JUST AFTER ARRIVING AT the Juba airport in the Republic of South Sudan, we saw three dead bodies on the ground—all fallen from the same motorcycle and now draped with sheets. A vigilante group of more than 100 people had gathered in search of the driver who had fled, obviously well knowing that the practice there is to murder the driver regardless of fault.
There are no driving schools in South Sudan. People just pay those fortunate few who own cars one dollar per lap around abandoned lots, and then go take the driving test whenever they feel they’re ready, hitting the road with little experience. This, in part, accounts for the astronomical number of accidents, as well as the common sight of seeing more oncoming cars headed in the wrong direction than the right one!
General Paolino is a blind musical legend in South Sudan, whom locals speak of in the hushed, reverent tones reserved for the chosen few. He has written a wealth of standards for his countrymen, utilizing five different languages from the region. Throughout his nation’s 50-year civil war against its northern Arabic rulers, the black African southerners have found solace in Paolino’s chronicling of their struggles via songs such as “No Segregation,” that have earned him the title of “the blind Bob Marley.”
The night we first met, the General played with a bar band in a tiny and suffocating back room crammed with equipment and musicians. The ancient Peavey amps were stacked perilously high and cranked all the way up, while two young, scantily clad female backup singers were left without microphones, inaudible amidst the din. They were there more for appearance than sonic value, it seemed. Halting abruptly in the middle of only the second song, Paolino angrily fired the pre-teen drummer on the spot, and decided impulsively in that drunken moment that he wanted to track his record solo.
And so we did. We met the next day in an unfinished building at a construction site on the outskirts of town. Using a guitar pick that was hand cut out of a plastic bottle we salvaged, he played the battered, acoustic nylon-string he calls, “My only friend. My wife. My husband.”
It is hard to imagine what recording school could prepare one for the cavernous sonics of an unfurnished apartment built of cinder block, wood flooring, and glass. The bulldozers and dump trucks passing, circling, and backing up just outside the window—along with the chatter and laughter of dozens of workers and gatherers—didn’t help matters.
Mostly due to his visual limitations, but seemingly intensified by his inebriation and overall restless nature, Paolino routinely walloped the delicate, ribbon microphones in such way that could send a traditional audiophile into conniptions. The depth of his voice, though—its sandpapery vulnerability— could transcend most any limitations of equipment, as well as the irreversible technologically- impaired capabilities of this operator. When we were through with the hours of recording that were dominated more by his verbal rambling and rants than playing, Paolino spit in my hand and clasped it firmly in his. A dubious “blessing.”