There was no reason why I should have taken particular notice of her, and I didn’t, at first. At 10.32pm the audience was sparse on the 2nd level of the Elbo Room, but not dead. The night was young. Two or three couples twirled carefree to exotic beats of the African Diaspora spun from the stage by DJ Pleasuremaker and his brother, Oz.
Across from the stage, at the opposite end of the dance floor, other patrons of the night smothered the bar, drenching their guts in its merry medicine as they worked on lowering inhibitions. Adjacent, a caramel girl with big frizzy hair and a hunky chocolate boy were playing pool. They were the first I noticed of what would turn out to be a meager sprinkling of Blacks amongst the pool of mostly White (and some Latino) partiers that would eventually cramp up the dance floor.
Did it seem ironic that an event called, The Afrolicious Party, would be attended mostly by young, middle class looking Whites, and that the few Blacks present seemed more interested in playing pool than dancing? Was there something unusual about the fact that the party was actually hosted by two White deejays from the Midwest?
I may have been a little more surprised about this apparently lopsided representation had it not followed a familiar pattern. In the several months that I have been attending Afrobeat related shows around the US, the audiences have been similar: White, middle class, young. American Afrobeat bands have also been overwhelmingly White. If I had learnt anything so far, it was that the mythical White obsession with Black music was no myth, it was a phenomenon, and it was very real.
But realizing this fact didn’t automatically make it easier to comprehend. I got up to take pictures of the musicians on stage, then stood on the side to observe the growing company of participants on the dance floor. Their spasmodic jerks did not always match the rhythms of the music but that didn’t seem to matter to them, or to anyone else in the club. I tossed questions about in my head. Was this about the music or about the alcohol? Maybe a little bit of both? If these revelers had an out of body experience which enabled them to stand apart sober and watch themselves like I was, would they be embarrassed? What we’re they really looking for?
I must have worn my thoughts on my forehead because the voice that sliced through them sounded determined to break my apathy.
“Why are you just standing there like that? Not dancing?”
Her pixie haircut was a peroxide blonde that almost matched the tone of her pale skin. The hair and her cat-eyed glasses gave her a skittish look that belied her Amazonian frame, stuffed in a little black dress that showed off voluptuous curves, and revealed large tattoos on her arms and her back.
I was caught off guard by her forwardness. It wasn’t one of those situations which had happened serendipitously, like when you bump into someone on the dance floor and end up dancing with one another, maybe even discovering a connection. We had been on opposite sides of the dance floor, and I was just one of several observers standing aloof on the sidelines, not really looking for company. We probably made the briefest most casual eye contact but it must have meant something to her since it had propelled her out of her seat, right across the dance floor directly to me.
“Oh, I’m just standing here, observing…”
I began to respond to the question she had asked, but she had her own agenda.
“Come on, let’s dance.”
It wasn’t a request, it was a statement, an announcement which really meant “now we shall dance.” I was considering whether she was really that brazen or just being sociable, but before I could conclude, we had floated unto the dance floor; she, and the music, an up tempo salsa, were now in control.
It was her turn to be surprised. Although I love dancing, I don’t do it often enough. When I do, however, I give a modest performance.
“I just knew those feet wanted to dance.” She said in a voice that was a little too giggly, with eyes, a little too wide.
She didn’t. I could tell from the awkward way she tried to sync her movement with my shuffling that she hadn’t picked me to outshine her, black dress, platinum hair, tattoos and all. Really, no diva likes to be outdone. I suspect she probably wasn’t really looking for a dance. People on the dance floor weren’t really supposed to dance after all, they we’re supposed to act crazy. Burning stress, not choreographed movement, was their goal. In this context, the fact that I was actually dancing something that resembled the salsa must have appeared awkward, and was probably just as much a disappointment to her as it was a surprise.
“So why were you taking all those pictures? Are you like a reporter or something?”
By now I was beginning to sense that for her, questions were a sort of defense mechanism. But against what exactly, I could not tell.
“I’m just doing some research. That’s why I was standing alone earlier, observing.”
“Yeah, but are you a reporter?”
“Yeah, but for what? Are you writing for a newspaper?”
“Oh, no. I’m in grad. school. I’m doing research for my doctoral dissertation.”
Her forehead crinkled, her mouth gaped at a slightly tilted angle, “huh? You are writing about clubs?”
I could understand her bewilderment. Most people had the same reaction whenever they learnt that my fieldwork requires that I attend lots of shows in bars and clubs. Still, I never looked forward to explaining the details to them. It always felt like a meaningless apology that did nothing to enlighten those to whom it was directed, a purposeless chore. Most people thought that there was no justification for calling my work research. And they couldn’t convince themselves, even if they tired, about why I sometimes complained of get bored with my “work.” They didn’t consider that listening to the same style of music over and over again could diminish whatever personal enjoyment there was to be had in such repeated outings. It didn’t matter to them that I was not really into the club/bar scene and that most of the time I literarily had to drag myself out to a show when I would much rather be cuddled under my blanket, asleep. Explaining all of this in a club situation could go either of two ways. Since the conversation would have to be conducted in decibels that matched if not surpassed the loud music, the listener either faked hearing what I had said and dropped the subject, which was good, or, he or she would display an incorrigible keenness that meant I would have to repeat myself over and over again till I was heard and invariably, hoarse. I had a feeling that tattoo girl wouldn’t stop pestering me until I gave her answers so I braced myself and yelled out my routine response.
“I’m what they call an ethnomusicologist, I study music cultures around the world. Sort of like what an anthropologist does, but with a focus on music. For my dissertation, I am writing on a style of music called Afrobeat, so I have been researching Afrobeat scenes in different places. You know…that’s why I was taking the pictures.”
“Sounds like fun!” Came the expected reply.
“Well, its not always fun,” I blurted out an honest response before realizing that I should
not have gone there. Now it was too late.
“Not always fun?” she retorted, “Why are you doing it then?”
Smart ass, I thought.
“The pictures,” I gestured. “You never know how the shots will turn out. Lots of motion and low lighting, you know?”
She didn’t look convinced by my explanation. I hadn’t expected her to buy it. I changed the subject:“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a nurse. This…” she twirled “is more fun than my job.”
“No kidding.” It was a poor attempt at payback. Ignoring my sarcasm, she raised her glass and took a sip. By now, she had given up on trying to fall into step with me. The glass came down and forward towards me. “Want some?”
Want some what? She hadn’t really asked if wanted to share her drink. I felt awkward, unsure of how to politely turn down an offer that should never have been made in the first place. I pretended like I hadn’t heard her.
“Want some?” she came again. “I’m going to fill up, want something to drink?”
“Oh no, thanks.” I blurted, relieved.
She shrugged, swiveled around and meandered her way through the crowd, then disappeared. For a few moments I continued dancing as if I still had a partner. The beat had long morphed into a hard driving funk rhythm but I was still locked in the same incompatible salsa rhythm. I felt inept. Tattoo girl’s abrupt departure had only heightened the sense of awkwardness that I felt in that moment, alone on the dance floor. I imagined her at the bar, competing with a brood of thirsty partiers craving the bar tender’s attention, needing his service. The funk rhythm continued to pound hard, a hypnotic violation of the auditory sense. Over it, a vocalist wailed in a language that wasn’t English. I perked my ears to see if I recognized the language. It sounded African, but I couldn’t say I knew what language it was. There were only 4000 African languages in existence after all. Slowly I eased out of dance mode, giving up the struggle with my own discomfiture. I did a slow 360. Frizzy caramel and hunky chocolate were now rocking it on the dance floor. In another corner, next to the speakers, a girl with unmistakably Asian features swayed back and forth in a kind of trance. What looked like her dancing partner, a white guy with long blonde dreadlocks did an animated routine which looked like capoeira, tae kwon do, and hopscotch all at once. By the time I completed the circle, she was there, in the same posture, like she had never left. She raised her glass, now full:
“Miss me? Of course you did, didn’t you.”
Again, she was asking questions but not really asking. She didn’t expect an answer. I tried to keep my wits about me.
“You do love your drinks.” I stated, keeping her gaze.
She threw her head backwards in a hysterical guffaw. “Of course, I do, and you don’t! Obviously. But you know what’s even better?”
“What?” I really didn’t want to know.
“The music here is awesome!”
“Well, that, I have to agree with. Do you come here often?”
“No, not really.”
“You like Afrobeat, African… music…” It was a faltering attempt to somehow transform her into an informant.
“Well, I like this music, but I’m not here because it’s a particular style, you know, I just like to have a good time. I follow the music, whatever I can dance to, you know, and the booze.” Then, pouting coyly, she asked, “What’s a girl to do?”
She’s a nurse who works a gridlocked schedule, a perfect alibi to start the weekend early, burn the stress. Everyone needs an outlet, after all.
“So I’m guessing you’re not from here, Mr. Researcher.” Again, she interrupted my thoughts.
“No, no, not really. I just moved here about two weeks ago. I’m from the East Coast”.
“Really? Wow! That’s amazing. Do you like it here?”
“Absolutely, I love it here, its an amazing city.”
“So, cool. I’m from Mexico.”
“Mexico, really? Mexico city, or Mexico, Mexico?”
The surprise was genuine. She had so far given no signs of being a foreigner. I wondered if she wondered where I was really from.
She proceeded to tell me when she moved, and gave a run down of her activities and migrations since she moved to the US, all of which I lost to the din. All the same I responded as if I had actually heard her: “that’s awesome!”
“It is cool.” She sounded like she really felt cool. “So whereabouts in the East Coast?” She turned the discussion back on me.
“From New York City.”
“No way! I love New York City!!”
“Everybody does.” I lied with a plastered smile.
“My dog’s name is Brooklyn.” It took me a minute to find culprit to whom belonged the voice that had invited itself into what apparently was not a private conversation. It was blond dreadlocks. I had to make sure that I had heard right. “You come from Brooklyn?”
“No. My dog’s. Name. Is. Brooklyn.” He reiterated slowly, loudly. Tattoo girl rolled her eyes, apparently, unamused. I was.
“Why would you call your dog Brooklyn?” I questioned, half laughing.
“Because he is the cutest dog in the whole universe!” He said it with so much conviction. I had to smile in order not to offend.
“Here,” he pulled out his wallet, “let me show you his picture.”
I didn’t really see anything particularly extra cute about the dog, I couldn’t even tell what breed it was, but I said what I imagined he wanted to hear: “Awwww, how gorgeous. Sooo cuh-yute!”
He gave an I-told-you-so nod, sending his locks into a slight frenzy. Satisfied, he resumed his manic routine. I thought to myself: the people in this city are crazy.
Tattoo girl maneuvered our dancing—and my thoughts, away from hippiedom.
“So, you’re not originally from New York City, are you?”
She had been curious about my background, after all.
“No, I’m not. I’m from Nigeria. I moved here five years ago.” I tried to make it sound as casual as possible, but she was animated anyway.”
“I think that’s super cool!”
“Its ok. I mean, I came here for grad school, nothing as exciting as…”
“There’s everything exciting about coming from Africa!” She interjected, her already vivacious manner turned up a notch. I wasn’t getting it.
“There’s this beautiful African guy here in the club. Tall, dark. I was talking to him earlier. He’s really hot! Sooo want him.” Her words were dripping drool.
“Go get him.” I said, half out of amusement, half glad to hear that there was someone else in the bar to whom she could turn her attention.
“He is talking to another girl.” Her tone betrayed her jealousy.
“So, you’re just gonna let her have him?”
“Well, you shouldn’t just stand there and let someone else take your man.” I said, coyly.
For the first time, tattoo girl was listening not just with her ears, but also with her eyes. There was something ticklish about her new demeanor, something vulnerable that I wanted to exploit to the fullest.
“You cannot just let another girl monopolize him. You need to look for him, and cut into their conversation, lure him away with a dance.”
I was now blatantly instigating, and it felt really good. Mischief travelled from slight curves at the corner of my eyes and lips into her being, lighting her up anew. This really was my game, but she was more than a willing to conspirator.
“Cut in huh?” She was thinking aloud. “That sounds like a good plan.”
Her words rolled out with a hallucinatory rhythm that showed that she was seriously weighing the options and leaning heavily towards the pros rather than the cons.
“Just cut in like that?” She asked again, wide eyed, like a kid who had just been given secret access to the back door of a candy store.
“Well, not quite.” I said smiling wickedly. “You should first drink up, get your pizzaz on!”
After she had drunk up, after she had excused herself, I once again felt strangely lonely on the dance floor, surrounded by what was now a teaming throng of revelers, but nevertheless alone. DJ Pleasure maker and Oz had now been joined on stage by a conga player, a drummer and a trumpeter. They were jamming heavily to the tracks that the deejays spun out non stop, intermittently taking extended solos. Frizzy hair and chocolate boy had discovered new partners and migrated to separate corners of the floor. There were a few new black faces in the crowd. One guy in particular was ubiquitous. He pranced from corner to corner, dancing with a different girl each time, sometimes several girls at once. He reminded me of the music, the way if kept changing, the seamless flow from song to song, genre to genre—Afrobeat, funk, salsa, etc, sometimes several genres all at once. Tattoo girl made several brief reappearances on the dance floor. During one of these, she spat disdainfully: “whore.” I assumed she was referring to her mandingo, but she was glaring furtively at Mr. Ubiquitous.
“His girlfriend is so mad. He’s danced with every girl in the club, he doesn’t even care that she is here. Such a player.”
Her eyes guided mine to the girlfriend, a heavier girl in a tight tank top and jeans that profiled corpulent folds. The girlfriend sat in a corner talking with a few other girls, she didn’t look like she was interested in what was going on, or that she cared at all.
Whore seemed a suitable metaphor for the scenario. The way that the different musical styles went in and out of one another, the way that the clubbers from different backgrounds mingled freely with one another without fuss or care was at its very best a type of sociocultural whoredom. No wonder some people could never get over the idea of white musicians playing black music, or white middle class kids rocking to beats symbolic of the black ghetto experience. It wasn’t just about the exploitation of the less privileged by the privileged, although this is the argument that is usually advanced, rather, scenarios such as this “afrolicious” party conjured in some minds the idea of illicit mixing, of whoredom, and a particularly onerous variation of it: the mandingo party. But herein lies a hypothesis worth musing over: if cultural whoredom made us more open minded (just if), maybe what we need in the world today is more whores?
Or, maybe these are just the filthy ramblings of a bored researcher. I didn’t come up with any answers that night, but I eventually got bored with the party (as I always do). Blond dredlocks offered me a pipe. This was a first. In all my traveling during the last several months, the only place I had experienced open marijuana use was at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. Weed is an essential element of Afrobeat culture (like it is in many other musical cultures from jazz to reggae) but so far, all I had been able to learn of its use in the American Afrobeat scene had been limited to inferences made by Afrobeat musicians during interviews of their private indulgence. Here, in San Francisco, I was experiencing something close to the complete scenario in an American setting. In retrospect, I am inclined to interpret blond dredlock’s offer as a kind of fraternal gesture, I should have been flattered, perhaps, but in that moment I was caught off guard. Before I could collect myself, I heard myself utter “what is it?”
He noticed my astonishment. He realized that he had assumed that I used weed, but he didn’t retract the offer. He simply asked, “Do you smoke marijuana?”
“None for me tonight, thanks.” It was a vague answer designed to effectively decline his offer while not being offensive. It worked.
“Anytime” he responded coolly. “They are plucked fresh from the hills of Northern San Francisco.”
While I am not against marijuana use, I am neither an activist for its use. This is perhaps because I don’t use it. But even if I did, I doubt that I would have shared a pipe with blond dreds. He really seemed like a good guy, and I am sure he his. I admire his candor, the sense of comfort in his own skin that he exuded, but all these qualities only made his unkempt appearance all the more tragic. Maybe he was a man of radical politics, a left leaning passivist, even a peace activist, but his dirty looking blond locks, hippie fashion and yellow teeth were a distraction. I still think about a reason why I should have shared a pipe with him, and I cannot come up with one. Who are all these people anyway? What are they looking for? And should I care?
Tattoo girl made one last appearance on the dance floor before I left that night. This time, she chose another dance partner. It felt relieved, but also strangely spurned. I smiled at her and she waved back before she cavorted towards another direction. I followed her movement with my eyes and realized that she had been waving to someone else. Behind me, a tall black guy.
“How are you doing?”
TBG responded to tattoo girls greeting in a voice that sounded French West African, revealing a dazzling smile. Then, he turned to the current object of his attention: another white girl with wisps of long brunette which sat on her svelte frame. Whore. I thought. I felt sad for tattoo girl, and angry at mandingo on her behalf.
Tattoo girl turned to me, “Lets go to another bar, there a really cool bar down the road, not very far. It’s a gay bar but I like to go there because the music is soooo good.”
“I would really love to go, but I am getting tired. I’ll soon be on my way home.” I wished I could have gone with her, but by then I was really beginning to crave my bed and blanket.
It was perhaps 1am when I eventually left the party. On my way out, I ran into tattoo girl, I smiled at her, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Her eyes were glazed and she wasn’t smiling. She just walked on as if she didn’t see me. She probably didn’t. I imagined she was either drunk or stoned. She hadn’t been crying, had she? Before I stepped outside, I took one last look at the scene. My eyes followed tattoo girl as she receded into the crowd, her back bore the image of a veiled woman with a strange look. It didn’t look like any of the popular icons: the Virgin Mother, Aphrodite, etc. Who was the pixie haired girl with cat eyed glasses in the little black dress? Who was this woman on her back?