26 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 10: The Thrill of the Drum Hunt

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

This transaction involves a guitar, not a drum.
But that's not really the point.
Today's location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Christián's amused and frustrated yelling into his cell phone

It begins with the first person with whom Louis makes eye contact once he's off the boat. That's how his drum hunts always work. In this case, it's a customs official on the blacktop just off the gangway at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. And the official—a middle-aged man with owlish glasses and a chartreuse safety vest—is already on the task, talking on his cell phone, his tone all business. 

He snaps his phone shuts and turns to Louis. "The best place to find a drum is the Mercado Artesanal, in the middle of town. You can take a taxi there."

* * *

We need more information, so we ask another local standing nearby, one of the tour guides herding our fellow passengers into a white minibus. She says the same thing: Mercado Artesanal. 

"I like to triangulate," says Louis. Verifying the leads will keep us on track--we'll only be in town for a few hours, so we need accurate information. A third local at the pier says the same, so that settles it.

* * *

There are five of us along for the drum hunt; Louis Patler is our fearless leader. In his outfit of green t-shirt, khaki shorts, and running shoes, he doesn't look exactly conform to the fedora-and-machete stereotype of South American artifact hunters, although his attire is much far better suited for our specific type of fast-paced urban exploration. Louis is a social anthropologist and one of the speakers on the ship; his topics include "The Future of the Future" and—not really related to the rest of his lecturers--"Drum Hunting," a lecture he gave just a couple of days ago, while we were transiting the Panama Canal.

Louis's drum hunts are his introduction to a culture. Every culture has drums of some sort, he points out in the lecture, and each place typically has its own unique and traditional type. He has several drums on stage, all of which he's purchased on this very trip. He picks up a handsome, handmade wooden conga from Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he bought from a Rastafarian master drum-maker. It had been the guy's personal drum for years—the drum-hunting party had ended up at his house—and though Louis had admired the craftsmanship, he assured the charismatic drum-maker that, truly, he didn't need to buy it and take away this beautiful instrument that clearly had so much personal meaning. But the guy said, no, something told him it was time for a new owner. Louis should have the drum. Play it, cherish it. 

Louis has acquired dozens of drums over the course of his travels all over the world. But even though he loves drums, the real point of the hunt is not really to acquire an instrument but to see a new culture. It's an ice-breaker with strangers, it's the quest that serves as the framework for exploration, it's a way to see everyday life and meet people with similar interests. He puts the question to the audience: What's your quest? What do you want to find in each new culture? 

After the talk, I rush over to the lectern, all but elbowing people out of the way. I'd love to join him sometime, I tell him, trying hard to stay cool and suppress the eager, desperate, borderline petulant voice inside me: PLLEEEEEASE! TAKE ME WITH YOU THAT SOUNDS AWESOME LET'S GO RIGHT NOW.

* * *

There are no vans available for hire at the port of Guayaquil, evidently, only cars roughly the size of toasters. There are five passengers from the ship: Louis, me, Bill, Judith, and Suzanne. Not one of us is willing to miss this opportunity, so we cram into a tiny but well-kept sedan—Bill, Suzanne, and me in the back, Louis and Judity contorted precariously into the front as our driver, Christián, heads toward the market (which he, too, thinks is our best bet).

As we enter the market--a vast, modern warehouse space with warrens of shops selling clothing, bags, trinkets, and other merchandise--Louis instructs us in the fine art of seeking out the particular types of drums he wants, the older, more traditional ones. "I've learned to enter a shop and never look straight ahead," he says. Most people want the shinier, newer drums, so that's what the shopkeepers display most prominently. "I always look down low or up high." 

Now, if the words "Artisan Market" conjure images of, say, a woodworker hunched over a table, knife in one hand, intricately-carved piece of mahogany in the other, a pile of shavings growing below; or a weaver working at a loom, a brightly-colored blanket taking shape slowly but surely--well, if that's what you're thinking, you should probably give the Artisan Market in Guayaquil a pass. They have mass-made sweaters with ostensibly traditional patterns; they have mass-made maracas painted with the word "ECUADOR"; they have mass-made drums that are roughly the same general design as traditional drums, except they're much smaller and have your choice of such traditional motifs as Knockoff Sponge Bob or Bloblike Purple Thing With Teeth And A Tale--Oh, I Guess That's Possibly Barney.

There are bigger and better and less Barney-adorned drums, too, but they're all new. 

Christián is working the phone, calling everyone he knows who might have drum tips. And over and over, I see his face start to light up before he says, with a frustrated chuckle, “No, no! Estos son nuevos--el no los quiere. Solo viejo. Viejo, viejo!”  Those are new. This guy wants old.

* * *

On our second pass down one aisle of the market, we strike up conversation with a shopkeeper named Carlos. He looks a little bit like Mandy Patankin (Inigo Montoya) in “A Princess Bride.” Again, the same result: nuevo, sí; viejo, no. But Carlos is intrigued by these odd, inquisitive tourists, and he and Louis strike up a conversation, with Christián translating. Soon, Carlos is on his phone. He has a friend who he knows will have a drum. And the friend does. He's on the other side of the country, but he can get the drum to us next week.

There's a collective groan. We don't have a week. We only have a few hours. Christián shakes his head, laughing again. He's a professional but incredibly low-key guy, early thirties, wearing the professional-but-low-key guy's uniform of short-sleeved checked shirt and jeans. He's also clearly very amused by his atypical tourist charges. By this time, we've talked to nine different people, either in person or on the phone. Louis's record on one drum-hunt is twenty-one people before getting a drum; the minimum was two.

We linger in Carlos's shop, and after a time, he pulls out a small guitar from behind the counter and starts strumming it. He offers to sell it, and it seems like a joke, but Louis says, well, okay. It's a nice little instrument—and, hey, it's better than leaving empty-handed. Louis insists that Carlos play one last song on the guitar, a sort of blessing before it's passed on to the new owner, as the music fills this otherwise quiet corner of the Mercado Artesenal and we all grin goofily, a sense of collective accomplishment and kinship.

* * *

Christián is still working his phone, and as we leave the market, he has a new destination in mind. He's heard there's a musical instrument store not far from here.

The Ecko Music Store. You have to check all bags at the
front so, sadly, I have no photos of the scenes inside.
As it turns out, the Ecko Music store in central Guayaquil isn't that hard to find. It's a big store, two stories, both lined with broad windows showing off the wares to passersby: guitars, drums, keyboards, amps. There's also a giant disco ball that marks the corner entrance. It's probably four feet in diameter, big enough to serve as an exercise ball for, say, a Shih-Tzu, with several much smaller disco balls orbiting along the equator. The whole disco solar system is suspended from the broad overhang of a roof that caps the two-story building.

On the second floor, a twentysomething salesman wearing a hot-pink polo shirt--his store uniform--is showing off keyboards to a father and his young teenage son, a budding rock star in tight red pants, a black t-shirt, and canvas shoes. The kid is wearing playing Pachelbel's "Canon" (of course) and messing with the various buttons and knobs above the keys, testing out the effects and loops. The salesman pushes one button and suddenly the song sounds like a trumpet with a drum-and-bass beat, but the kid scowls and shakes his head, reverting back to the piano. As Louis investigates drums, Christián makes a slow, shy, self-conscious lap through the keyboard section, cautiously looking at each one and its price tag; the cheapest one is $1,060. His daughter plays the piano, he says.

Louis finds a traditional drum, well-made … and brand spanking new. But he decides that's all right. It's well-constructed, gives a great tone. He tells the salesman he'll take it.

Downstairs, as we head toward the exit, drum in hand, we stop for a moment to observe another scene unfolding. A group of nuns in flowing white habits is chatting intently with one of this slick young salesman, all of them carefully examining a sound mixing board. We watch the nuns gesture, explaining their sound-mixing needs, and then we head back to the street, drum in hand.

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