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You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” meaning you sometimes need to step back and look at the big picture. Well that statement certainly applies to the country of Namibi in Southern Africa. Since there aren’t a lot of trees in Namibia’s huge, mostly desert landscape, maybe the phrase should be slightly altered to read, “You can’t see the desert for the sand.”
Bottom line, to fully appreciate the texture, color, variety, and the grand scale of Namibia’s landscape a view from above is essential. Once that perspective is understood, then you can move in for the closeups to complete the picture of the country. I recently went to Namibia with a group of friends trying to capture as much of the country as possible from both the air and the ground.
My home movies contain a lot of this duel perspective and the images are so strong on their own that even my camera work couldn’t ruin them. So although I put the pictures or home movies together for the friends who were on the trip with me, I thought I’d share some some of the video with anyone else who might be interested in seeing pictures from this most visually spectactular country. This is part one of what I call, Namibia: The Big Empty.
I went to the home of musician Giba Conceicao in Salvador, Brazil to get a percussion lesson so I could more fully join in the festivities of Carnival this year. What I got was yet another lesson in humility. Because it seems as if everyone is beating a drum or shaking a rattle or simply shaking their body to the beat of the Samba at carnival time, I thought with some help from Giba I would soon be able to blend right in to the rhythm of the locals.
Giba gave me a quick demonstration of what sounds could be made on several of his different percussion instruments so I could get an idea of which ones I might want to try. Let me admit up front that for me they were all harder to play than they looked. I began the session thinking, “Really how hard can it be to just shake a rattle or beat a drum with one stick or with your hands. These are like the first instruments ever played by humans. Surely I can match musical chops with my Neanderthal ancestors.” Wrong. Or at least wrong if Neanderthals ever mastered the Samba.
The Samba is the driving force of Carnival, but it soon became apparent that I should not be allowed behind the wheel of the Samba car. I need to use a designated driver. Or if I can’t resist the music and insist on shaking something, then it is essential I get fully into the spirit of Carnival and wear one of the elaborate masks. With a mask there is always plausible deniability.
I tell the story of Carnival in Brazil and my attempts to learn the rhythm of the Samba this week on my radio show National Geographic Weekend, but this video has some of the highlights of my musical adventure in Brazil.
Musically it’s a short journey from blues to gospel, or as some might say from Saturday night to Sunday morning. They’re both, when good, music you feel deep in your soul, which gives voice to the emotions you sometimes can’t find your own words to express. This connection between the musical genres is fully evident when some of my musician friends in LA recorded a version of Bob Dylan’s, “Serve Somebody,” for me last year.
They had shown up as a favor to me, to lay down some blues songs I could record on video. I’ve called it Boyd’s Blue Adventure session, but it was really up to the guys to play whatever they wanted. One tune, which I posted previously, called, “Case of the Blues” was made up on the spot, but all were done without any written score to keep them on the same page. Instead they were on the same wave-length musically, and that connection is what made all the songs that day work so well.
Phil Driscoll couldn’t resist the opportunity of having these great musicians in his studio to take the blues over to the Gospel side with, “Serve Somebody.” Phil is on keyboards, trumpet and vocals: with Hadley Hockensmith guitar; Bill Maxwell drums, Greg Mathieson organ; Michiko Hill piano; and Pee Wee Hill bass.
The band had just finished making up a song out of nothing, out of thin air. Where there had been total silence suddenly there was music, good music, a tune than engaged you, had you feeling the beat and moving your body. It sounded like a song that had been crafted and perfected over time, and yet it had been created on the spot in one take, even though when it began no one had any idea where it would go or how it would end.
Bill Maxwell the drummer said to Abraham Laboriel the bass player, who had shown up only minutes earlier in time for this last song of the session, “Let’s do a slow blues number. Abe you start us off.” With those words as his only guide Abe began a little improv riff on the base. A few bars later, Greg Mathieson added some organ, then Bill started laying down the rhythm and Hadley Hockensmith began layering in a very soulful guitar. Finally, right on cue, Phil Driscoll began to sing, mashing up lyrics from two or three songs and making up a few of his own. Later in the song Phil would add more texture to the music with his trumpet.
I call this number, “Case of the Blues”, based on some of the lyrics, but as Greg said when they finished, “It’s called the blues, but when you play like this it leaves you smiling and happy and feeling great. Case of the Blues does all that and more; it also left me feeling amazed at the talent of my friends and what they can instantly create from nothing.
I used to joke, “I have the greatest job in the world, but it does have a dark side.” Then I would explain, “I’ve also been bitten, scratched and pooped on by one of every creature at your local zoo.” I was only half kidding, because there is a price the body pays for having too much fun.
While recovering from my third knee surgery I was thinking about some of the fun I’ve had in doing a job my wife describes as, “summer camp for adults.” This year I celebrate twenty years of working at National Geographic, or twenty years of getting paid to go to summer camp as Betty calls it. It has been filled with multiple adventures of a lifetime, and how many of those should one person be allowed to have in one lifetime? Clearly I’ve enjoyed more than my share.
I was also reflecting on some of the costs of that fun. In addition to the three knee surgeries, I’ve had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders, a foot surgery, a dislocated elbow, fractured pelvis, scapula, great toe, and fractured ribs twice, a lower back injury, a few stiches on occasion, numerous bites, scrapes, and cuts, as well as a variety of infections.
No wonder my orthopedist, David Johnson, calls me his annuity. He really is a good doctor and he’s worked miracles with this beat up old body. He also has a good sense of humor and reviews some of my MRI’s and surgery films for a little musical history of a few of my adventures in the field that have led to adventures in hospitals and recovery rooms.
The music is a blues song, appropriately titled, “Hurts Me Too.” I previously posted a video I shot showing my friends Bill Maxwell, Hadley Hockensmith, Phil Driscoll, Michiko Hill, and Pee Wee Hill recording this song, but now I’ve added video showing highlights of several of the adventures which ended up hurting me too.
You Don’t Know Me. Did you ever say that to someone who was giving you a hard time about your life? It’s a familiar response to criticism usually uttered in anger. But when Texas songwriter Cindy Walker teamed up with Eddy Arnold to turn those words into a song, it gave the phrase a completely different feeling and meaning. You Don’t Know Me, became an aching, haunting, cry of unfulfilled love. It also became a hit song for Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles, and many other performers.
This version was one of the songs my friends recorded for me in LA last spring when they kindly agreed to show up and play some blues for my cameras at Phil Driscoll’s recording studio. There were no rehearsals, no music, and nothing was planned in advance. They just showed up and started jamming. The results were amazing, like they had been playing together for years.
For You Don’t Know Me, it’s Phill on vocals and piano, Bill Maxwell on drums, Hadley Hockensmith on guitar, Michiko Hill on organ and Pee Wee Hill on bass. Enjoy!
The term Desert Elephant sounds like an oxymoron. How could an animal that eats and drinks as much as an elephant find enough food and water to live in a desert. Savanna elephants yes, forest elephants yes, but a huge pachyderm surviving in an environment that is primarily sand, rocks, and gravel is not an easy concept to get your head around. But a few desert elephants do manage to make a home for themselves in Mali and Namibia.
On a recent trip to Namibia I specifically went to the north west part of the country to look for these elephants. I was staying at the Okahirongo Elephant Lodge. I assumed with a name like that I had a good chance of success. Early one morning we set out from the lodge and quickly found a small group of five elephants at a river in one of the canyons. I though it had everything these big eaters could want, mainly lots of food and water, and some shade that offered a break from the intense sun. With those amenities, it would seem logical that the elephants might hang out here for days on end. But when we went back to the canyon in the afternoon, the elephants were gone, having struck out across the open nothingness in search of something else.
What they possible want and where did they go. For more than two hours we followed their tracks until we finally caught up with the elephants dinning on a few little scrub trees that must be rather addictive to have lured them so far. I talk about the desert elephants this week on my radio show National Geographic Weekend, and this video shows my day chasing desert elephants and the harsh environment in which they survive.
If you like the blues, here’s a little Christmas gift for you. I shot this last spring, but just put it together. It features some of my friends, Hadley Hockensmith guitar, Bill Maxwell drums, Phil Driscoll vocal and trumpet, Michiko Hill organ, and Pee Wee Hill bass who did me a big favor by recording some music for me at Phil Driscoll’s studio. These guys are so good this is their only take of, “Hurts Me Too”, and they nailed it. I’m using the music on my radio show and cutting video of a few of my adventures to some of the songs. I’ll post more of the music in the coming weeks but for now enjoy this blues classic.
How many cows would you give in exchange for the woman who is your wife? No, not today, after years of marriage, I mean how many cows would you have paid when you were young and head over heels in love. For many young girls in Kenya their value, their total worth to their family to their village has been reduced to their bride price, the number of cows they will bring to the family in exchange for their hand in marriage. Kakenya Ntaiya was one of those girls, until she defied tradition, stood up to her father and tribal elders and said no to marriage at 12 and insisted on staying in school. She came to the U.S. earned her PhD and has now returned to her village and built a school for girls to give them the same opportunity she fought for.
This week on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend, I talk with Kakenya, who is one of our National Geographic Emerging Explorers, about the success of her school and how it’s changing the attitudes of the men in her village about the value of women, and effecting how they view their own daughters. Two years ago I went to visit Kakenya in her village and see the school for myself. The school has more than doubled in size since then, but from this video you can see the difference it was already making in the lives of the girls and their parents.
She tells me, “I am not from this planet.” I’ve occasionally had that suspicion about some people I’ve known, but never before has anyone just come right out and confirmed they are not of this earth. Uriel however has no secrets she’s trying to hide, and tells me and anyone else who will listen that she has in fact lived on thirty-three different planets. She has come to earth to prepare a landing site near San Diego, California which will be the future home for her brothers from other planets.
Uriel revealed her mission to me for a series I was doing on UFO’s. For the series, I talked to several people who had seen UFO’s, and a few who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, but Uriel was the first and only space alien willing to sit down for an interview with me. This story aired in 1990 and the space ships she promised were to have arrived in 2001. Last time I checked in San Diego they were apparently running late. Or maybe they are using the Mayan calendar and will instead be arriving within the week.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of her story was Uriel, or Ruth Norman, as it said on her driver’s license, had a foundation, called the Unarius Society, to promote her other worldliness , and the foundations had members, followers, earthlings who believed her story and were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to be part of her brave new world.