Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Clean White Dot


Note to reader: One of the boring complaints people might make about Dzodze, Ghana is that the Internet is spotty. Compared to the deep richness of a culture that continues to astound me with its vitality, humanity, welcoming spirit, extraordinary music and dance, who cares? But just to explain that anyone interested in the chronic logical order of my comments on my experience here at Orff-Afrique needs to go two blogs back to the 99 Bottle Bender. I'll alert you if there's a similar lag in the future. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Yesterday, my teacher Kofi Gbolonyo shared one of the most revealing and heartbreaking stories I’ve heard in a long time. Would you like to hear it?

A short preface. Ignorance is always harmful, but when ignorance is married to power, the results are disastrous. In this case, the power of the media to spread ignorance far beyond a casual conversation at a dinner party and plant the destructive seed of malignant images. When I say media, I’m talking about playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, TV producers, film-makers, radio talk show hosts and though less powerful in terms of sheer numbers of people infected, priests, ministers, teachers. When people who know nothing about other people feel that they have the right to portray them and define them, that’s where the cancer begins to grow.

And so the story. Kofi was a guest at a school kindergarten and after doing some things with the children, gave them crayons and paper and said, “What comes to your mind when I say Africa? Draw me a picture.” Then he asked the children to explain their drawing and one little girl showed him a scribble scrabble chaotic drawing with a small white circle in the middle.

“All of the messy part is Africa. The clean white dot is you.”

Do you understand? Because she had met Kofi and she liked him and he was humanized because he was kind and friendly to her, he became the exception, the clean white dot amidst the chaos that at 5 years old, the media had already imprinted in her mind. That’s profound.

So that’s the deal. Anything that de-humanizes, that de-personalizes, that leans on stereotypes imposed by people who either purposefully plant them for their own privilege and political gain or ignorantly pass them on because they never challenged the images put into their brain, anything that fails to challenge those images, carries the damage forward. And conversely, anything that humanizes, makes personal, allows people to simply be themselves and speak on their own behalf, that challenges and asks us to think and feel beyond Tarzan and Little Black Sambo and what and how the news chooses to portray, is a step toward healing, towards erasing the jumbled scribble-scrabble of brainwashing. It not only helps heal the damage of ignorance, racism, purposefully perpetuated hatred and division, but enlarges our own world and opens our hearts to people, places and cultures that make us happier, more loving, more of our better selves.

And again to personalize it, we begin to make friends of people with names who we couldn’t imagine having never known. In my own case, my world would have been so much poorer and I would be so much smaller if I hadn’t met and known Lumpy, Avon, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Narayanan, Sainaba, I Wayan Suweca, Wolfgang, Sofia, Soili, Nanna Hlif, Rodrigo, Mayumi, Ga, Mom Dusdi, Hao Su, Cao Li, SK Kakraba, Estevao, Jacqueline, Ezo, Ade, Mandana and hundreds more who are not your typical Tom, Dick and Harry, and yet, at the bottom, share the same human possibilities and promise, frailties and vulnerabilities. All those clean white dots on my paper and far outnumbering the remnants of my Tarzan-like scribble-scrabbled upbringing.

So if you have been blessed with such friendships, have read the books and seen the movies that humanize people and places, have traveled to places that have shown you new ways to live and to enjoy this life, you have an extra responsibility to bring the good news to those still in the dark and to encourage them to refuse the mediated brainwashing that continues unchecked.

Now off to have breakfast with Miguelito, Thiago, Juno, Melonko and of course, Kofi.

A Good Idea

English reporter: “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”
            Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

We get off the bus and 50 children are standing with signs with someone’s name on it. We find our name, the child greets us warmly, shows us to our hotel room, comes back with us to the bus and helps us bring our luggage back to the room. By the time we return to the hotel courtyard, we are already fast friends. They start showing us one of the many games they play as they live their life like children everywhere used to—playing outside and playing games with other children of all ages—and now with adults. Soon the courtyard is filled with the explosive energy of some 100 kids and adults playing game after game and reluctant goodbyes when the kids have to go home to their families for dinner. That’s not a kind of welcome you see every day.

Today, we get off the bus and here the distant drumming and singing. As we get closer, we see some 40 women playing, singing and dancing with beautiful purple scarves and another 20 men (and some women) drumming to accompany the dance. Without a second’s hesitations, they take the hand of a complete stranger and lead them into the dancing circle to become part of the swirl of beautiful sound and motion. Smiles abound and more than a few of the Western visitors are teary-eyed by the quality of welcome and the power of the occasion.

Soon after, the district chief comes in and we sit down to begin a formal ceremony of welcome. Kofi, our leader, ritually asks permission for us to be welcomed into the community, which the chief happily grants. The chief’s assistant then pours a ritual libation on the ground to ask permission of the ancestors to accept us and apparently they do. Two years ago, the same chief  asked four of our African-American students to come forward and blessed them and welcomed them to their ancestral home. This time, one of them returned and got sit close to the chief in acknowledgment that he had returned again to his home. (An African-American man who has to daily worry about getting pulled over for the crime of “driving while black” and nervous about policemen who might shoot and kill without reprimand.) Each of the 50 of us in the Orff-Afrique Course than got to come up one by one to shake hands with the chief and received a gift of a bracelet to remind us that he was happy to greet us and again, welcome us. More dancing and drumming and then off to lunch at Kofi’s extended family’s house, with a whole other set of open-armed welcome.

All of it feels so right without any self-conscious falderal about who cool these people were because they were so welcoming. It just was as simple as, “You are a visitor to a new place, a stranger in a strange land that should not feel strange because we see that you are a human being like us and we want to start any possibility of relationship with a sense of warmth and welcome. Why not? We don’t know you and perhaps you might be coming to take something from us or do us harm, but we won’t begin from that cynical assumption. Let’s start with the idea that indeed you come “with nothing up your sleeve” and enjoy our brief time together.

Meanwhile, back in the country where I come from, people trying to cross a border are being arrested and their children of all ages ripped away from their parents and put in detention camps of sorts with no sense of security that they will see their parents again. Yes, the situation is quite different, but really, how different? The bottom line is the simple humanity required to welcome someone is crossing the border because things are dangerous back home or they’re in search of a better life. And yes, it might be that we need to politely deny entrance because of limited resources and such, but there’s nothing in the manual that says we need to be as cruel as we are at the moment.

So here is an African-style welcome that far exceeds the generosity and good faith and simple humanity of our usual welcome to guests/tourists/ visitors and yet the majority of American people would parrot back their brainwashed images of Africans as underprivileged, violent, starving, dangerous and generally below the standard of us enlightened Americans. And they would parrot back the same brainwashed images of Americans as the best people in the world living the most enlightened and civilized lives. And they would be wrong twice. Terribly wrong.

Of course, there are welcoming Americans and devious Ghanaians, but here I’m talking about culture. What’s valued, what’s developed, what’s paid attention to. I know I’m failing miserably to convey the full effect of there three welcomes we’ve received in just two days and the stark, sad contrast with what our Toddler-in-Chief has set in motion with immigrant families, but take a moment to imagine each and then ask yourself: Who is the civilized group here? Who is the more decent kind of citizen? Who is the more humane culture?

Think about it.

99 Bottle Bender

“99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer.
Take one down, pass it around.
98 bottle of beer on the wall.…”  Etc.

Variation within repetition is one of my mantras for successful music teaching. The repetition makes sure that the myelin gets laid down to secure the synaptic connections in the brain that defines all remembered learning. The variation insures that the brain’s hunger for novelty gets fed and new connections made that criss-cross through each other to move from facts to knowledge to wisdom. If you start to learn and live this way, the results are impressive.

Some 30 years ago, I was playing piano at a school Christmas party and started to spin off into musical variations of Frosty the Snowman. Some jazzy, some Bach’ish, some Beethoven’ish, some Latin jazzy and so on. A few years ago, I play the Itsy Bitsy Spider for a friend’s toddler and started spinning off into similar variations. For my teaching, I came up with a shtick with Bach’s Minuet in G, modulating through a variety of keys, changing the tempo and the meter, creating melodic variations with first the right hand, then the left, then both and so on.

So today, I was on a bus with some 40 music teachers traveling from Accra, Ghana to Dzodze and naturally, we started singing. One teacher led us through a stunningly beautiful two-part song from Zimbabwe and after, I made the kind of stupid joke I like to make—“Let’s sing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall!!” When I was a kid, much to the horror of my teachers, my friends and I used to do this on the few bus field trips our school made. (Perhaps that’s why they didn’t make so many?)

One minute later, the ukulele player started singing it and truth be told, with the ukulele backing it with chords, good singing voices and some hip harmony, the song actually sounded pretty great. But by the time we got to 80, it was starting to wear thin. But no worry. I suggested changing the key and the tempo and when we got to 70, we changed to the 12-bar blues style and then at 60, to a 1950’s rock doo-wop. 50 found us singing in waltz time, 40 in a minor key in a Linda Ronstadt Mexican ranchero style, 30 like a Brazilian ciranda (helped by our three teachers from Brazil). 20 was in a Turkish scale with a classic dumbek bass rhythm and the final 10 in the pentatonic scale a la Orff Schulwerk arrangement. Quite a tour de force!! And unlike my piano variations above, so fun to do it collective as group singing. After ingesting 99 bottles of joyfully sung beer, I was as high as a kite without the side effects of vomiting, hangovers, increased beer belly and doing and saying embarrassing things I would later regret.

We passed a sign today that said: Monetize Your Creativity! So if you ever have a long bus ride/ car ride/ train ride and want to hire some musicians to lead your group through 99 varieties of this incredible song, I’m your guy!! Give me a call at “G-o-t- B-e-e-r!?”

Can’t wait for our bus trip tomorrow! I think we’ll lead off with “This Is the Song That Never Ends.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Beyond Wipe-Out


I know I’m dating myself, but anyone remember the drum solo from Wipe-Out, that 1963 hit by the Surfaris? When I heard that, I thought it was just about the coolest thing possible. Next on my “Wow! That’s amazing!” list some 5 years later was the extended drum solo on the Iron Butterfly’s Inna God da Da Vida. Then I got a bit more sophisticated in my young adulthood, listening with awe to Gene Krupa’s opening solo on Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing.

All of this was the great great great grandchild of drumming from Mother Africa, but watered down by some ten parts to one. Tonight more people arrived in Accra for our Orff-Afrique adventure and as a surprise party for his wife Rosemary, our fearless leader Kofi hired a group to drum and dance. As always when I hear a Ghanaian drum ensemble, I feel like I’m witnessing something profoundly complex, nuanced and energetic. This time I listened more with my language-conversation than my mathematical-patterns ears and it made more sense, but was not one ounce less astonishing. The dialogues between the two master drummers were constantly changing and shifting and always in complete accord with each other and surfing on top of the wave of set patterns played by the supporting drums, without, as that old song says, “wiping out.”

Following the language metaphor, the Surfari’s Wipe-Out solo was akin to a toddler speaking his or her first sentences and the Ghanaian drum choir was Shakespeare all the way. But so few folks know a single thing about this highly-evolved art form, including the nuanced and changing dance moves according to the master drummer’s signals, and are content to just randomly shake their booties to a Americanized two-or-three part non-changing groove.

And then there’s the Drum Circle phenomena. Mostly middle-aged middle-class white folks so thrilled to play a few simple patterns that fit together who think they’ve tapped into some ancient vital power of the drums. Well, I don’t want to insult it too deeply as I know and respect some of the teachers and hey, anything that brings music and togetherness and community to people is a good thing, yes? But somehow it feels important for them to know that they’re playing something akin to Hamlet’s Cliff Notes for Preschoolers and at least get a taste of just how intricate and dynamic and complex and worthy of a few lifetimes of study just about any African drum tradition is, particularly in this case, the repertoire of the Ewes.

We remain so woefully ignorant of the intelligence and accomplishment and highly-developed cultures of the African continent, having a hard time shaking out those Tarzan movies images of laughable primitives. But if you really tried to play successfully—and sing and dance— a single piece in the Ewe repertoire, at the right tempo and for the hour or two of non-stop playing-dancing, it would be impossible to come away with anything but the highest respect for a culture that could reach this level of complexity, virtuosity, listening, responding. It simply boggles the mind. Some remarkable jazz drummers can weave stories at high levels of technique in their drum solos akin to these conversational masterpieces, but I truly believe that they would be just one of the crowd here, just as Michael Jackson would be had he jumped into the dancing circle. And I find that extraordinary.

So this my little attempt here to “wipe-out” the ignorance surrounding this continent and inspire your curiosity. Not that you could now listen to one of these drum choirs and understand what’s going on. Like anything unfamiliar, it probably would just sound like a lot of random beating to you. You would need to be guided as to what to listen for and of course, how to play, sing and dance so that it begins to make sense. And that’s why you need to start saving money now for “Orff-Afrique 2020!”

Red Red

Spent a lazy morning in my Accra hotel, trying to get the body re-balanced after 22 hours of flying. Most of the group got up at 4am to go see the slave castle at Elmira, but since I had seen it and couldn’t imagine yet more hours in transport, I opted to stay here. After a morning of puttering, set out with a friend who also stayed back in vague search of lunch and found a lovely place with seats out on the porch and an equally lovely waiter helping us decide what to order.

Along with my fresh lime/ginger/mint  drink, I decided on Red Red, a dish with fried plantains and specially prepared beans. Delicious! And that got me thinking about other foods with repeat words. With a little help from the Internet, came up with:

• Gado-gado— Indonesian salad with shrimp chips, tofu and peanut sauce
• Cous-cous— Middle Eastern grain
• Fu-fu— the go-to Ghanaian yam-type dish.
• Mahi-mahi— a kind of fish.
• Shabu-shabu—Chinese/ Japanese hot pot dish
• Peri-peri— a pan-African hot chile pepper

So I’m imagining a dinner with all of the above and the guests required to make an Orff-style speech piece before getting to eat. Something like:

Gado-gado, Cous-cous, Shabu-shabu, Fu-fu
Mahi-mahi, Peri-peri, Red red, Yum!!

Well, I went on to make a speech piece on Sibelius, but can’t figure out how to share it on this blog. So go make up your own. And then get cooking!