THE BONGO BOYS IN CONCERT
at the Sulwe Day & Night Club, Nakuru, Kenya, September 1983
"Aye-yi-yi, the beat is crazy,
Soukous, soukous is everywhere..."
In Nakuru last Tuesday night, Dawn was sick in the back of the truck. I had a beer in the hotel bar, and read DON QUIXOTE, ignoring the hookers. Ordered another White Cap, they were out of cold ones, so I split. I walked the length of the main drag to where the lights of shops give out and no mzungu dares to proceed, when I heard the mellifluous sounds of tuning up. Down a dark alleyway the sound seemed to be above me but the sign said "Business College." Then I saw a stair with four big bouncers at the top. Admission was 75 cents. Needless to say, whitey is a rare sight at the Sulwe Day & Night Club. A cool blue fluorescent light was the only illumination: beaut primitive murals on all the walls of wild animals and sunsets behind palm trees. Even the earliest Egyptian wall paintings had the same theme: crocodile waiting by the water for the careless child or stray drunk.
The Bongo Boys were just starting their set. The drumming is wild. On the records it sounds as though they have congas, cowbells and other percussion, but it's only a regular kit: high-hat and crash cymbals, snare, tom-tom and bass drum. One guitarist sat back by the amps to listen to himself, causing occasional feedback. The bass player leaned against a window and finally sat down at a table with a female admirer, still playing. The lead guitarist stood stock still, pigeontoed in cream-coloured cowboy boots and played like a blistered dervish. A couple of terrible "guest vocalists" got up, but on the whole the music was superb.
After a couple of beers I thought of asking someone to dance. A pretty young woman came over and asked me for a light. Sorry. Then how about a shilling for a box of matches? She came back, thinking she'd scored big. -- Buy me a beer? I was pissed by her insistent hustle, though she was the prettiest girl there. Sorry, honey, I said and got up to dance alone. A big guy invited me to dance with his wife, even bigger than him, she was an amazon. His generosity was unmasked when he took the opportunity to grab a tart and squeeze her close during a fast number. He was a great dancer -- all the blokes were, and funny too. Sorta baggy pants shuffle, very little moving about; undulations, hip swaying and hand gestures. The wife or girlfriend I danced with had a t-shirt with some illegible script on the front which I finally deciphered when we sat down. It said CHICAGO.
Zairois jazz is the cool style, but we were only in remote parts of the Congo and so didn't hear any live. One night we camped at a Catholic mission and were getting lots of attention from the local kids, 60 or more of them, shrieking and running about between the tents and generally giving us a hard time. The adults were hassling us with a little more cool. One guy was selling cards with pictures made from banana bark, another tried to flog some suspicious-looking gold which he claimed he'd panned. I asked one of these dudes if we could catch some live music in town. Oui, he said, je reviens huit-et-quart. Sounds early I thought, but let's check it out.
Willie and I stumble through the dark to town to find the red-lit duka, but there is no live band: it's just a little backstreet beershop with blasting hifi. The loudspeakers are wallpapered to blend in with the decor. It takes three or four records to get used to the incredible scratched surface noise. We drink and take in the ambiance.
Each country has its national beer at State-controlled prices. In Zaire it's Primus at $1 a litre, foamy and unpasteurized. There's a great painting on the wall of a soldier looking for a fight; wife leaves him ("She drank too much anyway," adds the caption); man puking; man asking soldier for a fight. What an exciting life these lads lead. We are also quick to detect the lack of local female talent promised by our punter. We drink and watch the blokes dancing with themselves. Very restrained, slight shuffling of feet, hands caressing imaginary partners. When Willie pulls out a box of Marlboros, everyone clamors for one. Then there's a scuffle over the empty box. The victor puts his unsmoked cigarette in it and arranges it in his breast pocket so the flap is visible.
We are deferring our gold-miner by explaining to him, in roundabout fractured French, the battery acid test whereby we can tell whether his gold is pure or not. Similarly, when someone wants to sell us a cassette tape but can't actually demonstrate it for us on their deck, we agree to finalize the deal in the morning.
Finally after three litres of beer I ask Willie to dance in the Glasgow patois we've adopted as a brotherly dialogue between ourselves.
-- You fer hoofin, Jimmeh?
Willie is a big square-shouldered Irishman who comports himself like Robert Mitchum playing a heavy. People come pouring into the place to watch the wazungu dance. Then I dance with a one-legged bloke on crutches, causing more mirth. About 11 p.m. a few ladies show up. I get this big languid dame in cornrows up on the floor but she hardly moves, so I revert to the fellahs.
The bathroom as usual is anywhere outside, though pink dinks are more visible in the dark and you have to watch out for groups sitting quietly on the ground. Coming back I boogie with three young lads who're selling peanuts outside the bar. They are getting down with much more abandon than the adults inside.
By midnight things begin to heat up but we are too intoxicated and having increasingly incoherent conversations with the inquisitive locals. The patois, Lingala, has Swahili mixed with French so it seems like I'm conversant, also my abandonment of correct verb endings, adjectival agreements and so on, helps. A superfly dude arrives with two quite young ladies who look very stoned. They refuse to dance. I angle up to the bar to scope him out. Tell me, I ask, sizing up his garb, does anyone here listen to American funk music.
-- Yeah, he says, mainly the under fives.