Posts Tagged ‘Dio’

It is April 2014 and I’m living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not the metal epicenter that teeming 24-million strong megacity Sao Paulo is, Rio still has enough to brag about in terms of extreme music culture. Definitely some solid local outfits – the all-female three piece Nervosa being the latest to grab metal headlines – and enough concert tours come through to slake one’s thirst for all things extreme.  Just this past week, in fact, both Obituary and Hypocrisy played on different nights. Yet I went to neither show. The tickets were too expensive ($80); the taxi to the venue too long (nearly an hour in traffic, and in Obituary’s case, in torrential rains); and show times were unclear based on the venue’s website, but in Rio you can bet they commence consistently late, frequently around the witching hour. Both shows being on weeknights and your bedraggled scribe knowing he’d have to labor at the office the following morning made neither show especially attractive. And on top of it all, I’ve been having lower-back problems, so standing for a prolonged period of time was out of the question.

Rounding third base and chugging toward age 40, I’ve been sluggish in my metal of late. And it begs the question: WTF, peeps? A lifetime devoted to the world’s most tasteful musical art form, yet has the wind has gone still from the flag I once so defiantly waved? The air seeped out of my once-oversized metal tires? The flame gone ashen in the torch I once held aloft in more youthful days? How can I sleep knowing that I’ve missed two of the most important and enduring groups in death metal’s illustrious and esteemed history over some back pain, a bit of a commute, rain, and a ticket price, when I get paid more than I deserve and don’t even pay rent in this acclaimed Cidade Maravilhosa? Bellow blindly unto the heavens, beseeching an answer to this existential torment, and thy response cometh in pained whispers from disappointed gods on high: thou art aging, old fart, and soon the hour may be nigh to retire thy metal jersey.

If I’m being truthful, this is not the first time I’ve contemplated retirement from the metal scene. Once I left my band, Witch Hunt, in 1997, a series of false starts followed in the 1990s and early 2000s, yet none were serious contenders and I continued buying music, going to concerts, and supporting the music at all turns. The most serious talk of retirement crept under the door in August 2008 following a night with Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead, and Testament at the Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. Were a soothsayer to have read the tealeaves prior to the show, indeed all signs would have pointed toward mighty metal triumph. Indeed, the summer concert experience was always a milestone on which I once judged the worth of entire calendar years. It’s how Motley Crue made 1990 the first best year of my teenage era, and Jane’s Addiction kicked 1991 in the ass (literally, since it was their final show of the original era, having announced their scheduled breakup weeks prior). It’s how Overkill made 1992, Suffocation/Dismember/Vader made 1993, Cannibal Corpse made 1994, and Death made 1995  have summers of distantly outstanding merit.

Thus it was that hopes were high on the afternoon August 11, 2008, while inching through Beltway-area traffic and on the brink of an Exxon-styled bladder spill from too much Mountain Dew, I arrived at Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. I parked my Honda Civic in the dusty mega-lot and made sure I had my e-tickets. Featuring Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead and Testament, the gig would be my first since returning from Iraq a month prior. THIS was to be my summer concert for 2008, so it HAD to count. Gazing out over the tailgating headbangers in the parking lot, barbecuing and already libating themselves into pre-show oblivion, it seemed to me this was more than a simple gathering of metal fans, something grander than the collective reliving of an outdated adolescent soundtrack. My post-Iraq readjustment had been an awkward process, and I needed an elixir, a metal feather to Dumbo’s magic one. Indeed, so robustly did I believe in the restorative capacity of the Metal Masters that I was certain the gig would set my world a-right. With all this swirling in my mind, for a moment, I took the sweet birdbath of memory, awash in a humid trickle of nostalgia. But the joy did not last long.

As harbingers go, ominous signs were already afoot, obstacles in the path of all enjoyment, even from my vantage position in the parking lot whilst I sat in my car’s air conditioning and demurred entering the late summer humidity for that long walk to the gate. Forgetting a cardinal protocol of platinum membership in the old school Metal Club, I neglected to recall that book-smart headbangers are still sometimes regarded with skepticism by our otherwise beloved cohort. Perhaps this explains why, as I read The Economist in my car before the gates opened, black-shirted passers-by eyed me with the jaundice Khmer fighters once reserved for bespectacled middle school graduates. On come accusations of selling out and being a preppy, despite the best Iraq mission-ready “mean mug” I could muster to shoot them as they passed and stared, jutting out my jaw line to its physiologically feasible limits. Not even inside the venue and I’d already been pushed from the litter of my brethren, a defective puppy never again to suckle at the metal sow’s guitar-shaped teat. Then getting inside the venue was a task in itself. I stood in line for half an hour, then stomped back to my car when denied entry due to my camera (“…by the artist’s request…”). I got back in line and waited, finally entering. A non-recoverable hour of life surrendered unto the abyss of venue bullshit bureaucracy.

Once inside, the open hand of extreme hunger guided my drift to the concessions booths. The deep-friend sirens on Chicken Finger Shore bade I partake of their greasy legged, white breasted wares. The hypnotic spell they cast is the only rational explanation for why I paid $13 for a tiny paper trough of three chicken fingers around a midget’s handful of soggy fries. The hand and fingers clenched tightly into a figurative fist that punched my wallet in the pie-hole. It still hurt even with knowledge that Iraq had treated my bank account decently, my genetic cheapness and sense of fair economic play both egregiously offended. My attempts to extract sympathy from the hag at the refreshments window amounted to nothing: the pearl of sympathy long stripped from her soul’s oyster, her dead-pan stare told me she had nothing left to give. I was thus left to sulk alone in my poverty. Urgently needing reaffirmation that things would be okay, especially after accidentally dropping my chicken fingers to the ground, I went to my seat under the pavilion and waited impatiently for the bands to start, naively certain that redemption lay on the impending horizon.

There was certainly enough to convince me this was the case based on a few superficial observations before the show began. The climatic conditions were as favorable as one can get on an August day in Virginia: the sun still shone brightly but the punishing humidity was at a late-day lull under the amphitheater’s cover. It was too early in the show for the smell of sweat and urine to flog my nostrils. The lighting trusses flickered blue and red and greens as the crew ran a few final checks, and smoke billowed side-stage. The crowd – at this early hour still filling few of the venue’s seats, was on Bud Light-heartened feet screaming mostly-coherent praise to whoever was preparing to go onstage, an eruption not generally afforded opening acts, certainly not before they’ve even begun their set.

You can tell how a show will go by the first band. This is not dissimilar to how the first kiss foretells a couple’s long-term compatibility. And in the world of metal, that first figurative kiss is everything.

Testament was on first. I stood in respect when the undisputed thrash metal titans confidently strode onstage. Let’s be honest: yeah, they had a few rough points along the way, but their classic-era work is scandal-proof, and you can’t lay claims against Formation of Damnation, the disc the band was road-dogging throughout 2008. Fully clad in black, their tattoos seemingly newly retouched and waist-length locks as lion-like as in their horn-raising heyday of the early 1990s, vocalist Chuck Billy made metal faces at us old-school style, serpentinely flipping his filthy-old-man’s tongue at the crowd, perhaps in homage to groupies who once were. Unabashedly pirating a whole chapter from Ozzy’s call-and-response playbook, the front man exhorted us to “get fuckin’ crazy” whilst the other band members took their positions. So far, so good.

But it was markedly downhill from that high water point, a musical disaster gathering momentum until control was surrendered wholly. As the intro tape for “Eerie Inhabitants” drew to a crescendoed close, Testament slammed into the first brash cords of opening salvo “Over the Wall”. Oh, how totally awesome would this first song have been if only Testament had simply played the tune from which the intro was culled, the first track of 1987’s The New Order, still the band’s finest work to diehards. The cognitive dissonance created by starting with one song’s intro, only to play an entirely different one, left me, in the spirit of the toked-up crowd, dazed and confused. And I’m the sober smart-ass reading The Economist. I can only speculate as to the confusion felt by the rest of the audience, all now cocking their heads to one side like befuddled puppies.

There was barely time to sort it out. Testament only played 30 minutes. They were squeezed onto a small space onstage, barely moved without bumping into one another, and experienced frequent sound trouble, including the magical vanishing of Greg Christian’s bass during, of all inopportune moments, his intro to “Souls of Black”. Vocalist Chuck Billy was too chubby to be headbanging. His insistence on wearing a cut-off tee merely added to the offense, revealing not a conquering metal god’s six-pack abs, but an unmanly muffin-top. In fact, my discriminating eye spotted the unsightly jiggle of belly fat all the way from Section 101, seat G-23. He flailed about in his oversized flesh and played air guitar on his mic stand during all the guitar solos, tummy truffles flapping in defiance of all coolness. And speaking of guitar solos, they were incredible, the highlight of the band’s performance. But every time he deftly executed one, fingers skitting across his Ibanez’s fret board, axe-man Alex Skolnick’s knees buckled like a girl in a mini-skirt for the first time, sheepishly hiding her hoo-hah from public scrutiny. It sapped the macho right out of Testament’s chest-beating theatrics and posturing.

Motorhead was up next. Before they began, I noted their road crew bore the hallmarks of crest-fallen Ultimate Fighters scraping for work. I thought I spotted Ken Shamrock sauntering about with cables and amps at stage right. And I’m pretty sure Tank Abbot – in his requisite shaven-headed, bearded thuggery – was the guitar tech. Personally, I wouldn’t let a dude who was last dispatched with by a toe-hold in under 30 be responsible for my guitar in front of that many people. As for Motorhead themselves, after 35 years in the business, they just didn’t seem to care. This was reflected metaphorically in their inclusion of select uninspiring songs like “Killed by Death.” While we can all agree it’s tough to break Cannibal Corpse’s monopoly on grisly ways to perish, I simply must believe that a $60 ticket price entitles me to a higher caliber of lyrical ingenuity if you’re going to sing about death. Moreover, all the songs they played were slow, decidedly bluesy and bereft of energy in their execution. And since when do the Metal Rules allow for even well-known opening bands to perform lengthy drum and guitar solos? Understandably legendary frontman Lemmy Kilmeister remained physically muted and stationary for most of the gig, and his occasional wobbles at the mic made me sense the lovable codger either couldn’t hold his liquor as deftly as in younger years, or was experiencing the onset of serious health problems (the latter being confirmed just a few short years later, I’m sorry to say). It seemed the entirety of Lemmy’s energy was expended on merely remaining upright, holding up that heavy Rickenbacher bass, and keeping his mouth firmly planted before the mic, clearly now feats of great concentration for the man. He evinced no energy the 45 minutes the band was playing, not even when parading out staple classic “Ace of Spades” (mumbling “…it’s time to play THAT song again.”). I know, I know… I ought to cut him some slack. Lemmy’s well past 60 now and he must be tired of life on the road. In a way, I feel bad for him, despite the joy he’s brought to millions and his admittedly unabashed torch carrying for rock and metal over the decades. But he knows he can’t stop. They don’t make 401(k) for aging rockers.

Heaven and Hell were third on the roster, the final band before Judas Priest. They had a massive stage set, something out of metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. The whole setup had a plastic feel to it, like Castle Greyskull for grown-ups. A rusty graveyard fence surrounded the band’s backline and the drum riser. There were full-blown gargoyles with red glowing eyes. The gargoyles blew smoke, choking the stage, and the first 10 rows with thin grey fumes for a full 20 minutes prior to Heaven and Hell taking the stage. The gargoyles’ gnarly, clawed paper mache talons supported light-up crystal balls, and every time they ignited bright yellow, ostensibly with some variety of mystical metal magik, the gargoyles’ eyes burned crimson, they belched smoke, and the crowd roared in apocalyptic – and one might assume inebriated – approval. Despite my expectation that the band would show their true renegade-ness by storming onstage and pretending to slay the gargoyles or jumping the faux-fence, they emerged as proper English gentlemen (with the obvious inclusion of one Ronnie James Dio, a metal gent for the nations), casually strolling onstage and smiling ever-so-politely. It is true: to be in their presence of the masters, the forefathers, is mind-blowing at the outset. Yet Tony Iommi’s guitar was muddy, nearly beyond comprehension. There was too much bass in the mix and Geezer Butler’s every hand-slap-on-heavily-gaged-strings was audible even on the law, creating an annoying clicking not in-time with Carmine Appice’s kick drum. Dio crooned and gestured broadly, and his voice wavering with a diva’s emotion. But ‘twas not sufficient to save Heaven and Hell from an overall sound more befitting of an opening band on poorly-run club PA, not guys with this much experience on state of the art equipment in one of the Washington, DC area’s biggest premier live music venues.

Four songs into Heaven and Hell’s set, during “Children of the Sea”, with the sloppy sund and the house still only three-quarters full, something came over me, a sadness of some inexplicable kind. Agitated by the previous months in Iraq, unable to stand or sit immobile for too long or concentrate for the length of time required of a musical performance, ill in the innards from the pounding yet muddy amphitheater sound, dismayed that my heroes could be so lackluster, I knew that, at least for me, the end was neigh, that my retirement from metal was on deck. I could not bear to witness the death throes of this entire performance, and would not stick around to see Judas Priest, who I’d wanted to see live since I discovered them with Painkiller in 1990 as a 13-year old. It was only fitting that my final act would be to walk out while Tony Iommi, the man who started it all, was onstage. As I departed my seating section, I halted occasionally for an uncomfortable pause and nervous deliberation, glancing over my shoulder at the stage. Was I really gonna do it?

I made it to the lawn area. I surveyed the sparse crowd seated around me. I looked for the loneliest face. Judging from the forlorn grills surrounding me in the lawn, I knew it wasn’t just me who needed a miracle at that moment. And then I found a special one, the one to be the recipient of my True Metal Miracle: probably 14 years old, pimply and alone, squinting to see the figures performing at a great distance, sipping a lukewarm Mountain Dew, likely on the lawn because his parents were too cheap to purchase him a seat under the pavilion, or his allowance and yard-mowing cash simply didn’t suffice for a more expensive ticket. Yes, I was once like him, and if he remained in the Washington, DC region then statistically he would one day indeed be me: a member of the walking dead, a government employee, relegated to his cubicle and subject to dancing to The Man’s unpredictable whims, wondering how glory had so easily escaped him and sadly reflective on his metallic teenage glory era. Yes, the boy would one day grow painfully aware that the magic does not last. That this time of musical discovery in his life will one day draw to an abrupt close, sooner than he anticipates and much faster than he is prepared to accept. His guitar gods will be revealed as nothing more than men, and they would someday pass from this life, their corporeal beings withered, their souls drifting unsung into the ether of rock history. There they will be celebrated on tee-shirts and posters and shitty mall kitsch that will NEVER do justice to the greatness of the men themselves, the wonderful contributions they made to lives of their fans who adore and love them, the dreams they inspire and the memories their music creates.

It was time to pass the torch.

I tapped the boy’s shoulder. He wheeled to face me. Not defensive, just curious. I could tell the band transfixed him and that my contact jolted him from another world. Maybe this was his first concert, and though I was angry about its outcome for me personally, I fully understood how it was likely the proverbial Big Deal to the kid who didn’t have 25 years of metal concerts under his belt as a barometer for separating chicken shit from chicken salad. I forced a smile, attempting to conceal the heavy woe in my heart. No, I would have no one pity me in this final act. I gave him my ticket, pointing to the seating info on the page and giving him a quick thumbs-up. I patted him on the back paternally, my palm thudding soundly a few deliberate times, and I hoped each one would convey to him the gravity of the moment and the charge now upon him. A perceptive young man, he was already well ahead of me: if anything counter-balanced the sob welling in my gut, it was the sudden and unadulterated joy in the boy’s eyes. He jumped all at once and sprinted down the hill, all pretense of detached coolness gone from his exploding teenage heart. And for a moment, I was happy. I was free. I marveled at how we never exchanged a word, yet we both had said so much. The communicative power of music, I thought.

I began walking again, stopping only once to peer over my shoulder and deliver a silent goodbye to Tony and the boys. Thank you, gentlemen: I owe you the best of my youth. It was a good run.

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…wherein we learn how the throwing of metal horns broke the ice and led to a memorable encounter between a wayward American and machete-wielding Rwandan possible genocide perpetrators; and a brief treatise on how collectivist cultures have been unfortunately usurped by governments to instigate the commission of unspeakable horrors.

SAM_3420

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on an exceptionally late-night Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Kampala, Uganda. Pulling into the cheapest hotel I could muster (and by cheap, I mean it has Wi-Fi yet, in a seeming contradiction in technological terms, offers not a solitary power outlet in my room) and slept until 8 AM. I awoke to the sound of straw brooms, dozens of them in the aggregate, their syncopated brushing cadence crooning a soft chorus on the streets below, the melody wafting thru my open window and, for some reason I can’t explain, giving me the ticklish feeling of a Q-tip digging deep in my ear.

Chatting up hotel reception before heading out a few minutes later, they informed me that on the final Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are compelled to clean their public spaces. They mandatorily labor from 7 to 11 AM in a government-mandated program known as muganda, taking to the streets and tidying the sidewalks, parking lots, common gathering places like plazas, and anything else not considered private spaces. Local commissars oversee (read: compel) the participation of members of every community. If they sleep in, feel lazy, or for some other reason simply aren’t particularly civic-minded, community members are fined 5,000 Rwandan Francs (roughly 8 USD); and if too poor to pay, the commissars see to it that a make-up cleaning session is rapidly arranged, and again local authorities are there to ensure compliance. Indeed it is true: gas or grass, but nobody rides for free.

Rwandans are quite serious about this cleaning business. Nothing was open, there were no cars roaming about, no moto-taxis whizzing thru the melee and haranguing me to take a ride, no casual strollers, nothing. Just people cleaning, dutifully and diligently. I began walking up the street, marveling at the silent industry of it all, when I came to an embankment at roadside. It overlooked a vacant lot that was full of people, around 40 Rwandan men with machetes striking down a considerable overgrowth.

They labored, their faces adorned with supreme concentration and submission to the task. They perspired, striated muscles tensing with every downward blow, knuckles knotted like stones atop fingers airlessly clutching their instruments. The men were bringing down their machetes with a fury and vengeance I would not normally have associated with removing weeds from a vacant lot. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to take things like yard work with less gravity. But these men, no. They didn’t fatigue, and what’s more, their movements were in perfect union: the wavelength of their brutal and incessant synchronized rhythm was not dissimilar to heart cells coming together in a petri dish and gradually assuming the same beat.

Over the last 15 years, though not a farmer myself, I’ve developed somewhat of an expertise on the art of the machete. I’ve been to enough places and seen enough folks in action with this most ancient of cutting tools that, indeed, I can distinguish chicken crap from chicken salad. And let me say here and now that I didn’t even see machetes move so fast in El Salvador over a decade ago, when the country was still largely agricultural and folks there, even the ones choking the country’s too-densely populated urban centers, toted machetes around as a matter of daily course. The Rwandans had practically taken flight, their rusted gray blades a helicopter propeller’s blur in the crisp morning air.

SAM_3421I don’t have to spell out for you what the sight brought to mind. I’d assess that most of the men there were between 30-40 years old, which means the ones on the greater end of that spectrum would have been sufficiently old enough in 1994 to participate in the three-month enduring Hutu genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, which killed roughly 800,000 people while permanently disfiguring and displacing scores more. This extermination campaign effectively cut Rwanda’s population by a full tenth. In Kigali alone, mass graves hold the mortal remains of 259,000; and I use the word “remains” loosely, since in many cases the corpses were first so brutally hacked, then left to rot so long – accordingly subject to the rapacious appetites of stray dogs and birds of carrion and a quadrillion predator insects – that by the time the killing came to a halt and the bodies were recovered and catalogued, little often remained but a femur or cranium for a man, woman, or child who just three months prior had been a breathing human being. I will also add here that while I’m not an expert in tribal or ethnic distinctions on the African continent, my understanding is that Hutus are shorter and darker than Tutsis. Quickly glancing over the lot and the men slashing about in it, I concluded that they certainly fit this admittedly stereotypical description. And so it was entirely likely, therefore, that a number of these men were low-level genocide perpetrators.

I observed them for five minutes collectively bludgeoning the ground (if this sounds like a short period of time, then I invite you to have a go at five minutes of unabashed machete work yourself) before one of them stopped and looked up. He didn’t even say a word. Yet he did not need to make a sound, for I clocked off a mental “3 Mississippi” before all 40 had stopped and began staring at me as well. It was like a human version of a YouTube video going viral, a meme spreading thru the group, without a word being spoken betwixt them. So if the rhythm of their machetes was locked in unison, so too were their stares a group endeavor. It was so sudden that I barely had a chance to register that I now had, from my vantage spot on the embankment, the absolute and undivided attention of this entire lot of machete-wielding men. I didn’t feel threatened; that’s not my point. They were merely stuck in a bout of compulsory labor and braking to gawk at the muzungu, who was likewise gawking back at them.

SAM_3416At an impasse, and cognizant that one of us had to blink first in this impromptu staring contest, I did the first thing occurring to me: took off my shades, threw up metal horns and greeted them with a hearty, “Hey dudes!!!” And I was greeted in return with a friendly whoop that exploded from the group all at once. A few of them tried throwing metal horns back at me, even, and I saw one of them gingerly correcting another who was doing it with the wrong fingers; he’d given me an Aloha sign instead. And so channeling the late Ronnie James Dio, the ice was broken by metal for this brief and alien moment, a wayward American and a band of machete-wielding possible genocide perpetrators. They did not return to work. They waited – as did I – for what would come next. So I threw them a “thumbs up”, and the whole group threw one back simultaneously. Both their timing and delivery were impeccable, evincing the same group cohesion they did with the chopping, staring, and metal horns.

Officially out of hand gestures, except for throwing up my middle finger (and I was NOT going to do THAT), I shrugged. One of them, near the middle of the mass, held up a garden hoe and said something in either the local language or Swahili – I’m unsure which – and his gestures and broad grin suggested he was asking me if I wanted to clean at their side. I’m in. I sprinted down to the lot, seized the hoe, and began. But they were chuckling; I was not sure why at first, since though I’m certainly no master gardener, I’m sure I know how to handle a hoe. After a moment, one of them spoke to another in French and I thought I heard the word “woman” in the mix. So now this had become a yardstick for masculinity, with a hoe being a lesser tool and the machete being the surefire barometer of a man’s fortitude. So I put down the hoe and pointed at a machete, and they commenced SCREAMING with what I could only describe at a sort of joy; did I pass the test, whatever it was? I bade them back up, and began hacking for all I was worth at the grass in front of me, praying to God that I didn’t cut off my own foot in the process of illustrating the size of my my macho. A few men who were coalesced in my most immediate vicinity scrutinized my technique and began offering advice. Though I did not understand a word they spoke, they touched my right arm, used their hands to attempt correction of my striking position, and made me go slower, guiding my motions. One of them, his own fearsome machete resting on his shoulder whilst he smirked, finally intervened, making me step aside and observe him as he hacked the bejesus out of the brush before us, demonstrating how it’s done. Just standing there, I could feel the wind generated by the force of his machete strikes raining down. At that precise second, a single thought occurred to me and it was this: can you imagine being on the business end of that? And the second thought that occurred to me was that, sadly, it’s quite possible a number of people found that out the hard way.

Eventually, the activity stopped and we all stood around in a circle, awkwardly smiling and making repeatedly failed attempts at communication. A young-ish guy, probably in his early twenties, approached me then, materializing in the group as if dropping from the sky, greeting me in passable English and even using the word “cool” in his opening sentence. He was dressed like any young American hip hop fan; both his brow and clothing were dry, so I divined he was simply a passerby who saw the scene, assumed he’d at least get a chance to practice his English, and came on down. Finally dispensing with formal niceties, he asked me if I needed help, if I was doing okay; I responded that I was fine. Then he, sensing that perhaps I’d benefit from an explanation of everything happening, began. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is accurate: “The president said we must avoid what happened in the past. Rwanda needs to be unified. Now we just have one major political party, and the opposition is very small and doesn’t matter. Since President Kagame controls the whole country [note he didn’t say whole government, but whole COUNTRY], he can get things done with no problem. Rwanda is very small and we are efficient people who follow orders well. So when he said we must work, and said we must clean, we know we must do it without question.” I had previously heard that for numerous reasons, Rwandans are methodical about following instructions from authorities. Now I was beginning to see how that manifested in real time.

SAM_3547At this point, two drunken men broke crashed the scene. They were messes, reeking of alcohol, and judging by the unfavorable odors seeping seemingly their every pore, I’m inclined to believe hadn’t bathed in a fortnight. Laughing and staggering, they each took to one side of me, and began jutting their hands into my pockets, saying something that included the English word “money”, for all intents and purposes rifling me for cash. The assembled machetes fell deathly quiet silent at that moment, assumedly sensing trouble. No smiles, no talking, just watching and waiting. I pushed one of the drunks away and stepped back from them both, gingerly smiling to keep things cool but telling them to stop. This was a pucker-factor-ten moment; I didn’t wish to piss off a group I assumed would side with another Rwandan over me. But I also could not let lushes lay hands upon my person and try to yank cash from my shorts, since what good would it achieve beyond showing me to be a lamb, intrinsically vulnerable to other wolves amongst them?

Enter a savior: my new twenty-something friend said but a few quick sentences to the drunks, speaking in hushed tones and, judging by the nodding heads around me, to the general agreement of all present. The two men immediately laid off, backed away, and smiled. I asked him what he said to cause such an abrupt change in their posture, and in his slow and accented drawl he explained, “I told them you are a visitor in our land and they are showing indiscipline. And this is bad.” That was all it took to stop them. Then two cops materialized out of nowhere, grabbed the men by their arms, and hastily led them away. To this, my friend said, “They will spend 3 days in jail to learn a lesson. The police will punish them.”

So I’d been on the streets of Kigali for fewer than two full hours and already felt I’d unlocked the key to explaining the genocide. First, a culture favoring collectivism, with tremendous peer-pressure to act according to specific behavioral guidelines, especially when anything involving the tribe or kin is at stake. Second, a bizarrely uncommon efficiency built into Rwandan culture, by which they are able to achieve results incredibly rapidly. Third, a strong individual work ethic which, when injected into a group context, focuses group members to the extent that they get tunnel vision and see task completion to be the only worthwhile goal, without necessarily questioning the task itself or the methods by which it is being completed. And fourth, a top-down institutional capacity sufficiently robust to compel community members to carry our orders to the letter. The combination of these fou can be applied for social good like collective cleaning, or for social evil like the Tutsi extermination in 1994.