Thursday, June 15, 2006
My dear friend Kufaru Mouton has died. I found out via an email before going to teach my 8 AM composition class. My students were putting on their best pathetic faces (they have an essay due tomorrow), and I wanted to shake their shoulders and tell them to get over themselves. Instead, I gave them a handout and instructions for peer review and cried my way back to my office, where I am trying to write about Kufaru.
I met Kufaru through another New Orleans friend who has,as they say here in NOLA, "passed on." Sam and I were living together and we both had a fondness for the bar I would later manage, The Dragon's Den. We went nearly every Friday to hear live music. Kufaru played in a reggae band called The Revealers. Actually, I don't know if it was Sam who introduced us--Kufaru and I would later have many, many friends in common because of our separate but intersecting roles in the New Orleans music scene--but I do remember that after Sam's suicide, Kufaru was very distraught. One night Los Vecinos was playing and Kufaru was sitting in on percussion. That night, Kufaru and I (perhaps having had one too many Johnny Walker Blacks [Kufaru] and tequilas [me]) closed down the bar together. Both he and I felt sure that we saw Sam dancing in the corner.
In our early days of friendship, we would hang out in his apartment above Checkpoint Charlie's, listen to music, smoke, and talk. He worked too hard--as did Chuck, and my dear old friend, Willie Metcalf, but he HAD to work. In addition to playing percussion in several bands, he cleaned the bar filth at Checkpoint for discounted rent, and later moved equipment at the House of Blues. He was tired often, and said so, and he made self-deprecating comments about being old. On his 50th birthday, I remember thinking that he looked much, much older than 50. I made him a carrot cake with cungas on in that said, "Happy Birthday, Knucklehead!" I can't remember now why I called him my knucklehead, but there it is.
It was difficult for me to remain close to him, though, because of his perpetually hitting on me. His advances were always harmless, so to speak, and I turned him down gently, but persistently, and I think I grew tired of his backrubs that sometimes wandered. I felt adored by him, and I knew he would not hurt me, but I hung out with him less, as a result.
But our spending less time together meant that our meetings were happy ones. I fed him Johnny Walker so he would close with me at the Den, and he told me stories about being underpaid, about his plans. He wanted to be able to support himself with his music.
It must have been four years ago, maybe three, when Kufaru had a heart attack and a stroke. I called him in the hospital and he asked that I not visit. This vigorous man--once a professional ballet dancer, later a soldier, now a working musician in New Orleans--seemed to know that he would have to slow down, and he didn't want those of us who knew him so alive and so active to see it happen.
The next time I saw him he was noticeably weaker. The House of Blues covered some of his medical expenses, but the stress of the hospital bills--and later of all of the medication he had to take--had a remarkable impact on him. He never really recovered. He had to stop drinking, which was really hard for him, and he could no longer perform his duties at the HOB because of the strain. He still called himself my knucklehead, and when I saw him and asked how he was he still said, as always, "I'm better now!"
I will remember perhaps best of all a cruise we went on together to Mexico. He was playing with the cruiseship's house band, Los Vecinos, whose lead singer, Manny, was an obnoxious prick. I think I endeared myself to Kufaru by standing up to Manny. Manny has a picture of me that he later said was "his favorite." In it, my face is obscured by a big ol' bird--the middle finger. I remember sitting on the balcony of a bar in Tulum, eating ceviche, drinking Sol, and telling Kufaru to quit staring at my boobs. I made him laugh, and his admiration, even when it was more than what I wanted, made me feel appreciated and loved. It wasn't just my boobs is why. I could shoot birds, burp, cuss like a sailor, call him my knucklehead, behave badly, and regret and he forgave me for my flaws. He loved me for them, I think, and I, him. (But what were his flaws? Loving too much? Working too hard? Not wanting to stop doing the salsa? Drinking?)
Kufaru was life, life, life to me. He was one of my first and best friends in New Orleans. I hope that wherever he has "passed on" to, I'll one day see him there. Him and Sam. Kufaru will have endless salsa partners, Sam will have decided to live, instead, and I will love them both: my knuckleheads. When we see each other, we will say, "I'm better, now," and it will be true.
I will miss you, Kufaru. I miss you, already. Here's to endless afternoons, high-paying gigs, and one last dance.