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!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Tactics of Evasion

Amidst many, many, many shameful things about the current Cad-ministration, the refusal to answer straightforward questions is worth noticing. I believe there must be a guerilla training camp somewhere where these people gets schooled in a course called Tactics of Evasion.  Here is a sampling of their strategies:

The Jeff Sessions Amnesia Method: “I do not recall.”

The Sarah Huckabee-Sanders Stepford-Wife Mantra Method: “Your question is irrelevant because “The President did nothing wrong. The President did nothing wrong. The President did nothing wrong. The President did nothing wrong.”

The Besty DeVos Stick to the Script Method: Questioner: “Please answer this question with either the word yes or no.” Devos: “Our committee has produced a 20-point action response that………….” “Yes or no!” “Our 20-point action response looks at…”

The Sean Spicer Disappearance Method: “Mr. Spicer, can you comment on…. Huh? Mr. Spicer? Sir, where are you?” Bystander: “Check the bushes.”

The Jeff Sessions Bible Method: “And Jesus said, ‘ for the law requires that you cruelly take innocent children from their parents and you must obey thy heavenly Father.’”

The Donald Trump It’s-All-About-Me Method: “Thank you for the question because now I can show you that my answers are the greatest! Nobody, and I mean nobody, can give answers like me and respects questions as much as I do. What was that question again?”

I am waiting for the day when all of the above are gathered in a room and told:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you by the court. With these rights in mind, are you still willing to talk with me about the charges against you?

Let their tactics of evasion answer that question!!!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Drums, Not Guns


I suppose my whole life I’ve been looking for Paradise. The perfect house, the perfect school, the perfect mate, the perfect culture. Instead I’ve found what we all have—that all heavens are mixed with a generous dose of hell and vice-versa. That all things brightly lit cast a shadow and that good and bad are a dappled path, always inextricably mixed with each other.

When I first ventured out of my Leave It to Beaver mythological paradise, I began to notice and discover so much that was missing in my home culture. First in Europe, where two-hour lunch breaks and long picnics with extended family was valued more than getting ahead in the rat race. A place where a glorious historical past lived side by side with the present. Glorious with artwork, architecture, music, literature, that is. The cultures that actually spawned the sacred masses of Ockeghem to Bach, the paintings from Giotto to Da Vinci to Picasso, the literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Cervantes to Yeats and so on, were every bit as brutal and horrific in terms of things like tolerance and social justice.

Then in Asia, where the “mysterious East” offered multiple pathways of spirituality distinct from the narrow Christian viewpoint, where new glories of music from Indian raga to Balinese gamelan to Japanese Shakuhachi opened my ears yet further, where festivals were colorful and plentiful, where food was different from meat and potatoes, where literature could now include Japanese haiku and so on. And again, wave after wave of brutal empires, invasions, feet-binding of women, atrocities, the whole unending nightmare of history.

And then Africa. The roots of so much music found in the U.S. and the source of an extraordinary resilience, kinesthetic genius and bodily presence, community bonding through music and dance and so on. Here, the victims of the world’s brutalities, but also the perpetrators as well—think Idi Amin, Rwanda, Sudan and so on.

Constantly critical of my own home culture (a practice of love and caring, by the way), I’ve always been so thrilled to discover these other possibilities not in our playbook. And let me confess—I have often leaned too far to the side of romanticizing such cultures, holding them up as the way we all should be and conveniently excusing or not noticing their own shadows that deserve attention. For example, I wrote this on Facebook today:

And so on Father's Day, I'm off to one of my grandchildren's Motherland—Ghana, West Africa, for the 4th time. A place where music and dance abound, where culture counts more than machines and money, where drums are the norm and guns the aberration, where children are both playful and respectful and where everyone greets you with a generous welcome. Miawoezo!

All of the above is true, but the greater truth is that every culture has something worthy to offer and every culture, without exception, including Switzerland, has a shadow side. The point is not to idealize any one culture, but to celebrate the practices within all cultures that offer health, happiness, beauty and justice. Ghana has many such practices, but from my point of view, it has some work to do in tolerance of homosexuality, improving schools and education, expanding options for women. I’m sure if I lived there, I would start talking about those things more. 

But meanwhile, it feels right to let the American public know that this “shithole country” has so much to teach us about human decency and healthy community. One of the more impressive stories I heard from my friend Kofi is that in his home town of Dzodze (where I’m headed), there have been two murders by guns in the last 45 years. Two. And one was an accident. And in both cases, the community ceased business as usual and came together to consider where they had failed as a culture and began a healing process through music and dance. From my point of a view, where any day in the U.S. is an occasion for another shooting (just read today about 20 wounded in New Jersey), where the madness has trickled down to murdering innocent school children, where the NRA merrily marches along unchecked and now gleefully recommends that teachers carry guns (good business for them), where there is very little time taken to seriously discuss what’s going on and gather for healing ceremonies, where prominent politicians make fun of and put down the Parkland victim’s schoolmates who tried to do what the adults have failed to do, the question must be asked, “Who is the real shithole country here?” 

If we had an ounce of sense and moral obligation, we would bring in Ghanaian community members to train us to re-order our priorities. The group could be called, “DRUMS NOT GUNS.” Drums give young people the power they seek, a power that is life-affirming, that brings Spirit into the group, that connects people to each other, that gets people up and dancing. People who dance with each other find it hard to hate each other, to harm each other, to kill each other.

Maybe I’ll find some ambassadors on this trip and begin a world tour, starting with the U.S.A.
Any invitations?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Unconditional—No, Make That Conditional— Love


I’m still thinking about Mister Rogers. I confess that when I went to Wikipedia to find out more about the man, I was nervous that he would have some terrible skeleton in his closet— accused of pedophilia or abusive to his wife or neglectful of his children. Imagine my dismay when I indeed discovered something and it turned out to be worse than all of the above. Yes, according to Wiki (deserves fact-checking), he was “a lifelong Republican.!!!!!!”

Now if you happen to be Republican—not likely if you’re reading this Blog, but certainly possible and I kind of hope you are—I imagine a knee-jerk reaction and you’re ready to fire back your Libtard Rhetoric. And I don’t blame you. I have just insulted your Party and that does not make for respectful dialogue.

But here’s the deal. Your leader has recently torn innocent children from families. On the pretext of “taking a shower,” kids of “illegal immigrants” were taken away from their parents with no guarantee they will ever see them again. The shower imagery is a little too close to the Nazi shower story for my comfort. Or yours.

Now imagine how Mister Rogers would have felt about this. I can’t quite put together how a man of his values could vote for Nixon, Reagan or either Bush, but stranger things have happened. But don’t you think this might have crossed a line? And shouldn’t it for any decent human being of any political party allegiance? Not to mention your leader consorting with known dictators who have murdered some of their own family and consistently shut down human rights. Not to mention unabashedly sleeping with prostitutes (allegedly-ha ha) soon after his wife had just given birth to their son. Not to mention using a talk to the Boy Scouts to make fun of Hilary Clinton. Well, I’m just warming up here. The list is so long and yet this guy is still in the White House and it’s to the shame of all Republicans who continue to support him. Are they any Republican supporters like Mister Rogers left?

In fact, Mister Rogers was taken to task by right-wingers for telling children they were worthy of love “exactly as they were,” thus, making them "entitled, lazy, privileged."And he was accused of supporting Satan because he didn’t speak out against gay people. You know, the usual lovely Christian sentiment of the far— and now not so far—Right. Which is always wrong.

Consider Trump trying to understand what was actually being said here. His interpretation—and that of so many of his supporters—goes something like this:

“I love you exactly the way you are, as long as you’re:

    • A woman with a hot body.
    • A Christian who hates all the other fake gods.”
    •  Someone who adores me and should learn to stand up with a salute like my buddies Kim and
    Adolf.
    • Rich.
    • Super-rich. (But not as rich as me.)
    • Not an immigrant from a shithole country. 
    • Not a loser like those fake war heroes who got captured.
    • Not one of those intellectual types who cares about facts and thinks science is real.
    • White.
    • Heterosexual. Extra-points if the Me Too Movement is angry with you.
    • Willing to kneel before me. But not at the beginning of a football game.

So in your face, Mister Rogers! You see how I love people exactly as they are as long as they’re exactly like me. And if not, they’re losers and who could love a loser? Only another loser like you!”

PS. Don’t forget to tell the kids on your show to vote for me next election. Oh, your show isn’t running anymore? Did Frederick Douglas take it over? Oh, you’re dead? Or is this more fake news? Anyway, it’s a beautiful day in all the neighborhoods where I have real estate. Too bad you can’t enjoy it anymore.”