Tune Yards

Merrill Garbus

I’m going to tell this story even though I once told it to a girl who didn’t believe I was telling the truth. But she was on psychedelic mushrooms, so here goes.

I spent 5.6 months in Kenya when I was in college. I was part of a study abroad program that stayed for about ten days in the village of Takaungu, on the coast. I lived with a family who were Seventh Day Adventists and very kind to me. My journal entries from that time are scary and filled with lots of signs of depression and tales of wiping butts with bare hands. It was oppressively hot and humid and I had heat rash 80% of the time. And I was, as I usually am, curious about music and yearning to dance and move.

We sloppy, sweaty, sunburned American students helped with community projects at the grade school in Takaungu. I taught a class on music in which I remember illustrating a sustained note by leaning over, dramatically, until I almost fell, which thankfully got some laughs from the otherwise confused kids. At home we ate porridge at night on a big metal plate, which we made into spoon-like shapes and dipped in stews of fish and coconut and beans. Life was horrible and wonderful all at once.

One day I was taking a walk through the village, which was surrounded on all sides by the kind of African jungle that is perhaps stereotypical: big palm trees, vines, speckled sunlight. Incredibly, I heard the sound of drumming coming through the forest. I wanted to check it out but I was terrified. But pretty much everything, including wiping one’s butt, was terrifying then. So I changed my course and started following the music.

Not so far into the woods, I started to make out the shape of another small village. I could see huts with palm leaf and straw roofs, and the drumming was getting louder. I was now close enough to feel the excitement of an event, and I decided to peer inside the circle of small houses.

It was rather dreamlike: three men, old and skinny, in sagging pants, dancing to a small group of drummers. In my memory some of the drums were made of old cooking oil containers, yellow and plastic, and a couple of hand drums were made from the more traditional palm-tree-trunk-and-animal hide method. And, as with so many places I visited in Africa, I was instantly ushered into the scene as Honored Guest. I was given a lawn chair by a couple of women, and then a bowl of pojo, a coconut bean dish. Water to wash my right hand, which I would eat with. Two young girls to sit beside me and make sure that my needs as Honored Guest were attended to.

I sat and couldn’t believe my life… real African dancing, and drumming, a true adventure! My heart thumped and I ate the pojo, not at all hungry. The men danced and noticed me, and the event slowly took on a different slant. Before I, the white mzungu, had arrived, it was just another day of dancing; now it became a performance for an outsider. Two of the men stopped and wandered off to smoke cigarettes and glare sideways at me. One continued, giving me smiles every now and again.

He had started to do this dance that was like a chicken dance. Hands on his ribs, elbows wagging back and forth like a flightless bird. The drums continued without pause. I finished the food and continued to watch.

Which was when the dancing man came over to me and said, in Kiswahili that I understood well enough, “You can’t just watch. It’s your job to dance, too.”

I had no choice, surrounded by an entire village staring at the white pimply plump girl from the rich student group nearby. So I rose from my seat, put the back of my hands against my ribs, and chicken danced, imitating the man’s weight shifts on his feet, his chicken wing flaps, the rocking back and forth to the beat.

That’s my story. I chicken danced in the jungles of Africa and no one can tell me I didn’t.

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