Soundtrack Of A Photograph-Searching For E7

When I was a boy I had a deep fascination with maps. It did not matter if it was a World Atlas, or the most basic globe that seemed to be in most classrooms growing up. Later I began absconding the variety of maps that came in our families issues of National Geographic. I would (not so carefully) unravel the folds of the maps of places like Antarctica, the Himalayas, or even the Moon. Usually there would be a map on one side and on the reverse would be additional information. Sometimes it might be a topographical map of the same area, highlighting the ocean depths in varying shades of blue, or the highest mountains expertly drafted to look as if you could feel the rise  of elevation with your finger.

No matter the form of the map I would spend hours peering at the world around me, traveling  without ever leaving home. I could cross the China Sea, climb the Atlas Mountains, or traverse Australia using nothing more than my mind. I could trace the outline of Africa with my finger or imagine what the jagged coasts of Norway must be like in person. I loved to locate the remotest islands scattered throughout the world, marveling at exotic names like Spitsbergen, Tristan da Cunha, the Maldives and Sable Island.  I could visit the extremes of the earth at the North and South Poles.  When looking at an atlas, often I would gaze through the glossary, searching for names that sounded interesting. A useful tool when later on in grammar school I won a world capitals contest by knowing that the capital of Burkina Faso (or Upper Volta as it was known at the time) was Ouagadougou.

The key to finding all of those places in the glossary was via a code system. If you wanted to find exactly where Guadalcanal was on the map, you would look it up and see that it might be E7 on a particular page. Once there you would line the two  points up with your fingers and zero in on your target. Even then you sometimes had to expand your radius out slightly as it never quite matched up exactly, particularly in places as vast as the South Pacific Ocean. It was all part of the exploration really. Often I would expand on what I was learning in school, tracing the paths of the great explorers, sweeping across the Mongolian tundra with Genghis Khan or climbing Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Other times I would look at places where I had family scattered throughout the world, which brought places like  Nigeria into my world. Though it would be years before I ever met my cousins there, looking at the country with a map made me feel connected with them somehow.

Recently I  found myself returning to maps again, either looking at my trusty Rand McNally Atlas, or via the newest way to view the world conveniently, with my smartphone. When I was young I visited those places I saw through the maps in my mind, imagining what the people and the landscape looked like.  What the food tasted like.  Later when I began exploring some of those same areas again, instead of using maps as my guide, it became through the music. I became fascinated by music from all over the world, and asked many of those same questions. Music can reveal so much, especially when you go out of your way and explore something new, just like we do with food. As I sat strumming my guitar the other night while thinking up ideas for this blog it did not go unnoticed by me that certain musical notes have the same letter and number combinations the way those points do on a map. E7 can be a map location, but it can also be a chord.

The reason I have been looking at maps again has been for a different reason though. There are problems everywhere of course, but with the 24/7 news cycle we live in now, it seems much more pervasive. Events can seem pretty bleak at times and conflicts over territory, disputes about religion and government and environmental issues abound right now. Though I find myself as frustrated and repulsed  by the worst of it like everyone else, I feel the need to understand why it has come to be this way and I return once again to the tools I used when I was younger. Unfortunately, it seems the norm these days is for the more reactionary and flamboyant opinions voiced by people who clearly never did what I did as a boy, learning about the world by way of maps. I often want to scream and say, “You can’t share an opinion about (insert particular area of strife or conflict) until you can point to it on a map, understand said place’s recent history (and by recent I mean at least the last 50 years) and then have some understanding of the culture.” Then maybe I might listen to you. Instead I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions to events and places people barely know of, let alone know where they are on a map. And yet those voices sadly seem to be heard the most.

It makes me despair at times, so I choose to focus on the good, while keeping a watchful eye on the evil. The good for me will always be things like food, art and music. I thought about what artist I could use to close out that thought. Someone who is empowered by music and uses it to both entertain and educate. Someone not afraid to speak her mind, and yet is massively popular around the world as a result. Someone who quite literally travels the world at a dizzying pace-New Zealand one day, then Chicago two days later. That someone is the amazing Angelique Kidjo from Benin. She is a whirlwind of a performer, full of massive energy. In June I was at a festival where she was performing. It was a gray, wet and dreary day, and my spirits were sagging because of it. I think within the first 30 seconds she had the crowd up on its feet, and by the end of her set it was a full scale party, the dreary day  a distant memory. Similarly, years ago when I was working at Tower Records Angelique was performing in nearby Lincoln Center. Immediately after the show a swarm of people who had previously never heard of her came in and within 5 minutes, EVERY album and compilation we had with her music was gone. Her song Afirika is in part dedicated to the late Miriam Makeba and to the African continent and is always a sing-along at her concerts.

Years ago when I was tracing my finger around the continents, and looking places up like Nigeria in the atlas I thought about the people there. Quite often the thought I had was, what do they think about? What moves them, what inspires them? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? When you meet people from those places,  and when you listen to their music, the answers are quite often the same as our own. The distances between points on a map can be vast. The people in between share much in common however. Artists like Angelique Kidjo understand this. They relish it. People want to sing, and dance, laugh and cry all over the world and she gives it to them. If we look Benin up on a map we might find it by locating E7. Someone in Benin with the same curiosity about the world  might look up your home town by locating E7 on a different map. Isn’t knowing where someone is from what really matters as the starting point to understanding each other?

Afirika-Written By Angelique Kidjo & Jean Hebrail

Map Photo Taken From World Atlas Of Nations, Copyright 1993 By Rand McNally & Company

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle