THEIR HEADS ARE GREEN AND THEIR HANDDS ARE BLUE*
Paul Bowles (1910-1999)
* from "The Jumblies", a poem by Edward Lear
Mr. Bowles was a world traveler in his early years, when he visited many of the middle eastern countries and spent time living in some of them. the book opens in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), with several descriptions of the primitive and not so primitive conveniences afforded the itinerant traveler. He stayed for a while in a native domicile and experienced the unique pleasure associated with sleeping on a concrete floor with other companions: gekkos, cicadas, mosquitos and the occasional cobra. Later he spent some time in the hill-top menage of one of the local authorities which was a big improvement even though it was not blessed with actual glass windows. There was a species of bird, unidentified, the members of which held lengthy conversations all through the night in stentorious tones, talking to each other from one side of the house to the other. This didn't bother the lizards and other residents, but Paul found sleeping to be not a socially accepted activity in that vicinity. He became familiar with various Singhalese religious rites, which often involved the use of large numbers of fireworks. The Buddhist Perith rite was a popular procedure to eliminate evil from local characters noted for their pronounced dubiety. This was usually accompanied by music. Flutes and drums were the instruments of choice and the tonalities ranged over four notes, played with great subtlety, utilizing un-Western modalities that included 1/4 and even 1/8 note discriminations. The music attracted Paul's attention and he eventually was hired in North Africa to make recordings of some of the native tribes in the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains.
He moved to Tangier in the middle 'fifties and with two friends, Christopher (who owned an ancient Volkswagen) and Mohammed Larbi, a supposed guide and baggage carrier, he toured around Northwest Africa in fulfillment of a six-month contract with the American Library of Congress to record native music. Paul had applied, conscientiously, for the requisite permission to pursue his investigations but was more or less ignored by officialdom so, following the advice of the American embassy, he just went ahead with his explorations. Permission for the project arrived just before the six months was over, and when they had already gathered a substantial number of recordings.
They spent about a year bouncing around the primitive roads of Morocco equipped with a large recording machine, trying to persuade local chieftains to stage dances so that they could capture the performances for posterity. Often electricity was not available, or unreliable and they were reduced to using generators that frequently ceased operating at crucial stages due to contaminated gasoline or other mechanical issues. But they did end up with a selection of drum music and some recordings of unusual Berber instruments such as the Zamar, a double-reed shawm with two bull horns attached at the bottom.
Bowles wrote about the silence of the desert to an impressive extent, describing the hypnotic effect of the utter quiet combined with the seemingly solid blue sky. These qualities seemed to be related to the music he was listening to, reverberating with the mystical states he was observing in the dances and performances he was attempting to capture. One of the most successful sessions occurred in a remote village at the bottom of a canyon in the Anti-Atlas mountains. The three were argued into descending a very long, rocky and unpaved road that in due course led them into a mini-paradise with trees and shrubbery and a small waterfall right at the end of the gorge. After consultation with the village elders, a concert/dance was arranged that took place the same evening. About 100 men took part along with 70 or so ladies later. The village had its own recording machine, but when they finally got it to operate, the man in charge held the pickup mike so close to the machine that Paul was sure nothing would be recorded but static. He was happily surprised at the end of the performance to find out that it had worked perfectly and he was in possession of 14 out of 18 separate musical pieces. Included were transcriptions not only of the intricate drumming rhythms, but of the very loud zamar, the rhaita, a sort of outdoor oboe, and the qsbah, a native reed flute, very low pitched and sonorous.
A few years later, Paul was living in Costa Rica where he came to admire parrots. On the spur of the moment he purchased one in a market place. Shortly afterwards it demonstrated its voracity by eating a lens out of his binoculars, followed by a tube of toothpaste and part of a Russian novel. Paul took it along when he moved to Antigua, where it managed to chew its way out of a tin cage and escape into a nearby avocado tree. Then he had a parakeet named Hitler that bit anything that approached and screamed and raged over the servant's toes. It loved to screech "periquito burro" in a voice that uncomfortably resembled his namesake ("stupid parakeet"). His experiences with a Macaw named Loplop were uncomfortable. They are very loud and aggressive. Loplop loved having his tummy scratched and once pinned Paul down in a hammock for several hours, forcing him to scratch away in fear of being attacked by the macaw's formidable scissor-like beak.
This book was a sort of window into the personality and experiences of Paul Bowles. I've known about his writing for several years but never have investigated any of his books so i thought i'd read this small volume of essays. He's a very competent and humorous writer with a mystical slant to his perceptions that he's well able to incorporate into his descriptive portrayals of geographical features and to use as elements in the personalities of the characters occupying his stories. He lived in Tangiers for most of his life, when he wasn't traveling even though, by what he has to say about the area, he was well aware of the ignorance and unenlightened behaviors of the government and the ubiquitous money hunger of the average citizen. His true love, it seemed to me, was of the Sahara desert, an area larger than the continental United States. When i paid a visit to Death Valley, California many years ago, i had the same feeling, standing in the playa between the Black and the Panamint mountains, that Bowles describes, of utter silence and isolation situated on a whirling globe in a vast black universe...