Thursday, February 22, 2007

Small world

Two examples of finger pianos

Back in the summer of 1989, a then seventeen-year-old Michael Chang became the French Open champion. Shortly afterwards, Switzerland's international airlines, Swiss Air, came out with an ad whose tag-line I found memorable: i.e., "You know that the world is getting smaller when an American named Chang is the French Open champion."

Although there are times when I am more likely to think that the world is still very big, it's true enough that there are days, like today and yesterday, when I do feel that the world can be quite small -- and inter-connected -- indeed.

For one thing, in the twenty hours or so since I wrote up my previous entry for this blog, I've been out to: dinner with two friends and fellow Chinese New Year celebrants who came over from Kuala Lumpur (which lies some 369 kilometers away) along with two others who are based here in Penang; lunch with an American friend who had spent much of the past few weeks in Sherman Oaks, California; and afternoon tea with a former colleague who will shortly be returning to Britain. For another, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, re-connected with an old English boarding schoolmate who I've not seen in years, if not decades!

Going further back into the past, I recall a day more than a decade ago when it occured to me with a vengeance that it really can be a small world; one which, among other things, saw me head out from my then place of residence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the company of Eiko, a Japanese Embassy staffer cum Africophile friend, and two Tanzanians to the historic town of Bagamoyo some 75 kilometers up on the Tanzanian coast.

I'm not sure what it's like now but back then, the road from Dar es Salaam to Bagamoyo was not at all great. So, not only was it imperative that we use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there but the 75 km journey took around 3 hours to complete. And any feeling that we had ended up in the back of beyond was accentuated when we got to Bagamoyo and it became pretty clear that my Japanese friend and I were the only non-Tanzanians for miles.

At the same time though, it wasn't as though we -- more specifically, Eiko -- didn't know anyone in that whose notoriety as a former slave port remains. In fact, one reason we had headed to Bagamoyo that day was because she wanted to visit a Tanzanian musician friend of hers who had his home there. So, after stopping first for lunch at a stall in the town's market, off we went to his place on the edge of the small plus sleepy town that resembles a village far more than many other towns.

Upon reaching the Zawose family residence though, we found only Hukwe's father and sons. For as it turns out (and we hadn't known until his father told us in person because, among other things, Tanzania in 1995-96 was not a place where phones were all that ubiquitous or reliably in service), Hukwe Zawose was away...touring in Scandinavia! :D

On a more sobering plus sad note: I recently learnt that Hukwe Zawose passed away on 30 December 2003 at his Bagamoyo home. However, when I think of him, I tend to recall happier times. In particular, that day in Bagamoyo when, after we belatedly learnt of his absence, his father and children seemed to take pity on us for having come so far in vain, so proceeded to treat us to an impromptu concert out there in their yard; one which showed that Hukwe was by no means the only talented musician in the Zawose family.

For the record: The late Hukwe Zawose once confided that "When I was a young man my voice was so sweet that people would often cry when I sang. " In that vein, here's taking the opportunity presented here to disclose that the beauty that came through when his father sang and accompanied himself on the izezs (traditional African violin), and his sons played the ilimba (finger piano), made me get all teary-eyed in appreciation on that unforgettable day out there in East Africa; one whose memories I've treasured for years now and am sure I'll continue to do so for some time to come.

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