Allow us to present to you Mr. Bob Mack. Bob is a Philadelphia based musician and vocalist. In addition to Bob's artistic talents he's a great interlocutor and a very enjoyable person to be around. Bob can carry a conversation on any subject, but more impressive is his ability to listen and to respond, if needed. Bob's peaceful demeanor and natural inquisitiveness has allowed him to get the utmost satisfaction from his travels. He can connect with billionaire businessmen and bohemian street artists alike. For many he may be the ideal travel companion: I remember cruising around Philly in Bob's vintage Jaguar as he asked me very thoughtful questions about my time in Korea. Not only does Bob appreciate the exotic, he also seems so well grounded that he can find solace anywhere, whatever his surroundings.
Nubian Drifter: So what has been the motivation for some of your travels?
Bob Mack: First off, God given gift of artistry and creative expression is music for me— it has primarily always been the music that has taken me in the circumstance to experience the travel that I did. Going over to where you are now [Korea], was a group of guys that I grew up with. I spent 16 years with them. We wound up being contracted by the Department of Defense to perform for the military in Korea and Okinawa and Hawaii, The Philippines and Germany. It was the greatest thing to do something that you really love to do and be able to go and see the world and express yourself to new cultures of people. So it has always been the music primarily. Obviously, the music has afforded me some financial ability to take other trips and things like that in my spare time. But primarily it has been the music.
ND: What is an memorable travel experience from earlier in your career?
BM: The first time I went to an island, I was just looking at pictures that one of the guys in the group sent me from...we were in Philadelphia we went out with the Delphonics and it must have been... like about, somewhere below zero. Snow and sleety rain was coming down like you could not believe. To leave all of that...and within an hour or so, be in 85 degree weather. I just could not imagine anything that dramatic happening and changing so quickly.
Korea was another place that was amazing. Coming from Hawaii, I mean coming to Korea from Alaska. It was at least 15 degrees below, if my memory serves me correctly, and to see Korean people in shorts and no shirts playing tennis. Or to experience for the first time seeing a Korean person; you know how they stoop. See most Koreans wash their hair and see the steam come off of their heads like here in Philadelphia you see a homeless person on a heater vent. Or the beauty of how the land is sculpted.
ND: You seem to bring good energy wherever you go. How much do you think that plays apart into having a good experience?
BM: My experiences have taught me and the people in my life have shared with me over my life, it is always a great attitude that determines our outlook. In the very best of circumstances and even in the very worst of them. It’s not so much what happens. It’s usually wise to think, “How do we deal with it?”. Are we going to smash out or compound the problem by having no rationality to deal with it productively, or are we going to calmly assess what has happened and try to make an intelligent decision about how we go forward.
BM: My perspective has given me the joy, even in the negative, not only what I have seen outside of my life, but also in those things that happen to be personal.
ND: Do you think that you’ve gotten a different vibe because of your status as an African American musician?
BM: No, what I find is that every place except America, the reception for entertainers has always been, in my experience, so genuine and open that is just been such a great welcoming into these communities.
Americans, we are so jaded to a lot of things. But entertainment and art, in most places in the world is so revered that all they want to do is be a part of you, hang around you, get a chance to be participants in the performance that you do. It’s just great. I’ve never been in the case where to perform outside of the United States here that you have any anxiety or whatever.
ND: Tell us about when you were out in LA.
ND: You helped Omar Bongo [President of Gabon 1967-2009] and his wife at the time move. Did you even know who Omar Bongo was before that job?
BM: I definitely didn’t have any immense knowledge of him, but I was made aware during the accepting of the circumstance to help to pack up and load up their things, who they were. I was informed that he was the president of an area of Africa and that we - Lester Mornay, was Sammy Davis Jr.’s valet and the lady that I was seeing at the time, her brother, was the publicist for Motown. His name was Bob Jones. Bob Jones and Lester Mornay were friends.
So Bob suggested to Lester to ask me to help with this moving situation. So I suggest, we went to their mansion in Beverly Hills and we had been introduced to some of the household staff. We wound up going to get the largest U-haul that was available at the time. And we proceeded to load up; we packed up everything that they wanted to take back to Africa.
What we did was I think it was about two days, we worked filling up this U-haul. We went to supermarkets, and I think we did somewhere like $2,000 or $3,000 worth of groceries we were sent out to get. The family that was going to various clothing, department stores and buying things they might take back to Africa.
So after we got done getting all of that loading of those couple of days, we went to the airport where they were going to leave from. The Bongos had chartered Elvis Presley’s Lisa Maria Jet to transport them and there was a cargo plane. Inside the cargo plane, they had a Citroën, Maserati and a Stutz Bearcat and they were covered up and obviously before I had gotten there filling the cargo plane up. So for the duration of that stretch of night, we proceeded to pack all of the things that we had moved from the mansion into the cargo plane.
So, it comes to be somewhere right around sun-up and the car brings Mr. and Mrs. Bongo to the airport and we were just getting finished. So she proceeded and I’ll never forget this, there was a new leather suitcase, it may have been about 2 ½, maybe 3 feet long and maybe about 2 feet wide, and she had a servant to lift it up and she unzipped it and from top to bottom was $100 bills.
Mrs. Bongo paid us, well she paid Lester and he paid me, out of that suitcase. Now, one thing that I will never forget, it was not an average person’s jet. This plane was, I mean I’ve been on a lot of planes in my career, but I’ve never been on anything as personalized as this was. The carpet was thick in that plane. It was green, you could hardly stand up it. When you first came in the plane, there was the area, the doorway and you would come into the living room area and at each four corners that they had cordoned off in this sections of the plane, there was a Sony Trinitron television and these wonderful leather chairs and a sofa along the window.
The next compartment was just a pleasant sitting area and then beyond that was a sitting area and bedroom with private bath. Gold fixtures for all of the bathroom fixtures. I was just amazed. I thought it was amazing. And then when I wound up actually going to Africa, it was not actually Gabon, but just seeing the region of the world for the first time, it was just kind of brought it all home to me. About some of the things I had misconceptions of, that the American, you know. All-in-all it was a great experience, I got paid a lot of money.
ND: That’s always good.
BM: It worked out very well.
ND: Did it shift your perspective at all on Africa?
BM: To imagine that an individual, what I had heard was that he was one that was pillaging the country, stealing the country's money, on the negative side. But I didn't really put too much emphasis on that part of it. All I knew was that I had a job and tried to do a job well.
ND: Exactly. Now take me to Nigeria. Was that your first trip to Africa?
BM: Yeah, Nigeria was great. The situation came about... this guy in my neighborhood. Louis Smallwood. Louis Smallwood was a tutor and he worked, he tutored Ricky Schroeder, Gary Coleman, quite a number of the Hollywood child stars and because of our relationship as neighbors growing up, we were both in California.
He was working for NBC or Paramount, or one of those studios and he approached me and said, “Bob,” he says, “Bob, my friend wants to start bringing American entertainers over to Africa, do you know of any groups?". I said, “yeah, my group”. We were called The LIFE Group. That was a group I had been with for 16 years so I said, “yeah sure I do.” But in addition to my group, I had these other group of guys I was in production with; we would go and rehearse and we would work with a lot of different people. So I went and presented it to my group, who did not want to go. I couldn’t understand why. I made almost $5,000 for 5 days of work, but I was actually privileged to stay over there for a month.
All expenses were paid. We had drivers and servants and every meal was catered and I didn’t know that until after I got over there. But my group didn’t want to go so what I did was take the other group of guys that I was working with.
When we went, it was during their 20th year of independence, so we worked at the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan, we did the national theater and sports arena while we were over there.
We lived on the estate of the family the Bruces. The Bruces family of dignitaries were making at that particular time over $76M a year. They owned offices, supermarkets, farms and newspapers, television station. and one of the great things that we were privileged to do while over there, Mohamed Ali’s last fight, they closed up the television station and took us so we could watch it via satellite.
They had parties for us with dignitaries from all over and one of the major entertainers, they had a play going around the country now called Fela. He was a very powerful political spokesperson for some causes that were over there. He was a great entertainer as well. I got a chance to meet him; generals and stuff and the like.
The thing that was the most amazing about it was landing there and being in a place – for the first time in my life – where everything was black: radio, television, newspapers, advertisements. The only Caucasians we saw were the ones that were invited to the estate and the ones that we saw at the country club. We realized that you could get nothing done without some sort of bribery. There was someone at the airport who wanted to help us [with our luggage] and some soldiers came up in a military car and almost took his head off. To get to the airport and see armed guards. All-in-all a great experience. I got a chance to experience something that I had never heard of. I mean, we all watched the series Roots, but it didn’t have the impact that it had on my when I finally went to that country.
To be a black man from America, to go to a place where we were supposed to all have come from and to be called master was beyond belief for me. To be told that if you go out shopping, especially amongst the people, not like if you're going to a department store or something like that, but they have a lot of crafts in there that you are never to pay the first thing that they ask.
We were taken shopping to Victoria House, it's what it was called, and there was a whole host of...I bought hand carved chess with elephants and palm trees on it and proceeded to buy ivory and animal skin dangles, and a whole bunch of other things. To have another black male on his knees calling me master, begging me to give him another opportunity to barter with me, or to have servants at the estate we lived on, or somebody to be a driver, are very different for me.
ND: What was your experience with the bodies on the road in Nigeria?
BM: I don’t know. It was disturbing.
ND: First, what was it? What did you see?
BM: I saw dead men lying in the road. There were two groups of us that we were both routed differently to arrive at our destination. So some of ... two or three of the other guys and the crew had come later, a day or so. So, we went to pick them up and they too saw the same sight, because, the understanding we were given is that if anybody comes and gets caught assisting these people that are in the road, they could be suspected of being the ones who had something to do with it. But yeah, that’s what I saw.
ND: That's pretty heavy.
ND: Do you feel that as a musician when you’re touring to different places, do you ever find yourself becoming jaded?
BM: No, I have this child-like sense about me. That everything that is new or feels kind of new, even though, I’ve done this for a long time, I still have a sense of wonderment about it because with people and instruments, there can always be some kind of nuance or subtlety, it doesn’t matter whether you're working with people who only read the notes off the paper, or you are with people who are much more improvisational. A slight variance in the person’s finger movements can change a feeling. So, I’m just in love with the fact that there are people who do this. My openness about, that is something that I try to hold on to.
ND: Okay. And one final question what is your travel philosophy?
BM: Be prepared. If you are going in and out of countries, make sure that you are aware of where you are going to be going, where you will be staying, any contacts. That you are a visitor, or a guest in these places and that you should, if you are unaware, ask. Because I found that cultures that have established themselves over years and millennia and over time have their particular sensibilities. You can come and be disrespectful and not know.
So just being aware and prepared to documentation wise and just so that you can have the very best experience possible. My leaving Africa was that I stayed one day over my Visa and all of the other guys were across the rail where they were on their way to the plane and I was detained. One day beyond the date of my Visa. Now because the Bruce family was very powerful and very rich, then Ben Murray Bruce who was our host for the most part, was able to do whatever it was necessary in order to get me out of that situation.
ND: Absolutely, I agree. I think the more prepared you are with things like that, it gives you more, it can give you peace of mind. It can take a burden off of you.
BM: So… yeah. So… again, to answer your questions, be prepared: passports and documents and things like that should be always secure to the point that you know where they are. And I honestly think it just makes for a better experience.