in the world they would more rather be doing. Rhythm and base guitar solos provided luxurious contrast to the rich vocals and the keyboardist stood tall at the rear of the stage, his smile broad and only his fingers moving, rapidly.

Sadly, the conclusion of each song seemed also to speed the passage of time, for no sooner had the first effects been savoured then the band were apologising to the crammed dance floor that the end of the set had been reached. The dance floor was only the four metres between the stage and the two tables, but its population had been to my eyes a victory, which had removed any doubt as to the real focus of the evening. The music, the smiles and the movement of the dance went home with me that night and delights still my mind’s eye (and ear) while I write these words.

Smooze: A wonderful night of music and dance in the new Dar. Brought to you by….

No, sorry, I forget that bit.

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