After three glorious weeks, I will leave Ghana to resume my workshop life in Spain. To be honest, I love teaching workshops, sharing the fruits of over four decades of teaching children, having some status and authority and expertise which I (hopefully) don’t use to feed ego, but instead to keep the work moving forward. I like being in charge of the temporary community and having the floor to tell stories, affirm and celebrate the participants, challenge us all to dig deeper and reach higher and consider the long-term effects of our work in creating a vibrant culture and community.
But here in Ghana, I’m back in kindergarten. First in the Orff-Afrique Course surrounded by the extraordinary drumming and dancing of the local folks, with complex fast-tempo polyrhythms that I’m beginning to hear better and understand better and play better. But “beginning” is the key word here.
And then after a few days free in Accra, I returned to the White Dove Hotel as a student in Keith Terry’s 10th International Body Music Festival. I’m surrounded by people who have mastered the intricacies of complex body percussion joined with inspired vocal singing and stitched together with dance, drama, mime and more. In the Orff world, I’m a pretty hot body percussionist. Here I’m back in kindergarten. And singing with conviction and intonation has always been a challenge, so that doesn’t get me into first grade. I keep telling myself this is good for me and I do believe it is. But damn, it sure calls up all one’s self-doubt and compare-and-despair habits.
So tonight when there was an opportunity for an open mic, I wisely decided not to do some body music or sing! Had there been a piano, I would have done that, but no such luck. So instead I decided to recite Langston Hughes’ long, extraordinary and prophetic poem “Let America Be America Again.” I had memorized it some years back and once a year or so, take it off the shelf and dust it off and see if I can re-awaken those synapses in the old brain. (Do check it out—written in 1938, it’s sadly as true 80 years later as it was then.)
Now here’s the deal with these truly remarkable artists here, both teachers and “students.” When there’s something like an open mic, what people want to see is not just virtuosity, though that is always appreciated. They want to see risk, communication, someone present in the experience with others, someone willing to be vulnerable and show their beauty. On one hand, I was criticizing myself for not taking more a musical risk, but at the same time that people want to see you be vulnerable and take risks, they don’t actually want to see it when you’re not ready.
So I wisely stuck with the poem and sharing the things I’ve been thinking about and writing about a lot this trip and indeed, most of my life. America’s beautiful vision of what could be hampered by the constant mistake and repetition of the greed, arrogance, prejudice and hatred that constantly cloud that vision. Langston’s poem deals with both sides.
I gave a short prelude of how difficult it is to be an American these days, especially in the face of the contrast of this warm and welcoming Ghanaian culture who have cared and tended so many practices that have worked and not sold themselves down the river. And then launched into reciting the memorized poem, with only a few stumbles along the way. I was hoping that someone would affirm that this was worthwhile to share and if they didn’t, I wouldn’t have been crushed. But in fact several did and some confessed a teary moment or two. So as an outsider of sorts in this world of body/vocal musicians connected to my Orff universe, I was able to find a little place to contribute. For one moment, I wasn’t in kindergarten anymore.
Congratulations to Keith Terry for his extraordinary dedication, hard work and good fortune to gather such a group together. And thanks to all for letting me be a part of it.