Victim number one, come on down… (Maroon village, Suriname)
At age 10 I was evicted from the school choir because my voice was breaking. In fact, my spoken voice was still an exquisite falsetto that would have been the envy of the most successful of boy sopranos, but my singing voice was then, as it remains now, an instrument of abject aural torture. My choirmaster, in a gallant effort to save my feelings from the inexorable truth, simply stated that vocal manhood was coming early to my diminutive frame and showed me to the door to save her professional reputation and the eardrums of my colleagues.
Sadly, my dancing skills are similarly blighted. My abilities tend to be limited to subtle head-nodding and, when excited, foot-tapping. Any greater participation risks serious public embarrassment for me and possible injury for those nearby as could be witnessed at a Gipsy Kings’ amphitheatre concert some years ago. As the fiery music got the better of my commonsense, my legs became entangled with each other causing me to fall flat on the grass and roll downhill towards the stage. Fortunately, no one was killed and as it was dark I wasn’t asked to leave.
My rhythmic shortcomings haven’t prevented me from enjoying those more musically blessed, especially when travelling – although whenever there’s a hint of audience participation I usually seek safety in the furthest reaches of darkness.
In a roof-top nightclub in an Istanbul back street, a talented belly-dancer was wiggling her wares with time-honoured skill. I was captivated by her riveting rotations and tinkling jewellery…until she grabbed the first innocent victim from the watching masses. I immediately began to retreat to the corner, the familiar cold sweat beading on my forehead. One by one she drew participants forward with relentless enthusiasm and I edged closer to the edge of the roof. I stared skyward at the stars, out over the city to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and hid my face behind my beer glass all in the quest for invisibility…but still she came closer. Just as I was about to plunge onto the street below, she twirled away and returned to the dance floor leaving me and my pounding heart to order another, stiffer drink.
In Madrid, I was contentedly pinned behind a table in a tiny tapas bar and able to enjoy a hypnotic display of flamenco free from fear. In Buenos Aires, I was equally comfortable watching a tango show, correctly confident that the establishment was too refined and the Argentine clientele too discerning to tolerate audience participation. Less secure in Cuba however, I hid behind a shadowy pillar to avoid participating in a sensuous spectacle of rumba.
Occasionally though, participation can’t be avoided and the terror is justified. One such occasion came deep in the Amazonian jungles of Suriname.
One evening we were invited to travel downstream to a small village. The jungle was pitch-black and our able pilot navigated the rapids and shallows by memory rather than flashlight. Eventually, over the din of our outboard motor drifted the sounds of singing and music and we arrived at a small sandy beach, dragged our motorised canoes ashore and walked up to the village clearing.
Once greeted by the chief, we were directed to a hut and asked to change into more traditional attire which consisted of loose cotton tops, neckerchiefs and loin cloths and self-consciously returned to the village’s main hut to the hoots and giggles of the villagers.
After a feast of cassava and fish, the entertainment began. Our small group sat on benches around the inside perimeter and watched impressive traditional dancing that re-enacted the village’s age-old legends and tales of hunts, gods and jungle beasts all to pounding drum beats and singing. Then, my worst nightmare came true. As if sitting cross-legged all night to protect my modesty wasn’t enough, I was dragged onto centre-stage to shake my booty with the best.
My sunburned skin hid my blushes and the intense jungle heat disguised my cold sweat, but there was no hiding my two left-feet before the assembled masses. As self-conscious as a lobster in the tank of a seafood restaurant, I earnestly tried to follow the lead of my partner and instructor, moving in time to the music and attempting to control my flailing limbs so as not to hurt anyone and cause an international incident. I secretly longed for an overhead beam to fall on me or for a jaguar to leap through the open door and drag me into the darkness, but sadly there was no escape. My time as the centre of attention seemed to last forever before my companions came forth and the entire village and guests boogied the evening away to a cacophony of laughs and shouts.
After all-around hugs, we changed back into our own clothes, waved good-bye to our new friends and headed off back upstream to our camp. A million stars illuminated the swathe cut through the jungle by the viscous river, and moonlight reflected in the eyes of lurking caimans and unidentified beasties.
Thankfully, no one commented on my spectacle. Perhaps they’d all been entranced by the magical surroundings and the unforgettable hospitality of the isolated village and hadn’t noticed…or perhaps they’d been scared into silence by the erratic uncoordinated nocturnal spasms of the campmate with whom they were now spending the night alone!
Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan