Jam in Tangier A story about what Moroccans thought of a deeply American tune, and the universal language of music. Functional, I will settle for that description of my guitar prowess. But what does any ability level matter when you’re supposed to meet new friends at a hole-in-the-wall music café buried deep in a bazaar, a maze of shoulder-width white walls and rain-slicked, steep cobblestones, and you can’t find it? Carved wooden shop awnings all draped with scarves, leather bags, lined with handmade pointed yellow shoes, great, reeking piles of black soap, pink and yellow incense, and oils line every triple fork and twist of this labyrinth. Juniper wood carved into boxes and polished till the grain pops like veins in marble in one shop. Parakeets chirping in a cage. Around the corner, five cafes brew coffee and tea all at once. Bakeries the size of closets are tucked into the mess somewhere. Stray dogs and cats charge around feet, as do kids chasing a soccer ball. I’m hauling a guitar over potholes where the stones are broken, up uneven and jagged steps, through a soundscape of sales pitches in first French, then Spanish, then Arabic, then English. Someone in a hoodie lounging on a tiny stoop asks if I need directions. Do you know where Buena Vista is? I ask. He leaps up and promises to walk me there. He chatters about how he himself is a musician, he as well played at Buena Vista. The drums, the bass, he sang, he did everything. Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours in audio, hardcover, or paperback here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another. He stops a tri-fork in the maze of narrow white alleyways, and vaguely gestures that Buena Vista is down the center one. As I begin to walk, he calls out asking for a little something, but I am mostly out of cash, and apologize. He walks away disappointed. Soon it becomes clear that my destination is nowhere nearby at all. Turning corner after corner, ignoring plea after plea to come explore lamps, rugs, spices, and incense. Have dinner here, drink coffee here, eat pastry here, buy gifts for your loved ones here. A sign! Berber Rugs. Someone mentioned this well-known store was nearby the music café. Up the steep ramp of the cramped alleyway I charge, ducking under swaying handwoven scarves. A round wooden sign: Buena Vista. Tendrils of the stress of being unsure of how to find the place grow long thorns of stage freight. It has been a while since I played in front of an audience. The humid cold of this February night has seeped bone-deep into my fingers. Because of the plaster ceiling that bows down like a full belly over an unlit staircase of blue and white broken tiles, I must take the guitar bought used from a shop in Shoreditch back in London off my back. Its stock would bump the low ceiling otherwise. In the first staircase: vague mildew, and the cigarette smell of the air outside. But the darkness and damp give way to warm light and the aroma of freshly brewed espresso. The first floor is a barista’s station with a gleaming espresso machine, stacks of ceramic coffee cups, piles of mint leaves, and glasses for tea. A few floor cushions are scattered around. It hardly takes a full three steps to cross the entire floor. The second floor is the stage. Rows of wooden benches on an incline surface, and a very small stage with chairs that have stained cushions slip-sliding off of skinny black frames. The musicians: a keyboardist, a drummer, and my new friend on guitar. He nods and indicates I can unpack and set up. Five humming amplifiers, and the body heat of four musicians boxed onto a small stage with close walls make the venue an oven of heat and sound. Eight bright stage lights, and the most powerful of all radiations: eyeballs, the forty-four staring eyeballs of twenty-two strangers expecting to be entertained. Sweat chases the humid chill from my fingers, which become unhelpfully slick on the silver tuning pegs of my guitar as I twist them into key. Soon, I am balancing on one of these falling-apart chairs, doing my best not to lean back against the wall and send a decorative bass guitar clattering to the ground, and not so far forward as to make the chair fall apart. We’re all supplying the background music for a Moroccan singer. He has a sharp haircut and a puffer jacket, sweatpants and Adidas shoes. I copy the E minor to F major I spot my friend pressing on his fretboard. The singer fills the venue with verse after verse of a long, lonely, wailing lament without a hook or chorus but with an eventual crescendo. It’s met with whooping and applause. A couple of people do more tunes in the same genre. You! You! Lead us in a song. The real musicians mean me. Tightening throat, pulse in temples, and my own breath loud in my ears as the drummer walks the mic to my mouth by rocking its round stand on the floor around cables and wires. The seat starts sliding off the frame of my chair like someone pulling the rug out from under my feet. I launch into the chords of Friend of the Devil, the Grateful Dead song. The drummer finds a shuffle. The other musicians find the chords. I can’t hear my own voice coming out of the speakers facing the crowd. Same is true of my guitar playing. It is like the feeling of screaming in a dream, but somewhere in the ether, Friend of the Devil is being performed, allegedly by me. Sonically speaking, I might as well have unfurled a gigantic banner of the American flag with blazing red and white stripes and a field of blue stars. After Flamenco rhythms and the neither major nor minor open scale of droning desert wailing, the bongity-bongity and logical square shape of the G-chord progression never sounded so American. Also American are the romantic, mystic, drifter lyrics, the hound-chased narrator hiding in the caves of Utah, but meeting the Devil by the levy after a fool’s bid to outrun him. An outlaw crying the nights away as he runs far and fast as he can from a couple ex-wives, a mean sherif, and the Devil himself on the great American highway. You notice always, but especially when you sing it: it’s a great, great song. In one break between verses, I whip out the best bluegrass-style solo I can play, practiced so often in private, and now played out in an unclear and quavering quality, or maybe it is just fine. After all, we are our own harshest critics, and the speaker the audience hears sounds so far away to me, like music around the block. Then what: the last verse must be sung, the chords cycle, and the song ends. Silence for a split second – one long enough for every self-doubt and regret about an off-beat strum, or wrong note to rip through me faster then light before these ghosts are chased away by a generous applause. Next comes a Moroccan girl dressed all in pink fuzzy jacket and matching pants, and flat white skater shoes. She wants to sing Stand By Me, and while I know it in G, she wants it in C. The keyboardist takes on the role of music teacher and shows us how to modulate to C. He gives the instructions in French, so I simply copy his chord change, which is the same in every language. A moment to discuss language. Other than Moroccan Arabic, people are quite likely to ask you for French or Spanish. Many people speak excellent English as well, but it is slightly less common. I am guessed for a Frenchman often here, because they get so many of them and relatively few Americans. Given the language gap, we rely on the music. Showing chords on key and fret boards, mouthing strumming patterns like, “da dana…bom bom, da dana…bom bom.” Things you can understand no matter where you are from or what language you speak. We supply instrumental backing for the girl as she sings, “when the night, has come,” and all of Stand By Me. Her voice is beautiful, and her English is spiced with the mildest of accents. Another hour lost in the flow of instrumentals, and we are all quite friendly by now, we few behind the strings, drums and mic. We trade compliments about instruments, and how so and so sounded on this or that song. “Please,” asks the keyboardist and our music teacher of the moment with a smile. “Friend of the Devil, once more.” Tonight is the first time he ever heard that song, but he says he likes the lyrics. Who could say no to a request like that? On our way out in the cold night, breath misting in the aura of street lamps, back passed the closed doors of the hundreds of shops in the Kasbah, my friend tells me I sounded “good, but extremely western.” It makes me laugh, and it’s probably spot on.