Monday, February 28, 2011

Breathing Room


“What will you come away with from our four days together?” I asked the six teachers I had worked with. The most common answer? “Give kids some room to figure things out.” 

This is every schoolteacher’s challenge. For all sorts of reasons, we want the kids to get it right and get it right the first time. So we jump in too soon and correct them or tell them the answer or reprimand them and rob them of the opportunity to work out in their own way and at their own time, the only strategy that really helps them to learn and remember. In my classes that the teachers observed, they noticed how sparing I was with corrections and how much time and space I gave the kids. Of course, I was watching them closely to see when (or if) their “aha!” moment would come and was happy to give some helpful hints. But as long as they were engaged and clearly working, I was happy to let them do so. And it paid off. By the end, they either sounded and looked great or were well on their way. And their constant affirmations as they skipped out the door—“That was fun! Will you be here tomorrow? Thank you!” was their way of saying that I understood what they needed to learn and how they needed to learn it.

After the classes, I came back to my hotel and opened my e-mail to a note from one of the teachers from my recent Tokyo workshop:

I just wanted to let you know that your time in Tokyo is still lingering... at least in my classes.... I think teaching in relative isolation with little interaction with other music teachers, and with constant pressure from administration to document curriculum/goals with students.... AND with only seeing the kids once a week, I somehow get caught up in 'getting through' the lessons (i.e. covering the curriculum) and forget to take time with the "Romance" part of the lesson and let the kids just enjoy playing with/creating the rhythms, melodies and movement -- especially as the kids get older.

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks again for the gentle reminder to bring 'romance' back into my classes.... The lessons are much more enjoyable for me and for the kids (tho I'm not sure the admin will be so pleased if we don't get quite as far with the curriculum!)....  But ultimately I think the kids not being rushed through, have a better chance of absorbing the main focus of the lessons as well... which of course was to your point... “

Bingo! And it’s clear that today’s climate is more and more obsessed with the quick right answer than the slow intriguing question, making it difficult for even experienced teachers (as my friend above is) to keep their passion alive. The children ARE the curriculum. Our job is not to cover curriculum but uncover the child’s promise. I’m a stickler for a coherent curriculum, but only as a mere outline and guideline to focus our teaching, with lots of breathing room for kids and teacher alike. The main curricular goals are few and cogent and the point is always to dig for deeper understanding and fly to greater heights in the imagination.

Today I visited my former SFS student’s class at the Singapore Canadian School and sang for an hour with her first grade. An hour. And we were just getting warmed up. A few weeks back in Tokyo, one of the adult students asked the most intriguing question of my workshop career; “What do you call your class?” Anyone witnessing this singing time would make a case for the following titles: Pronouns. Rhyming Skills. Nutrition. Types of Work. Opposites. Interpretive Fiction. Family Planning. Geography. Foreign Language. Math. The Natural World. Breath Control. Postural Integration. Memory Skills. Attention Skills. Community Building. Emotional Integration. Social Harmony. Dance. Oh, and one more—Music.

Had you visited that class, you might be one inch closer to understanding what a tragic oversight it is when we—and that “we” often includes music teachers—fail to understand how powerful a tool music can be for our children’s full development and blossoming. The kids were happy, fully engaged and absorbing a great deal of information through the artful combination of rhythms and tones, stored in their muscle memory and associated forever in their heart with pleasure and joy ( a surefire method for improving memory). I’m working as hard as I can to spread the word, but it’s far from enough.

Meanwhile, one little boy, as little boys (and some girls) are inclined to do, thought it would be cute to sing out loud when it was time in the song to “sing silently,” (ie keep the song in their head while they continued with motions). I stopped and gave a general reminder about what it means to sing silently, but since the kids laughed when he did it before, he was inspired to do it again. So I stopped again and said, “You know, in my school, sometimes some kids think it’s funny to do the opposite of what I say, but it ruins the song for everyone else. So do you know what I do with those kids?” A serious silence. “Well, let’s just say they get very lonely sitting away from the group and very sad that they can’t sing any more songs that day. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen here!” A big smile and a lingering eye contact with that boy. We tried it again—and it worked.

So it is possible to be clear and strict and command a sense of authority for the preservation of social harmony with a sense of humor, a sense of compassion for error and a quality of love. Singapore, take note! Perhaps the difference between a six-year old boy at singing time and an adult drug trafficker is one of degree, not kind. Who knows? But I bet a culture teaching children through positive examples how to negotiate the conversation between individual expression and social equilibrium, between human foible and human achievement, could reduce the issues we’re facing in adult society without the threat of caning or death as the prime motivator. As a teacher, I certainly hope so.

So breathing room. Give kids time and space to work things out, within the boundaries of reasonable safety and the common good. You’ll notice a change in the atmosphere, a change in your own ability to relax and enjoy the process. And now, a day of my own breathing room as I head out to Hong Kong.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Remember to Flush—Or Else!


Last night I went to meet a school family now living in Singapore in the neighborhood called Little India. Little India, indeed! An elaborate Hindu temple right on the street, a simple restaurant light on d├ęcor, but heavy on delicious dhosa. The streets filled with the buzz of people, Indian pop music playing (somehow much more palatable than the Western disco fare), and electricity in the air. A nice contrast to the mall area, a human proportion to buildings and though heavy on the food side, light on the sex and power (see Chutes and Ladders entry).

After dinner, went to a Balinese gamelan rehearsal run by a Canadian woman with a mix of men and women typically Singaporean—that is to say, a mixture. After the striking homogeneity of Korea, Japan and South India, Singapore is its own unique blend of culture—some 75% Chinese, 14% Malayasian, 8% Indian Tamils and 3% others. Over 40% of Singaporeans are foreign-born and the city has four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay (the national anthem is in Malay) and Tamil. Despite Little India and a neighborhood called Chinatown, there seems to be a fairly harmonious blend of culture, many different ethnicities living, working and studying together—as in the gamelan group. Likewise, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are amply represented (my driver Ali is a Chinese Muslim and we passed a sign today advertising an Islamic Montessori School).

Fun to play a bit in the gamelan and realized it has been 25 years since I used to play with Gamelan Sekar Jaya! I tried to learn the melody of the piece they were working on, a sequence some 64 beats long that had just one short fragment that repeated. I was working hard and it reminded me just how elaborate and complex this music is, all the more impressive because none of it is traditionally written down. The faster kotekan elaborating patterns are exercises in mathematical complexity that are mind-boggling.
I remember doing okay as a member in Sekar Jaya, but I don’t think I have the true gamelan-mind. But it was a lively group rehearsal and fun to be back in the mix of folks enjoying each other’s company and the pleasure of playing music.

Today was my last day at the school, worked with kids all day. The highlight was working with the jazz band, getting them away from their music playing one-note riffs while I backed them with some 12-bar blues. We choreographed some Count Basie-style movements while playing and they were in heaven. I gave homework to check out the Count on Youtube and forget about the Lady (Gaga) for one night.

In another class, the kids formed groups of seven to create a simple dance and one kid refused to join. The single whispered word from the teacher—“autistic”—turned my reaction around from “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Join the group!” to noticing him in the corner by the bass drum and bringing a mallet to him. “Here’s your part—two beats when everyone claps.” He was in heaven. That’s all it takes—enough compassion and understanding that not everyone can follow the main plan, so instead of dismissing them, find out where and how they can contribute.

And speaking of following social ethics, I asked about kids in high school here experimenting with drugs in a society like Singapore. Apparently, there is some testing done within the school and kids are immediately kicked out and sent out of the country. Singapore is indeed what most would call a repressive society—one writer described it as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” 400 people were hanged between 1991 and 2004 for drug trafficking, many crimes are punished with caning, and minor offenses can include failing to flush toilets, possessing pornography, selling chewing gum and carrying durians on mass transit (look up durians on Google if you already don’t know about them!). But Singapore also has one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes in the world. Most Singaporeans are glad to be protected from the havoc, violence and harm that drug trafficking causes. When you see what is happening in Mexico, it makes you pause and wonder. There’s something to be said for clarity—“Hey! We’re serious about this. Pay attention. Choose wisely or face the consequences.” 

Well, too big a topic to get into here—I’m busy enough trying to remember to flush the toilet. And a little nervous that someone on the bus might plant a durian in my backpack. 

Tomorrow, Hong Kong.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chutes and Ladders


Trapped with me at a restaurant in Sri Lanka with slow service and no books or playing cards, my daughters agreed to listen to my short talk on the Hindu chakras without too much eye-rolling. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying an elaborate and eloquent spiritual science, but my “Chakras for Dummies” interpretation helps me understand a bit better how this world actually works. Not stuck at a table waiting for food, you, the reader, have the option to click off and I will never know. But bear with me for a moment—you might find something interesting.

The short version is that we have seven energy centers that ascend up the spine. I’ll skip the fancy terminology, associated colors and other details, but suffice it to say that the first three are located below the belt, as it were, and in ascending order have to so with food, sex and power. They’re hardwired into our system, require no energy to access and were as active for Gandhi, Einstein and Mother Teresa as they are for Donald Trump, Brittney Spears and Chuck Norris. They are our instinctual life, the things we need for physical survival that we share in common (with our own weird permutations) with all animal life. They are given to us for free.

The next four require some effort and directed will to cultivate and develop. The Heart Chakra is our capacity to feel emotion and aim it towards empathy, compassion, caring and affection. “All you need is love” and “My religion is kindness” are Heart chakra mission statements. The Throat Chakra is our ability to express ourselves with articulation and eloquence, particular through the voice in poetry, good conversation, song and music. The sword of the raw power chakra is now the pen, the like-totally-awesome or #%$&&@ piece of #% crude language is elevated to the precision of the poet or eloquence of the orator. The Brow Chakra or Third Eye, is the place of insight and intuition, the shift from studying about the world to studying the self. “Know thyself” is a good mantra for this Chakra. And finally, the Crown Chakra is the seat of all consciousness and the place where we identify with all sentient beings and merge with all things. “No thyself” is the motto of this endgame chakra.

Remember the game Chutes and Ladders? The whole deal is that to grow into the promise of our humanity or yet higher into our spiritual nature is an ascending process that requires constant effort and will. All the elevators and escalators are shut down, you have to walk up those stairs by yourself. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” is one of many images of that journey. But being who we are, we constantly slip and slide back down the chutes and then have to renew the climb. My childhood game Chutes and Ladders really came from an older Indian one called Snakes and Ladders that was depicting the journey of reincarnation and the attempt to get off of that wheel by arriving at that last square at the top (the crown chakra).

“So what’s the point here, Doug?” I imagine the impatient reader wondering. “What does this have to do with your time in Singapore?” Only this. Tonight, left to myself after an inspiring day of working with the music teachers of the Singapore American School and two wonderful classes of kids, I set out from the hotel to see what’s out there on Orchard Road. And though I expected what I found, it was more unsettling after the time in India and Sri Lanka. A combination of Las Vegas, Times Square and Disneyland, the Malls are enormous and relentless. Where there were once coconut palms and the stars above, there is mega-store after mega-store with all the big brand names selling food, clothes, electronics and what-have-you. Without the presence of animals to charm us, the human body becomes the focus and after the downplay of sexuality I found in India and Sri Lanka, now the pants are tight, the skirts are short, the lace is frilly—not to mention the constant alluring imagery to sell products and the actual adult sex shops. Very bad and very loud Western pop music is pumped everywhere, lights are bright and blaring and the people are—well, eating, displaying themselves, shopping. Food. Sex. Power.

Nothing new. I get it. I live in it. But having been away from it all for two weeks, I feel how much energy is pumped into keeping us low on the consciousness scale, magnifying these chakras a thousand-fold with super-sizes and mega-volume, feeding our lower instincts, keeping culture—whose job it is to raise us higher—down at the bottom of the board until that is what defines us, what we identify with. It keeps us addicted to consumption, obsessed with our looks and weight, fascinated with the lives of the “stars” and far from the possibilities of our own promise. I see Justin Beiber’s book in Borders, a guy already giving us his life story at 16-years old because of pop culture’s insatiable hunger for the next superstar to distract us from our own beauty.

Meanwhile, I go to school each day and no matter where the school or what the names of the kids or teachers are, do my little part to show them the miracle they are and the joy of sharing a community of miraculous beings through our efforts to express ourselves eloquently, imaginatively and joyfully. Working with the kids today felt like rolling a six to get up the ladder. Walking in the Mall, I landed on that long slide down.

But tomorrow is another day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Spiritual Traffic Direction


The Greek gods were constantly intervening in the affairs of humans and causing havoc. The Old Testament God was sending floods and asking for sacrifices, the Catholic God checking on the state of our sinful thoughts and behaviors. Buddha has his back turned to us, meditating for the liberation of all beings. And the Hindu gods? They’re directing traffic.

How else to account for the miraculous absence of constant accidents driving in India? It seems to be illegal, or at least unethical, to stay behind the vehicle in front, no matter how comfortable a speed they’re driving, without passing. Likewise against the law to drive for more than 30 seconds without honking your horn. At the intersection? Why wait for a moment to enter the stream? Just hold your nose, jump in and hope that everyone else will swerve to avoid you. While we in the so-called “first world” countries follow a tightly choreographed pattern—stay in your lane (that’s what those white lines mean), pass only when necessary and then with a turn signal, obey traffic lights and stop signs, honk only in emergency, the driving ethos in India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Java (and realistically, here the Buddhist deities, Jesus and Allah must spend some time directing traffic on top of their other duties) is to enter the dance with your intuition cranked up high, alert, responsive and weaving in and out like a bee circling flowers. One style is like the tightly conceived and executed football play, the other like the free flow of the basketball team looking for the openings. It’s utterly insane and sometimes nerve-wracking and sometimes quite beautiful.

These were my thoughts as I stepped into the auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) to ride to the airport in Colombo. Some fifty feet down the road, I saw my first minor accident, a bicyclist who had been tapped by a motorcycle and fell to the street (the motorcycle turned around to see how he was). Further down the road, my tuk-tuk driver came one inch away from nicking another bicyclist and stopped one foot short of a pedestrian. The thought crossed my mind that the gods were sleeping today (or perhaps distracted talking on their cell phones?). And at just that moment, as my tuk-tuk passed a bus, we were struck by a car from behind and I lurched forward towards the Jesus Never Fails sign my driver had posted. Not a devastating rear-ender (we were both driving the same direction), more like a too-aggressive bumper-car-in-the-amusement-park jolt.

My driver pulled over, the young woman and her mother got out of the car and they had a little talk. They were all obviously concerned, but it was refreshingly civil, not the shouting match you’d expect in the States. A policeman stopped and started writing things down. No one seemed concerned about me or asked me how I was. But it was enough of a bump that I wondered whether I would wake up the next day with some kind of whiplash. Should I take the driver’s phone number? Hmm.

Finally, my driver hailed another tuk-tuk, split the fare with him and off I went, a strange farewell to Sri Lanka. Definitely a place to return to, especially to go to Kandy to see the Buddhist statues and get a feel for the hills and the mountains. I’m still reeling from the excitement and beauty of that festival from the other day.

And now in Singapore, a place that was already making a conscious effort back when I first visited in 1979 to pull itself up into the First World Way of Being. It was so strange when after five months in India, sometimes buying street food handed to us from the cook forming water-buffalo patties (ie, dried excrement) to feed his fire, to go to an ice cream place with the vendors wearing masks and gloves and handing us a cone with a paper cover. Some of the malls were already in place back then and in one of the more bizarre couplings of the old and new, one featured an Indonesian trance-dance called Kuda Kepang that included dancers tearing coconuts open with their teeth and walking on glass. After it was over, they got dressed in their Western clothes to buy a Coke in the mall.

It was also the place (back in ’79) that had a sign in the post office—“Males with long hair will be served last” and then had specific dimensions as to what constituted long hair. And Singapore must have invented “zero tolerance,” as yesterday the airplane pilot reminded us that bringing drugs into Singapore was cause for capital punishment—ie, death. Well, that message is clear. I was getting worried about my “wellness pills”— would that qualify?

So now back in a Western-style hotel, the York, with more amenities than I need, but a familiar atmosphere of luxury and comfort. A day at The Singapore American School working with the music teachers and one group of kids. Like slipping on an old pair of pants, so familiar and comfortable. Grateful to not be in a hospital, but still worthwhile reminding the gods—wake up!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Responsible Tourist


My family has left for their various corners of the globe and I feel like the last kid out of college dorms when everyone went home for the summer. It’s so odd to be at this simple homestay (one-story, no swimming pool or ostentatious rooms), but luxurious (Swiss muesli for breakfast, beautifully landscaped with beach chairs, hammocks, foraging ducks and quiet piped music from Bach to Billie Holiday) on a tropical Sri Lankan beach and to have the thought cross my mind, "What will I do all by myself?"So I sit myself in a deck chair with a book and my (paper) journal and it takes all of 1.5 seconds to think, “Was I crazy? This is heaven on earth!”

But it’s all a matter of choosing the kind of tourist we want to be. For many years, I came to every place as a student. Not a college program, but taking music lessons under trees, on verandahs, in people’s kitchens. And when not studying music, coming to the culture as a whole with a student’s eyes and ears—respectful, curious, intrigued and erring to the side of romanticism, embracing things that I probably would have criticized back home or if I lived for a long time in a place, always giving the benefit of the doubt to a custom, cultural practice or way of life. It was—and is—a marvelous way to travel and not only informed what I teach in music class, how I teach, the kinds of school celebrations and festivals I’ve helped create, but it has also shaped the person I am in profound ways. Visiting my teacher in Kerala, seeing the Pooram Festival yet again, learning about the plants along the inland waterways, seeing the remarkable Sri Lankan Perahera Festival, I was a student tourist yet again and so happy to be so.

One side of the student perspective is actively participating in the culture at the level you can. When I had my debut performance as a maddalam student in 1979, painted as a Hindu, giving offerings to my teachers and following their traditional customs, I had a taste of the participatory student tourist. Immerse yourself in the life, learn the language ( I didn’t in Kerala—the rapid river of Malayalam feels as impossible now as it did then), dress the dress, eat the food, cook the food, go native.

Then there is the observer tourist, reading about the places, the history, the plants and animals, the stories (sometimes from well-chosen fiction), going to museums or observing the living museum of the culture, take a tour with a focus, as we did in Cuba a few years back. They have music and dance tours, medical tours, education tours (this the one we did through Global Exchange), ecology tours, birdwatching tours—pick your passion and follow it through the lens of travel.

There is the business tourist, coming to another place to transact business with other people in your field. This accounts for the bulk of my travel these days, coming as an Orff teacher giving workshops to adults and/or teaching kids. It’s a rare and marvelous experience to get to share your expertise and pleasure in your field, meet like-minded people in your profession, be hosted and taken care of and have people available to answer your questions, feel like you’re contributing—and then get paid on top of it all!

And finally there is the escape tourist, the person I will be this morning. No seeking out festivals, photographing monuments, looking for the day’s adventure. For this short morning, Sri Lanka will be a mere backdrop for some welcome solitude. Hang out at the beach, read, write, slow down (with the help of the heat and humidity) and just be. Not a luxury I allow myself very often, but an absolute necessity to a healthy life. “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare?” begins a poem and I find myself absolutely at ease to do just that.

On this trip, I have been all of these tourists at once. Each has been rich with gifts, a path strewn with roses. But it is also important to acknowledge the thorns. Behind the privilege of such travel lies the barbarous history of colonialism, the unequal distribution of goods and power in this world, the echoes of ethnic rivalry, the insanities of the world religions pushing each other around to claim the true god. It is difficult to have a pure exchange, to say the least.

While traveling in Ghana years back, I noticed that most Western travelers were either missionaries forcefully suggesting “Abandon your gods and spiritual practices and accept mine, along with all the cultural trappings that come with that,” or anthropologists saying, “Please continue your interesting traditions and never change.” Both postures can leak into all the kinds of tourism above—“I need that traditional song for my class. Give it to me please.” “Teach your children these xylophone pieces that Carl Orff composed.” “Please leave me alone, I’m relaxing on your beautiful beach.” You get the idea.

I recognize that I can travel like this because of a privilege that I didn’t earn—it came readymade with my American passport, male gender and white skin. So my mantra in travel is the same as teaching in a private school or voting as an American citizen—“use privilege responsibly.” Come to a culture with curiosity and humility, offer your gifts that you did earn from the sweat of your brow in any way that might be of service, engage in dialogue about the common problems that face us all, consider how you might contribute without being patronizing.

And now, to the beach!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Unseen Hands


It began with the Sri Lankan Airlines magazine that Wolfgang brought to me in Tokyo. Browsing through it, a picture of dancers caught my eye and I read about the Perahera Festival in Colombo. Just my cup of tea! Someday I’ll have to come back and try to see it. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the dates—February 16-17, exactly when we were going to be there! First proof that there are unseen hands guiding us to what we need if we announce ourselves to them.

Though I would have loved to share the experience with Wolfgang, he was already traveling to the north on the day we decided to go, so we hired a driver to take us into Colombo. There we saw our first KFC and McDonalds of the trip. In my travel the past 15 years or so, there have been only three places free from the blight of American fast food—Ghana (at least in 1999), Hanoi, Vietnam (as of 2008) and Kerala, India (as of last week). We did the shopping pilgrimage to the Barefoot Store, looked at a little art exhibit in the Hilton and then went to a Buddhist temple to buy a ticket for a seat to watch the parade. At $30 per person, we opted to stand. So we found a spot that looked promising and waited, listening to the constant blare from a nearby loudspeaker. Finally, the first drummers came, a promising beginning with a choreographed step while drumming and melodies played on a double-reed instrument similar to those I’ve seen in China and the Shenai in India. Three groups came, each at a slightly different tempo and placement in the meter. Charles Ives would have loved it!

Then there was a lull and when things began again, they were coming down the street from both directions. The first elephants passed, more drum groups and all of it exciting—but they were just getting warmed up. Each elephant signaled the next group and now things started to get more interesting. Young men with whips, masked dancers, men dressed as women, stick dancers, plate spinners, goofy masked clowns, serious Buddhist monks carrying images of Buddha—and most remarkable of all, two circles of men with one man in the middle all connected with stiff rope-like reeds and on cue, they wove in and out of each other in the most intricate patterns imaginable. Something like what I imagine the orbits of an atom at high-speed to look like with electrons, protons and neutrons. All of the above with at least six different kinds of drums cracking out precise accents amidst the flow of complex rhythms and the constant blaring commentary of the too-loud loudspeaker (in Sinhalese—I imagine he was simply naming the groups as they passed.)

After an hour and a half of standing in the crowds, we decided we better meet our driver and headed back. We stumbled into a beautiful restaurant (thank you, unseen hands) and since our dinner had been a bag of popcorn from a street vendor, sat down to a lovely meal. Then down the road to where we remembered the car was parked and we stumbled into the most remarkable scene of all. It was the end of the parade and they were circling around a beautiful mammoth banyan tree, sans loudspeakers. Kind of like the end of 4th of July fireworks when everything goes up at once. But now were more breathtaking things we missed—25 stiltwalkers with some 10-feet-high-stilts, some hopping on one stilt, one with a child atop his shoulders, another swinging a child on a makeshift-swing between his legs. Then the reed-weavers again, a portable Maypole dance with children, finally, some women dancers, with baskets or sticks or large poles, more masked dancers and at the end of it all, fire jugglers. Had we taken a different route back to the car (unseen hands again), we would have missed this extraordinary finale.

When it comes to festivals, I’ve seen my share—in India, Bali, Japan, Ghana, Brazil, Austria, the U.S. and more. But this one in Sri Lanka that we serendipitously got to witness is at the top of the top. Probably over 1,000 people had passed us by, each group distinct, athletic, graceful, dynamic, well-choreographed, vibrant and musical. They would have had to practice at some time, which means, like the Carnavals of Brazil, neighborhoods getting together and everyone expected to be competent in music and dance. In short, precisely the kind of musical culture I admire and the one I keep attempting to emulate and create in my own teaching in schools.

But worthy as that might be, an Orff teacher moving against the grain of a culture confused about the role of arts is pale next to cultures that have never broken the ancient understanding that music, dance, ritual, theater, masks, costumes, art, festival, celebration, is the way we contact each other in this world. It is the way we converse with our neighbor, our ancestors, our descendants, the diverse personalities within ourselves and the spiritual world. And that the more dynamic the music and dance is, the deeper the conversation. Singing “Happy Birthday” at the restaurant, hymns from a hymnbook at church, pop songs from the radio, is that same need made manifest. But without the whole body involvement through dance, through playing instruments, through a repertoire that has been honed for decades or centuries or sprung from the deep recesses of the imagination, the gifts of music just don’t penetrate deeply enough. And so the trio of “play, sing and dance” at the mantra of effective music-making, no matter what the style.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in “Dancing in the Streets,” our need for such experiences hasn’t disappeared. But the festivals of the folks has been replaced by the spectacles of the stars, the big mediated extravaganzas from the Michael Jackson concert to the Super Bowl to the Oscars where the chosen few get to entertain the masses. Our job is simply to buy the expensive tickets and experience it all vicariously and second-hand. All of which would be fine if we were also playing, singing and dancing ourselves in the neighborhood—and school— celebrations.

And that’s why I’m on this trip. 

A Pound of Cure


So now to Sri Lanka, a place I mostly had known as the second home of my friend Wolfang (see Tokyo entry), home of some Buddhist relics, scene of yet more tragic fighting, locale for this year's World Cricket Tournament and a land and culture with notable similarities to Kerala. Wolfgang met us at the airport, greeting us with flowered leis and a big smile. Off to a beautiful and spacious apartment he arranged and my first impression driving from the airport was that it indeed felt very similar to Kerala, but the streets were cleaner, less trafficked and with less people. It also felt a bit hotter and more humid and we were now to sleep under the first mosquito nets (Kerala felt unusually mosquito-free). The mosquitoes here are the buzz-less kind, which along with seedless watermelon, I consider an evolutionary advance.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, has the typical history of cross-cultural invasion and settling. Aryans from the north bringing Buddhism around 200 B.C.E., Muslim traders, Hindu Tamils, Portuguese, Dutch and of course, English, who put the largest stamp of colonialism on the island until independence in 1948. Then came the conflicts between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, a thirty-year war and the horror of terrorism. All this on an island rich with fertile land, rivers and lagoons, hills and mountains, curving gentle beaches (until the Tsunami wreaked havoc several years back), the archetypal tropical paradise. A rich fabric of art, dance and music of which I’ve seen just a slice. Read in the guidebook about masked dance used as exorcism and a kind of bargaining with demons to leave people’s bodies for the price of a chicken and a dance. Indeed, this is the oldest kind of healing the world knows, sickness (both physical and mental) as a kind of demon possession, caused by failing to offer the spirits their due and needing some ceremonial intervention to mediate the conversation between the worlds. To modern Western people, this is mere mumbo-jumbo, but seems to be as effective as years of Freudian therapy or psychiatric drugs. Just pick your paradigm.

The time here has mostly been settling in, two sumptuous meals at Wolfgang’s house, a short boat ride on a lagoon and a walk on the beach. While sitting looking out at the sea, Wolfgang showed photos from the work he’s doing with soldiers here who had lost limbs in the war. How beautiful they looked, how happy they seemed getting to dance in any way possible supported by each other and their able-bodied teachers, a modern kind of healing, the slow, laborious process to exorcise the demons of war. That same energy that military commanders turn into killing machines now turned toward art and beauty and wouldn’t it make sense to do that first, before they have to be sacrificed to the greed and power of the old ones? Might that ounce of prevention spare us all that pound of cure?

Today a field trip into Colombo for an annual festival with drumming, dancing and elephants.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bringing Kerala to Kerala


I’m noticing something distinct about the Blog format. Usually, reading a book means starting at the top and proceeding down the page and through time, the last page the most recent event in the chronology. In a Blog, it’s reversed. The most recent thing happens first and you go backwards through the days. If a reader is faithful and checks in every day, it kind of works. Otherwise, it’s a bit confusing, especially if you refer to something from a few days back that the in-and-out reader may never have read. So here’s the punchline: because I haven’t been able to post for a week, the next entries will be in forward order, with the dates they actually happened with each. If I can catch up to myself, I’ll return to the other format.

Meanwhile, I need to start with a short background to the whole India trip that will help the reader make sense of it all. Here goes:

In 1978-79, my soon-to-be wife and I got a leave of absence from our work at The San Francisco School and took a one-year trip around the world. Five months of that was in India, three months of that in the state of Kerala. I knew I wanted to study some music and the only lead I had was a school for the Kathakali Dance Drama in the small village of Cheruthuruthy. We landed in Bombay late November, worked our way down to the village and got a room at the Government Guest House. The next day, a man was sitting on the veranda and he started talking to us in English. Enter Raymond into our lives. He became our constant companion and guide, negotiating us through the details of life in Cheruthuruthy. Beginning with introducing us to Mohammed, the Guest House manager, whose wife, Sainaba, agreed to cook for us in her home.

I went to the Kalamandalam School to see about studying music. They asked me what I wanted to study and I said, “What do you have?” They gave me a quick tour and showed me two drums, neither of which I had ever seen or heard. One was played with sticks (chenda) and one by hand (maddalam). I pointed to the latter and said, “I’ll try that.” The next day, they told me that I couldn’t study there without a student visa, but that one of their graduates was interested in teaching me in his home. So off I went to Nelluvai, two bus rides and an hour away, to meet Narayanan Nair, who immediately accepted me as his student. Thus began over two months of daily two-hour lessons, me with no Maliyalam language skills, he with no English.

And so our time was framed with these three people—a Catholic Raymond, a Muslim Sainaba and a Hindu Narayanan. After three remarkable months, we left each with a tearful farewell. I imagined that others would come to take our places and that we would only be a vague distant memory. I was wrong.

When we left Kerala in March of 1979, we traveled to Northern India and Nepal for two more months, then Bangkok to Singapore to Solo, Java to settle for another few months, a short trip to Bali and then finish in Japan before returning to San Francisco. We resumed work at The San Francisco School, got married and one year later, our first daughter was born. We named her Kerala.

Fast-forward to her 30th birthday last September and my determination that now was the time to bring Kerala to Kerala. After intense family negotiations and airline arrangements, the stage was set. Our hope was to see our old home and the three people who helped make it so special, none of whom we had had contact with over the last three decades. What happened? Read on. 

God's Own Country


(February 7-8) Ah, India. I could it feel it the moment I stepped off the plane. Starting with that most direct and evocative of senses, smell. Certain people have signature smells, certain houses identify themselves olfactorally and certain places as well. India. 32 years since we last meant, and yet, yesterday.

Stepped out of baggage claim and there my daughter Talia was to meet me, fresh from two weeks of traveling alone in Thailand and Laos. Two more hours before my daughter Kerala and wife Karen were to land. In contrast to the upscale Kuala Lumpur airport where I had a three-hour layover, the Chennai (aka Madras) airport was on the funky side. Talia and I went to a little “Food Court” and caught up over a lassi and lime soda, interrupted by the blast of Indian TV showing one show after another with fighting, fighting and then, some more fighting. Like everywhere, their TV aimed low on the chakra scale to get your attention. And, of course, it works.

Off to meet Karen and Kerala and 45 minutes after the plane landed, getting nervous—where are they? Did they make the plane?  If not, now what? We had a hotel reserved and plan B was to meet there, but they also had the ticket info. for our morning flight to Cochin. Went to passenger assistance at 1:00 in the morning (4 am Tokyo time) and found their names on the list. And the man laughed when he saw Kerala’s name—first sighting! And of course, just at that moment, they appeared. Travel the old-fashioned way, no cell phones. And of course, this was nothing compared to my grandfather who sent for my grandmother in Russia to join him in New York around the turn of the century. How did they arrange that meeting at Ellis Island?

So off to the Hotel Meera van for a 100 rupees (about $2.50) fee, short night’s sleep, down to breakfast and lifted up the domed silver tops expecting eggs and toast and much to our delight, found idli, sambar, chapatti, dosa and other familiar tastes from that time long ago. Down to the lobby past the sign, “Free Transport to Airport” Hmm. Our first mild rip-off.

Back to the airport and on the plane to Cochin, now Kochi in the movement to rename India. Of course, nostalgic for Bombay and Madras, but hey! the first sign of cultural health is the freedom of people to name and define themselves and if this is the price for the last vestige of colonialism’s yoke to drop, so be it. Short flight and as the plane descended toward the telltale coconut palms of Kerala, I could feel my blood stirring. Gave Kerala (daughter) a high-five at the moment of landing, out to the quite lovely airport, found a place to stay through the tourist booth and stepped out to the taxi. We had arrived.

Scenes from the taxi window: the cows roaming the streets, the goats eating garbage—but not the plastic bags that scarred the land, the crows picking away around them, women sweeping with their handmade brooms, the incessant horns and dance of the traffic, the white painted lines of lanes on the road a mere suggestion. 45 minutes to Fort Kochi, one of the five islands that make up the city old-fashioned style-(ie, no downtown highrises) and finally arriving at the neighborhood with all the homestays catering to the tourists that barely existed in 1979. Our chosen place, the Chak Homestay, a spacious white house with sculptured swans in the entryway, large high-ceiling rooms with cool large-tiled floors. Took the mid-day shower and lay under the ceiling fan and exhaled with a happy heart. Coconut palms and red-tiled roofs out the window, women hanging laundry, the call of the mosque (like smells, these soundscapes take you straight into the room of memory) and for one moment, both 59 and 27 years old at once.

After the mid-day nap, off for a stroll to the famous Chinese fishing nets on the water. Karen and Kerala bargain for a dress, I look at the books displayed and take a photo of FROM HEAD LICE TO DEAD LICE for our school Lower-School Head, Talia plays peek-a-boo with a little girl still fascinated by the white folks in spite of the daily flow of tourists. A group of uniformed schoolgirls wade in the water with giggles of delight and a welcome cool breeze comes off the Arabian Sea. Quite a change from all that time spent on the Tokyo subway line.

We go to an introduction to Kathakali show for tourists, that drama-dance-music art form unique to Kerala that was the centerpiece of our time here before and the reason we settled in Cheruthuruthy, home of the Kalamandalam School for Kathakali. I studied one of the two drums, the maddalam, every day for two months and we went to many all-night performances. This reduced version for tourists was excellent, with an introduction to the study of facial gestures, hand signs (mudras) and rhythmic footwork that was both entertaining and informative. Then a short 30 minutes story that brought it all back—subtle, dynamic, powerful. It all held up.

 A lovely dinner, back to the homestay and call Raymond, one of the three people we hoped to re-unite with. I had e-mailed his sons (long story) and they had given me their father’s phone number (he didn’t have e-mail) and told him we’d be coming to visit. It took him a moment to recognize who I was and then a large laugh echoed over the phone lines with such joy and warmth. So tomorrow we head off to Cheruthuruthy to meet him, cross our fingers for a place to stay and see what this place has become. And feel who we have become in the intervening years. Then with 3 and 4 years of experience at The San Francisco School and about to be married and start a family, now with 36 and 37 years at the school traveling with our 30 and 26 year old daughters.

There was a billboard in the airport with a quote from Joseph Campbell: “Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.” (And then its cynical punchline— “Make this your sacred space—advertise here!) I believe Kerala offers me that possibility, a place that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I know enough to know that sacred space and God’s country has no border and passport stamp, that it is anywhere and everywhere at once where we live well. But still some places help us remember that more than others.

A 32-Year Day


(February 9) The day began with us packed into the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) that swarm the streets. Off to the train station and onto the sleeper car, India style. The food and drink sellers with their nasal musical calls were there on schedule—“Chai! Chai! Juicey! Biryani!! Wadawadawada!!" Happy to see—and hear—that this hadn’t changed, one of those marks of a musical culture. Not so happy to see the metal containers from which you ate and then returned to the seller replaced by disposable aluminum bread pans. All Indians on the train and traveling “with the folks” not only felt right, but the right price as well—$1.50 each for a three-hour train ride.

My excitement mounting as we passed familiar town names, finally getting off at Shornur. A quick tuk-tuk ride across the river and left turn up the hill to the Government Guest House. And there he was, sitting on the same steps where we met 32 years ago. “Raymond!!” I bolted from the tuk-tuk and hugged him and felt his body shake—and mine to follow—with big, heaving sobs. Then he broke down again as he hugged Karen and met Kerala and Talia for the first time. Like me, a larger belly, his grey beard to match my grey mustache, but indisputably Raymond. This was a promising beginning, what felt at once like the next moment in a long 32-year day and an unexpected chance to resume a friendship after so much had happened in-between—the long trail of marriages, births, deaths and day following day as we spun out the threads of our destinies.

But no time to jump into all that yet. First get settled in the old Guest House, with its beds pushed into the middle of the room under the ceiling fan, its still unpainted walls and its still ridiculously cheap price, up to about $5 per night. These clean, but simple, accommodations were set up years back for traveling Government officials, but as far back as ’78, were open to other guests. Once we were settled, the five of us went down to Main Street, Cheruthuruthy for a meal. The place where we used to eat had closed, but sat in a similar place and ordered some dhosa and uttapam, two pancake-style dishes typical of Kerala. Post-dinner, a hunt for toilet paper and an attempt to stroll down the street. But the first thing that had changed noticeably was the amount of traffic. Back then, an occasional bus or taxi, lots of bicycles, carts pulled by oxen and people walking. Now bus after bus, tuk-tuks, taxis, cars, all honking their way through the chaos—and no sidewalks to walk on. 

The second thing that had changed—and this I expected—was the garbage on the side of the street. Back then, all meals were on banana leaves, things bought at stores were wrapped in leaves or newspaper and the crows and goats were the unpaid sanitation department. But now plastic had come to town big time and people used to tossing banana leaves had not learned new habits. So between the noise and hub-bub of traffic, the garbage, the constant crowds of people, I walked alongside my daughter imagining her thinking, “My parents named me for this?”

“Patience,” I said silently to her. More will be revealed. 

And it was.

The Gods Are With Us


(Feb. 10) Waking to a cool temperature before the sun made its appearance, we walked away from “downtown Cheruthuruthy” up a road I dimly remembered. We began seeing signs for Eco-Lodge and made that our goal, ascending into the hills. And here was the first signs of an emerging tourism, a lovely place with cozy cabins, a stunning view, a swimming pool and a restaurant with a paint job. We ordered breakfast and then descended to meet Raymond and board the two buses to Nelluvai, the place where I had gone daily for my drumming lesson all those years back. And yet, it all felt familiar, standing on the crowded bus, looking for the transfer in the town of Ottupara. Back then. a man adopted me as his charge to make sure I boarded the right bus and was always there in the crossroads. I half-expected to see him again, but miracles only go so far. And there were many on this day.

We alighted at the Nelluvai Temple and there he was—Narayanan Nair, the teacher who had sat across the drum from me beating time with a stick, patient with my fumbling efforts and pleased with each inch of progress, a drum guided me through an unfamiliar, looking as trim and handsome as ever. We exchanged hugs, greeted his wife (who I had met, but didn’t know well) and after the formalities, sat down to a perfect Kerala meal. Kerala rice (thicker and rounder than basmati) in the center of a banana leaf, papad, sambar and all the little curries on the side that you mix in with your fingers and eat with your (please) right hand. Some raita yogurt at the end, tea, toss the banana leaf and voila! the perfect South Indian dining experience. Delicious, nutritious, balanced, sensual, ecological.

I was itching to play the maddalam again to see what I remembered. Lessons back then consisted of learning a spoken rhythm, playing it on the drum, recording my teacher playing, notating both the spoken and Western notation in a notebook after the lesson in my home and then practicing on my legs (I didn’t own a drum) whenever I could before the next lesson the next day—mostly on the bus. After two months, I had learned a 40- minute rhythmic composition which I then performed at my debut performance in a ceremony called Arenaytram, complete with ritual offerings to his teacher, a special dhoti dress and marks on my forehead. I did eventually order a maddalam and got it shipped to San Francisco, but there was no opportunity nor reason to continue playing as nobody in the U.S. performs Kathakali on a regular basis. The drum sat in my closet for years, than in the school cabinets, brought out occasionally to accompany a few pieces with the kids. But essentially, I had not played, listened to nor practiced what I had learned for over thirty years.

And then sat down and played Ganapati Kai, the homage to the elephant god Ganesh the player plays before officially performing. Then my first five exercises and then bits and pieces of the 40-minute piece. Narayanan was deeply impressed—and so was I! Not a homage to my talent, which is just below okay, but to the power of the oral method of musical transmission. It really sticks to the ribs, or more accurately, is burned permanently into the axons and dendrites of memory.

Already three miracles into the day—that I had reunited with my teacher, shared an authentic Indian meal with Kerala and Talia, played some of my old pieces—my heart nearly leaped from my chest when I heard the nearby horns and drums announcing a Pooram Festival. It was the one thing I wanted to see almost more than any other, not only because all our photos of that festival from years back were lost, but because we went to five or six of them and it never failed to excite me. So it turns out that this festival was literally around the corner in the temple. We rushed over, Narayanan pushed me to the front of the line, right next to the blasting kombu horns and with my camera in one hand and Flip in the other, tried to both document and immerse myself. The details too numerous for a Blog entry, but imagine six elephants with men on top with big pom-poms, some 10 maddalam drummers, another 10 timmela drummers, 2 idekka drummers, 15 cymbal players, 15 horn players playing through a 96-beat sequence that includes “trading 8’s” improvisations between the drummers and gets fast and more furious, with the onlookers waving their hands and shouting and the elephant dancers performing their routines and even the elephants waving their ears (really!) to the beat. Welcome to Pooram, a Hindu Festival to honor the birth of one of the thousands of gods. After it reaches its peak, they all process to a nearby village where a similar thing was going on and then join forces. You don’t see something like that every day.



Walking back, he introduced me to one of the idekka players. This is a drum similar to the African talking drum, with strings that change the pitch by changing the tension. I asked if he would demonstrate and he invited us into his home and went through the whole process of assembling the drum. He let me try and smiled broadly when I managed to eke out some interesting rhythms. But like every instrument, the sticking technique was unique and not one you understand without the 10,000 hours of practice.

On to Narayanan’s house and we all sat outside on his balcony porch to get a view of other processions coming by. Each one from a different group with different instruments and costumes. And so in a world where music is increasingly relegated to recorded versions, background versions, formal study versions, the thing I loved about India way back when was still alive and well and worthy of my appreciation now. In the West, Barbara Ehrenreich has to write a book called “Dancing on the Streets” to remind us of what we’ve lost. In India, it’s still happening.

In-between processions, Narayanan showed me photos of his travels. By devoting himself to mastering one drum in one style, he has been able to travel the world sharing the glory of Kathakali—Japan, Indonesia, China, throughout Europe and the United States. (And apparently, once to San Francisco, but he didn’t know how to contact me.) Because of these travels, his English vocabulary jumped from five words in 1979 to some understandable conversation and it was a pleasure to finally get to talk a bit.

I asked him whether he had taught more Westerners after me and he said no, no one ever came by again and asked. I asked him why he accepted me as his student and he talked about how the right drum head of the maddalam was Shiva, the left, his wife, Parvati and when one played well, one generated some Shakti energy between the two. He thought that a man from San Francisco and a man from Kerala might create their own Shakti energy through the medium of the maddalam drum—and he was right.

He went on to say, “I’m 64 years old and still have good energy. Why? Because of art. A businessman or engineer doesn’t have the same kind of life force to renew them, but music keeps us alive and vibrant. And it doesn’t matter what kind of music. All art is one.”

His daughter Prasida, whom I had known briefly as a charming and cute three-year old, came with her son and daughter and more riches in sight. She danced a little Bharat Natyam that her mother had taught her and then her 8-year old daughter did the same—an unbroken line. The daughter also taught me a clapping game, her charming 12- year old brother (not to be outdone) sang us a song and it was time to take photos. Though I thought I would see Narayanan perform the next night (alas! it was not to be), we had our farewell moment when the moisture reached both our eyes. “I have dreamed of this moment for 32 years,” I told him, “and am so grateful that we could meet again. I understand that there are thousands of Hindu Gods—today, all of them were with us.”

And off we went back on the bus.

The Shirts Off Our Backs

(Feb. 11) Sainaba was next on our list. Our Government Guest House manager drew a map and given the way things were going, we strode off confident that we could find it. Down some spacious dirt streets with some surprising new houses, many much bigger than seemed necessary. How had this happened? Gulf money. Even back in the late 70’s, young men were already going to the Gulf to work and earn more money than they could back home. That has continued exponentially. 

And so to Sainaba’s new house, easy to spot by the small crowd gathered outside who waved us in. And there she and Mohammed were, recognizable and welcoming. She invited us back to a table and served us an enormous breakfast of rice chapattis, chicken curry and more, coming around for seconds and thirds despite our full-belly protests. Meanwhile, we passed around the old photos and amidst the 30 or 40 people passing through the house, there were her three sons, now in their 30’s and 40’s—Hussein, Basheer and Rosak. And their wives and children. Two of them had indeed worked in the Gulf and spoke a little English, but we were starting to feel the limits of smiles, nods and old photos. So we took some new photos, said our goodbyes and headed back to the main street and the bus to Trichur. 

Faithful Raymond was there as we got off and after a few visits to various shop owners he knew, we arrived at a lovely house, home of Shiney, an advocate (lawyer) taking time off to raise her children. She fed us another multi-course meal and off to the dental office to see her husband’s work. He showed us a computer presentation of before-and-after photos of people he made beautiful simply by filling in the gaps in their teeth or straightening them. He also specializes in root canal and said that some people come from Europe and America to get work done because it’s so cheap, even with airfare and accommodations. With all the dental work I have before me, an interesting proposition!

Then a visit to four government-run places, all close to each other, where Raymond and Shiney volunteer two or three times a week—a place for mentally handicapped children, for psychologically disturbed adults, a shelter for abused women and an old age home. Reminded me of touring similar places in Cuba. The first was the liveliest, as the children sang several songs for us and I returned the favor. Music, again, as the most direct form of communication.

Two more houses of friends to visit, drink tea and chat and then there was supposed to be a Kathakali performance at 6:30. But Narayanan called and said it had been changed to 8:00 pm, the kids were weary and Cheruthuruthy a long bus ride away. So I reluctantly let it go. But pulling into the old hometown, I heard music from the open field by the school house and got off by myself to check it out. It was devotional music with drum, violin, harmonium, cymbals and singer, too loudly amplified, but fun to figure out the form. Mostly a soloist singing the names of various gods—Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Krishna, Nataraja, Govinda and more—in different rhythmic configurations, then answered by the drums and harmonium in echo fashion. Not exactly the whole gestalt of evening Kathakali, but helped me remember the beauty of these nighttime performances in India, in Java, in Bali, sometimes all-night long under the stars or full moon, as much a part of the total feeling of the art form as an intimate nightclub is to jazz. That’s when the magic happens.

Took a wrong turn walking home and walked a mile in the wrong direction before trusting my intuition that something was wrong. Walking in the dark past people who couldn’t easily see my face or skin color and thinking, “I am just a human being again.”

And Raymond, when asked about his religion, answers,  “I am a member of the Human Religion. Take care of the poor, comfort the afflicted.” When we met him at 35 years old, his wife taught school and he seemed aimless, happy just to hang out with us. Soon after, he got some bit parts in movies, often as the villain. And now he has arrived at this new place in his life, volunteering his time to help the needy.

He likes to tell the story of our send-off at the Shornur train station. I was distraught that I had nothing to give to him to remember me by and vice-versa, so right there in the station, we traded shirts. And this somehow symbolized the life he was living now, willing to give the shirt off his back to help those who might need it. And I’d like to think that I would too. Or at least give it to Raymond.

The Inner GPS


(February 12) Now there was just one must-do left on our list—find the house where we lived for two months, a two-story affair with our own washing pond on the edge of a rice field that we rented for $20 a month. We set off in the cool of the morning armed with the owner’s name, a neighborhood name and a photo of us in front of the house from 32 years ago. Keep in mind that there were no streets or addresses back then, just some winding back paths filled with children trailing us day-after-day shouting “What is your name? What is your name?” Guided by some inner GPS and the kindness of strangers, we arrived where we thought the house should be in front of a large gated Gulf-funded “McMansion. ” (Indeed, this is my issue with the GPS—robs us of exercising our intuition and asking for help from others.) We wondered whether this was the new main house where the old one had been. Miraculously (but miracles were now the norm), a woman appeared at the door while we stood at the gate wondering what to do and came out to speak with us. Menon, the owner we rented from, had died, but she was his widow. We showed her the photo and asked if the house we had rented was still there. She opened the gate, take us around the back—and there it was!! Amazing! We re-took the photos (soon to appear, along with others, on this blog when I get to a place where my daughter can help me!) and left with our hearts full of wonder and nostalgia.

We decided that this was to be a day of rest and we transferred to the Eco-resort and spent a day in a Western-style vacation—hanging around the pool reading, writing, sketching, away from the noise and hub-bub (what a great word!) looking out over the coconut-palmed landscape—all for a price less than a shabby Ramada Inn on Strip-Mall, U.S.A. We were the only guests there and that was just fine.

Next morning, off by train to Trichur to go to Raymond’s house, meet his daughter-in-law and granddaughter living there while his son was making money in Bangalore, be treated to yet another delicious meal and see Shiney, her husband and one of her sons yet once more. Than Raymond called us one by one into a room and gave us gifts—not from off his back, but shirts. I pulled out a JAZZ T-shirt from the Jazz Festival in Vittoria and gave it to him. A final hug goodbye with the same heaving sobs as when we reunited and back to the train to Kochi. Will we see each other again in this lifetime? At our age, we can’t wait another 32 years. We shall see.

Up a Lazy River


For our last day in Kerala, we chose to do the guided boat tour up the Inland Waterways. Off in a van with other Western travelers—from Australia, Israel, Canada, Germany—and down the backwater alleys in boats powered by a man with a pole. Got off and were given a tour of the plant life—tapioca, curry leaf, nutmeg, clove, vanilla, pepper, chile, cocoa, coconut, jackfruit, banana, pineapple. The medicinal properties of each were explained as we crushed and smelled leaves, tasted bits and pieces, learned how different parts of the plants are used. Here was all the taste and color the British lacked and what havoc they wreaked, all for a little sugar and spice.

We then watched women making rope from the coir of the coconut, an elegant process that required patience, dexterity and ingenuity to set up the system. Here we touched what impressed me so much all those years back, the sense that just about everything you used was transparent—you grew it, you knew it, you knew just how to use it. A whole lifestyle built from coconut, rice and spices. Us modern folks mostly have no idea where the simplest things come from or how they’re made—salt, oil, clothing, never mind steel and silicon chips. We miss the connection with the things of this earth, the relationships we establish with the sources of our food and daily necessities, the pleasure of it all (as well as the tedium). Indeed, at the beginning of my adult life, that was part of the cultural renaissance, from those who went “back to the land” to at least baking your own bread, making your own yogurt and sprouting alfalfa sprouts. And now, the slow food movement, the farmer’s market renaissance, Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”—some of it is coming back. Figuring pleasure, connection, sociability, aesthetics into the economic choices we make beyond mere convenience and efficiency. A trip to the Farmer’s Market will cost more than Costco, but out in the open air with the buzz of happy people, the music of street musicians, the conversations with farmers who know and love what they have to offer, the tastings at each booth, one feels like a much better deal. Shopping is not a mere necessity to stuff this mortal body, something to be endured in large-boxed buildings with bad lighting in shopping malls with enormous parking lights. It is the event of the day and each step a pleasure.

Back on the river, lazily ambling down its light-and-shadowed waters. A man and his son are bathing, distant workmen are hammering, a snake swims along the bank, butterflies flit overhead and a kingfisher calls out from atop a coconut palm. Time slows down—it’s “summertime and the livin’ is easy.”

Farewell to India


(Feb. 15) Always interesting to return to where you started—the Cochin Airport—and feel how you have changed in just one week. Hit that traveler’s stride, acclimated mind and body, traded the excitement of newness for the comfort of familiarity. When we first planned this trip, I was worried about the length—was a mere five days in Kerala enough? As these entries show, each day was like a week or two of normal life, so dense, so intense, so filled to the brim. Of course, there was always more we could have done—sought out an all-night Kathakali, gone up to the Periyar Wildlife Preserve and Tea plantations, taken some more maddalam lessons. But it felt simply perfect as it was.

Kerala has long had some notable statistics. It ranks as the most densely populated state in India, the poorest, the most literate and highly educated, the best health care and the only one to elect a communist government (Images of Che are next to Krishna, Lakshmi, Jesus and more). But some statistics are deceiving. The poverty, both in the 70’s and now, did not feel like the grinding sort, shanty towns next to high-rise hotels. More like an across-the-board simple life style with mostly enough to eat and good shelter. I see more homeless people in San Francisco than I saw in our five days in Kerala. And no question that the population is dense—hardly a moment without large crowds of people. But again, not the overflowing cities and sparse villages, more like a steady stream of towns and villages, one running into the other. Most people we met had two or three children, so there seems to be a conscious effort to contain population. No doubt that the sheer number of people is a challenge that must be answered.

I’m trying to break my bad habit of romanticizing the places and cultures historically put down by “first-world cultures.” No place on earth is “THE model” for how to live on this earth—each has its gifts and shadow sides. But if Kerala is far from paradise, there is still much to admire. The connection to the land mentioned earlier, the vibrant art, music, dance and theater forms, the living festival life, the delicious cuisine, the relative harmony in which Hindus, Muslims and Christians live side-by-side, the kindness to strangers. I returned here worried that we would find the Kerala we loved irreversibly gone, We needn’t have feared. It is still there. It is a worthy name of a first daughter. 

Everything You Wanted to Know About Japan, But Forgot to Ask


(Feb. 7) In case anyone woke up this morning wondering whether a can of coffee bought from a machine can come out hot, the answer is, “Yes.” Whether Japanese bikes have the same kind of built-in sliding half-circle lock as the bikes in Salzburg? Yet again, “Yes.” Is there a Chinatown in Tokyo? You guessed it. Do some Japanese cafes serve pesto and play Charlie Parker recordings? They do. Do some mothers ride bikes with a baby strapped to their chest and another kid behind them? I have photos to prove it.

And I know you’ve all been curious about the plastic bag situation in Tokyo. Are there too many? Yes, there are. Did one restaurant offer whale meat? Sadly, that’s a yes.
Is it really true that the school year ends in February and begins again in March just a couple of weeks later? And that teachers only get four or five days off between the two years? Apparently, that is a yes. And come on, is there really a festival to bless sewing needles by sticking them in tofu? There is.

On another note, if you ever need to know whether a Niji pen can go through a laundry wash cycle and still write, I can report, “Yes.” (But not before some ink gets released into the cap that will then stain your hands.) And while we’re reaching beyond Japan here, might as well throw in this forgotten tidbit from Korea. Apparently, everyone’s age advances one year at the Korean New Year (Jan. /Feb.) instead of on their birthday. Thus, a baby born in December will turn two a couple of months later!

And speaking of birthdays. Back around 32 years and 40 pounds lighter ago, I finished a year-long trip around the world in Tokyo on my birthday, turning 28 on July 28th. I have a photo of me blowing out a candle stuck in a donut in a Tokyo park (wonder which one?). That same day, we flew home to San Francisco and crossed the International Dateline and I had my birthday twice. One of those little-big-moments that I’ll always remember.

So farewell to the all the subway lines and a large-hearted domo arigato go sai mas to Tokyo, my wonderful hosts and students and friends, the Ryokan owners, Japanese baths, udon noodles and the legacy of Zen Buddhism. And on to India, where it all began.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Career Mulligan (Not!)

The Sawanoya Ryokan that has been my home for these last 10 days is committed to educating its foreign guests about Japanese life. Yesterday it offered a kimono-wearing shamisen-playing experience at a house a bus ride away. A host came to meet myself and another guest from Switzerland and we ended up conversing in Spanish walking to the bus—our Japanese host had lived in Colombia, the young Swiss spoke five languages and I got my stripes teaching workshops in Spain these past 20 years. Still, a bit odd to walk into the home where other tourists were being dressed in kimonos speaking Spanish!

After the kimono-dressing, our hosts gave a short demonstration on the shamisen, the Japanese three-string equivalent of the banjo. They then invited us to learn the song Sakura, a pretty hilarious music lesson without knowing anything of our musical background. Not surprisingly, I emerged as the Spanish-speaking San-Franciscan shamisen-Sakura superstar and even plucked out a little blues. In many places, there would be a punch-line—buy this kimono, our CD, join our mailing list—but this was simply a sincere delight these five women took in opening their home and sharing a bit of their culture.

With some time before my 2 o’clock class, I wandered around Ueno Station looking for lunch. Time to confess. A bit weary of trying to decipher Japanese menus and wonder if there were fish or pork in the pictured dish, I went to —gasp!—Starbucks and got a sandwich. I can report that Japanese Starbuck “talls” are significantly smaller and more interesting, when you order, the person sings it out, another down the line echoes and then all the workers sing it yet once more. Really quite lovely and just as I decided to record it, there was a lull in the ordering.

Off then to my friend, the subway, arrived 15 minutes before 2 o’clock happy to meet this group again, and the first person I see says, “Where were you? We’ve been waiting since 10 am!!!” I was stunned. I assumed the schedule was the same for all three days, but apparently not. Imagine my shame. Never in over thirty years of giving workshops and Orff courses had this happened. I told them that when I used to play casual golf with my brother-in-law, we agreed that each was allowed one “mulligan”— a flubbed shot that you could do over and wouldn’t count on your score. So here was my career mulligan. Never before and never again!

We quickly scrambled to see where we could add time, I walked around the circle with my hands out inviting people to hit me for punishment (all very timid, except one!) and off we went. I gave an extra hour to about half the group that could stay and we had a class with the Orff instruments. Half the instruments were the usual, but the other half where just the chromatics (ie, black notes on the piano). So we did an entire session based on bi-tonality—Stravinsky would have loved it. And a good example of what I’m always stressing in workshops. We’re trying to model what it’s like to encounter every situation with a flexible mind, meet novelty with the full range of our imagination, listen and respond to what’s happening in the moment with every skill we have prepared so diligently. That is to say, it’s good and in fact, necessary, to have a plan and prepare yourself accordingly and equally necessary to know how to adjust and respond when the inevitable surprises come. A class mixing Gb and C pentatonic scale was certainly new to me—and we managed to make some pretty interesting music.

The next day, I arrived at the appointed 10 am time, ending the day with the students applying new ideas and techniques they learned to Japanese games or folk songs and creating little performances. They results were impressive and a perfect summary of the three days. A closing circle with two songs, the usual moist eyes, and off to dinner with four students I had taught in Salzburg in 2003. Such a pleasure to get to connect with former students, especially with such musical names! Ayako, Ikuko, Noriko, Nobuko. Say it out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

My last subway ride back to Nezu, my first taste of light rain and packing back in my room, I found the printed schedule. Imagine my surprise—it DID have all three days listed as 2:00 to 8:00! Perhaps there was another more updated sheet somewhere, but that indeed was the one I had glanced at. So I still have a mulligan coming to me. And I hope I never need to use it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Little Bunnies College Preparatory Preschool


This just in! A National Association of Independent School conference for administrators  reported that since “private school consumers (parents) do not understand the term ‘independent’ school, NAIS is now encouraging all schools to describe themselves as “college preparatory schools.”

What a great idea! Consumers (ie, Parents) aren’t nearly anxious enough about whether the corporate institution (ie, School) and their Learning Technician Employees (ie, Teachers) are preparing their customers (ie, Children) for Corporation Preparatory School (ie, College), so I agree that the CEO’s (ie, Principals) should change all titles effective immediately. They should also begin building the portfolio resumes of their three-year old customers and document their sand-castle building, fingerpainting and cooperation in the nap room to beef up their curriculum vitae and begin the college application process. It’s never too early to induce stress, anxiety, fear of failure and other such tactics that insure that Laisha and Tyler will understand early on that there is no time in this life for curiosity, questioning, exploring, investigating, celebrating or enjoying the present moment when your future is at stake. No time to be a three-year old—get to work! So by the time you’re ten, you’ve completed your college visits and just might be on the road to getting into a college that can aim you toward Retirement Preparatory School (ie Work). Then if you’re lucky, you can get into the Afterlife Preparatory School (ie, Old Age Home) to get through the Pearly Gates and then, you can finally enjoy the moment at hand. Or if you’re Hindu or Buddhist, you go to Rebirth Preparatory School and step back on the wheel of always-preparing, but never-arriving, once again.

People, people! Have we gone mad? Has NAIS not seen the Race to Nowhere film? Have they considered that they can explain to parent that Independent Schools means independence from the mindless bureaucracy that has effectively strangled just about any possibility of effective teaching in public schools? Might "Independent" mean that private schools have the luxury to choose the kind of community they want to create to genuinely serve children’s needs? 

And don’t misunderstand me here. That luxury, one I have enjoyed for over three decades, is born from a privilege that is not to be taken lightly. All the more reason to use that responsibility to model the kind of place all schools could and should become, whether private, public, home-schooled or out on a bus traveling around the world. Using corporate language (those parent consumers) to describe a spiritual undertaking (and I defy you to find me an enterprise more spiritual than the raising of children) is bad enough, but jumping into the Race to Nowhere with both feet and advising all independent schools to follow is…well, why beat around the bush? …insane!

Meanwhile, I just finished my three-day course in Japan filled with so many moments of breathtaking beauty that I’m lucky I’m not in the aesthetic asthma ward. Then I showed slides of the SF School kids in the Spring Concert and asked the teachers to comment:

“They look so happy! They’re so concentrated and focused. They’re so alive and alert. They’re so connected with each other. They look so happy!” And that simply means that instead of burdening them with stress and worries about their future college preparation, we’ve simply let them be kids. And given them a few fabulous tools for expressing their joy yet one notch higher.

Behind on my entries here, but with an early morning flight to India tomorrow morning, I’ll hope for a catch-up when I can, complete with a grateful farewell to this remarkable place. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

No Kangaroos


Mentholated masks
Keep out germs— and the fragrance
Of the plum blossoms.

It really is Spring! Ducks on the pond, two lovers in a rowboat, bright sun and warm air at Ueno Pond. My winter clothes are beginning a four-week journey to Austria, courtesy of a post-office transaction that took the best miming skills and communication ingenuity the Postal Worker and I could muster. Fact is that there is less English spoken in Japan than most anyplace I’ve been recently—and I’m finding it mostly delightful! Back to the language of gesture, inflection, props and beyond. For example, I was worried my box would end up in Australia, so I shook my head no while miming kangaroos and then found a better solution when I spotted a little map and I pointed. And so it went, until all forms were properly (I hope!) filled out and I bid my winter clothes good-bye. At the end, my postal worker smiled and said, “I enjoy that!” “Me, too!” I smiled in return and bowed out the door and into the day.

After a refreshing walk through Ueno Park, I descend into the subways like the Master of the Underground I’ve become, gliding effortlessly down long escalators to the ticket machine, through the turnstile and on to the always-waiting train without missing a beat. I ascend and meet my good friend Wolfgang Stange exactly at the appointed time. Wolfgang is one of the most down-to-earth human and extraordinary people I know, working his incredible magic with his London theater company, Amici, whose members create mesmerizing work and just happen to be a mixture of Down’s syndrome, blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound and otherwise differently-abled. We first met at the Orff Institut Symposium and Summer Course in Salzburg in 1990, a most extraordinary two-and-half-week gathering that set the course of my life in the 21 years that followed. And meeting Wolfgang was one of the highlights of a time filled with a bounty of highlights.

Last night, he took me to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s downtown area that is a mix of New York’s Broadway and Las Vegas. I imagine it is completely unoriginal to call Japan the land of contradiction and contrast, but to spend the afternoon in the spacious tranquility of Nezu Shrine and the evening in the electric assault of Shinjuku is to know the two baffling faces of Japan that are both clearly present in the national character. In the space of three blocks, seven different young men approached us asking us if we wanted to go to a strip club. My replies ranged from, “I’m shocked!” to “Are you hiring?”

Today we went to Asakusa Temple and looking at the Festival Calendar, it seems like every month there is something to do that will bring you luck, merit and/or make your wishes come true. One such festival said that if you came to the temple and prayed on July 9 and 10th, it would equal 46,000 regular visits on other days. Who makes this stuff up? 

I bid farewell to Wolfgang after a refreshing Thai lunch and met my host precisely on time at the appointed subway platform to begin my new course, this one with fifteen people—three that had come last weekend, one American and one Australian who came from an International School seven hours away and an assorted group of Japanese college students, preschool teachers and a few music teachers. Off I go again, with a new spontaneous beginning and looking forward to trying out the Tokyo Subway Stop composition I worked out walking from the post office. But we got involved in other things, including some of the most moving dancing I’ve witnessed recently to Adagietto by Bizet (little know piece, but exquisite) and Besame Mucho by Diana Krall. Too involved to explain here the process of arriving at the choreography, but it all begins with a dance from Denmark called Seven Jumps and ends at this unexpected—and in this case, beautiful—result. Wonderful communication amongst the people in the group, great connection to the music, including reaching their final shape precisely on the last note, and an overall sense of being in the body and moving with such grace and style. My final words to them for the day were, “You spoke so eloquently in your movement that any further words are unnecessary. Thank you and good night.” People who know me will know that something special must have happened to shut me up like that!

Riding the subway home, I remembered two more “Japanese seeds” planted in my childhood. One was a judo book my parents got me that fed my every-boy fantasy of being strong and powerful and got me as far as signing up for judo lessons, complete with the white robe outfit and probably learning my first bows to the teacher. I have a vague memory of going to four classes and then fighting some boy with really bad breath and deciding that was enough. I still remember one of the flips.

The other was listening to the record of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado that we had in my home and then eventually, going to see it in New York. In fact, it may have been the first such show I ever went to (the other two I remember are Fiddler on the Roof and Carmen). I remember the feeling of being swept up in a magical world and have always had a soft spot in my heart for that music, regardless of absurdly politically incorrect it may be. (There’s a telling scene in the movie Topsy Turvy when Japanese people are brought in to help the directors achieve more authenticity and the cultural divide yawns so wide, they end up being dismissed).

Two more full days in Japan—I think I’m going to miss it here.