On impulse… in a white E350 Ford van I drive into Mauritania at sunset. I see a duneland, and then houses built as if to imitate matchboxes. Today Eid ul-Fitr begins. Men are walking back from mosques, women and children trailing them, sure-footed and celebratory. I see all this with my nose pressed to the window. The men wear long, loose-fitting garments, mostly white, sometimes light blue. I watch them from behind, and think of the word swashbuckle. I am moved by these swaggering bodies, dressed in their finest, walking to houses that look only seven feet high. I envy the ardour in their gait, a lack of hurry, as if by walking they possess a piece of the earth. I want to be these men.
This opening paragraph of Emmanuel Iduma’s book, A Stranger’s Pose, is a seductive snapshot of the grace and beauty Iduma finds as the devout in Mauritania celebrate the grand feast of Eid. There are a number of lovely images here in this brief rendering, discerned by a radiant eye, but the book, while it diarizes Iduma’s wanderings through Africa, also recounts episodes marked by the hardships of other travelers, who tread country upon country, desperately seeking self-respect through a livelihood and their manhood by being able to provide for their families.
A Stranger’s Pose is so rich with images: written, documented, suggested and lyrical, that it just begs the exaltation of music. Consequently, Nigerian born Iduma collaborated with Portuguese composer and vocalist Sara Serpa, who has written a score to a number of especially evocative or illustrative passages. Serpa, alone, or with vocalists Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson, sing the lines, or they are recited by Serpa and Iduma. Though intrinsic to the album Intimate Strangers, the music is especially distinguished, riding on undertones and simple melodic lines expressed by the piano (Matt Mitchell), with sotto voce electronics (Qasim Naqvi). It sometimes feels as if the pace in the quiet expectancy of the arrangements, were the footfalls of the perambulating Iduma, as he follows one step with another, seeking discovery.
While walking on the road in Nigeria, Iduma encounters a group of men waiting since sun-up to be picked up for a day’s labor; the resulting song, “Lokoja Okenne,” is a paean to the perseverance and determination of these men. Iduma is impressed by the way they belie the tedium of their waiting and the work itself, calmly, and with dignity. Serpa’s chorus is weary and weighty at times, conveying the duress of the workers' days.
Iduma bemoans the unfairness of those judging their toil as menial, and finally, with a suggestion of irony, he vaunts the ”nourishing gift that they share,” conferred after the day’s work is done and their sustenance of “bread and a bottle of Coca Cola” consumed; theirs is the gift of stories, gladly “chattered” when their bodies are “benumbed by fatigue.” Their pastime is a legacy that those who deem their work menial would never understand.
In this unfortunate age of celebrity, glamour and ostentation, “Lokoja Okenne” is just one example of how Iduma comes to the rescue of the everyday, of the stuff that our lives are ultimately made of.
Somber, ominous, and electronically expansive, the lengthy intro to “Kidira" expresses a penetrating, lugubrious churning. The mood is recast and we meet an indignant Iduma who will remain thus while he relates the arrest and sequestering of his friend while he himself is set free. A deep, relentless, drum beat and Serpa’s echoing of the author’s words underpin the vignette. I have “searched for him…through the cobwebbed shutters” of the station house, Iduma laments. When the friend is being taken away, he doesn’t look back at Iduma: “Now it was clear that our relationship was not one among equals.”
Iduma’s understanding of inequality is compelling. His passport grants him legitimacy, and freedom, while his friend’s lack of proper identification makes him a prisoner in his own country, Senegal. Because they are not equals, his friend cannot turn back to face Iduma, convey his fear, his shame, his regret that he is losing a friend, albeit one of a matter of hours only, and one where names are never exchanged. Inequality and the brakes it puts on intimacy and communion are a lament threaded into the appositely named, Intimate Strangers.
Lejam, a young Senegalese traveler whom Iduma befriends along the way, voices what could be the epigraph of this album and of Iduma’s book as well: “There was a world prior to my journeys, then a world after.”
The chorus introduces us to “Lejam” the song, scatting in gently buoyant microtonal dissonance—these simple tones, relaxed yet expressive, create a special, beautiful opening. Their melody pairs now with a run of single piano notes invoking brisk movement; these are more harmonic, less sweet, bobbing in and out and around the chorus, as if chasing the fluttering streamers on a Maypole.
But the song’s grim narrative asserts itself and we picture young migrants dashing to scale the enclosing fence of their encampment; they, like the workers of Lokoja are, “day after day waiting,” their numbers “rising like water finding its level.” A dark tuba-like synth has brought us to the camp in Ceuta where these men will prevail or perish in their quest for Europe.
In Lejam’s telling, 25 boys encircle him at the camp, and they become spirits of 25 who have been lost. They are eulogized not with names, but by numbers, 25 out of too many. Iduma and the chorus begin counting all 25 of them, slowly, reverently: “25,” pause, “24,” pause, “23,” pause….. as the song fades.
When I return to the opening of “Lejam” and the loveliness of the voices, I remember its feel, as of ripples of hope. Was it a false hope that I intuited? Or does that hope reside now on the other side of Iduma’s journey?
A Stranger’s Pose is a remarkable book and its musical enrichment as Intimate Strangers is a marvel.