Hard white rock & rollers are forever trooping off to Africa for inspiration. The Rolling Stones went to Marrakesh, Paul Simon went to Capetown, now Trey Anastasio of Phish and Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band take a crack at Dakar.
Trey and Dave Go to Africa, the latest episode of the VH1 series Inside (Out) (Saturday, May 8, 10 p.m.), isn’t moving, exactly, but it does convey how moved the rockers themselves are by their encounter with the grace and good manners of a Third World culture.
Establishing their fame on the home front, the program starts with footage of Trey and Dave playing at a sold-out concert in Oakland. Then it’s off to Senegal, where they will bow and scrape before the superior musicianship of the Orchestra Baobab, a veteran musical group that is about to play a reunion gig at the Yengoulene club in Dakar, its first in 15 years. Trey and Dave plan to study with them, hang out with them, maybe even jam with them.
Winging their way to Africa aboard a corporate jet, the two stars are in a pensive mood. They’re in the midst of a musical midlife crisis; they long to expand their horizons and suck some lifeblood from a culture with more soul. Trey looks like Chuck Norris, Dave looks like Tom Hanks, and they’re the humblest pair of superstars you’ll ever lay eyes on.
“I’m very excited about this trip, and a little anxious, because we’re going to play with kings of their game in their kingdom,” says Dave, referring to the Orchestra, but sounding as if he’s talking about lions in a wildlife preserve. “[Orchestra Baobab] is as close to a perfect musical unit as you’re ever going to see,” adds Trey. “In their home country, in their home club . . . we have no business being there.”
In which case one wonders why they decided to bring a camera crew along, but we’ll let that pass. These days, being trailed by a camera crew is only slightly more unusual than talking into a cell phone. At any rate, it was a brave decision. It takes guts for two mellow princes of arena rock to go onstage before an African audience with a band as musically sophisticated as the Orchestra Baobab. Even more so when you know your every blush and tremor and understandable attack of nerves will be relayed to your fans back home.
Trey and Dave Go to Africa is big on emotion, but derelict in terms of history and thought or even basic curiosity. In one segment, the duo are given a bus tour of Senegal’s capital. “When you want to feel the real flavor of Dakar, this is the place,” says their guide, Senegalese rapper DJ Awadi, indicating the scene outside. But the film, in what is now an inescapable documentary style, cuts between images — a fly-blown avenue, a begging bowl, a woman smoking a cigarette, a boy staring into a mirror — so rapidly that, afterward, one has almost no idea what Dakar is like at all.
About Senegal the country, we learn very little. Matthews says something about overcoming the language barrier with the universal language of music, but someone might have mentioned that the language in question is French. But then director Jenna Rosher isn’t interested in Senegal, or even Africa; she’s interested in the emotions Africa gives rise to in the two visiting Americans. There is one historical segment — a trip to Goree Island, where slaves were held before being shipped overseas — but this is really just an excuse to play on that most popular of Caucasian emotions, guilt. After all, the one thing everyone knows about Africa is that there was a slave trade there. In terms of information, this is about as useful as informing us that the climate tends to be hot, or that many of the inhabitants have dark skin. Granted, this is VH1, not PBS, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions or throw in an occasional fact.
Music aside, the most interesting thing about the documentary is the sight of Trey and Dave repeatedly hugging their male hosts, exchanging French-style air kisses (two on each cheek) and holding hands with them. “One thing that really struck me is how unafraid men are to express affection to other men,” says Dave in a voice-over as we watch him stroll down a dustily picturesque street hand in hand with a musician in a suit.
(Both onstage and off, the members of the Orchestra dress better than their millionaire guests.) “That’s one cultural difference that I really enjoy.”
Trey and Dave are in flight from irony. Taken as a whole, contemporary American popular culture may be the ugliest the world has ever seen, and they’re looking for relief. But they get it from a group of musicians a generation older than they are. How they would fare among their Senegalese contemporaries would make an interesting subject for another documentary.