Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dancing the Makaya (conclusion)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

[1/19: added commentary to the end]
[1/20: cleaned this entry up a little.]


We met maybe a dozen times over the semester break. Each session would begin with lighting the fire, and a lot of times Ish would put some water or trinkets in a bowl next to it, or even throw the offering right in. Sometimes he'd also make some marks on the floor, in chalk or in powder, in stylized squiggles like the wire twists Makaya and I wear at our necks. Usually, he'd do the invocation in that deep voice of his too, and when the chanting starts, my mind drifts. I just do my best to look serious.

The ritual part is harmless, I think, just something to put up with until the music starts. Makaya may have been right about the beginner, but I don't like to call it luck. I'm good at this after all. And I can't get enough of that drumming. I can't wait for it to open me up like that again.

During those weeks, Ish showed us a new variation on the skins each lesson. He got through maybe a dozen of them, different cadences on a handful of different drums, played with sticks or with his hands. When Makaya knew the moves to go with the pattern, she showed them to me, and other times she relayed instructions from Ish, and still others the old man did another miracle stretch and got his groove on for a couple of beats.

Each rhythm has a name too, but it's harder to remember them than it is to stay alert to the feeling each one invokes. And some of them seem familiar. I recognized one of of the dances as a mambo, and Ish laughed at me when I told him that. The beats themselves tend to be complicated, although sometimes they greet you like a forgotten mate, and it's easy to hit it off. Others try to intimidate you like a clumsy jealous boyfriend, or a schoolyard bully. I'd be lying if I told you it's easy to channel these sorts of tunes through my body, and I have to reach awfully deep to pull some of those feelings out. But in the end, you treat the music like a woman and you'll be OK. Just keep listening until the mechanics of empathy become the genuine thing.

I think the system works because it's free-flowing and inspirational, a nice counterpart to the formal instruction we deal with at the usual practices. But I think these spirits have infected our company too. I mentioned that Makaya and I get paired up a lot more, and more often for the freestyle dances, which is one thing, but a lot of the other kids are asking to do the free forms now. That bluesy number? The instructors were asked find the best students to perform at some kind of religious festival, and only a handful of us made the cut. Makaya and I of course. Wendy will be there. Gary won't.

I've actually danced together with Makaya less at the extracurricular practices with Ish, even though we're the only two students there. And when we do dance together, it's not always natural. She's tuned for different rhythms than I am.

There have been exceptions--Ish has taught us a couple of partner dances. One dark afternoon we met in the barn again over a lit fire and a squiggly cross dusted in white on the concrete floor. I didn't know what to expect, as Ish had an unusually solemn expression as he laid out the bowl. He muttered something to Makaya, and she told me, "you know anybody sick? Dead?"

"How would I know them if they're dead?"

"Dis serious, Fred."

I did my best.

Ish got his sticks, and laid a new one out on the pads. This beat sounded to me like water dripping. I could sense the rainstorm in the distant background as he built up little rills that accumulated and then splashed to the ground. Sometimes in rapid succession. This one Makaya already knew, and she surprised me.

"It's like sex," she said, seriously.

I looked at the unusually solemn Ish, who stopped drumming long enough to mutter a few words. It took him about half an hour.

"Usually you do it alone," she said, and now she did blush. "Ish says bot' of us today."

I reached for my shirt.

"Stop dat! You lissen. You see."

Ish returned to his drumming, pushing those liquid surges forward like a reluctant pulse, a decrepit heart lurching clots of jellied blood through forgotten veins. It didn't grab me like some of the pieces, but it held my concentration. Makaya did not have her eyes open, but she lurched toward me, and pushed her hips against mine. On the next beat, I grabbed her cold arms. The dance continued like this, and we thrust and grabbed and staggered around in a parody of intercourse. Usually my arousal is an academic thing during the act of dancing (no matter how close it may be the rest of the time), but in this mimic of sex, I may as well have been a eunuch.

As he drums, Ish often throws in one of those breaks that seem to deepen the shadows in anticipation. I'm glad he didn't for this one. Intimacy would not been welcome in those circumstances, and afterward Makaya nearly broke down, so I held her. I asked if she saw the dead person she knew, but she only grabbed me tighter. My father didn't make himself known, so maybe he's still breathing out there somewhere.


Spring crept in as it normally does to these parts, shooting tentative bits of green amid the lingering dirty frost. We lost our barn to vandals, and set up something out in the open for the warmer days, in a further field, on a bare patch of earth near the trees.

Ish seemed to know about the damage before it happened, as he was holding a shovel when I picked him up, and we had to put it awkwardly between the seats as we drove, and it clattered against his cane. We didn't dance that evening, but the other two watched as I dug a hole and tramped around the tress to find some suitable deadwood. The new pole doesn't even support anything. Since then, Ish's drums and potions have made a permanent home in the cluttered back of my little car.

Our recital came and went, and I snoozed my way through a waltz with clumsy Emma, and did a hip-hop solo. Even a year ago, that sort of showcase would have been exactly the thing to thrill me, but it's hard to digest the painfully dull drum machine tracks they use for those things. I let the precise electronic thuds carry me as best they could.

Our other practices reached the point to where we did multiple dances, and Ish's smile creases got a workout as he worked to develop higher levels of smug. He was proud of us. I could tell another test was coming, much like the first time in the old barn. I could anticipate it like one of the kases in the drum pattern.

"A good day," Ish said from the back seat, in painful English. It was just getting to the middle of spring: pleasant, but not quite the long, warm days we're having now. I expected a chilly afternoon and told him so.

"Yeah." Cryptic as ever.

There was another car parked in the field when we pulled up, and two tall black men were standing next to it, smoking cigarettes. Even though they wore heavy sweatshirts, I could see that they were as thin as Ish, and probably as wiry. They were certainly nowhere near as beautiful as Makaya. I watched to see how they looked at her, but to tell you the truth, they mostly acted bored. I'd often wondered why no one ever bothered us in the open like that, and assumed that Ish knew the owners of the land. Maybe it was these guys. Ish crabbed up to them and clapped their shoulders like they were brothers or sons.

"Dis yo' blan, Ish?" one said, indicating me. He smiled, showing big teeth around the butt.


He looked at me then, and offered me his hand.

They were drummers. I should have guessed, should have thought of the phantom accompaniment that our teacher could sometimes conjure. I wondered if it would be more challenging to find the beat with the extra musicians, but more expected these guys to fill the sounds I knew were missing. After introducing ourselves, I helped them unload their car and mine. The taller of the two, Robert, pushed his hand against the pole I'd erected a couple of weeks before. It only wobbled a little.

Ish busied himself with the fire, but one of the men sat on the ground and began to sketch the symbol on which we'd dance. He spread his legs wide and sprinkled white powder, flour I supposed, from between his palms. The other man, Ti-Jean (which is French, according to Makaya; it sounds like "Tijan"), pulled a well-used corncob pipe from his pocket and laid it in one of the bowls that we'd already placed. Nice guys, but it's a filthy habit.

The five of us and the drums formed an approximate circle around the pole, and Ish, to my surprise, motioned Makaya and me to sit down. He leaned his gnarled cane against the knotty pillar, and limped out to the center of the sketch. He picked up the pipe and looked at it a moment before putting it back in his bowl. Maybe he was thinking about smoking it. He looked at Ti-Jean and Robert and nodded.

As the drumming began, Ish stood up to his full height, what there is of it. He lifted his hands and spoke the usual blessing in his own language. It felt more important this time. The drumbeat was a pounding four beats--it sounded like a pep band almost, feet banging on bleachers. Bam bam bam be-bam. The simple sound of it filled the clearing and seemed to make it close, in the way that Ish's own drumming often does. The fire felt hot, and although it was still light, I could sense all of the shadows in the trees just beyond, and they were teeming with the memories of people. Multitudes of them.

Robert started off the pattern, and when Ti-Jean came in after a few moments, he didn't add much, just stressed the double beat at the end. Ish limped in time, pacing a circle and keeping his bad foot near the ground almost like a samba. As the beat got fuller, he started placing the foot surely, but still keeping the feeling of a gimp, like he was copying himself badly. He swung his arms in great sideways sweeps, and giving up on the shamble altogether, he hopped and stomped and sang unintelligibly.

It's hard to say how long he kept at it, because I know got lost in the sound and motion for a little while. It was darker, but that doesn't mean very much when the drums start. I looked at Makaya, but discovered that she'd become far away from me. She looked back across a dozen shadowy faces and her eyes reflected the fire. She was standing up. I breathed deeply, and closed my eyes for a moment to better feel the sound. There was whispering in my ears.

The beat had developed into something more complicated. The one drum still was keeping something like the drumline march, but Ti-Jean had added a lot of new context. His beat was moving beyond my ability to count, so as I gave up on the thinking and did my best to just feel it. A clank of stick on metal was coming from the other side of the ring, which must have been Ish. He had sat down and started drumming again. I opened my eyes to look at him, but instead found that I could not take my eyes off the fire. It had grown bigger and Makaya was dancing in front of it, in silhouette.

I'd seen it before, of course, during practice and even with Gary. But she was in rare form by any standards. She'd tied a red scarf around each arm, and she floated them over her head, mimicking the action of the flames. She made two little steps forward before turning and shimmying her hips, over and over. Like the flames, she appeared taller. Tall and grave.

The drums were shifting again. I didn't hear the tinkle of the cowbell anymore, and the drummers were pushing for a three feel, one that I recognized as the Makaya. She gained energy from this, and as the rhythm came into it's own, Makaya leapt and spun with abandon, pure passion, and even I could feel what was coming up. One break, and the fire flared behind her. Makaya rocked back in the heat as if she were taking a blow, and then she rolled back her flow as the drums returned. Her faced looked quizzical, and not a little suspicious. A second drum break now, a second kase and when it hit, she stopped moving entirely. The drumming, which had been getting quite loud, quickly collapsed to a background buzz.

"Ki moun ki Ia? Kisa ou vIe?" she said in a deep voice. I was surprised that I understood her. She crossed her arms and scowled imperiously down at the shadowy crowd at the edge of the ring.

"Kote Freda blan se?"

I felt a wind at my back as she said this. As though she felt it too, Makaya's head swung in my direction, and she glared down at me. I won't lie to you, I was a little afraid, but I stood up anyway.

Makaya stood there looking at me like as though I was a complete idiot, as if I weren't even worthy to know her expectations, never mind try to meet them. But then her lips curled and she looked to where the drum sounds were still coming from. "Kounye-a!" she ordered.

I swallowed hard as another familiar rhythm began, six beats, soft palms, fast. This one was mine.

Makaya turned her shoulder to me, and lifted her arms as she had before, floating those red scarves in a taunt. She opened her mouth and before she lunged at my chest, baring teeth in a way I'd never seen. I pulled my back from her, keeping time, and thrust my arms forward, pushing at the scarves without touching them. It was a dance you know, not a fight. We were controlled by the drums as much as we controlled out bodies. And it went on: her lunging, me evading and enticing. In my ears, in the back of my mind was a presence, a woman as beautiful as a bird, and whatever language she was speaking, she was trying to be aloof unimpressed. She goaded me, goaded us both, I guess. I felt like she'd been whispering over my shoulder all my life.

The drums were dropping to a background buzz again, but maybe it was just hard to hear them over the rush in my ears. The whispering was growing to a howl. My friend was coming--I waited for the kase as the world faded to white.


It was quiet when I noticed the clearing again. Robert and Ti-Jean were packing up. Ish was standing next to the pole, as bent as ever, but grinning big. It was getting late, but it was still light, lighter than it had been in fact.

Makaya was sitting on the ground with me, back-to-back. I twisted around and patted her arm.

"You OK?"

"I'm OK."

I patted my own arm. I was doing all right too. Feeling damn good, in fact. I leapt up, and then helped Makaya.

"What do you remember," I asked.

"Less den you."

I looked at Ish. "What did she want?"

The old man just did his puzzled happy bit. Obviously he wasn't upset about how it all went down.

"Same time again on Monday?"

He nodded.

Ish drove back with the two drummers, and I was kind of glad to have Makaya to myself for a few minutes as my rusty old car bounced over the ruts in the field. Like I said, we have a lot to sort out between us, but there's no hurry. Graduation is looming big right now, and after that, who knows. In the meantime, we've got this religious festival to look forward to. And whatever else happens, I'll always know that I was good enough to dance the Makaya. Hopefully it's not just once.


"What I learned"

Okay, some commentary. As I mentioned to rundeep in a comment, the idea for this story came about as I was dozing through one of my younger daughter's dance recitals. (She's since lost interest, and at those prices, we're not pushing it.) In it was a young boy dancer, maybe seven or eight, who looked like he was hot shit. I briefly envied him.

But that was a character, not a story, and so I thought the whole supernatural thing would be a nice way to flesh it out. And so the narrator, Fred, was made to stumble into a society of remarkably effective Voudon (Haitian creole has no real spelling convention that I can tell, but writing "Voodoo" seems insensitive) through his dance troupe. I took some liberties, especially with the ceremonies, but I kept to the facts as much as it suited me to.

The Voudon religion is a hodgepodge of African (and for stealth purposes, Western) religions, brought forcibly to the new world. It also seems to be full of plotless characters. There are few famous stories that I can tell, relying instead on this on-the-fly possession. It's basically ancestor worhip, with certain families of ancestors so notable that they've achieved angelic status. Lwa, they're called. Believe it or not, I had my own characters fleshed out well enough, and found sympathetic Lwa for Fred and Makaya after I'd already sketched the kids out. Then I loaded on the metaphors and gave them some appropriate symbols. I got lucky with the girl; Fred took some digging. (Ish, I just freely morphed from Papa Legba. His name comes for "Eshu" one of Legba's other names.) In ceremony, the Lwa possess people, summoned by certain rhythms played on various drums. Different Voudon cults have centered around the petro (fire) and rada (air) nations of Lwa, but nowadays it all appears pretty ecumenical. I used those metaphors pretty freely too.

It doesn't seem like such a bad religion. There's no obvious dogma, and since anyone can be ridden by whatever spirit, you can pretty much make up the narrative of it as you go along. It'd save a lot of conflict you'd think, because you can always summon a new Lwa to discount the proclamations of the last one, and conflict isn't exactly something Haiti needs more of.

I did my best to utilize actual rhythms too, including the one they use for samba dancing. (The samba is seen as a hybrid of Caribbean and South American dance. Worked out well enough.) I know I didn't describe them quite so well as I wanted to. You can listen to some sound samples:

  • Makaya's rhythm
  • Fred's rhythm
  • the banda dance rhythm (this is the exaggerated sex, in honor of death)
  • zoklimo(they start the final ceremony with this one)
  • from there, they start a petro and then move back into Makaya's rhythm.

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