Thursday, June 30, 2016

Maybe Yes. Maybe No.

If you have been following my Ghana journal here, I think you can’t help but feel how much I admire the culture. Many times I feel I’m leaning too far to the Romantic view and just praising without reservation. I don’t think that’s a harmful thing, but even as I praise, I know that every culture has its shadow and that if I lived here long enough, more and more of it would appear. Or I would be less patient with the shadow issues I’ve observed. Like today.

The African “rubber time” is a wink-wink joke both among travelers and Africans and coming from the culture of clocks and obsessive timetables, I often enjoy the more relaxed conception. Except sometimes. Like when we waited two and a half hours for our lunch the other day. Well, actually that was fine, we enjoyed each other’s company. But yesterday I ordered a lunch by myself at our hotel here and was told it would be ready in 30 minutes. Knowing what that meant, I came back in 45. Naturally, it wasn’t ready, so I sat and talked with a friend. At one hour, I checked with the man at the window. “Oh, yes, just a small time more.” Twenty minutes later, I checked again. He shook his head and walked away to find out and didn’t return for another 15 minutes. Still no lunch.  We were now an hour past the original estimate. Finally, my friend and I threatened to go into the kitchen (we didn’t) and then said that if it wasn’t ready in five minutes, I was leaving to go find somewhere else to eat. It was a bluff, of course, because if I did go somewhere else, I imagined another two-hour wait. So just before the given deadline, my lunch finally appeared. Go figure. (I’ve noticed that when Kofi says the group is going to play a “slow” piece, it’s at a tempo that I can barely keep up with. So my new proverb for West Africa: “In music, slow means fast. In service, fast means slow.”

When we buy a beer at the bar here, the waiters suddenly have no change. So we give them more money and they write down a credit on a little piece of paper. It’s charming.
Except when you go the next day and order another beer using your credit which has suddenly disappeared on that piece of paper. Or you use the makeshift Internet Service they have here, wait for the hamsters to spin the wheel and then when you think you’ve logged out, you discover the next time that the time ran out and the answer as to why is a shoulder shrug.

I don’t’ want to be one of those obnoxious Westerners flashing my entitlement around. I recognize I come from a culture where we expect things to work and buses to run on time and we feel justified in getting pissed off if something is 3 minutes late or our Internet connection is slow. If something doesn’t work, we expect it to get fixed right away and if it can’t be, we expect a new one or a refund or a credit, along with an apology.

I remember traveling here with my family 17 years ago and coming to a hotel where we paid and then went to our room and discovered there was no water. And then the electricity went out. Off we marched to the front desk to tell them and their response was, “Oh, yes, That happens sometime.” “Will it be fixed tonight?” “Maybe yes. Maybe no.” “Well, if we have no electricity or water, can we pay a different price for the room?” Puzzled look. Translation. “No.” It makes for some charming travel stories, but let’s face it, it’s frustrating sometimes.

So the question is whether such things are necessary counterparts of a loose relationship with time and technological expectations. Would the people lose their humor, their affability, their relaxed quality, if they turned to the Western model of efficiency and tight-lipped insistence that everything work perfectly and come on time? Can they have that cake and eat it too?

I have no idea. But I just had to vent. Let’s see if I have enough credit and the Internet works so I can post this. Maybe yes. Maybe no.

If Dogs Run Free

“If dogs run free, why not we?” some line from a Bob Dylan song that was a popular graffiti at my college. Indeed, why not we? Perhaps it’s because the free-running dog of our Spirit often gets chained to our dogma and we lay a beaten creature in the yard, able to roam only as far as the chain allows.

This on my mind as I began the day at church again (twice in two weeks!) to witness the baptism of Kofi’s younger daughter Nunya. Happy to support the occasion, but so restless with the service and remembering why church never spoke to my spirit. Found myself waiting for the two most welcome syllables of the hour—“Amen.” It works for other people and Amen to that, but even with some drums and upbeat songs, I often find more spirit in a good Orff class than a thousand church services. Spirit without the chain of dogma, running freely through the children or the adults in the workshop. With the freshness of newly created little rituals instead of the stale repetition of thousand-year old structures that can put people to sleep instead of wake them up. Again, this just me. For those who find comfort and uplift in them and leave church more alert and awake and alive and connected, again, Amen to that.

A morning of spirited classes and then off to the Togo border to dip our toes in the ocean and marvel at the edgy energy of being at the edge of the country, in company with smugglers and crafty thieves and watchful guards. All this fuss for a line some generals in Europe drew on a map all those years back that has nothing to do with the cultures or watersheds or bioregions. In fact, like Berlin, it divided a town in half so half speak English on the Ghana side and French on the Togo side, but both are Ewes who share the same culture. The beach was not Hawaii, but fun to just be out on a trip. The water, experienced through cautious standing at its edge, was warm.

From there out into the countryside for a magic show, Ewe-style. Musicians on the side playing the usual mix of drums, bells and rattles and a figure inside of a full-sized raffia-streaming cone came out dancing in front of us and then another. Then people brought a third out over their head showing us the hollow inside and set it down. They performed some little ritual motions around it and suddenly it came to life and started to dance! From there, the music playing full-throttle the whole time, came a host of seemingly impossible tricks. An empty box shown to us and locked and then later opened with live crabs inside. A charcoal fire over here and bowl over there with a banana stalk cut and thrown into it and covered and later opened with hot, steaming cooked yams. One coconut cut open with the usual coconut water inside, another cut open with cooked rice. The point seemed to be that the material world is not always what it appears to be and the spirit world has remarkable powers that challenge our notion of reality.

Kofi, who has great respect for the unexplainable, finally shook his head and said, “Let’s go. I am not impressed!” and driving in the car, proceeded to explain how each trick was done, some of the explanations the same or similar to the ones my own skeptical rational mind was leaning toward. For example, a compartment inside the cone where a small body could tuck itself into. He saw the whole thing as an art form, not a religious ceremony and mostly well-done, but all explainable. This led into some interesting discussions when we gathered at night to de-brief.

One topic was how Kofi could balance his upbringing as a Catholic with traditional religious practices. His clear answer is that he takes the good from whatever direction it comes and rejects the bad within any traditions. As Joseph Campbell (himself brought up as an Irish Catholic) suggested years ago, all religions offer a doorway into Spirit, but get stuck when they claim it’s the only door to heaven and that all its stories are literally true rather than metaphorically true. You can take part in any religion’s rites and enjoy its stories as fingers pointing to the God within you and within all of us. While you may choose this church over that, this temple over this mosque, this shamanic practice over that pagan one, either from upbringing or temperament, it will serve you best if you recognize that there are 10,000 doorways to Spirit and all are true if you come to it with the truth of your own experience. And having experienced your truth, you needn’t convert others. You can invite and entice others and let them see for themselves, but the moment you claim yours as THE truth, you have dishonored Spirit.

What if all the magic we saw really came from the spirit world? How would that change anything? Of course, we’re fascinated by that thought and we make a big fuss about the Virgin of Guadalupe or Jesus walking on water or Moses parting the Red Sea or Buddha standing up right after birth and speaking, but so what? I care less about Jesus taking a stroll on water and more about his life of love and healing. I don’t need Buddha to amaze us as a newborn to consider his practice of awakening to the spiritual nature we all share and leading us into a practice that can awaken us. Ultimately, all the fuss about miracles is a distraction. The real miracle is that we are here now, alive and breathing and co-participating in a world of great magic and mystery. The magic is much closer to us that we think and we often overlook it— a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, birds flocking as one entity, a child’s remarkable idea, how Bach could do what he did.

And music is a big part of that. I shared the thought that the reason we 30 teachers came to the course is that we recognized a spirit running through this remarkable music that uplifted us and gave us something we need. We don’t have to confuse the matter with mumbo-jumbo or see xylophones walking on their own or hear drums play themselves or other occult happenings to recognize it as authentic. There is an energy coming from a source beyond our usual routines that allows the musicians and dancers we’ve seen to go on for three or four hours as if they’re just warming up, faces smiling so openly, bodies so alive and alert and vibrating with Spirit. A Spirit without dogma, without a cosmic story that must be literally believed. Just direct connection from vibration to vibration.

From my point of view, that’s the best religion of all. Setting us free as naturally as dogs running on the beach. Woof, woof!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Play, Sing and Dance

I found out the other day that my book Play, Sing & Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk is the second-most used book in the American level trainings after Gunild Keetman’s Elementaria. Well, hooray for me. But this book would not be a best-seller in Ghana. Whereas the idea of restoring the rent fabric of playing, singing and dancing and restoring it to its original wholeness seems a radical idea in the West, any Ghanaian would say, “Helloooo. Well, duh!” (insert Valley Girl sarcastic tone here).

There was another short concert (read three hours) last night by two choirs and the Nunya Academy kids brass band and the choirs were there to demonstrate Western influence in contemporary Ghanaian choral music. Kind of like Fisk University in the U.S., a SATB arrangement facing a conductor and getting up into the head tone. But even the most Western adaptation cannot go long before the drums, bells and rattles chime in and it’s simply impossible for people to stand still as we do in the West without moving. (Indeed, the SF Girls Chorus is an exacting discipline in not moving a muscle beyond the diaphragm and open mouth.) The usual routine of coming into the audience to grab people to dance continued with both the choirs and the brass bands and once you’re dancing, the idea of repeating a song some 25 times is no problem.

This, of course, is not confined to Ghana. All throughout Black Africa, the unbroken connection between sound and motion is the norm. I have my own theories about that related to literate and oral cultures and relating also to child development. Any toddler or preschooler also has tone, speech and motion as one piece, what Walter Ong (author of Orality and Literacy) calls the verbo-motor stage. When kids learn to read at 6- or 7 years old, the body shuts down to send energy to the left-hemisphere of the brain and if this is not balanced with ongoing music, dance and drama, can break that connection. Thus, all cultures with a heavy oral component tend to be much more in their bodies and will respond to music with movement, while those heavy to the literacy side, as in Northern Europe, can sit stone-still to even the most rocking music.

I think it would be rare to find music in Africa without dance or at least, significant motion while singing or playing. It would also be rare to find dance without music (as in some Western modern dance traditions). This is also true (no surprise) throughout the African diaspora and a huge component of the development of jazz and blues and Gospel and the whole rich tapestry of African-American music. Check out some Youtube footage of big bands in the 30’s playing for the Lindy Hop dancers at the Savoy to find that perfect interplay between music and dance.

But in the 1940’s, musicians with one foot deeply planted in African soil were also investigating Western music and thought and while your insides would still dance to be-bop, it was frowned upon for you to actually get up and shake your booty. The idea was to listen to the complex imaginative twists and turns of melodic variations during the solos and appreciate music as a journey, as a story the soloist was telling.  The rhythms still made your toe tap and your fingers snap, but the melodies and harmonies moved up to your heart and head and asked you to be still and listen!. And this was the moment when jazz lost it’s connection with masses who were more interested in the social fun of dancing then doing the work to appreciate sophisticated musical expression that moved beyond the hip-twitching beat. And it’s also why post 40’s jazz is not of interest to most West Africans.

No punch line here except that whether the sound-motion connection comes out as music with vigorous dancing or a more internalized form, it is a necessary and deep connection and one that any good Orff teacher develops. Not as in “Okay, we played a piece on the xylophone. Now make up a cute little dance,” but as in feeling and demonstrating that connection with gesture and movement every note of the way.

And speech also. Could you tell I was dancing while I wrote this?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You Get What You Get

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

This the rhythmic mantra of every preschool teacher as they’re passing something out to the kids, be it colored scarves, pencils or assorted chocolates. This morning in a class with Sofia about games from the Latin-Afro diaspora, Jackie Rago invoked this chant as she passed out maracas of different colors. “All colors of the world are beautiful. And remember: you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Living with the mind that I got, I immediately felt it as some grand metaphor for our lives. How much time we spend complaining, lamenting, feeling angry about all that we got! Our bodies that we find so hard to wholly love, our hair (or lack of it), our shape, our weight, our teeth prone to decay—not to mention asthma or diabetes or dyslexia. We spend time in therapy being upset at the parents or family that we were dealt, we’re angry with society for marginalizing us when politicians decided that all colors of the world are not equally beautiful, we wonder if we would have enjoyed our life more as the other gender. There’s no end to the possibilities of getting upset with what we got at birth or blaming others for the life we got and the things that happened to us.

But should we really just passively accept it all? If you have a passion for social justice, as I do, this statement seems absurd. No, do NOT accept injustice and yes, GET upset about the things that try to hold you back from being wholly who you are and who you deserve to be. Don’t be complacent about your incapacity to immediately play Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu on the piano or fix the engine in your car—work on your skills, make an effort, take charge. Take your shortcomings that have arisen from genetics, upbringing, opportunities (or lack of them), social issues and look them square in the face, wrestle them down to the ground to get them off your back and put you back in charge. As Ella Fitzgerald once said, “It’s not where you come from that matters—it’s where you’re going.” But to make that trip to your full promise, you will spend a lot of time comparing and despairing, feeling upset about what people did to you or what you did to yourself until you can’t stand the whine of your own voice anymore and get to work to turn things around.

Fine, But at the end of the matter, we do finally have to accept what we got. And bless it. The Buddhist feel it a great honor to be incarnated as a human being and suggest not only constant gratitude and appreciation, but determination to be as fully awake as we two-legged creatures can be. Some people feel a grand plan behind each individual incarnation and a hidden reason why you were born with everything you got—your face, your body, your parents, your talents, your inclinations, your interests. You need to spend a lifetime sifting through all the things that are not central to that purpose and arrive in the center of your particular genius.

If you’re in a group 24/7 for two weeks in this intense Orff-Afrique Course, all these things come up. This person drums better, that person dances better, that person easily learns all the words to the songs, that other gets the melodies in one minute. This person is the center of the social mix, that person on the edge, this one’s funny, that one’s smart, the other is elegant. A thousand opportunities for people—including me— to compare and despair!

So maybe that’s why this simple preschool phrase hit home. Accept myself. I don’t have to be able to do everything as well as everyone else. I just have to make the effort to do it as well as I can. And enjoy every minute of that process. And so do we all.

Doesn’t that sound like a better idea?

Louis in Ghana

“If you could hang out for a night with any jazz musician, living or dead, who would it be? And what would you ask him or her?” So began a conversation with one of the Orff-Afrique students. Impossible question! But having spent so much time reading about his life and listening to his music, Louis Armstrong came to mind. And last night, it came true.

Well, in my dreams. We hung out a bit, then he came to my school to listen to the kids play St. Louis Blues. He had a trumpet in hand and I waited for him to join in, but he never did. Maybe Gabriel doesn’t actually have a band up in heaven and his chops were rusty having been gone from this earth some 45 years.  

As for the question I would ask, the first thing that came to mind was his trip to Ghana. He came here, courtesy of a State Department that used to send jazz musicians around the world as ambassadors of American Culture. I wonder whether they were given instructions to just play and not talk about how badly they were treated in the good old U.S. of A. But nevertheless, they sponsored Louis to go to Russia and Brazil and Ghana and beyond, sponsored Duke Ellington to play in Japan, India, the Middle East and more, later Dave Brubeck (whose visit to Turkey inspired Blue Rondo a la Turk).

Some of Louis’ time in Ghana is captured on film and available on Youtube. The two things that struck me are how rhythmically simple jazz appeared next to the welcoming Ghanaian drum ensemble with its complex polyrhythms. The next was the apparent confusion of the Ghanaians listening, clearly not easily understanding or reacting to this foreign music.

Let talk a moment about those polyrhythms. Last night, a semi-professional group performed and you would think that my inch-by-inch increased exposure to and understanding of what these ensembles are doing would damp down my amazement at the complexity of their rhythmic structures and thinking. You would be wrong. I am more impressed than ever by the technical demands of the music, the constantly shifting textures created by the master drummer, the sophisticated conversations with the dancers, the dancers themselves, the connections within the ensembles and the breakneck speed of their playing and ability to react instantly to aural signals. What this culture can do within a 12-beat rhythmic cycle is one of the pinnacles of human thought and imagination, how they play, one of the peaks of human kinesthetic accomplishment. Truly, it makes the Taj Mahal look like a children’s house made from Lincoln logs.

We humans are so impressed by things like the Taj Mahal and Pyramids, structures built by slaves to mostly serve the entitled rich and powerful. But if I were in charge of choosing a different set of The Seven Wonders of the World, I would certainly include what Ghanaian and other West African drum choirs can do with 12 beats, what Bach can do with 12 tempered notes, what the Balinese gamelans can do with a 4 or 5 note scale, what Indian tabla players can do with 8 tones on two drums. They—and a thousand other musical examples from hundreds of musical cultures—are sterling examples of what the mind can imagine and what disciplined hands and fingers can accomplish. And for a much more noble purpose than merely serving power or housing riches. Traditions passed down and assiduously maintained and practiced with impressive discipline to serve a different kind of power, the ability to express oneself and one’s cultural style at high levels of expression, to house the riches of the human spirit. Isn’t that worthy of mention in the tourist guidebooks? If we ever got our priorities straight beyond seeing fancy buildings and hanging out on beaches, Ghana should be a tourist’s Mecca of musical genius.

As for the Ghanaian reaction to jazz, I use this clip to show how much of jazz comes from the European side of the West Meets West marriage between West Africa and West Europe. From Africa comes the rhythm and phrasing and timbres and certain aesthetics, from Europe the longer-lined melodies and harmonies and structures and instruments. But the complex African polyrhythm forbidden in North American slavery when the drums were banned became somewhat simplified when they were forced into a square European 4/4 box and were not instantly recognizable. When Louis played for the people in Ghana, it was only when a chief of the village got up and began to dance that a few smiles broke out and the people stood up to dance and finally could feel some connection with the music of their long-lost brothers and sisters. Watch that clip and see for yourself.

So now came the moment in my dream where I got to ask my important question and I turned to Louis and said, “So tell me your most memorable impression of Ghana.” I was on the edge of my seat waiting for his profound reply and the discussion that might follow. He thought for a moment, looked at me and then said:

“It was hot.”