Sunday, June 29, 2014

Farewell to Ghana

Ghana continues to echo in my mind and heart, but now I’m in Verona and want to be wholly here to receive its gifts as well. Like the Nocciola (hazelnut) gelato I treated myself to while walking along the river. So some final random observations and impressions from this most marvelous country:

• Kofi told us that there had been one murder by gun in Dzodze in the last 40 years. One. The community responded with days of healing music and dance and long discussions to determine why such an outrage to human life and the community would happen and thoughts about what they could do to make sure it didn’t happen again. I repeat: One.

• In the midst of one drumming class, Kofi shared the story of how a drum is made. A tree is chosen, libations poured and then the tree is asked if it is willing to sacrifice its life and if all the animals that make it it’s home are willing to give it up. If during this ceremony an animal appears, it is a sign to find another tree. A similar process happens with the antelope that gives its skin. Both the tree and the antelope are assured that their voices will live on in another form. There are more details like that, with attention to the incontrovertible fact that be it food or wood for building, we live on the deaths of others and ask their forgiveness and permission. (I’m imagining a Ghanaian consultant training Walmart to do such ceremonies before taking away valuable animal habitat to build an ugly building filled with unnecessary goods made by sweatshop workers far away so they can make big profits). The next time we played drums after that story, I felt the presence of the trees and antelopes joining the conversation and believe that it contributed to the power of the music.

• In yet another spontaneous lecture, Kofi gave an overview of Ewe cosmology, the importance of the trinity in its many forms (birth, life, death, amongst others), the belief that we each are charged with a particular reason for our incarnation, which often means completing the work are ancestors didn’t get to complete. I found the ideas completely consistent with the best of Buddhism, poetic insights from Rilke, Rumi, Yeats and countless others, Martin Prechtel’s sharing of Guatemalan Mayan culture. We think the world’s religious impulses can be reduced to Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and a few more, but there are elaborate systems of spiritual thought and practice that most of us will never hear of every bit as profound and inspired. Westerners have long gone to India to find their Guru, but they could do just as well to go to Ghana. And learn to drum and dance in the process!

• Funeral notices are posted everywhere with photos and headings like “Called home” or “What a shock” (if they died young). I noticed that one woman was 102 years old.

• Brass band, church choirs, drum ensembles, xylophones (that we brought in from the north) and more. The range of music and musical styles within a homogenous people is impressive (though not as broad as the U.S. with it’s European classical, jazz, rock, pop, country, old-timey, Tex-mex, etc. etc. reflecting our heterogenous mix.)

• Fu-fu, panko, red-red, malt guiness, fried plantain, chicken, mango, banana.

• Smiling, friendly children, all ages hanging out together, babies on the back tied with a scarf, chickens in the church.

• Surprisingly, few mosquitoes and not too hot and always shade in the outdoor gatherings.

• In the midst of my unchecked enthusiasm for the culture I've witnessed, I'm writing this on Gay Pride Day and would be remiss not to offer my hope that Ghana formally expand its notion of a culture of inclusion by welcoming the gay folks hidden amongst them. Fear of the "other" in any form is debilitating to the ones that fear and crippling to the ones forced to hide parts of who they are.
Here is something worthy to learn from the West (though clearly many in America who still need educating).

• In talking about a noted music teacher in the U.S., people say, “I love her stuff,” revealing our consumer mentality. In Europe they say, “I love her ideas and artistry,” revealing an intellectual and aesthetic culture. In Ghana they say, “She is giving something valuable to the community,” revealing a culture where talent and originality is appreciated but not revered and only completed when it turns back toward the community— thus, Kofi and Sofia named “The King and Queen of Cultural Development” in acknowledgment of their efforts to bring further musical training to the children of Dzodze.

• In short, why do I admire so much of what I have seen in this remote area in the Volta region of Ghana? Because they model all the things I’ve come to care about and tried to create in my own little school community in San Francisco and re-create in each workshop I give wherever I may be: 
A culture of connection, a culture of meaning, a culture of community, a culture of participation, a culture of welcome.

May it continue far into the future!

Wake Up. Mr. Toynbee

The historian Arnold Toynbee once famously said, “Africa has produced nothing of consequence to civilization.” I wish Mr. Toynbee had been in this Orff-Afrique course. I believe Kofi and myself and others might have widened his narrow vision and opened his eyes to expand his criteria of what constitutes civilization.

He may have been thinking of writing systems and literacy and novels and poetry and dismissed an entire continent based on that. But what is the point of literacy? To store, remember, pass down through time and pass across borders information vital to survival (the details of science and technology), instructive of character and morality (the Bible, Emily Post) and aesthetically pleasing to the human spirit (the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, the poetry of Emily Dickenson). I hope that Mr. Toynbee would come to understand that there is an oral approach that accomplishes all of the above, storing information in human bodies, minds and hearts through music, dance, proverbs and poetry. Its reach is not as far across borders as a book, but when practiced unbroken in community, it passes through time every bit as effectively and requires a collective memory that makes a living community necessary and vibrant. (And in fact, its spirit did travel far across borders in the African diaspora, but cut loose from the specific stories that informed character and preserved the integrity of the community.) Mr. Toynbee might also consider that literacy from its inception was a way to keep track of slaves, was a key factor in colonialism (no oral culture ever colonized a literate one) and helped build nuclear weapons. While dismissing an entire continent because they favored orality over literacy, he might do well to keep that in mind.

He may have been thinking of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries and medicines and yes, you would be hard put to find examples in history of such things happening in sub-Saharan Africa, partly because of the preference for oral culture (see above). So while medicines for malaria, flush toilets, electricity, internal combustion engines and the like are to be appreciated, the unchecked proliferation of energy consumption, guns in the hands of children, air conditioners depleting ozone and the like is surely not the highest standard we can think of to measure civilization.

Or he may have been thinking of great monuments like the pyramids (which, by the way, are in Africa) and the Taj Mahal, conveniently overlooking that they were build by slaves in brutal working conditions. Or the big skycrapers in New York made possible by commerce in the new world built on the backs of African slaves and continued through sweat-shop exploitation in the third world. Is this what you mean by civilization, Mr. Toynbee?

Mr. Toynbee is not alone in looking at the world through the narrow lens of his cultural assumptions, but we all would do well to be aware of those inherited assumptions and consider a wider point of view. From where I stand, the culture I witnessed that puts music and dance at its center, that invests every gesture and sound with a cultural and morally instructive meaning, that creates eloquent, expressive, dynamic and graceful bodies in every one of its community members (never once saw anyone who looked clumsy when dancing), that continues unbroken the traditions of immediate and distant ancestors while continuously changing them and adding to them in response to the needs of the moment, that welcomes everyone— even awkward Western tourists— to come join the circle and participate, that equally includes everyone from the baby to the great-grandparent, that plays, sings and dances together for hours and hours without losing stamina, that is bound to community through these profound practices of song and dance, that is not prone to worship the “super-star” but looks for who will give back their individual success to the good of the community… well, Mr. Toynbee, don’t you think that this living model might contribute something of consequence to our ailing civilization? Don’t you think that those 74 children who randomly shot and killed other children and then themselves in the United States of America this past year might have had a happier childhood growing up in Dzodze, Ghana?

Dzodze and its culture has its own shadow, so I need to be wary of putting too much weight on the ideal of music and dance at the center of community life. But from where I sat, it looked and felt mighty good! And most importantly, was worthy of appreciation and consideration as to how to bring back some of its lessons into our lessons with children at school. To complete the mind-expanding (and body and soul) tour with Mr. Toynbee, I would also invite him into the music room at The San Francisco School.

I’d like to think that he would happily eat his words— alongside a helping of Fufu and red-red sauce.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Closing Circle

The day that began with this morning’s entry at rooster crow is drawing to a close with a replay of the U.S. / Germany World Cup game on the TV screen in the airport lounge. It was a long bus ride that included a short ferry trip, chatting with the women with their incredible wares on their heads while waiting for the boat, a man pounding fufu, the Volta River flowing by. Fun games on the bus— the kind where you have to guess a pattern and usually look for something quite complicated only to discover the simple key. (Things like “I like coffee, but not tea. Kittens, but not cats. Jazz but not blues.” Get it? It’s all about double letters.) Very nice vibe with these folks that have been around each other 24/7 for some two weeks and still enjoying each other. Closing my eyes to nap, I heard the murmur of conversation like a gentle flowing music and it was lovely.

Finally we arrived at the Lincoln International School, stretched our legs, had a little lunch with salad! Then the Orff instruments in a big circle on an outdoor verandah and the chance to apply things we learned on the 21 Ghanaian xylophones (gyils) to the Orff instruments. Fascinating how the buzzing sound of the gyils, at first harsh to Western ears, became the norm and the Orff instruments sounded a bit wimpy with their “pure” tone. But still, it sounds pretty good and helped everyone understand how to adopt and adapt. This whole phenomenon of the grandparents of the Orff instruments coming full circle as the latter play the former’s music, is an entry in itself. Not now.

14 kids came, James and I led them in some xylophone improvisation and they did well.
No fancy tricks, no complicated sequence, just plunk your hands down and search for the secret song inside the xylophones. How will they know they’ve found it? Simple. By listening. And then their mind needs to click in and try to remember any patterns that have emerged. Easy as that— explore with your hands, listen with your ear, remember and keep shaping with your mind. The kids get it— and some good music emerges. But because it’s so simple— like those punch lines in the bus games— we miss it and come up with national standards and core curriculums.

And so it came time for the closing circle. Lovely, short sharings about people’s key moments and profound experiences and lots of tears flowing. I delivered most of mine in a high incomprehensible voice because the occasion was too large for me. Tying together my legacy with my first African-American Orff teacher, Avon Gillespie, to meeting SK and Kofi  and all the myriad threads that tied me to Africa, these two weeks were like the kente cloth of my life’s mission, weaving them all together into a glorious and colorful pattern. Each day was extraordinary on multiple levels and words simply fall short. Nothing to say but “Akpfe!” and offer my gratitude to all who made the first Orff-Afrique Course— which is to say everyone who came and everyone who welcomed us—the resounding success it was. Hope and healing is restored to our broken world and how lucky that I got to be a part of it!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Culture of Participation

I’ve always been a big picture guy and one can read my large sweeping abstractions about human health and happiness and never get a feeling for the actual time and place I’m in. Truth be told, the writing and traveling I love best is just sitting and observing, take my obsessive thoughts out of the picture and just report what I see and hear, with a sprinkling of commentary rather than a big heaping portion. So sitting on the steps of the Freedom Hotel in Ho serenaded by the roosters that woke me each morning at 4:30, the sky brightening ever so slowly in the East, the hustle and bustle of our 40 plus troupe wheeling suitcases down to the bus with bleary-eyed greetings. The morning birds are joining the roosters and the day is awakening to its promise.

Yesterday, most of the group went to see the process of weaving and printing fabric, something I did often with my weaver (back then) wife in the back alleys of places around the world. I stayed back with a group of 8 for a composition project on the Ghanaian xylophones that bore ripe musical fruit and was served up in a story I did with my kids a while back (1987, to be precise, the year the youngest member of our group here was born!). We presented the story—The King of Togo Togo— in the afternoon and involved the others, much to everyone’s delight. Then a review from Kofi and Prosper and Benzola, our esteemed Ghanaian teachers, of every drum pattern and dance step and the relationships between them, videoed for future reference. And then, some went to pack drums they bought while the rest of us had … free time!!! It may be summer and this may be Ghana time, but these two weeks have been intense and heavily scheduled.

So it was a welcome moment to pretend I was on vacation and sit by the side of the swimming pool with a book. At least until the Ghana World Cup game was on and then off to the outdoor TV to cheer them on. Alas, to no avail!!! Dinner and then a concert from the parish of the local Catholic church, a curious blend of Western style singing in the head voice with the ubiquitous drums and dancing. One of the highlights was a fabulous man dancer, getting' down with such joy, abandon and impressive moves. Kofi told us that he in training to be a Catholic priest. Yet another moment of possibilities that we simply can't imagine— a get-down dancing priest?—until we witness it and then, if we have any sense, think, "Well, why not?" At the end, we sang a song to them and within a minute, the men rushed to the bass section and women to the soprano to pick up on the parts, which they did quickly and expertly. Another example of the culture of participation and welcome.

Speaking of which, one of my favorite moments of the concert was a little toddler wandering out onto the “dance floor” to join in on the drums and dances and everyone welcoming him to join in. In my weird world, someone would probably say with annoyance, “Could the parent of this child please get him?!! We have a concert going on!” A good time to tell my story of the TMEA Music Educators Conference in Texas with some 15,000 music teachers gathered and sign outside the auditorium that said, “No children under 2 allowed.” Ladies and gentlemen, that is the difference between a culture of exclusion and a culture of participation, between a culture that understands music education (and ALL of education) begins in the womb and continues unbroken with each moment an opportunity and a culture that waits to line kids up in desks and reduce them to data and results on papers or screens.

Ah, but there I go again. What about the local trees, the palm wine, the practice of polygamy, the name of this bird singing so beautifully? What does the armchair traveler know or feel about the details of this place and time reading these blogs? Not much, but in my defense, I’ve been busy teaching and help organize this group of lovely, fun and dedicated music teachers. And now onto Accra for our final day of formal class!

It’s a culture of participation— want to join us?

Scarcity and Abundance

In my bookshelf at home is an old tattered copy of the book Walden and another of Whitman’s poems, Leaves of Grass.  Both smell of old paper and bring me to the moments I read them on hot New Jersey nights with the fan blowing in my room. Nearby in my front room are some of the first records I bought— Dave Brubeck, Bob Dylan, Incredible String Band and a Nonesuch collection of music from around the world. Each one an icon in my emerging selfhood that both helped shape me and reflect that moment in time— and thus, precious. I joke with my children about who will inherent the wooden spoon I bought at the San Francisco Zen Center garage sale for 25 cents back in 1973, my first attempt to stock a kitchen as a new adult and still useful to serve up brown rice.

Growing up, we had a modest income and though we never wanted for anything, a book or record or new baseball glove was something yearned for, worked for, hoped for and deeply valued once it came into our life. As a young adult living in voluntary poverty (with parents in the background to bail me out and again, always a roof over my head and enough to eat in the refrigerator), each possession acquired was prized.

In the past few years, I’ve sometimes gone out of my way to buy or make something special for a student at my school and lately, I get the sense that it instantly gets mixed in with a mountain of stuff and quickly forgotten. The kids I work with have much more than any kid needs and I believe it creates a deflation in the value of each thing. And the current media trends work against this sensibility as well— nostalgia for the downloaded song from i-Tunes and the moment of the download ain’t quite the same thing as that prized record. Likewise, the ephemeral Kindle book.

The other day, Sofia collected the gifts people had brought and bagged them for the 40 plus Nunya Academy kids— pencils, notebooks, books, little toys, a recorder each and T-shirt. They came back last night to play brass band music for us and many thanked folks for the gifts and showed off what they learned on the recorder. Afterwards, they showed us how they learned (and already changed) some of the games we taught them the other day (like Head and Shoulders) and then helped us learn some of their fabulous games (future Orff workshop folks, you’re in for a treat!). 

I don’t like talking about these “poor kids” with a liberal twinge of pity, but the fact is that they are quite poor—economically speaking— by U.S. standards. And though they are rich in smiles and a sense of belonging, yes, some of them need health care or have been abandoned by their parents or don’t get as much to eat as they should. (All three true in the United States as well.) To simply get themselves to rehearsals with Nunya Academy (which charges nothing) can be a challenge and to finish high school, which may cost $100 for the year, a yet bigger challenge. There is a line below which poverty is anything but romantic, but there is also a level of simple living, one that I found in my first long-ago travels in Kerala, India, that is quite healthy in all sorts of ways— ecologically, for one! Some of these kids are right at the border between these two types of economy.

The point? A culture of scarcity breeds gratitude— genuine gratitude that is very difficult to find amongst privileged kids. And it breeds generosity as well. Throughout my travels, the most welcoming people, the most eager to share a meal or a cup of tea or offer a seat for conversation, are those dismissed as “those poor people.” And yet so rich in human warmth and hospitality.

By contrast, a culture of abundance breeds a different kind of person altogether, one more inclined to be suspicious and guard what they have. And also take too much for granted. The kids often don’t smile as much as their counterparts across the economic divide, might whine and complain that Johnny got more frosting on his cupcake, might be drowning in a sea of toys and machines instead of embraced by a vibrant community of adults. Naturally, these are generalizations with many exceptions, but true enough to bear some reflection. If you need convincing, just hang out with these Nunya kids and be touched by their warmth, gratitude, immense talent and deep sense of belonging.

And don’t forget to bring them some pencils.