Saturday, October 9, 2010
My Dinner with Paul Bowles
wasn't as dramatic as the film My Dinner with Andre ( a 4th Way classic and existential shocker) but the one exchange I had with him is worth mentioning.
Paul Bowles isn't as well known as he should be. He's primarily remembered as an author, perhaps his best known work being The Sheltering Sky which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa's own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author's psychological inquiry.
quoted from here.
Yet Bowles was also a prolific music composer early on in his career, working with Orson Welles on scores for productions by The Mercury Theater, among others. He was also the one who translated Satre's classic existential work No Exit from French into English. No Exit is not the literal translation of the French title Huis Clos which means "in camera." Bowles said that he had a difficult time coming up with a title until one day he got off the subway train in New York and couldn't leave the platform because the only door was locked and had a sign that said No Exit.
It was from reading a book set in North Africa by Paul Bowles that inspired William Burroughs to move to Tangier where he wrote the novel that put him on the literary map, Naked Lunch.
Bowles was also, briefly, a sound engineer. He was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to travel around Morocco to record indigenous music which varied a lot from area to area. He did this in August and September of 1959 which, coincidentally, is when I assumed this present human incarnation. These recordings still exist in the Library of Congress.
I was part of a group of about 10 people who had dinner with Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco in early November 1991. I was in Tangier with Bill Laswell, Nicky Skoplelitis, Jean Touitou, Bernard Zakri and a French film crew on our way to Jajouka, a small village in the foothills of the Rif Mountains, to record the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It was Paul Bowles, who, in 1951 took Brion Gysin to a festival in Morocco where they both heard the Master Musicians of Jajouka for the first time. It changed their lives, especially Gysin's, who subsequently opened a restaurant in Tangier for the sole purpose of giving them somewhere to play where he could hear them every night. It was called A Thousand and One Nights.
The dinner was made even more unusual by the film crew setting up their lights and reflectors and filming it. I remember very little about the restaurant except that it was very dark and seemed sparsely adorned. Being in the lights surrounded by darkness gave the feeling of dining in an isolated chamber separated from the rest of the world.
For much of the time people were asking Bowles to tell famous stories from his past. He indulged these requests graciously. Having researched Jajouka and its background extensively, I knew all these stories which Bowles was faithfully recounting. I had the sense of being in the presence of a 'living artifact' of unique knowledge and experience and thought it would be a missed opportunity if I couldn't pry some of it out of him.
Aware of his travels doing field recordings in Morocco years ago, I asked him what he did, if anything to induce or encourage creativity from the artists he recorded.
"Why, it's simple" Bowles replied, "I make them comfortable. I do whatever I can to make them comfortable."
He then told a story of recording a group of 3 women in a strict, fundamentalist region of Morocco where alcohol was forbidden under penalty of death. He asked the women if he could get them anything before they recorded and one of them requested a shot of whiskey. He said that he went out and risked his life to get her a shot of whiskey for the recording.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the opportunity to converse with him further.
I have found this to be excellent advice. The comfort of the artist can make all the difference in a performance. If they request a mic different from my choice, I'll usually give it to them to help out with the comfort factor.