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To paraphrase an old saying, “You can’t see the elephants for the trees.” That’s the problem for researchers trying to study forest elephants. Despite being the size of an elephant, these pachyderms can be only a few yards away, and yet disappear completely in the forest. One of the best places to observe their behavior on a regular basis is the Dzanga Sangha Bai in the Central African Republic. A Bai is a clearing in the forest and this particular clearing is a large one, perhaps the size of ten football fields. The Wildlife Conservation Society has been doing research on the elephants here for more than twenty years.
I recently spent some time at the research station taking pictures of the forest elephants. I don’t think we ever had fewer than forty elephants at a time in the Bai and there were occasions when we had as many as a hundred. They don’t come here just to be seen, like celebrities showing up at a night club because they know the paparazzi is waiting out front. These guys show up despite the cameras. They want the minerals in the soil, it’s almost like an addiction. They eat dirt for hours and come back day after day. One theory is there’s something in the dirt that helps with the elephant’s digestion.
When that many elephants gather in the same place, especially a lot of young males, it’s like putting a group of teenagers together in a high school, social dynamics will be tested every way possible. The big guys of course mark off their territory and let anyone who comes by know who’s in charge and who gets prime access to the best dirt and water. And of course eventually there will be some sparing over which guy gets the best women. While I was there several young males engaged in several pushing and shoving contests or play fighting in advance of the day when it will turn serious.
Andrea Turkalo has been coming to this bai leading the WCS research for 20 plus years and knows most of the elephants who show up here, kids and parents. I shared the viewing platform with her for two days and interviewed her about her work and its importance. You can check out the interview at ngweekend.com
I’m going to visit some friends this weekend that I haven’t seen since we were all together in Utah almost two years ago. Hopefully I won’t have a near death experience this weekend like I did during that trip to Utah. Back then we met up just outside Zion National Park for three days of canyoneering. For those who don’t know, canyoneering is a sport where you navigate your way through a series of canyons in a wilderness area by any means possible, climbing, boulder scrambling, rappeling, swimming, and hiking.
The backcountry around Utah is the perfect place to participate in this activity, with all its dramatic sandstone formations. I’ve done this before so I wasn’t expecting any problems, but on one rappel for some reason that I still don’t understand, I lost control on the rope and was dropping way too fast. Trying to do the impossible, that is trying to grip the rope tight enought to stop my fall, I succeeded only in burning the skin off my fingers. I was headed for a premature rendezvous with the ground and a multitude of broken bones when someone realized I wasn’t just showing off and grabbed the end of the rope, pulled hard and stopped my descent.
I taped my hands to cover the missing skin and continued on for another day and a half finishing up in an especially beautiful spot called, “The Subway.” Since I lived to tell the tale, I can now say the experience and scenery were worth the price of a little missing skin. I’m just hoping this weekend I can have some fun and keep all my skin
I think this is a first, Andrae Crouch playing the blues. Recently when Andrae and the original Disciples got together for an informal reunion, I was there with cameras to capture this reuniting of one of the most influential groups in contemporary gosel music. Two of the band members from the heyday of the disciples were also there, Bill Maxwell on drums and Hadley Hockensmith on guitar. I first heard Bill & Hadley when we were all still teenagers. I was in college in Oklahoma City, and considered going to hear the guys in “The Third Avenue Blues Band,” an essential component of my course work.
As a favor to me, they agreed to do a couple of impromptu blues numbers after we finished recording the Disciples songs. Great bass player and friend Abraham Laboriel was there to add his magic to the mix. Bili Thetford did the singing and Andrae, as best as we can remember, played keyboards on a blues jam for the first time ever. Without a rehearsal here are the guys doing their version of, “Going to Chicago”
If you get a chance to go to a pygmy pool party don’t miss it. The Ba’Aka or pygmies as they are commonly called can put on quite the show. In a kind of water fight slash dance party atmosphere the ladies play the river like a conga drum, or maybe I should say Congo drum since we are in the Congo Basin in the Central African Republic. Then comes what I call the “Unofficial Pygmy Olympic Diving Championship.” I recently put up a few photos of one of these impromptu shows that I was lucky enough to witness on my trip to the CAR, but now comes the video from that day. Clearly everyone is having a great time. It’s a day I will never forget.
These pygmy ladies took me on a “double date” Ba aka’ style in the Central African Republic recently. You might call it a dinner date since we were going into the forest near their village to hunt for dinner. They were hoping to catch a duiker, a small antelope, by trapping it in the nets they are holding in this picture. The nets are about 25 yards long and three feet high. The pygmies will string three or four of these nets together in almost a complete circle and then start beating the bushes and yelling hoping to scare a duiker into running into one of the nets.
The nets are all hand made in a very labor intensive process. Small branches are cut from trees and then split into then strips and dried in the sun. The Ba aka’ then roll the dried strips against their thighs like a kid might roll out a piece of clay until it a long round string. These strings are then tied together to make the net.
On this day the nets would remain empty. We didn’t catch any antelope or even see any signs of one. I did find a shotgun shell, evidence of others who have been in the forest mostly likely illegally hunting the duiker. Poaching has greatly reduced antelope numbers in recent years in this section of the forest.
This weekend on my radio show National Geographic weekend I’ll be talking about the pygmies and their lifestyle with Louis Sarno an American who has been living with the Ba aka’ for more than 20 years.
One of my favorite countries to visit is Peru. It has the obvious appeal of spectacular landscapes set in the Andes, and the rich cultural heritage of the Inca empire, but what really makes the place special is its people. You can get a sense of their spirit in this short documentary featuring a group of Peruvians who take a bus trip to Peru, Nebraska. It’s an entertaining cultural exchange program.
Apparently it’s Andrae Crouch week on my web page. I just can’t help myself, every night this week I’ve been editing video I shot with Andrae last month. Hearing the group together again for the first time in more than 35 years was filled with so many great moments that I just keep wanting to hear more. Which means I just keep putting together more videos and then posting them for everyone to hear.
Not only did original Disciples members Sandra Crouch, Perry Morgan, and Bili Thedford show up for the afternoon jam session, but two members of Andrae’s old backup band were also present, Bill Maxwell on drums and Hadley Hockensmith on guitar. And as an added bonus the legendary bass play Abraham Laboriel dropped by to play on a couple of numbers. This video of, “I Don’t Know Why” near the end of the song has a couple of awesome solos from Hadley and Abe. Another reminder of why Andrae & the Disciples were so far ahead of everyone else in Gospel music at the time.
Also on this video Andrae had Sue, one of the singers from his church, join in on the vocals. Enjoy.
The original members of Andrae Crouch & The Disciples got together one afternoon in April of 2011 for the first time in more than 35 years. By original, I mean the version of the group that finally broke through to great success in Gospel music. It was Andrae, his twin sister Sandra, Bili Thedford, and Perry Morgan. The idea of the reunion began when I told Andrae I wanted to get some video of him sitting at the piano and playing some of his old songs. Of course scheduling anything in advance with Andrae is always short on specifics, so his former drummer and co-producer Bill Maxwell was essential in making sure this came together the week I was in L.A.
After I arrived Bill & I decided to call Perry and invite him just to come up and hangout and visit. That’s when Bill said, “Thedford and Sandra are in the area, why don’t we see if they’ll also show up tomorrow and maybe sing together one more time.” This would never have happened if we had tried to plan it. Schedules would have needed to be coordinated, and then people would have said they needed rehearsals before they could sing again as a group. But since it was all so spur of the moment, everyone just showed up, mainly because we all wanted to see each other after so many years.
As for the music, I wanted to capture a moment like the old days when they would just stand around Andrae at the piano and sing. Of course Andrae immediately, like the old days, started writing a new song on the spot and assigning parts. Eventually we got him do a couple of the old Disciples numbers and this video is of the group singing, “The Blood.” Bili took the first solo because Andrae had a sore throat, but it was an afternoon of fond memories of a time in the 70’s when Andrae Crouch & The Disciples changed the sound of Gospel music.
It’s not everyday you get invited to a pygmy pool party. In fact, best as I can remember this is the only day in my life I’ve been privileged to attend such a special event. I was in the Central African Republic in the Congo Basin to film forest elephants and western lowland gorillas. On my first morning in the jungle on the way to look for the elephants, we passed a river where a group of Ba’ Aka or pygmy women were bathing and doing laundry. I stopped to take a couple of quick pictures. They immediately lined up and started slapping the water in a way that made it sound as if they were playing drums.
They were laughing and yelling and clearly having a grand time. Next they gathered in a very shallow area of the river and ran towards a partially submerged log, using the log like a diving platform to launch themselves into a series of jumps, and dives, and half flips. The ladies were almost done when I arrived and I also had to hurry on to look for the elephants so I asked if I could come back in a couple of days to take more pictures and that’s when I was invited to the pool party. The real fun began on this second visit as the Ba’ Aka ladies began to show off their fanciest aerial maneuvers, all to the sound of much cheering and commentary from the group.
I also shot some video at the swimming hole which I will will edit into a short piece and post later so you can enjoy the sounds as well as the sights of the Pygmy Pool Party. If you ever get invited to one, don’t miss it.
Gospel music legend Andrae Crouch is such a gifted songwriter that music seems to effortlessly flow from his fingers whenever he sits down at a keyboard. Last month I spend a couple of days with Andrae, my friend of more than forty years, and in the short time we were together I think he wrote the better part of five new songs. And I mean good tunes, memorable, infectious melodies. After one song that he recognized as having potential to be developed into something special, he quickly started playing another new tune with the words, “Don’t lose it or I can’t use it.” It was a musical reminder for me to hold on to the tapes or his new composition would just drift off into the ether to be lost forever, since the next day his mind would already be filled with other notes and other music.
But after he played me some of the new material he’s working on, I asked Andrae if he remembered the first song he ever wrote. He did and no wonder, it was a good one. He was 14 years old at the time. This video is of him singing that first song and telling me the story of how he came to write it.