Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Kids in the Cafeteria

The World Music Festival has come and gone like a shooting star in the night sky and with the same sense of awe. “Amazing!” someone shouted out from the audience on Sunday’s show, but that word was far too small. I thought about asking my new-found friends from Azerbaijan, Kyrgystan, Burkina Faso and beyond for a word from their language that might capture the experience. I'll get back to you if they find one.

As beautiful as it was to share the stage with these fellow musicians from far and near, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone tended to huddle with their own group during the breaks. It reminded me of a book (or was it an article?) titled “Why the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria.” On the one hand, that title implies a failure of our vision of social harmony and a new world. On the other, it’s the most natural thing in the world, a non-negotiable part of our genetic make-up. I certainly believe in aspiring for something beyond the way the world currently works, but it must be based on the way human beings really are. (That’s why I couldn’t take the book “Siblings without Rivalry” seriously. I mean, dream on!) From the firm footing of how we’re put together, we can begin to ascend to our next level of possibility.

Let’s face it. We all gravitate to our own kind. Check out the school parent meetings, the boys and girls sitting in a circle, the people on the bus. We are magnetically drawn to those who look and talk and dress like us. Why? Probably something to do with our deep urge for stability, security, familiarity and a sense of belonging. That tendency is hard-wired, given to us for free. But the one we have to work on, the one that takes some effort, is the question of “How do we deal with the other?”

“You’re making history!” shouted out someone else at Sunday’s show and that was half-true. Because history mostly tells us, “Watch our for the Other!” And with good reason. When the Mongol Hordes or Christian Crusaders or McDonald’s Franchisers invaded, it didn’t always work out to invite them in for tea and ask them to teach you a song.

But as the Festival showed, that’s exactly what would have happened if they sent the musicians first instead of the soldiers or traders. This Festival—and many like it, including the Body Music Festival this weekend (check it out—— SF School kids perform on Sunday!)—is a step toward a new level of cultural exchange, one made possible by jet travel and electronic access and made necessary by a shared ecological crisis. The former shows us what a pleasure it is to start talking to each other and sharing the gifts of our particular culture, whether it be in musical sounds, words, images or dance steps. While rooted in the familiarity of what we know, it is thrilling to step toward new forms of expression. The latter suggests that such conversation is no longer a luxury, but a dire necessity. We'll need the collective wisdom and imagination of all people to deal with the challenges that lie before us.

The audience response to the show was their visceral intuition that the confluence of a cultures on the stage was that vision made tangible. A historical moment to move from his-story to our-story. But still,
what to do about the “tribal huddling” off-stage?

When we were rehearsing with the kids we took to Salzburg, I noticed that at every break, they divided up into separate corners as predicted—6th graders here, 7th there, 8th over there. But by the end of the week in Salzburg, that no longer happened. What changed? Time to hang out and do lots of different things—play cards together, go swimming together, go shopping together. That’s the next step for the World Music Festival. We should go on retreat and cook together, play volleyball, play games. To be fair, we did have some lovely together moments and fun mixing off-stage as well, playing some name games and singing some Halloween songs. We just need more time to mingle to bring the whole experience one step closer to the “we” we’re aiming for.

As for those kids in the cafeteria, I did have the remarkable experience of sitting with all those black kids in 8th grade because I made friends with Lumpy Blackshear. It was the beginning of a lifetime of trying to get to know “the other.” And what have I discovered?

There’s no such thing. We are all tied through our mutual joys and sorrows, dreams and failures, epiphanies and griefs. The accent may change, the rhythms may have different flavors, the melodies different scales, the cooking different spices— and Viva la Diferance! How deadly dull and boring it would have been for me to stay in the comfort zone of familiarity day after day! But after the initial thrill of the exotic, we’re all just folks struggling to make our way through a complex world. And we need each other to do it. All of us. 

PS Those wanting to view some of the show, go to:

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