Monday, July 30, 2007
Satchmo plays Khartoum.
Two days later, the Sudanese came to the hotel to ask how I was feeling. How am I feeling? Oh, my friends, you want to know how I feel? Yes, how do you feel, because Louis Armstrong is coming, there's a concert tomorrow in the stadium.Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels With Herodotus 121-23 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). The notion that Muslim Sudanese would be touched by a shared heritage with songs from the American South is touchingly naive, really.
I am instantly better.
The stadium was quite a distance outside the city, small, shallow, with a capacity of at most five thousand spectators. Even so, only half the seats were occupied. In the center of the field stood a podium, weakly illuminated, but we were sitting near the front and could see Armstrong and his small orchestra well. The evening was hot and airless, and when Armstrong walked out, attired moreover in a jacket and bow tie, he was already soaked with perspiration. He greeted everyone, raising into the air the hand holding his golden trumpet and said into the cheap, crackling microphone that he was pleased to be playing in Khartoum, and not only pleased, but downright delighted, after which he broke into his full, loose, infectious laugh. It was laughter that invited others to laugh along, but the audience remained aloofly silent, not quite certain how to behave. The drums and the bass resounded and Armstrong launched into a song appropriate enough to the time and place -- "Sleepy Time Down South." It is actually difficult to say when one first heard Armstrong's voice; there is something in it that makes one feel one has known it for ever, and when he starts to sing, everyone, with the most sincere conviction of his or her connoisseurship, proclaims: Why yes, that's him, that's Satchmo!
Yes, that was him -- Satchmo. He sang "Hello Dolly, this is Louis, Dolly," he sang "What a Wonderful World" and "Moon River," he sang "I touch your lips and all at once the sparks go flying, those devil lips." But the spectators continued to sit silently. There was no applause. Did they not understand the words? Was there too much openly expressed eroticism in all this for Muslim tastes?
After each number, and even during the playing and singing, Armstrong wiped his face with a large white handkerchief. These handkerchiefs were constantly changed for him by a man whose sole purpose in accompanying Armstrong around Africa seemed to have been this. I saw later that he had an entire bag of them, dozens and dozens probably.
After the concert people dispersed quickly, vanishing into the night. I was shocked. I had heard that Armstrong's concerts elicited great enthusiasm, frenzy, ecstasy. There was no trace of these raptures in the stadium in Khartoum, despite the fact that Satchmo played many songs from the American South, from Alabama and Louisiana, where he himself came from -- songs that had originated with African slaves. But by then their Africa and this one here belonged to different worlds, lacking a common language unable to communicate much less partake of an emotional oneness.
The Sudanese drove me back to the hotel. We sat down on the terrace for some lemonade. Moments later a car brought Armstrong. He sat down with relief at a table, or, more precisely, he collapsed into the chair. He was a stout, thickset man with wide, drooping shoulders. The waiter brought him an orange juice. He downed it in a single gulp, and then another glass, and another. He was depleted, sitting with his head bowed, silent. He was sixty years old at the time and -- something I didn't then know -- already suffering from heart disease. Armstrong during the concert and Armstrong immediately after it were two entirely different people: the first was merry, cheerful, animated, with a powerful voice, able to coax an astonishing range of tones from his trumpet; the second was heavy, exhausted, weak, his face covered in wrinkles, extinguished.
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