Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Cultual Roots of "Simple Fun"

For a small town where locals do not seem to make much money, Iringa is surprisingly not devoid of nightlife spots.  Blaring into the town's dark main streets without proper street lighting on Friday nights are sounds of American hip-hop mixed in with distinctive local Tanzanian pop music.  Once one walks in, the joyfully dancing local live bands and DJs are joined on the dance floor by crowds of both locals and expats (usually of the white American or European kind), grooving to tunes that are often not found in Western clubs dominated by electronic or house music.

The term "dance floor" here does not imply a special setup with step-up stages or bright lighting one would normally find in, well, mega-clubs across not just the West but part of Asia where Western-style clubbing has taken root.  Here, nightspots are simply restaurants that open til very late at night and serve alcohol.  They put up music and clear a piece of empty space in their usual dense assortment of dining tables and chairs, allowing enthusiastic diners to congregate in the middle to let themselves loose.  Keep the place dark and keep the music loud more than make up for lack of sophisticated sound and light systems.

These restaurants' inventory of alcohols is not spectacular but can also not be called underwhelming.  The usual types and brands of hard liquor are very much available, and given the local bottling of the same, the prices are so cheap that the normal person may react by starting to doubt their qualities.  For instance, a bottle of vodka that can go for at least 20 USD elsewhere can be had, with the same brand, looks, and size for 5-6 USD in the markets.  Surely mixing them at the restaurants, with locally bottled juices and soft drink (which can be as little as 0.5 USD per large bottle in markets) cannot be that expensive.

The beers,on the other hand, display the power of local production.  Brands such as "Serengeti," "Safari," and "Kilimanjaro" line the fridges, allowing easy memorization and marketing while exploiting and getting in touch with the country's famed natural environments.  While the tastes are not particularly memorable or special in any sense, for the price (at about 1 USD per large bottle) and sheer availability, they are perfectly adequate companions for a long night out with friends and colleagues.  They are the "everyone's drinks," consumable for the least well-off urban residents of this little town.

And it is perhaps the cheap beers gives a low barrier to entry for these nightspots.  People from all walks of life seem to converge toward the loud music on the Friday night.  The author's first outing in the town's two most popular watering holes saw not just the usual array of young men and women, but also elite-looking middle-aged businessmen in suits, what appear to be gritty local shop-owners from down the street, and those who look like they are from the rural outskirts motorbiking their way into the town for some fun.  A diverse set of people mixing into the dance floor is quite a sight in itself.

It is fortunate that the expat groups remain small in this great mix of different community members.  In the more tourist-receiving parts of Africa, nightspots have become corrupted to the point that they exist primarily to target foreigners with money,especially for girls providing "special services" after dancing.  Foreigners frequenting those establishments would not realize just ingrained the same idea of clubbing, in a, for lack of better word, primeval stage of infrastructural development.  The mentality, however, is absolutely the same, with people letting it loose spontaneously with upbeat songs in the background.

Come to think of it, the belief that clubbing is a Western concept may be an Asian one.  Modern-day Western hip-hop and dance music has original roots in the African traditional music brought by the earliest Africans crossing to the Americas involuntarily.  The fact that they are modified in the West over course of centuries and only brought to Asia in the last few decades can imply just how little Asians know about the concept of dancing to music.  Asian belief that dance music come from the West ignores their origins in these African nightspots where people have been happily dancing away for millennia.

Of course, Asians had their own dance music historically.  But the idea that common people, rather than designated and/or trained dancers, getting together to move to music spontaneously was indeed only present in few remote tribes in the depth of isolated mountains.  Even today, nightspots in Asia cannot possibly rival the inclusiveness that one would see here in rural Africa.  Ultimately, the fashion, the music, the alcohol are not what set a good club from a bad one, but the energy and enjoyment of the club-goers.  And in this, these little establishments in Iringa has beaten every high-end nightspot that the author has gone in the past.  

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