“Funga Alafia, Ashay ashay…”
I’m at it again. Standing in a circle with forty or fifty strangers singing a song I’ve sung countless times. At first, there’s the usual tension whenever a group of people gather to begin a venture. Once the first note is sung, things start to feel instantly different. Without a word spoken, we move through a series of steps until the air is charged with the intricate rhythms of drums, bells and shakers. Before we know how it happened, we’re singing and dancing in a circle. We crescendo to a soul-stirring conclusion, complete with drum rolls and shoulder massages, until the final chord leaps into an electric moment of silence, followed by a jubilant exhale. The workshop has begun.
Welcome to my life. I am a traveling music teacher, specifically a teacher of a rather esoteric approach to music, education and life known as Orff Schulwerk. I’ve begun teacher-training workshops with this song in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, China, Iceland, Oklahoma and some 30 other countries throughout the world. Same song, different people, different places. And yet the effect is always the same. A group of strangers quickly feel intimately connected, drawn into an instant community by the simple acts of holding hands, dancing, singing and playing music. The deep reasons why all people need music—to awaken the body, open the heart, stimulate the brain and extend the hand of friendship and welcome, are fulfilled in a mere 20 minute activity.
I have other opening shticks that accomplish the same, but this is one of the most powerful. Not only because the song is so eminently singable with little effort and charges the body through the long-cultivated genius of African rhythms, but because it’s a song that says what it means and means what it says on every level. Found in various West African countries (and many Orff workshops!), it seems to have come from the Hausa people in Nigeria. “Alafia” is a casual greeting of welcome, “Ashay” a deeper one, akin to the Indian “Namaste”—“the divine spirit in me greets the divine spirit in you.”
But not only does the text support the sense of welcome that the music makes physical, but there are the gestures as well. Touching your head, and extending the arms outward, touching the lips and extending the arms, touching the heart and extending the arms, and rubbing each hand in turn on the opposite forearm. And the gestures have a meaning:
“With my thoughts I greet you. With my words I greet you. With my heart I greet you. There’s nothing up my sleeve.”
So now we’re hit the feeling of welcome at all levels—music, words, gestures. And yet it goes yet one step further in the dance. Once the drums are playing, I lead the motions of the dance, but soon gesture to my neighbor to have a turn. So now the sense of welcome is amplified yet again as people show their own ways of moving and see themselves reflected as the large group copies them.
And so this is how I travel to other places these days. Not as a mere tourist taking in the sights or an amateur anthropologist charmed by quaint customs or a missionary selling a point of view or a product, but as one person in a circle of diverse people interested in finding out what we’re going to bring to the joint venture of dreaming the next stage of human culture. And since I mostly work with teachers, this is indeed our business. Not education as business as usual, passing on the tried and true and tired, initiating kids into the same-old-used-to-be, but exploring how we can draw from the confluence of our unique viewpoints to create a world of welcome. And so I come with “nothing up my sleeve.” No hidden weapon or agenda, just thoughts, words and heart aligned to simply say: “Here we are, all together in this room. What kind of world shall we make here?”
Of course, I’m not naïve enough to assume that a moment of communion in a song or five days in a workshop will burn off the dross of centuries of ethnic rivalry, national allegiances, religious stubbornness and just plain ornery human nature. But I take Gandhi’s suggestion to heart: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I may feel utterly helpless and thoroughly defeated trying to sway the political situation in the United States or even the politics of my own tiny school, but there’s a least one place where I can let the dreams run loose and have some measure of control over the feeling tone in a room—and that is in the classroom with my children and in the workshop with teachers. Part of this blog is about the discoveries we make there, from the moments of epiphany and jubilation to the sometimes sobering realities of combustible chemistries thrown together
Meanwhile, as a lifetime traveler who has wandered the world, I am perpetually fascinated by the variations of the same theme that cultures worldwide have composed. Human bodies everywhere begin the same, synapses in brains leap across the same channels, the need to work together, play together, worship together is the same wherever you look. But how those bodies begin to move, the specific routes in the brain that get lit up, the particular forms those universal needs take, is the living stuff of human diversity. One of the sadder stories of the human experiment is the way in which those differences divide us and set us snarling at each other across some field of “right ways and wrong ways.” And one of the most exciting stories I know is the way those differences can enlarge the conversation of human promise and make our life richer, more nuanced, more compassionate and more intelligent.
It’s the conversation between what seems exotic, strange and home that keeps travel—both kinds—so constantly stimulating and interesting. I can write about going to the jazz club in Bangkok on the ultra-modern Sky Train roaring past the old street markets and passing the man on the street walking his elephant and feel that this is somehow interesting. But why? It’s just business as usual to the folks there. But of course, we travel with the baggage of our point of view and always interpret the world from our own perspective. The point of view can be baggage in the negative psychological sense—or simply the items we bring from home to dress ourselves each day. Of course, I come to each trip with my own suitcases.
Truth be told, there is an anthropologist in my suitcase, eager to both observe and learn new customs, songs, dances, foods. There is a tourist wanting to see what is considered tourist-worthy, the monuments from the ancient glories (or atrocities) of the past. There is a missionary wanting to offer the Gospel of Orff education—and hopefully, sell a few of my products (my books!). (Note: wanting to “offer,” not forcibly convert!). There is even occasionally the traveler who just wants a nice beach to lie down on and retreat to my own private world of books or pursue my summertime fantasies of leisure. And finally, there is the author who spends hours pursuing the random thoughts constantly stampeding through his head and trying to corral them into some orderly and sensible interpretation of the world. Many times in these pages, a place or an experience will send me tripping down the Rolodex of my pet obsessions, particularly things like technology and human culture.(I’ll try to keep those dogs on a leash and where I fail, you can just stop reading!)
How many times have we thought, “Wait ‘till the folks back home see this!” Like all good travelers, I want to return to my friends and family and show them the slides of my trip. I hope there will be tantalizing food for thought in these pages to come, but my greatest hope is that the armchair traveler feel some of the pleasure that these travels are bringing to me. With apologies for the fossil fuel I’ve consumed and gratitude to my school and family for permission to go away (or was that
encouragement?), let’s set off. Ashay!