Hi. I’ll like you to meet my Nigerian friend, Bassey. He holds center stage in Chapter Three of my diary. We met for the first time in an American night club in Madrid and have since become inseparable buddies. Here comes Bassey.
It is midnight. I have just come back from a drinking bout with Bassey. Bassey and I have been drinking rather heavily these days. Even my rate of smoking has increased two-fold. From a half pack of cigarettes a day just under a month or so ago, to a full pack today. We often drown our worries and boredom in the froth of beer. Bassey’s voice usually rises higher and higher as the beer sinks and settles in him and its alcohol speeds up his blood circulation. It seems alcohol also oils the hinges of his oratory which, in such occasions, tends to flow smoothly and fluidly. Bassey, not talkative by nature but how very eloquent and fluent only after a few bottles or glasses of beer or wine! After obliterating worries from his mind, he philosophises to the ever-boisterous audience of drunks inside and outside cafés.
Unlike Bassey, however, I do remain calm and even taciturn, preferring to lean back on my seat and feel the warmth of my blood as it skips up to my temples, or as it courses through the veins behind my ears. At times, I like to close my eyes, a cigarette dangling between my winter-chapped lips, to listen to Bassey’s rolling rhetoric, or to the incessant drones of cars in the streets, or just to the frantic beats of my heart.
* * *
I met Bassey for the first time last November, a month after my arrival in Madrid. I had spent my first two weeks in the city in a sort of solitary exploration. The first thing I noticed was that unlike London, Paris or Lisbon, Madrid doesn’t have many black people. At my country’s embassy one morning, I ran into a sour-looking student, one of those who, having been buffeted by the harsh realities of life abroad, seem to bear an eternal grudge against mankind. He did, however, agree to direct me to a few “interesting places” in the city. He mentioned a night club called “Brother Wolf”, run by black American soldiers from the American Air-force Base outside Madrid. He also mentioned “Zara” a café-restaurant run by some Colombian brothers.
I flagged down a taxi-cab and it dropped me at the corner of a tiny street not far from Avenida José Antonio or what los Madrileños more readily understand as “La Gran Vía”. On one door, the words “Brother Wolf” stared out at me. The latest vibration of heavy soul music jammed my ears as I opened the sinister-looking door of the still more sinister-looking, dimly lit entrance leading down to the basement. A haze of cigarette smoke rose from cigarettes that were glowing on and off in the dark corners of the room like fire-flies in a dark forest. On one of the nicotine-yellowed walls hung a painting of a wild wolf, with eyes peering directly into yours, giving you the uneasy feeling that it could pounce on you any minute.
When I walked in, many heads turned to look at me but they soon turned their eyes away as they realised I was someone new. From the ceiling, gyrating multi-coloured bulbs were bathing the turbulent crowd on the floor in a multitude of colours. Boys and girls. Black and white and mulatto; short and tall; fat and small and, presumably, rich and poor. Differences seemed to fade away from that one huge crowd of humanity expressing the joy of living through music.
Once my eyes had grown accustomed to the dimly-lit room, I saw that there were many more people there than I had noticed on walking in.
It was in the midst of that confusion that I spotted a young man sitting all by himself a few feet away. I had looked down because the lengthened ash from my cigarette had dropped on the floor. I was afraid it might have dropped on someone’s head. To my relief, it hadn’t. I spotted an empty seat next to Bassey and asked if I could sit down.
“Be my guest”, was all he said, motioning me onto the empty seat.
“Thanks”, I said, lowering myself onto it, wondering how anyone could sit so unconcerned by the commotion that was then in complete control of the room. What with those screeching guitar sounds pouring out of those gigantic, ear-blasting speakers! Just the hypnotic gyrations of the multi-coloured bulbs alone were already draping my mind in psychedelic shades of red, green, blue and violet, and sensuously turbaning my mind in rainbow colours. With that bunch of long-haired, blue-jeaned, dope-snuffing boys and girls jumping up and down the floor like maniacs, and rivalling the loud speakers with their shouts, one had to be dead of senses to sit so still in that room.
“Hi, brother! What’s up, my man?” I asked, sounding as American as I could. I had been told that success with most Spanish girls there came easier to black Americans. They symbolise easy dollar, free generous flow of booze and, to those in the game, easy access to weed. Not that adulterated stuff smuggled in by Arabs and Nigerians from Morocco and the Canary Islands. No, real stuff, man. It sends blood sprinting to your toes and fingers like the rush of jet water through a fountain.
Bassey shifted to make room for me, saying “Hi, bro; sidon you here.” I remember flying him back to his country. On my mind, of course. From his accent I could tell, even before he confirmed it himself, that he was from Nigeria. He must have spoken Pidgin unconsciously for he now put an American sound to his voice, deepening it and making it sound sophisticated:
“How’s diivnin, my man?” I almost laughed out loud but managed to control myself. In “Brother Wolf” nearly all Africans ape black Americans. I was there for the first time and I was already doing just that. I felt ridiculous but never gave it up. It was a new game and it was fun too. The end results could be quite rewarding, especially if it meant walking out of there, a Spanish chick clinging to your arm.
“You don’t seem to dig this, do you?” I asked, my hand making a vague gesture to the floor.
“Not really, man. Am kinda tired”, said he, stifling a yawn.
For a minute or two, we sat in silence, each with his own thoughts, watching the dancing on the floor. The music then changed abruptly and began to float down in slow, smooth, easy waves. A low guitar note stretched taut for several seconds. Then it yielded to the saxophone with its lowing and sobbing that changed to wailing shortly thereafter. The sax suddenly stopped, leaving a long echo in your ears. It was then that the heavy beats of the demented drums came in to shake the whole room and send the spinning bulbs into a frenzy of excitement. As the drum-beats slowed their attack, a pleasantly sexy voice glided in, smooth and easy, inviting the whole world to refrain from wars and to intensify love-making. That voice was like a sigh-wrapped tongue of love in my ear. I closed my eyes for a few seconds as the overwhelming grip of the melody was beginning to massage sensations into the very hidden and sensitive folds of my body.
My attention then went to the floor where some of the boys and girls were already clinging to each other’s neck, swaying from side to side like reeds in a soft wind. Those who didn’t like to dance mainly because the girls felt they didn’t know the boys well enough to cling to their necks, were slowly shuffling back to their seats, wiping sweat off their faces or armpits with the sleeves of their shirts or with wrinkled handkerchiefs.
“Where are you from?” asked Bassey.
“From Cameroon”, I said, with a smile.
He said he was from Nigeria. We had to shout at the top of our voices for the music was rather loud. He was also studying Spanish although in a different escuela de idiómas. There are a good number of those language schools for foreign students here in Madrid.
Did he like Madrid? I inquired. No, not really, he answered with something like a frown on his face. Why not? He gave the usual complaints of African students abroad: loneliness, homesickness, the indifference of a heartless and racist society. That was a very familiar song indeed.
I took a closer look at Bassey and saw that he was much younger than I am. I am twenty-five years old. He was to tell me later that he was just a year younger than me. He keeps a huge ‘afro’ hair-do. Some years ago, that was the hair-style in vogue in Africa. A breeze from across the Atlantic where our black brothers and sisters were singing: “Am black and proud”, calling on blacks the world over to hold their heads high above the crowd for “Black is beautiful”.
In Cameroon then any young man or woman without an ‘afro’ and tight trousers still had a lot of homework to do in social life. Today, that is less so, although there are people like Bassey who still swear by ‘afro’.
Mama always told us that a boy’s hair should be kept short. No lice can hide in short hair and it makes your son look neat and well-looked after, Mama would often tell a neighbour, who happened to wonder in passing why our hair was always cropped so low. Today, at twenty-five years of age, I still somehow scrupulously adhere to that maternal advice.
“You smoke?” I looked up and a packet of Ducados was staring at me. I took out one cigarette, thanked Bassey and stuck it between my winter-chapped lips. Then I waited for him to strike a match. He cupped its shaky flame with his left hand and brought it up to my cigarette. I pulled the smoke into my mouth and watched the lit-end of the cigarette glow beautifully. I let the smoke churn in my mouth for a few seconds before taking it in. Then turning my head to the ceiling, like a fowl drinking water, I puffed out the smoke into the air and watched it spiral for a few seconds, taking a mushroom shape, before being whisked away by the air whirling through the room. In silence, I said to myself: “Well, Mr Nicotine, you can fill my lungs, if you like. You can even kill me; without you I’ll still die one day.” I sucked deeper at the cigarette tip again and directed the smoke towards the ceiling, murmuring to myself: “To hell with pollution theories.”
“Sorry, I didn’t even introduce myself. Leinteng is the name. Leinteng Basha”, I said, turning to face Bassey and offering him my hand.
“Bassey Okoro from Calabar.” He later told me that his father had gone to Calabar from Owerri as a young man, had settled there, married there and made the place his home.
We sat for a while in silence watching the confusion on the floor where everyone seemed to be jumping about without really listening to the music. The multi-coloured bulbs too seemed to succumb to the confusion as the flow of the music tickled their sensitive ribs.
We could hardly hear each other talk, so Bassey suggested we take a walk up the “Gran Via” to Puerta del Sol or Plaza Mayor where we could drink and perhaps pick up a chick for the night. We decided to sit in one small café in Puerta del Sol, where we could watch the mass of turbulent white faces that seemed to be going round and round in endless circles.
Puerta del Sol is one of the main squares in Madrid. In the evening, it draws crowds from the four corners of the city. Every-hurrying faceless crowds. Lovers rushing to appointment corners. Young couples kissing in street corners. Old couples, locked arm-in-arm, stooped under the burden of years and walking about like silent ghosts. They seem to have nothing more to talk about as they have exhausted all topics of conversation over the years. Now the mechanised and computerised complexity of the Madrid of today leaves them speechless. When a brisk and careless boy runs into them as he plays on the side-walk, those senior citizens are jolted out of their thoughts. They then brandish an impotent walking stick at the fleeing rascal, lamenting that there should be such a drop in respect for the elderly in the Spanish of today. When the weather is good, the elderly bask in the sun like lizards, silently munching their past thoughts in toothless mouths.
Puerta del Sol: Look at those colourful waters from public fountains spraying the dying rays of the setting sun in such magnificent colours of the rainbow.
Puerta del Sol: Listen to those high-pitched voices of flamenco-dancing women and the low baritone of their accompanying male companions in over-bursting cafés. There is, of course, the ever-present beauty of guitar sounds from street corners where unkempt poets and bards strum their poetic loneliness to the ever-rushing crowds. Then as the sun draws a cloak of darkness over its head, neon lights begin to blink and wink and twinkle.
Of course, I did not notice the beauty of Puerta del Sol that first evening Bassey and I sat drinking there. I have had to go back there several times over the past several months just to watch the crowds go by and listen to bohemian, unkempt, dope-snuffing poets strumming on their guitars, and watch lovers kissing each other as the waters from fountains draws rainbows of hope in the evening sky.