Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Following the Paul Bowles Trail

Got a call last August from Bill Laswell about a recording project in Morocco.  We would go to 10 or 11 different locations and record music for a film to be directed by Jay Bulger, a friend of Bill.  Bulger wrote and directed Beware of Mr. Baker, the superb biopic of drummer Ginger Baker.

The film was to be loosely based on a book by Paul Bowles, Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, a travelogue that includes accounts of Bowles' recording expeditions throughout Morocco in the 1950s.  The film was initially seen as a continuation of his musical journey, but would turn into much more.  Still, Paul Bowles and his legacy remained an invisible presence throughout the production.

Bowles' had quite a varied and eclectic career as a composer, writer, translator and traveler.  He studied music with Aaron Copeland in Paris and later composed music for plays by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater and for Tennessee Williams.  He translated Jean Paul Sartre's classic existentialist play No Exit into English from French.  Paul Bowles is mostly known today for his novels and short stories largely based on his personal experiences as an expatriate and itinerant traveler.  His literary forte is in describing his environment, not only visually, but sonically as well.  His background in music brought a sharp awareness to the sounds of things which he was easily able to put into words.  The short story collection, A Distant Episode seems an excellent place to jump into his exotic foreign worlds.

The quality of Bowles' descriptive writing, his ability to capture and transmit the atmosphere, ambience, sights and sounds of the spaces he traveled through inspired William S. Burroughs to  move to Tangier.  Morocco had a huge influence on Burroughs.  It was while living in Tangier that he established himself as a major writer with the publication of The Naked Lunch

The detailed attention to sound in PB's writings was likely influenced by his work as a sound engineer.  Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue has two chapters about his travels around Morocco recording music.   He received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to go on recording expeditions for the Library of Congress archive where the tapes remain to this day.  He made over 250 recordings of different kinds of Moroccan music.

The first journal entry on the trip recording for the Rockefellers is dated August 29, 1959, four days after your humble reporter had his birth day.  When a group of us had dinner with Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1991, I was clearly aware of following in his footsteps as a recorder of this music.  Now, some 54 years and 3 months later, it appears time to continue that journey and take it to the next level by filming  multicamera and recording multitrack audio.  Soon the world will be able to see and hear with great clarity this powerful music that puts people into trance and contacts the spirit world.

The Paul Bowles connection runs deep in this film venture not only thematically but personally as well.  Line Producer (head of Kasbah Films, organizer of the Moroccan and German crew) Karim Debbagh met Bowles when he was 19 while helping with a documentary and later worked with him to organize his archives and library eventually becoming part of the family that gravitated around Bowles.  Another close friend is Cherie Nutting who helped Bowles manage his affairs in the last part of his life.  Cherie took some incredible behind-the-scenes photos of the production.  She also manages and promotes the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar who have a featured role in the film.  Cherie and Bachir first met in Paul Bowles' apartment in Tangier.  Bill Laswell visited Paul Bowles a few times and recorded him reading poetry and excerpts from his writings in his apartment then later added ambient soundscapes and released it as Baptism of Solitude.

My first exposure to Paul Bowles' literature came through the music of The Swans album, The Burning World. At the time, bandleader and writer Michael Gira looked, and played the part of an expatriate writer who had lived in North Africa soaking up the Paul Bowles/Tangier influence.  The second song, Let It Come Down borrows its title from Bowles' second novel, and The Sheltering Sky gets referenced as a lyric in another song.  This album seems an underrated classic though I notice it is picking up some buzz on the net.  It marked a watershed project in my audio trajectory as it was the first time I assisted Jason Corsaro who became my engineering mentor.

I recognized that this film project was a special one, a once in a lifetime experience, not only from the history involved but also from the nature of the music that would tell this story.  It seemed too good to be true.  In this business it's not uncommon to hear fantastic ideas for projects that never get realized.  When challenges with the production arose, rather than worrying about things out of my control I took the attitude that if it's meant to happen, it will happen.

The Music

Moroccan music holds a great deal of interest because of its ability to transform and alter consciousness.   In gnawa ceremonies, for example, some people, usually women, will go into trance so strongly that they completely disasscociate from the nerve endings in their bodies.  Hot coals will be walked on or needles stuck into the body with no signs of scarring.  Legend has it that if the trance is broken too quickly the person could die.  These dramatic and somewhat sensationalistic extreme results belie a whole range of more subtle altered states of awareness engendered by this music.

Deborah Kapchan, in an essay that appears in Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Meditteranean writes of a particular mood reached by gnawa music they call Nashant which often proceeds to full trance:

Nashant is intricately related to Moroccan ludic events ( al-la'b, in Moroccan arabic) ... it relies on the response of the audience to create feelings of consensus - literally, feeling together (Noyes 1993) - and ardor.  Indeed, nashant delineates not only a state of being, but a rhythm of being.

Some of the qualities of nashant are:

briskness, sprightliness, liveliness, animation, vivacity, agility, alacrity, eagerness, ardor, zeal, energy, activeness, activity, action, operation, strong power ( physical and mental), vigor, vital energy, vitality.

In her excellent book, Traveling Spirit Masters - Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace Kapchan speaks of the value of trance:

Possession requires an alchemical reaction, a transmission of subtle and dense matter as two different substances encounter and change each other.

I still vividly recall recording William Burroughs reading from The Western Lands. On a break his assistant James Grauerholz told him what a good job he was doing whereupon Burroughs acidly replied, "it's not me, it's not me!!"  Perhaps he had listened to Moroccan music enough to access the state of possession in trance to the point where he could voluntarily go there without the music?  Self possession is what they call the ability to become aware and allow the possessing spirit to have some degree of control not unlike an actor voluntarily role playing the persona of their character.

If it's true that Burroughs could access the trance state at will then it appears that this kind of consciousness attunement is something that can be learned and mastered.  Moroccan music, apart from entertainment and anthropological interest can access initiatory information regarding altered states of consciousness.  It can provide an education into unknown worlds and states of being.

Sound for Film

One day in 1987 I took a small group to the Chelsea Square restaurant on 9th Ave and 23rd St. for breakfast.  While waiting for a table I recounted my adventures getting hired as an intern in a recording studio.  Someone overheard me and asked if I was a sound engineer.  I remembered that I would be in the future and answered yes.  He explained that he was a music editor for films and might require audio engineering services in the future.  He invited me up to Sound 1, the premiere studio in New York for mixing film soundtracks.  At the studio he talked about a film he was working on while giving a quick overview of how audio gets viewed in a film production.  "Audio," he said, "is a second class citizen in the world of film production.  Sometimes what you hear has been transferred 7 or 8 times from its original source."  That's 7 or 8 analog generations away from the master.  I don't think I ever fully believed him until now.  I don't recall his name but can always look it up as I do remember that he became the music editor for one of my favorite films, Beetlejuice.

The next step after accepting this mission was to find out the instrumentation and line up of the groups being recorded.  This would determine the equipment to be ordered.  After getting this information from Bill, I drew up a list for a portable Pro Tools based recording system capable of handling 16 tracks.  It was a system I had success with in Mali for the past 6 years or so.  One of the film's producers, Adam Haggiag, would help requisition the audio gear. 

The film, originally scheduled to shoot in October, got delayed when Jay Bulger accepted an acting role in a Martin Scorcese picture.  I had no communication with anyone about the film apart from Bill until the schedule was figured out around the beginning of November.  We were scheduled to begin shooting December 9th. I didn't know exactly when I'd be leaving or how long I would be there.  At that point I thought I was only being hired to record music.

When we got  a schedule, Adam introduced himself to me in an email.  I replied with the equipment list.  Also mentioned that previous clients had opted to buy some of the equipment rather than rent it.  Copies of our correspondence were cc'ed to Producers Andrew Karsch and Karim Debbagh.  One or both of them thought we could get all the equipment in either Morocco or Germany and save the cost of shipping it from the U.S.  I was fine with however they got it but requested a day to set up the system and test it before going into the field, something I've never failed to do on previous trips.  I thought that one month notice was cutting it close for getting the gear but knew it was possible.  The day before Thanksgiving, November 27th, we got an email saying that it was too complicated to get the equipment overseas, that we should plan to bring everything from the U.S.  Nothing could really be done until after the holiday weekend, December 2nd.  That gave us a week before shooting would begin.

I gave Adam the name of an equipment vendor, Dreamhire, we had used in the past for Bill's recording projects in Morocco and West Africa. Miraculously, they were able to provide nearly everything on the list immediately.  A few substitutions had to be made for equipment only available on short notice, but nothing too compromising.  I had to sign off on the equipment as soon as possible so that a carnet, a special customs document, could be arranged.  The only item not rented from Dreamhire would be the MacBook Pro laptop computer.  The rental of it from Dreamhire was considered too expensive.  Someone thought it would be cheaper to get one in Morocco.  This would prove to be a mistake.  I looked up the system requirements for different versions of Pro Tools and sent them to the producers.  I had hoped that the basic guts of the recording system would all come from the same vendor to ensure a working system.  Getting the laptop in Morocco made me nervous, but in theory, it shouldn't have been a problem.

About a week earlier I'd been asked by Adam if I was willing to record interviews.  I said, no problem and added 4 lavalier mics to the equipment list.  I had already planned to bring a small Tascam flashcard PCM digital machine which would be perfect for recording interviews without having to set up Pro Tools.

Caught a red eye flight to New York on the night of December 6.  A snowstorm had just begun as we made the 90 minute drive from Grass Valley to the Sacramento airport.  Only one slight moment of panic on the way down when it seemed the brakes might not engage going down a hill.  The snowstorm got worse as my friend drove back home from the airport.  His SUV did go off the road and had to be retrieved the next day, but there were no injuries and the car wasn't too damaged.

Arrived in New York at 8am feeling energized.  Checked into the hotel, ate a surprisingly good large breakfast then hired a cab to go to Dreamhire in Long Island City.  The taxi driver was from Guyana. He referenced Jim Jones and his crazy kool aid cult as a way to place his country.  I asked how he liked living in America.  He said that it's not what it used to be.  I asked what he meant, and he told a story of being robbed at gunpoint two weeks earlier.  Had a bit of a problem finding Dreamhire as it's really in Astoria though the official address says Long Island City.  Same street address, different city.  Dreamhire seems right on the border.

I checked out all the equipment at Dreamhire.  Set up the Pro Tools 003 and the Presonus mic pres with a borrowed laptop and it all worked fine.  Smooth, no problems.  Went over the whole order and made some small adjustments.  It was exciting to see all the equipment and fire it up.  I had a lot of confidence in the vendor.  As long as I got the same kind of laptop in Morocco we would be good to go.

Took the train into Manhatten and got out at 57th and 7th.  It was a brisk, sunny day with a steady cool breeze.  New York was alive with the throng of everyday workers, holiday shoppers, and tourists.   The traffic sounds, honks, horns, squeals and rumbles, amplified by ricocheting and reverberating off the corridors of tall buildings hinted at some kind of purposeful cacophony.

Walked downtown taking in all the sights and sounds.  Met Bill, Yoko and Aman for lunch at Monster Sushi on 23rd and 7th.  I was a little late, but we arrived at the same time.  Strategized about the trip, traded music and got caught up.

It went smoothly getting he equipment onto the flight the next day.  I met Adam at the curbside and recognized him immediately.  The equipment was brought in a black SUV station wagon.  I had a Sky Cap and cart waiting.  The Sky Cap knew exactly where to take carnet freight to get on the plane. 

While waiting for the flight we met up with David Life and Sharon Gannon who were on their way to Germany for a yoga event.  They run the Jiva Mukti yoga center in New York which attracts its fair share of celebrities.  I've known them for over 20 years and Bill has also known them awhile.  Even back then they had the reputation for being cutting edge yoga teachers.  I've always had great respect for them.  Last time I saw David and Sharon was in early 2001 at a temple opening in Southern India that Janet Rienstra had invited me to record.  We took seeing them as a good omen.

Getting the equipment through customs in Casablanca proved extremely easy.  They didn't even look through it.  It was loaded into a truck that went straight to Essaouria where we were to begin shooting the next day.  There was supposed to be two cars for the passengers.  We had traveled with Producer Andrew Karsch who was going to Marrakech while Adam, Bill and I were to travel to Essaouria to join the film crew.  Only one driver showed up so we had a little two hour detour to Marrakech before arriving at the location.

Jay Bulger came bounding down the stairs when heard that Bill had arrived at the hotel in Essaouria.  Though we had never met, on the way past he said, " hi Oz," as if we knew each other well.  Jay was on fire.  He began excitedly telling Bill his ideas for shooting various scenes. He reminded me of someone flushed with the passion of a new revelation, the revelation in this case being his film.

We went for dinner at a place that barbeques fresh fish and squid caught that day.  It tasted incredibly delicious.  Jay ran down his ideas for the whole film both conceptually, and how to realize the themes practically. He had a  very clear, detailed vision of what he wanted to accomplish.  Jay, the DP, another camera man and the Art Director had already been in Morocco for a month scouting locations and planning the shoot.  They had been living, eating, breathing Morocco while traveling the country.  Jay had also been on a non-stop diet reading books about Moroccan music and how it exists in their culture including various forms of Sufi influence upon it, and the effects of slavery.  His demeanor was of someone very focused on his work but also someone who had been struck by lightening.  It seems his researches may have led him to tap into some sort of outside agency, a vast active life intelligence system of one kind or another.  I always told him that this project was much bigger than any one person; that still rings true, now, moreso than ever.

In magick terms, Jay, as Director, plays the role of the chief invocant.  It makes sense that he would get fried by the fire of the vision more than anyone else.  He channeled it directly, wired right into it., "jacked into it", as William Gibson would say.  When he was going through the scenes with details of how he was going to shoot them, one after the other,  I was reminded of something I read about what it was like to be around Bob Dylan in the early days when he was able to pull amazing songs effortlessly out of the air, one after the other.

Back at the hotel I met Eric Robbins, the DP, David Bell, the Art Director, and Austin Kite, who was in charge of the making of the "Making of" this film and who also shot a ton of B roll footage.  They are all US east coast based.  Eric and David had worked with Jay on the Ginger Baker document and actually went several years back with him starting out with rock video productions. 

That night Jay asked me if I'd be willing to record all the audio for the film, not just the music and some interviews.  It hadn't occurred to me that when they asked if I would record interviews that it really meant recording all the non-music audio as well.  I said that I'd never done it before but was willing to give it a go.  After all, I was the only person there somewhat qualified.  If I didn't agree to do it, who would?  The primary cameras they were using didn't record any audio at all.  I only had a vague idea what I was getting myself into, but that's not the first time.

To Be Continued...


  1. Thank you for writing this up. Amazing journey.

  2. This is fascinating. Bowles' short story 'A Distant Episode' still haunts me. Have you read it?

  3. Great story so far. By coincidence I'm going to Morocco next month, though sadly only for a week, so prob just Marrakech and Fez. Will search out some TRANCE musique.

  4. Thanks for the feedback everyone. I read A Distant Episode last summer and loved it. Have fun in Morocco, Tony!

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