Thursday, February 16, 2012

DIY rocking out in Namibia

My new Namibian band had our first show last night.

I've been involved with a group of musicians in Namibia. Most of it hasn't been anything too structured or formal, just people stopping by, drinking my beer on my patio, and jamming on various instruments, singing our favourite tunes. We started recording some of our stuff, but then my house got robbed, which prompted me to write several songs about being annoyed at being robbed. Luckily, our spirit is strong (and so is our love for Gloria's beer), so we've just borrowed more instruments, recorded more songs, and continued to have fun.

Eventually we decided it was time to stop drinking beer on the terrace and move our sessions on to a stage in the city where the public could enjoy us. Advertising ourselves as the musicians of the Rusch Street Sessions, we booked ourselves a gig at Zenso Lounge and began rehearsing.

This whole experience has been an interesting cultural lesson for me, and as much as I love music, I think I've gained about a half a dozen extra grey hairs and worry wrinkles from the process. Unlike in North America, in Namibia it is the musicians that are responsible for bringing in their sound system. This was a nightmare. I have been performing in public for over ten years, but I have never rented a PA system and I certainly don't own one, even back in Canada. Not to mention that the costs of renting a sound system drastically reduces the chances of a musician making any profits for the night. And it certainly doesn't make sense to own a sound system if you're just going to get robbed, repeatedly.

Micheal and I went all over town, trying to find cheap places to rent speakers, microphones, and a mixer. There weren't any. The one place that gave us a reasonable quote, the National Theatre of Namibia, cancelled on us the day before the performance and rented the equipment out to someone else. And so there we found ourselves the day before the show, still with nothing to sing out of.

Luckily Sula from Ogopa Records stepped in to save us. He offered to lend us the studio's equipment for free. This was amazing. I like to think it was my superior lawyerly negotiating skills, but it's more likely that he has become fond of hearing my Canadian country song and wants to keep hearing it.

Sula saves the day. Repeatedly.

The other thing about Namibian gigs that is vastly different is advertisement. Back at home for my Ottawa band Scary Bear Soundtrack, the main way we spread the word about our shows is through the internet - Facebook, e-mail, twitter, blogs, website listings, the whole social media thing. In Namibia, the internet is not actually the best way to advertise your shows. Here, the main way is through old fashioned postering and - surprisingly - text messages.

You mean there was once a time when posters were something that you actually physically posted?

So Wednesday rolled around, the date of our show. This was the first time that I had ever run my own sound for my show. I have a basic understanding of how sound systems work but I've definitely never been trained as a sound guy (sound gal?) before, and I still don't understand what feedback is. But here in Namibia, it's all about grassroots, do-it-yourself elbow grease, and so I found myself digging around the storage room of the recording studio, learning exactly how to put the scattered pieces of a PA system together.

...which was why by the time I made it to the venue, it was half an hour before doors were supposed to open. And we were still missing a microphone. I reassembled the speakers and the mixers to the best of my ability, and, with the help of the other musicians Alex and Felix, ran a quick sound check, which was more or less:

"Man, that distortion sounds awful."
"I don't know how to fix it."
"Okay, we'll just make do with that then."

The problem was, we were still without a microphone. Eventually Sula came to the rescue, sending one of his guys to bring two wireless microphones. Unfortunately, I had never used a wireless microphone before - when you're a guitar player, you usually keep your mic on the stand anyway. We also had a larger problem with the microphones. I ran after Sula's guy.

Me: "Er, sorry, but there's a problem with the microphones' XLR cable."
Him: "Is it?"
Me: "Well...the microphone has a female input, and the mixer's input is also female."
Him: "Is it?"
Me: "Yeah....and like, not to be heteronormative, but a female input needs a male connector."
Him: "Is it?"

Followed by awkward hand gestures, me demonstrating what happens when you try to connect two female inputs, as opposed to a male-female connection. I felt like a heterosexist bastard, betraying generations of queer feminist ideology. Happy Valentine's Day.

Eventually, we just decided that Micheal and I would just sing out of the same microphone, like 1950s doo wop girls. It wasn't an ideal sound, since it was a condenser microphone that was meant for recording, not performance, but this is Namibia, dammit, you do it yourself and then you make do.

The next problem we ran into, five minutes before the show was to begin, was the fact that there was no lighting in the room. We were working in the dark. I was completely unprepared for this. Namibia is developed enough that most places in the city have electricity. And, to be fair, the room had electricity - there was a flat screen TV on the wall playing the rugby game - just no lights.

seriously...a flat screen TV, but no lights.

but you do it yourself and then you make do. We set up candles around the room. It felt very homey and naturey and stereotypical Africa-y.

And so the show happened. It didn't run as smoothly as we would have liked - the sound definitely could have been better - but the audience was receptive, warm, and friendly, and we as musicians were comfortable enough performing with each other that we had fun. Folks wandered on and off the stage throughout the set to join as guest musicians. We played requests and repeats. At one point I walked off the stage while Micheal was soloing so I could order a beer and some pap. An American and a French guy staying at the local hostel asked if they could play a few songs, so they took the stage and played Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, making every foreigner in the audience sing along at the top of their lungs. They started playing a blues jam so Micheal and I ran up to join in. Sula showed up with stage lights and an extra microphone. I sang all of my songs about being robbed, plus a song that was a thinly disguised rant about being Asian. Ten Ten showed up and played a few of his reggae songs. We ended with a blues jam, paying tribute to all the classic Namibian musicians, including Lady May. I may or may not have done a live impression of Lady May's NAMA Music Awards acceptance speech. I am probably as a result also banned from the NAMA Music Awards for life.

It was an amazing time.

look! A China singing country music!

our awesome audience

dancing to the music

Ten Ten pulls out some reggae tunes

Wi11be, our lovely and amazing band manager / band mom