One of my favorite jazz stories goes something like this: Fats Waller, a highly accomplished piano player, was playing at a club when he spotted Art Tatum. He stopped played and announced to the crowd:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano. But tonight God is in the house.”
Art Tatum had that effect on people. Aspiring pianists would go to hear this virtuoso jazz pianist who could play more ideas (and at lightning speed) in 4 measures than most can do in 32. They’d leave throwing up their hands, saying, “Why bother? What’s the use?” and take up French horn or accounting.
And that’s how I felt tonight, watching my second evening in a row of performances in the Ghanaian village of Ghana. The virtuosity of these local musicians and dancers brought me to the brink of human belief and made me wonder, “What’s the point of learning a few supporting drum patterns and shaking my bootie a bit?” The energy, stamina, elasticity and just pure joy of this group was 8.5 on the Richter scale. Made me feel that it’s weird that I get to travel around the world as a music teacher with my 1.5 capability. Something is off here.
How narrow our exposure is to genuine artistry, talent or genius. Few know more beyond pop radio, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance and can’t even conceive of the idea of folks in a relatively remote village achieving such a high level without a single second of fame or name recognition or even aspiration to be a star. Trust me— if Michael Jackson jumped into the dancing ring tonight, I believe the folks would smile and think, “Not bad” and go on to stretch his talent a bit further.
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. From astounding gamelan ensembles in Bali to mind-boggling Wagogo singers and dancers from Tanzania to extraordinary South and North Indian drummers, the world is bursting with astonishing music that most people will never get to hear and amazing dance that they will never get to see—and I’ve been privileged to see and hear them. It’s true that some of the astonishment is my own unfamiliarity with the musical style and language and technique. I know enough to know that something extremely difficult and complex is going on and because I don’t understand it fully and am not practiced in the musical techniques, the performers are elevated to a high level in my mind. But perhaps at the end of the day, I’ve worked just as hard to craft a passable piano solo on a jazz standard and they might (or might not!) feel the same if they heard me play or tried to do it themselves.
But there is another level working here. Some of the groups I’ve named above— and I could have gone on with Bulgarian bagpipe players or Irish fiddlers or Venezuelan cuatro players and beyond—represent cultures where music is so deeply embedded in daily life that from baby to toddler to child to teenager and beyond, people absorb it with the ease of a home language. I’ve long known that my field of music education is just plain weird to folks in these cultures who live and breath and speak and sing and dance music just about every day of their life— and so never have to go to a formal music class or spend time locked in a practice room. Within their culture’s styles, they achieve high levels almost effortlessly. “Practice” is simply playing in community and though groups may rehearse pieces and create choreographies, it’s a whole different animal than the middle school band practice.
I’ve know this for a long time and my ideal in pursing the Orff approach has been to attempt to build a musical community with some of those qualities of simply being immersed in music. To some extent, I and my colleagues have succeeded. But to reach higher levels, the kids would need to be around adults who are all playing, singing and dancing at basic to high levels of competence, not just specially selected music teachers. And do it every day. Not just in school, but at home. But because we can’t control that, we just do what we can.
So tonight God was in the house and in more ways than one. One of the dances was specifically a traditional religious dance involving trance— this is one of the way that the Spirits are called into the Community and tonight one came. And the dances that were not labeled as religious were profound in their role of passing on the lore and lessons and wisdom of the culture through dance steps, song lyrics and drum patterns.
Music and dance are not candy in these cultures—they’re the main course. They feed the body, the mind, the heart, the Soul and the Spirit and unite communities in ways that cultures without it can’t even imagine. And everyone participates. From babies bouncing on the back to grandmothers, from teenagers to music teacher tourists. The profound integration in these cultures achieved in no small part through millennium of unbroken music and dance is something National Geographic magazine never quite captured. We ignorant children growing up in 1950’s New Jersey used to laugh at the pictures of shirtless Africans. My apologies! How could we have known what heights of human culture exist here!
So much of chauvinism or racism/ sexismt/ etc.ism is simply ignorance. And so I once again elevate teachers to their proper status— as the people with the opportunity to bring light into darkness, tell the stories that need to be told and invite the children into the dancing ring of belonging, respect, understanding and compassion. Africa is not “the dark continent” because of skin color, but because of the Western world’s deep ignorance of its complexity, wisdom and beauty. Once we shift the standard of achievement from enduring monuments, tall buildings and big money to human community backed by a profound spirituality, a rich world awaits us that has much to teach.
Off to my next lesson.