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Recollections from our Tour Diaries:

by Stuart Leigh

In March, just as we were unloading our bags into our little hotel in Benin, others were unloading bombs over Baghdad. It was actually comforting to be relatively far - in terms of media and news - from the action. Not oblivious, but attending to healthier matters, I felt fortunate to be doing something Eliot and I had been talking about for over a year - producing a song aimed at reducing the incidence of HIV infection in West Africa and helping our local partner institution, Centre Afrika Obota develop an outreach program to maximize the impact of the song.

I am, among other things, an educational development worker –often working as a media designer/producer and trainer. For the last four years my company, Real World Productions, has been under contract for about three months a year to work on USAID’s basic education project in Ethiopia. I have been designing a radio-based English teaching system for primary schools and training radio writers, producers and teacher trainers. On my last trip in July 2003, we succeeded in getting all 11 regional education bureaus and their dedicated radio stations to adopt our new daily broadcasts for primary school teachers and children. There are now 45,000 teachers slated to be trained to use the programs this year. In my work the potential for service is massive. But the time scale for assessing impact is long…and winding. Development work is an optimist’s game.

And so, I found it immensely refreshing to be working on a smaller project. One with unknowns but with many fewer moving parts. Specifics of its design and realization may be found in excerpts from my journal below, but the long and short of it is this: We had a very successful trip – in every way. From a development educator’s point of view we made something of great potential. To develop a national HIV/AIDS media campaign that maximises that potential is another matter, one that will require budgets and on-the-ground management. As I write, we are trying to expand the project into a full radio, TV, live concert and school campaign. If measurable impact is what we seek, making the song is just the start. What Eliot and I accomplished with our immensely talented African friends is now an opportunity to take development communications to another level. That we were able to achieve so much is part chance, part artful Troubador design. For us, it was a joy. What follows takes you inside...

Stuart Leigh is Executive Director of Real World Productions, for over 20 years specializing in educational media and training designs for social development. He has worked with Project Troubador in China, Brazil, Haiti, Cameroon, and Benin.

by Stuart Leigh

Early March in New York: Eliot and I are conceptualizing a music project to motivate West African youth to practice safe sex. We plan to work with a non-governmental organization in Benin to make a song that appeals to youth at risk. With an infection rate of about 4 %, Benin is fortunate to be less severely affected than many sub-Saharan countries. Our plan: to meet with some musicians in the country’s main city, Cotonou, and come up with a complete song in the first two days. Then, a series of recording sessions in 8-10 secondary schools where children will lend their voices to the chorus of the song... edit these vocal elements in our laptop... back to the studio... mix them into the song.

Day 1 – Friday: Eliot and I emerge from the plane into the steamy nighttime atmosphere of coastal Cotonou. There to meet us are Arsene and Vivian from our host organization, Centre Afrika Obota. A short ride in Arsene’s Nissan and we’re at the Hotel Croix du Sud. A little melatonin to reset the bioclock (so they say) and it is soon morning.

Day 2 – Saturday: After breakfast, Arsene returns with Ignace Metok who he has chosen to compose a song based on a lyric that Eliot has forwarded weeks before – “J’ai mes raisons de me proteger (I have my reasons to protect myself).” The concept for the song is to have male and female voices sing a series of personal “petite histoires” so that listeners, male, female, youth, parent, etc. will each be able to project and see themselves in the tune somewhere. Eliot has suggested sample verses - like “I am a farmer from Parakou (a town in the north), I have a beautiful family and so I have my reasons to protect myself….” Sitting in our little room the four of us begin to explore the possibilities. Ignace has a clear idea of what he hears. His lyrics closely incorporate Eliot’s suggestions:

“I am a farmer from Parakou / I have a wife and two kids / I wish to see them grow up / I want to see them live ... J’ai mes raisons de me proteger…(I have my reasons to protect myself )/ Chaque fois c’est “chap, chap”, je place ma capote (each time it’s “just like that” I put on my condom).

It’s hard to hear his implicit harmonies as he sings. Hmmm. We’re having trouble hearing what he hears. The words are working, but the melodic and rhythmic concepts we carry are very different … Should we try to sell our idea for a tune? Should we go with the local flow? The answer emerges pretty easily, born of our experiences in other lands. Best policy: trust and go local.

We have another question though – where is the female perspective explicit in the series of “personal story” verses ? We don’t yet hear one. Ignace and Arsene agree to produce a new verse to be sung by a woman who they’ll bring along tomorrow evening.

Day 3 – Sunday: It’s election day in Benin and Arsene is an official election observer. We have the day to ourselves until 5 PM when we are to have a rehearsal with all the musicians. At 5 pm, a gang arrives with an electric keyboard. We assemble near the hotel’s swimming pool and slowly the group begins to get into the piece. Eliot and I are in a state of some suspense – hoping to hear our aspirations for this project being expressed. Again, at first we don’t really hear it. It’s rough… Patience. We consciously take a recessive role to let the dynamic of the large group take over. Having restrained ourselves from pushing our own tune, we restrain ourselves further. Our biggest concern is that there is no obvious regularity in the structure of the verses. But now there is direction from Ignace for the female lead voice. And now the sound is getting focused. The players understand better where they are going. Eliot stands behind the pianist exploring guitar figures. Continuity is being established. It’s coming together. By the end of the evening we have a groove going.

Day 4 - Monday: At 8 AM Arsene comes to take us to the studio. We meet the studio operator, Joka. His space is small but tidy. His recorder is a PC with Cubase VST recording and mixing software. He starts with the drum track. These are experienced recording musicians. Soon they have the groove for the tune down. Then they lay in keyboard chords – a soft string approach. Then Patrick, a 6-string bass player, guitarist and musical wizard in his own right lays down the bass track. He adds finger style guitar using my Martin. Then Eliot adds some tasteful filling touches on electric guitar. Bizengor, one of the locally famous singers, adds some traditional drums. We’re ready now for voices. We record verses by Ignace, Bizengor, Jospinto, Blaise Antonio, Alpha Mim, Carolle, and Lidvine. We leave the studio knowing it’s been an unusually productive day.

Day 5 – Tuesday: Arsene picks us up and takes us to the offices of Centre Afrika Obota. We get a better idea of our partner organization. They have four main priority areas of work 1) democratization, 2) economic development, 3) health, 4) human rights. They are a very substantial group, perhaps 60 strong in the head offices here in Benin. There are also offices in Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire. Their annual all-country conference will be later this month in Niamey, Niger. We hope our music project receives attention there.

Arsene drives us to a noon appointment at the studio. Patrick adds some guitar fills to the last verse, Carolle and Joka’s daughter add some female voices to the chorus. Joka gives us a cassette of a rough mix. The balance of the voices against the music is way off , but we are incredibly pleased... there is such feeling in it.

Day 6 - Wednesday: We begin work today in two schools in Cotonou. Ignace is a bit indefinite in teaching the first group of students. Eliot jumps in to help, bringing them closer to pitch. At the second school the kids sounded pretty good. Back in the hotel I edit their voices and mix them into the song. It sounds good, but something is troubling me. Having the kids (including the girls) singing the second part of the chorus – “….je place ma capote” seems an invitation to criticism; and some of the kids who will sing this will be pretty young. I edit the audio so the kids only join on the words “J’ai mes raisons do me proteger” until the very last time the chorus is sung. This sounds better. We have dinner at the Big Salas restaurant on the water. The fish is great.

Day 7 – Thursday: We go to two more schools in another town - Allada - 35 kilometers toward Abomey. It’s raining all day. The kids are electric. It is a really good recording. Then on to the second school. Now more confident of my audio recording, I’m beginning to think in terms of doing something serious with video. I shoot the second group of kids in the light rain outside. Moving camera shots, different angles...

Day 8 – Friday: Today we drive to Abomey to work in four more schools. In the first we get some good video. At the fourth school the kids are charged up and in red uniforms. Eliot reveals himself as a video director. He has them gesture in unison from their desks with pencils in their waving arms. It’s sundown. The bugs are eating us.

Day 10 – Sunday: A morning of writing notes. I am aware of a piece of the song still missing. For the tune to be what we want it to be it must appeal to girls as much as to boys. Is it feminine enough yet? During the recording session last Monday , Carolle addressed my concerns, suggesting “une petite piece du theatre”. Zing! Yes! I can hear it! Eliot and I have been talking about it. In the middle of Carolle’s final verse, a child will say “Mama, are you there?”, and the mother will say, “Yes, my child I am here”. It will add a maternal power to the piece. We’ll clearly connect the prevention imperative to love and to our responsibility to the next generation.

Arsene takes us to his fine new home for lunch with his brother, his beautiful four year old daughter Adeoda, and his lovely wife, Solange. His family is gracious and I record Adeoda and Solange speaking those simple words of affection and trust. After a wonderfully tasty lunch, I mix their voices into the final verse of the song and play it for them from the computer. Glowing faces all around.

Day 11 – Monday: It’s really sweltering today. We’re in the studio early with Joka. I spend a very long day getting the sound the way we want it. Eliot is out with Arsene setting up meetings for tomorrow. Joka is a wonderful craftsman and our communication is good. We mix the song with six different endings and balances so that we’ll have something to choose from.

The last few days on our trip to Abomey we have tried to clarify the next steps in implementing this project. We now have the song. We know it is good. We know that kids and adults in Benin will love singing it. It could be part of a major AIDS media campaign. We talk through the design of a staged outreach campaign to maximize impact.

Day 12 – Tuesday: In the morning we meet with Dr. Gbaguidi, of the Ministry of Health and the National Campaign in the Struggle Against AIDS. We play the song for him and some of the other doctors who work with him. They like it. We describe our interest in producing an effective health media campaign with multiple learning channels and layering various media and face-to-face activities in schools. We discuss the best time for launching a campaign with radio, audio and video. Dr. Gbaguidi thinks the best time is in the summer when children are out of school and have more opportunity to listen to the radio and watch TV, with face-to-face follow up work in schools when the school year resumes in September.

Our next meeting is at Atlantique FM, a radio station heard most widely in Southern Benin. It is said to have an audience of 40% of the country’s population. The Director of the station is fully supportive. He indicates that there should be no problem having their staff pose questions to listeners so that the audio campaign can have an interactive aspect. This will lead to further audiocassette distribution and ripple effects. When we head into the studio to listen to the piece the Director surprises us by having the on-air host interrupt whatever is on air to play “J’ai Mes Raisons”. He turns on a small Sony radio in the studio and we listen to it over the air. It sounds better than ever. Fantastic! We’re on the air! From conception to dissemination. We’ve closed the circle. We notice that the radio host speaks over the song telling the public who the star performers are. We are told he is also speaking over the song to prevent any premature pirating of the tune.

Day 13 – Wednesday: Today is a chance for us to fully represent the current project to U.S. government personnel. Eliot, Arsene and I meet with the staff of the Centre Culturel Americain. They are very pleased with our efforts. We hear from them that they can work with USAID to coordinate support of various functions. Sounds promising.

In the afternoon we meet at USAID. I describe our phased plan to extend the project into a campaign. Phase 1 being what we have done; Phase 2 including audio duplication and distribution and video production and distribution. Phase 3 including Centre Afrika Obota’s outreach to schools with face-to-face components (from September to December), and a culminating national musical performance event on World Aids Day in December.

We distribute the lyrics on paper and play the song. Within seconds we see smiles on faces, tapping feet, glances of recognition. These folks are international and local professionals well equipped to assess the rightness of the song’s messages for Benin. We show them samples of the video we’ve shot over the last 10 days. At the end of the meeting it appears there is interest in providing further support for the music video project, and we have introduced Arsene to USAID’s education and health portfolio managers. They have agreed to meet and get to know each other’s programs better. This building of bridges is key to gaining the support our project will require. Such building of relationships can be catalytic, helping expert workers and willing donor agencies who share similar goals to see new possibilities. Meeting over. It’s bye-bye time. At the airport Arsene and Ignace give us their warm goodbyes. There are good feelings all around. Soon Eliot and I are homeward bound.

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