Saturday, July 2, 2016

Four Bridges to Beauty and Sorrow


A powerful ending to the two weeks. Began with a review for the cameras by Kofi and his assistant teacher Oliver, time to pack, and then the Nunya kids came. James and I gave them a first class on the gyil xylophone, Sofia taught them some notation through games and then I led the Jumpin’ at the Woodside piece as described in yesterday’s blog. A farewell dinner with banku, jolof rice, chicken, mango and pineapple, and a treat of fried plantain complete with some spontaneous dancing with the cleaning women, talking with them about their families, hugging them goodbye. (That an entry in itself—can you imagine playing drums for the cleaners of the Holiday Inn and them dancing while changing the sheets? Only in Africa!)

Then we gathered for a closing session seated in the circle. Time for reflection. People turned to a partner and shared the highlights and new insights from the trip. We opened up a bit of time for some to share with the whole group and then each of the teachers got to speak. My turn was supposed to be reading my blog “The Happiness of Children” and I did get to do that, but first felt the need to share a more personal reflection. And it went something like this:

There are four people in my lifetime who walked me across a bridge to a new world, one filled with bottomless treasures mixed with great pain and sorrow. I felt each of these black folks here with my on this trip. The sense of their presence was palpable and my longing to have them physically with me was equally strong.

The first was Bill “Lump” Blackshear, my 8th grade basketball buddy who walked me across the tracks to the black neighborhood in my home town of Roselle, New Jersey back in the early 60’s. We went to each other’s houses, played ball, had a great time trying to out-insult the other. We had one year of hanging out before I went to another school and mostly lost contact with him until some 40 years later when we found each other on the Internet. We started to correspond and every person I asked about of our mutual African-American friends was a casualty of sorts—homeless, drug problems, been murdered, murdered someone. Lump was a survivor, but the stories of his companions were brutal, victims of the sickness of American racism. I met Lump in New Jersey back around 2002. I had my daughters with me and the first thing he said to them was, “You young ladies are gorgeous. You’re so lucky you didn’t take after your father!” We were back at it in a second!

Then came Avon Gillespie, my first Orff teacher who opened the door to my life that was to come. At the same time the Orff welcome mat was laid down, he also opened the door to another room in the house, the material from the Georgia Sea Islands. Here my voice started to crack as it so often does when I speak of Avon, telling the folks about his too-early demise from Aids at 51 years old and the many times I had wished he had lived to see what a remarkable baobob tree had sprung from the seeds he planted back in 1973. I could imagine him on this trip complaining a bit about the food or mosquitoes, but feeling more home in the dancing ring than he ever had before.

The next big influence, not counting the royal lineage of distant jazz musicians who mentored me into a world of Soul and Spirit, was the man sitting by my side, Kofi Gbolonyo. I am always uplifted and affirmed and delighted by every minute I’ve had the good fortunate to be in his company. On this trip more than ever before, I have been in awe of the bottomless well not only of his knowledge about the world—ranging from profound ethno-musicological insights to the history of much of Africa to how to make palm wine—but also the depth of his musicianship. This morning when Kofi danced, sang and played all the drum parts for our video cameras, I saw the full measure of his mastery, energy and spirit come forth in a way it never has giving Orff-Afrique workshops for the general public.

And the last was not just one person, but my two grandchildren Zadie and Malik Taylor as well as their father and step-brother, Ronnie and Alijah Taylor. Today is Malik’s 1st birthday and while sad to miss him smearing the obligatory cake and ice cream on his face, there’s something profound about me being in Africa on this day (and then Spain later the same day). I know some day someone is going to call Zadie or Malik a name and they will have to open the book to that sad, sad story of what it means to be black in America. I wish I could protect them from it, I wish they would never have to know the story of Emmett Till or the Birmingham bombing or Eric Garner or their dad’s own long list of stories, wish that the thought would never have to come up that their skin color is a problem to be solved.

Knowing that can’t be, the next best thing is to wish that they come to Ghana someday and not only feel skin color as a non-issue, but open to the full glory of their African inheritance, feel the full welcome of coming home to an essential part of themselves, feel the full pride that doesn’t come from a defensive slogan, but simply from the extraordinary spiritual blessings of a culture that has survived through its own colonial traumas and emerged with the Spirit intact.

Invoking Lump and Avon and Kofi and Zadie, Malik, Ronnie and Alijah, inviting them into the circle and imagining them holding hands together—well, that was a fine way to end this odyssey. Soon I will return to that land of sorrow where a black person who peacefully shows up at a Presidential candidate’s rally gets punched in the mouth just for being there and neither the assailant nor the candidate (who entices his followers to do more of the same) is held accountable. But in the face of that horror, I have the vision of these kids and the cleaning women and the grandmothers dancing, singing, playing, welcoming us with such warmth, generosity and joy. That counts for something.

9 bows to Ghana and I will be back. Hopefully with the Taylor family.

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