Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.
While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.
While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.
In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.
Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.
On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!
To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!
During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.
I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.
Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.
However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.
Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.
We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.
In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.
My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.
Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.
All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.