Texto en español en Axxón: "La duna del 40º aniversario".
Traducido al inglés por Claudia De Bella.
The stage was ready and the grandstand had been set up two kilometers away from the epicenter. I’d always thought Grandfather Chiche had retired from business after that spectacular failure in the Nevada desert. But there he was, taking care of the last details and just a tick away from having everything ready for the performance.
Getting to that point hadn’t been easy, as you can imagine, with the natives threatening to sabotage the whole thing if we didn’t leave their sacred territories. And the government permissions, and the Customs Hell we’d been through in order to pass all that heavy equipment. And the water: getting hold of several million liters, not necessarily fresh. The basic problem is this kind of concert can’t be performed anywhere. So we go where the raw material is.
No, the old man had not retired; instead, he still followed the satellite reports and kept up with every newsletter related to the subject. That’s his life—and mine too. When we got the information, we hopped on the first plane to the African continent and there we were. In the Kalahari.
Imagine how long the journey took. At first, I thought Grandpa would be exhausted from jetlag, but he wanted to see the dune’s profile as soon as he got off the plane. We set off. We arrived at night.
The dune’s shape was quite good. I guessed the north wall had a slope of about thirty-five to forty degrees, and it was amazingly big. The team of workers was also there, waiting. They had already immobilized the dune with windtights and now they were moving the paraphernalia.
Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. At ten-thirty PM more equipment was brought: amplifiers, synthesizers, microphones, audio towers, sonic induction channels, fusion lasers, washers. Water, tons of water.
That was another source of argument with the natives, but Jamil, our foreman, had already parleyed with them, not for the first time.
“Three days,” Grandfather said. “That’s all we have.”
I must admit the old man is grumpy, but nobody (not even the board of directors at Magnacorp Entertainment) dares to contradict him: he is a dune master, and a really good one, probably the best of them all. In fact, his father invented this discipline.
That same night, while we were getting down the industrial laser, he called me and showed me the sketch in the padesigner.
“Aren’t we hurrying things up, Grandpa?”
“Yes, I’m sort of eager. Jamil has already made the 3D model of the dune and now we’re scanning the grains. Look.” He showed me six or seven three-dimensional images. “They are rounded, but not completely spherical; they have some small bulges. And their polishing level is optimum, just a little rough. The sound will be great.”
Jamil had scanned about five hundred pieces between 180 and 250 microns in diameter from the summit. Before sunrise, the expert system would take those data, multiply them to a frankly astronomical scale and develop a mathematical model of the dune’s top section (grain by grain) to let us know which frequencies and harmonics would make the most of our concert.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Making music with dunes.
“When shall we tune it?” I asked.
“When the sampling is over. In an hour or two, according to Jamil.”
The first step is to prepare the dune (“to tune the dune” in our jargon), and that means it must be washed. The wash involves a soft spraying of water (lots of water) that eventually makes the finer particles settle down. Doing so without crumbling the dune is an impressive engineering challenge, which requires the calculation and installation of drainage canals in very precise locations. At the same time, water is used to carve the sliding wall, until the dune’s flank reaches a thirty-four-degree slope. For this procedure, you need cranes and helicopters that hover well above the dune to avoid hindering the job.
A massive job, considering the concert never lasts more than fifteen minutes. Seven or eight, most likely. However, those scanty minutes are highly appreciated by millions of fans of this genre.
There’s something snobbish about all this, but I’ll never be caught admitting it in front of Grandpa. He is an artist and, at his age, the whims of fashion and the compelling prerogatives of show business do not apply to him anymore. I take charge of that.
Then there’s the accelerated drying of the dune. The Kalahari sun would take a couple of weeks to do it, but we don’t have that much time. We can dry a dune in twenty-four hours. Not my specialty, but part of the secret has to do with some additive in the washing water, some huge fans and dozens of solar convectors located in different spots around the dune. It’s practically an oven, and that’s all I can say. Galíndez is the one who really knows about it.
By the way, Juan Galíndez is also part of the group that negotiate with the Bushmen who want to throw us out. He’s been fascinated by the issue since he saw The Gods Must Be Crazy when he was a child. I picture him as a teenager, sitting in front of an encyclopedia and traveling millions of kilometers. He is the only one who feels any real empathy for these people and the only one with enough background to sort things out. It was Galíndez who told us that the dead spoke to the natives through the dunes. That he felt uneasy, washing and drying those dunes he knew the dead spoke through. He is a very sensitive man, I must admit.
The additive in the washing water has other functions too. During the sliding, the pressure of silica produces electrostatic charges in the poles of each grain. While they roll down to the base, the particles group up in filaments thirteen millimeters long (that’s the average in this area). Grandpa says the sound quality is somehow related to those filaments, so he uses the washing water to promote longer filaments (fifteen to eighteen millimeters). But I can’t explain the mechanism of those filaments, either.
Once the dune is dry, we proceed with the tuning itself. At this point, the dune master and the engineer have already completed the mathematical model and have played with it for a good couple of hours.
Pearson is the best guy for that job. Grandpa Chiche and Pearson met two months before the failed Nevada concert and worked quite hard for that show. I guess they were yearning for revenge.
After the tuning, the scratching plates are built; that’s what we use the industrial lasers for. The plates are thin walls made of melted sand, sometimes no thicker than a single grain, which are meant to stabilize the dune as well as to produce an explosive sound during the concert, a kind of high-pitched blast that contrasts with the sliding’s low-frequency reverberations. When the show begins, those walls are knocked down by high-frequency waves.
Then it’s just designing the surround effect, so that the echoes, and the echoes of echoes, and the synthesized feedback, and the harmonics, and the collapse of the whole dune reach the audience from different places at the same time. This requires the installation of hundreds of microphones, amplifiers and several other devices of all kinds and sizes.
And that’s it.
Three days of very hard work, but they would soon bear their fruit.
I’d like to tell you everything was in due order, but that wasn’t true. Lucio, Magnacorp´s Security Manager, had told us the natives were very angry. So we were working against the clock in more than one sense.
As I said, these Bushmen are troublemakers. And that’s strange, because they are an essentially peaceful tribe. According to some stories, they can even communicate with lions. Obviously, show businessmen are less diplomatic than lions.
On several occasions, they had politely told the white men to go away, to leave them alone, but now something had broken between them and us. They had been persecuted some decades before and maybe that’s why they became less polite.
Even so, this belief in dead people speaking through the dunes is not that popular around here. Galíndez has told me it’s related to a story from distant times, about the Moon dying and resurrecting and teaching others to do the same. These people think that the dead will come back to life, as the Moon does every night. There’s also a hare involved, but I have no idea what its role in the story is. The thing is a few of them believe there’s a land where the dead dwell— under the sand. That includes the Moon, which cyclically sinks in the sand at the end of its life. From that point, it only takes one step to start believing the dead speak through the dunes.
If I were asked to explain how Jamil and Galindez can understand these people, I wouldn’t know what to say. The natives speak some version of the Khoisan language (with all its clics, clocs and tics) and a few of them babble some English. That should be enough to understand them. The Dutch who got to the Cape in the XVIIth century had less than that.
Whatever the trouble with the Bushmen might be, it was irrelevant now. The guests to the concert would arrive in an hour, and forty minutes later everything would be over: the audience would have seen and heard the concert and we would have recorded the whole thing for the millions of fans who would later reproduce the experience in their the home-theatres.
All those fans, willing to pay a whole lot of money for just a few minutes of music. Grandpa envisioned the commercial vein of these rumbling dunes forty years ago, and as he was also fond of experimental music… Add it up: one and one makes a net profit of a fifth of a million per show, to be shared between the master and his assistant. The transportation of machines, the equipment and the fieldwork are much more expensive than that, but once the DVD+ copies are distributed the profit for Magnacorp usually ranges from medium to high. It depends on how long the collapse lasts and how inspired Grandpa is.
Some of the people coming to the concert today would later receive —at their own home— a golden case containing a DVD+ with the natural and remixed versions of The 40th Anniversary Dune concert. It was Grandpa’s idea to call it that way.
The windtights had just been opened and the last-minute sound tests were about to begin. This is usually done a short while before the helicopter carrying the audience arrives. It’s a “dry test.” A series of checklist-style verifications, and a couple of high- and low-frequency emissions that the audio towers throw over the grandstand. Grandpa was already there, with Jamil and Pearson. Judith, the sound engineer, was here, navigating the controls, checking the monitors and repeating the magic word every two seconds or so: “Okay.” She controlled the concert’s heart and that heart was already busy at work.
We just needed an audience.
“Do you read me, Jorge?”
“There’s a guy prowling around.”
“Don’t know. I’ll go see. Just in case he…”
Somebody moved behind me. A muffled stup, a long thorn into Judith’s neck and her head falling forward, hitting the control panel heavily.
While I rushed to the engineer, I heard the unmistakable screech of the scratching plates breaking down. The safety device in the start button had broken under the weight of Judith’s head. The show had begun.
And nobody was recording it.
I tried to find the rec button in the console, but it was nowhere to be seen. There were five panels and a central brain to command everything. The command screen was not very user-friendly.
Wasn’t there an abort button?
Obviously, there wasn’t. But it wouldn’t have been useful, either. I had two workers take care of Judith and stepped back a few meters to assess the damage.
The dune was starting to collapse.
“What’s going on?” Grandpa yelled.
I didn’t know what to answer. There was no need for an answer, really. The plates were cracking patently, almost constantly. And the sonic inductors were already inducing the tremor in the ground, a brrrummm that was felt in your feet and thorax.
“What’s going on, Jorge?”
It was like dominoes falling in a sequence, one on top of the other, and there was nothing my people or I could do about it.
Then came the bells from the south. Or maybe I should say cymbals or xylophones—thousands of them. The grains were falling in waves, a mass of voices overflowing from the summit. The synthesizers caught that sound and launched a perfect polyphony that sounded like a choir of angels sighing.
I was running to Jamil and Grandpa.
The west responded. Now it was the sound of gravely whispered words, a conversation between giants that, with the help of the amplifiers, turned into an urgent wailing sprinkled with all kinds of rings, clangs and tiny snores that lingered for a minute or more.
Then the same thing, but an octave higher and coming from the east.
And the screams from the south, in a seemingly endless crescendo.
And the echoes.
And the steady pounding that weakened your muscles and set your adrenaline on fire.
The last plate went down with a terrifying blast. The voices got louder. It was like a question— and now what? But the answer didn’t take long. The echo feedback came from every place at the same time, all at once, neatly filtered and equalized. At this point, the audience usually feels they are not sitting outdoors: there’s no air and the echoes bounce against walls that can’t be seen or touched. It’s a flood of sounds which are subtly elaborated so that the trained ear can tell one from the other, yet can’t avoid drowning. And after that, the finale: the dune’s natural, muffled twang, with no synthesizers or inductors or equalizers. Amplified, but just barely.
This was our finale, too.
Judith was alive, but unconscious. Jamil shouted, calling the guards, as I continued racing towards Grandpa, who was sitting in the grandstand.
I got there a few minutes later, exhausted to the bone. Grandpa was in the grandstand, alone. He wasn’t moving; his head was down, his hands covering his face.
A devastating snapshot.
I said nothing. He must have heard me pant, because he looked up. He took a second to recognize me.
“Could you hear that? Could you?” he asked.
“Yes, Grandpa. They’ve already sent the helicopter back; nothing could be recorded. A flop.”
“Flop? It was incredible. Colossal!”
For a short moment, I thought he’d gone insane, and when he started to describe every fragment of the concert I almost called a doctor. He was crying, but not out of anger.
He was in ecstasy.
“It was a great moment for music,” he said at last.
“But it wasn’t recorded!” I screamed.
I wanted to say something else, but I realized it was useless. He had the look of a satisfied man. More than satisfied. I knew he would soon announce his retirement from business.
Just then, Pearson came back and took Grandpa away.
“Colossal, Jorge!” Grandpa shouted at me.
I sat on a stand and watched the mess. Nobody knew what to do. Everybody looked stunned. They couldn’t believe all those days of constant work had been in vain.
“We’ve caught him.”
Jamil, Lucio and the other two men were bringing the saboteur. Lucio was holding up the man’s blowgun.
“This thing is thirty cents, and he screwed up a million-and-a-half investment with it. It’s madness.”
“Are you happy?” I asked the native in English. I didn’t think he would understand Spanish. “Are you happy, now that you’ve ruined everything?”
He obviously was.
“Answer the question!” Lucio insisted, and he let go of the native so that he could come near.
He was a short, skinny guy, a Bushman. He had a slightly swollen stomach, a leathery skin, and most of his teeth had dropped off.
But he was smiling.
He might have shaken my hand, as he had seen the white men did, if I had let him.
“They have spoken,” he said in perfect English. “You knew they would. Our dead have spoken today, and you and the old man always knew they would.”
Jamil sensed my killer rage and, before I could reach for the prisoner’s throat, he grabbed his arm and almost dragged him away.
“Thank you,” the Bushman shouted. “You knew and we didn’t know…”
“Go to hell!”
And they left. And I didn’t want to talk to anybody else anymore.
A short while ago I cried my brains out, so now I feel better.
Several legends are likely to be woven about The 40th Anniversary Dune. That’s show business. There will be those who’ll claim to have seen and heard everything from the air, and those who’ll trade bootlegs of a recording that was never made.
That’s not enough to comfort me.
A million-and-a-half investment by Magnacorp Entertainment, and a labor force of more than two hundred working in the desert, and twenty professionals from different fields, and hundreds of tons of equipment, and many hours of processing by expert systems and simulators, and all that oversized deployment… for something that was thoroughly enjoyed by only two spectators: my grandfather and a native.
They must be the luckiest men on Earth.
Cuento de CF ganador del Premio Axxón