By Richard Prins
Not that I wasn’t a Columbia student when I first came to St. Nick’s Pub in 2005; my Swahili professor had suggested the venue for its Africa Night every Saturday, and we made an outing of it, a couple students each from the intermediate and advanced classes. The novelty of socializing with my academic peers convinced me to forgo memorizing a speech I’d have to give in Albany the following afternoon.
I played the native New Yorker and directed our crew of aspiring white Africanists to 149th Street. I had already developed instinctive grudges against my freshman class for their collective reticence to cross 125th. These weren’t first-years; they actually spoke passable Swahili, enjambed entire sentences between our English conversation, and had visited East Africa and done more than ogle exotic animals. They had dreadlocks, and dashikis brighter than my tie-dye, which I also envied as we reached the bright red billboard ST NICK’S PUB and walked down the steps into a tiny narrow bar where instruments were being dragged on stage. Guitars, a bass, a saxophonist with a backwards Yankees hat; what exactly made this African, I wondered.
The waitress in the leopard-skin skirt made us aware of the two-dollar table charge (the complimentary barstools were all taken, and it didn’t occur to us to stand) as well as the two-drink minimum. I asked for coffee, thinking I could stay up all night to memorize my speech, but there was none, so I got a Guinness because I knew what it was. As an 18-year-old unfamiliar with bar etiquette, I didn’t tip. The guitarist’s arpeggios sounded like the Sahara; he sang in smiling tongues even we polyglots couldn’t speak. My colleague stood to dance; I knew soon I’d have to rise to this occasion. She demonstrated the popular dance style of every country she’d ever visited, finishing on our common interest, Tanzania, “Where it’s all in the hips,” and her own percolated. She was electric. Her thickest fuzzy dreadlock bitchslapped my face, and I made a mental note to figure out one day whether my hips were mobile. They were by the time I ran into her a couple years later at a tourist club in Dar es Salaam and chased her across the dance floor like a dying man might chase a pulse.
“I can’t dance like that.” I stood. “But I do a pretty decent hippie-on-acid impression.”
“Acid is for innocents!” she laughed as the keyboardist took a break to dance with her. I let myself be guided towards joy by a second beer and the hollow detonations of a talking drum wedged in an old man’s armpit, which he beat with a stick. What did it matter if I would be speechless tomorrow before a crowd of young activists? The night was coming to life, and my limbs and torso were exploring new rhythmic contortions. Musical guests cycled on and off stage. A Cuban came and blew a shining trumpet – his fedora looked so classy it’s a sin he wasn’t simultaneously smoking a cigar. The waitress recited a lush slam poem; a drunk squealed briefly on a clarinet but was politely ushered off stage. A bald man took over on vocals and sang a song that made us sit back down so we could brace ourselves for its griotic power. Years later I would recognize the song as “N’Toman,” by Salif Keita’s first Afropop supergroup, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, and still relish its buoyant refrain.
At 2am the musicians took a smoke break in the backyard patio; mindful of my 9am bus ride to Albany, I said I had to leave. Surprisingly enough, my colleagues wished to follow. It was snowing fluffily. I scooped an armful of it off a brownstone’s ledge and dumped it in her dreads on the way to the 1 train. That was the last time I ever snowed someone. I woke in the morning to a phone call from Albany – there was a blizzard, so I could keep on sleeping.
I only make the trip up to 149th Street a couple Saturdays a year, usually when I’m trying to show off the venue to new friends. I dance so hard they pull me on stage when they can’t find another willing male; I let saxophone solos pinprick my brain and gasp in wonderment; I empty my wallet tipping the band and downing overpriced sugary blonde ales; I wake up the next afternoon and can hardly walk to the kitchen for water because my hips are shaken raw; I fulminate with mirth and pride at everything I’ve acquired from my multiple trysts with the Motherland. An ability to sing along to lyrics whose meaning I don’t know. To greet the Senegalese patrons in Wolof, which has the best “hello” in the world: “Wow-wow!” Wolof’s also the etymological source for words like hip, dig, cool. I’ve put effort into my Africanness, dammit, and Africa Night is my reward. The spiritual nature of the experience becomes only more exquisite.
Exquisite isn’t always a good thing. Exquisite pain, for example. Exquisite disappointment. But I would prefer to experience something exquisite than not. To finger the jagged grain, as Ralph Ellison put it. Unfortunately, most people would prefer a pinch in the cheek to a slap in the face. And I hope they all get fucked in the ass by Lenny Kravitz.
Tonight I have to go there (in order to write this here article). It’s been almost a year (since I spent most of the year frequenting even wilder clubs in Tanzania) so I need a refresher. I was going to go with a fellow St. Nick’s enthusiast who I could sleep with afterwards, but she got invited out to Long Island for the weekend. The last time I went to St. Nick’s, I went alone; I had just extricated myself from a long-term relationship so I was cultivating solitude. I’m not anymore; a sweat-drenched dashiki already makes me conspicuous – I don’t also want to be conspicuously alone. I left a facebook status asking if anyone wanted to see some African music; everyone was either uninterested, or they thought I was inviting them on a no-expenses-paid trip to Dar es Salaam, because the only response I got was from a long-lost friend in Texas informing me that she hula-hoops at a drum circle every Wednesday. So I polish off some Jim Beam after brushing my teeth (bad idea) but before getting on the subway (good idea) and spend the trip listening to South African jazz and Maasai hip hop on my iPod, muttering to myself about how so goddamn many people are interested in African music, or intrigued by it, or feel generally positive and groovy towards it, but so few make any effort to know it. Other than the occasional dreadlocked drum circle or viewing of Fela! – The Musical. Not that both aren’t awesome, in their own way – but what does one really discover? One should see music as Vasco de Gama saw continents!… rape & pillage optional.
Try naming a historical character cooler than Frank Serpico. Sure, they exist, but it’s hard to top a hobo-looking, ballet-enthusiast cop who single-handedly exposed the extent of corruption in the 1970s NYPD and was nearly assassinated by his colleagues in retribution. There’s a reason for the non sequitur; he once said something that I would be remiss not to quote when writing about music. Al Pacino interviewed Serpico before portraying him in the 1973 film of his life, and one of his most pressing questions to the whistle-blower was, why did you do it? Why did you testify against police corruption when the entire NYPD had made it clear you would do so at risk of your life?
Serpico’s reply: “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”
I like this notion that we are someone when we listen to music; that music acts as a reflective conscience by forcing us to confront our own humanity.
That’s pretentious; I could have just written, isn’t what Frank Serpico said just the most fucking beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? and left it at that.
But I want to know who you will be when you listen to a piece of music. Are you waiting for the spirit to feel you up? Is your untouchedness innocent or lonely, and when it writhes are you also an electric snake, and do you coil through your own spininess? Or shed your skin and flicker your tongue at tomorrow’s edge where each beat is a horizon? Or slither away from all the heroic acts you didn’t perform?
Important questions, these. And who am I each time I venture Uptown, sipping whiskeyed ice tea on the subway so I won’t have to buy too many of their drinks, so I won’t have to feel the letdown of sobriety as I enter the orgy of music, will only feel electricity crossing the diaspora between their instruments and my body? Who am I that Africa Night at St. Nick’s Pub is my favorite music in the city?
“No matter who you are, or where you come from, you are an African,” repeats the guitarist each time he dispatches the tip jar through the crowd – bills which will later be tossed one by one at the musicians. (One must always tip the griot directly. Why do the hunters always defeat the lions in the stories? I once heard asked. Because the lions aren’t the ones telling the stories.)
A text message arrives from a musician friend as the train is rolling over the Manhattan Bridge… was goin’ on tonight? Probably saw my facebook post – he digs African music. He should dig St. Nick’s – who knows if I ever told him about the place. He should also dig God – he has a lot of spirit inside him, but won’t recognize it as Jesus. We tripped on 2C-E once in high school; he thought he had been poisoned and began calling everyone he knew so he could pin his death on me. Meanwhile I wandered into the bathroom to urinate and felt a supernaturally powerful orgasm rushing through my urethra; it knocked me back on the ground and piss rivulets dribbled in my pubic hair. If he hadn’t been so afraid, God could have touched his genitals too, I frequently remind him; he assures me that my peculiar religiosity is a symptom of schizophrenia, and the public usually takes his side in this ongoing argument.
He asks what the cover is, but the train’s crossed the bridge and entered the tunnel, so I have to get off at Grand to tell him it’s free (not mentioning the astronomical price of a beer) and get back on the next D.
And step into the narrowness and blinkering Christmas lights; the cackling in English, white French, black French, et al. No music yet at midnight, but every barstool and chair lining the wall is taken; the wall is festooned with a collage of photos – as if we’re in the bedroom of a 14-year-old girl who’s got the hots for Charlie Parker. No room to stand without my tote bag from Tanzania getting whacked by the waitress’s beer deliveries.
The only people who come here alone are African. You can walk into a pub posse-less in Africa and emerge with lifelong friends. I suppose it’s a theoretical possibility in America, but I don’t know anyone who makes a practice of it.
By 12:15 I’ve nervously sipped away the entirety of my Sugar Hill and only the percussionist is seated on stage. I would say TIA but that’s for honkie tourists. They put “No Woman No Cry” on the jukebox, which I find offensively obvious, though everyone else seems to enjoy it, and a group is singing along to the “Hey hey” in the chorus. A 21-stringed calabash is placed in front of the drumset, the kora-player rocking short, choppy dreads to contrast with the big lady bassist’s back-length tapestries.
Check my phone; no reply from my friend. Probably thought I was going to poison him again.
With a cascading clash of notes. The guitar & kora entangling like two lovers’ inner thighs. On their way to Harlem, they pass the nomadic pastures of the Tuareg and Peul, zig-zag through the heyday of the Mande Empire, raft down the Gambia River, make an unfortunate detour in Brazil for a bossa nova, land in the South and send everything they learn back home via a passenger pigeon nesting in James Brown’s hairdo.
A pierced-eared pansy is dancing better than me. Stiffer competition than usual in the white-boy-ass-shaking contest. Usually I’m the ringer, but that’s when I have girls with me that want to be hit on by the musicians. The chords become major when they sidestep to Nigeria for Prince Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother,” and reach down to South Africa for “Pata Pata,” without the clicks.
I’m singing along to the Xhosa lyrics when he trills homosexually in my ear, “What are you doing here!”
“I just like the music,” I shrug, and somehow feel like I just gave a lame excuse, in the vein of I only read porno for the articles. His hand is on my far hip and the other one asks my hand for a dance. I let him have it, but let it go limp. I don’t know how to politely explain that I’m not very gay, so I don’t dance with dudes at Africa Night.
The chords of the keyboard pull a cord coiled taut around my heart. A sad flash of lightning that knows unbearable joy coruscates from the guitarist’s face and fingers. A djembe strikes midnight, thirty minutes late. There is not enough room to dance between the bodies but I do anyway, though some dressed-up dickhead keeps tapping my shoulder and frowning because I’ve stepped on his overshined shoes. The birth cries of blues are wailed by this small stage; I can’t tell if the top-shelf liquors are rocking to the bass or only appear to be moving due to the flickering reflection of Christmas lights. I fork over eight bucks for another Sugar Hill, and pitch my tote bag at two folded chairs in the corner, with an unapologetic shrug to the ostensible Columbia students whose shoulders I tossed it over.
Despite their svelte sweaters and impeccably-trimmed beards, I can’t help wondering where tonight might send them…. It was less than five years ago that these sonic explosions dispatched me across the ocean to study indigenous music at the University of Dar es Salaam, to traipse to Chamwino to listen to Kigogo choirs, to jet-set to jazz festivals in Cape Town, to ride with local stars to Dodoma & rap in Swahili, and to chase my favorite bands around Mwenge and Sinza.
Anything, anywhere, to figure out who I am when I listen to a piece of music.
Location In New York City
St. Nick’s Pub [closed]
773 Saint Nicholas Avenue
New York, NY 10031-3925