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. 

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