Bamboo Bojangles


"I knew a man, bojangles, and he'd dance for you......
                                           ...with worn out shoes"
        Jerry Jeff Walker

(excerpt from "a downwind passage", a chronicle of a  1998 sail from Puerto Rico to
Florida.  This is part of my Haitian experience.)

     The trip to Cap Haitian was not without incident, or visual spectacle.  The roads were filled with potholes, pedestrians, venders, animals, and assorted detritus from all of the above.  The car broke down, but the banging, loose shock absorber was removed, and we continued.  Jacques seemed to know a lot of people along the way, and we frequently stopped for conversation, and associated political discourse.  We were stopped once by a boy, whom Jacques gave some money.  It had become the routine to provide some money for the boys' blind brother.
     Cap Haitian could be summed up as another dilapidated, filthy, formerly beautiful colonial city.  We had hoped to visit the market, and though today was not the best day, many venders and customers were haggling away.  A Haitian market does not sell Haitian art, carvings, or other value-added commodities.  They sell sustenance commodities, things you need to eat and live, nothing more.  It is filthy, odorous, and indicative of the standard of living in Haiti.  I had hoped to score a bamboo tray, a ubiquitous item used to display every commodity that was being sold- from beans to charcoal.  I was told in Fort Liberte' that this market would have the trays, and they did.  I bought one, for probably double the asking price of a Haitian, but still cheap.  There were woven bamboo chicken cages too, a work of art enclosing the real commodity, the chicken.
     We had exhausted our senses, and were ready call it an experience, when the subject of this narrative came into view, hurriedly weaving through the throngs, intent on his destination, and no doubt, just finished with his previous engagement.  His eyes widened in surprise as he took us in-two white guys and this pretty blonde girl, obviously foreigners, and prime to show his talents.  With the urging of the crowd, for us to see him, and for him to perform, he quickly fell into his routine.
 He carried with him four or five large diameter bamboo sections, assumed to be hollowed out, and evidently well-worn.  He had a stout, wooden stool, and a small bamboo piece that was later shown to be an improvised "kazoo".  His preparation took some minutes, as he arranged the bamboo around him, each in its respective position, and comfortably accessible according to his practiced habit.
 The crowd hushed as this "bojangles" neared his comfortable position, evident by the steadily diminished contortions.  A slow breathe, a relaxing demeanor, and he began.  His music was slow, melodic, and like nothing I have heard before, or since.  Its changing cadence and kazoo melody might have roots in French folk music, but that is a wild guess.  It was somber, and complex, the rhythmic, variable pitched booms of the bamboo as he lifted and dropped them on the pavement providing the backbone of the song. The crowd, respectful of this mans talent, quietly listened, and furtively watched to see our reaction. The next song was faster, but equally complex and unfamiliar, and this musician "bojangles" developed a dripping perspiration as he worked through the piece in the hot tropical sun. We filled his hat with the obligatory remuneration, but he never checked it, or otherwise expressed his gratitude.
      Here was a proud man, a man of worth, a man dedicated to his art, and conscious of its value.  Here was a true musician, utilizing the only materials at his disposal, the naturally occurring plants,  and crafting a musical instrument from them.  His obvious choice was bamboo, but his music was the result of a particular synergy of himself and the bamboo.  The personality of each, the man and his bamboo, is exemplified in his music.  To witness this show was a rare privilege, and one I will not forget.
     The show ended, not because of audience tiring, but his.  He was not a young man, but older, and he was spent.  His music quickly exhausted him- the constant humming into his kazoo and the accompanying bamboo lifting left little but to pick up the pieces and continue his trek. He unceremoniously stopped, packed up his things, and left.  The crowd dispersed, everyone pleased.
     I now have that bamboo tray hanging on my wall.  I had to freeze it to kill the bamboo beetles, but it is fine now.  A fitting tribute to this bamboo "bojangles" had been on my mind, but not on this computer.  It is now.

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