Let’s go back to Jackie Rago’s Venezuelan music class yesterday. We were in a circle, outdoors on a cloudy day with a slight refreshing breeze, some 20 drummers playing, singing and chanting this powerful music in the land where some of the rhythms first came from. People, it’s not only what we learn and who we learn it from and with, but also where we learn it. I’ve taken so many classes in school gymnasiums or cafeterias or hotel conference rooms and though beautiful and powerful music makes its home anywhere, it sure helps to be outside with birds and trees and a cloud-filled sky. And it’s also about who’s listening and how they’re listening.
In this case, there was a fence where passerbys in the street where attracted to the music and came by to peek in and listen. Because we were in Ghana and not an American shopping mall, the listeners danced to the music. Well, why not? And one was a boy who was so sharp, imitating Jackie’s dance motions, playing the drumbeats on his body, singing the song (in Spanish!) and then accompanying a bit on a whistle he had.
In the States, we would be amazed and think he had a special talent that needed attention. In Ghana, it was just what any kid would do. I often say that if Michael Jackson had come to Ghana and jumped in the middle of the dancing ring, people would nod approvingly and say, “Not bad!” maybe give him a little extra applause and then watch out for the next person to go in. Because music and dance are literally everywhere and anytime, it doesn’t get any more special notice that an American would driving a car to work.
But for us American teachers, it was such a joy to watch this boy. He (and his fellow Ghanaians) had the interest to stop (no distracting phone with video games), the capacity to notice and the ability to respond. That response-ability was cultivated by a culture that cared to give him the skills to imitate, absorb, create with his own body and mind, fulfilled their responsibility to train him to have the ability to respond. It hurts my heart to see our American children so out of touch with their own bodies, so disconnected with their peers and so wrongly connected with their machines, so robbed of their ability to know the world through movement, sound and self-expression. I guess that’s why I’m a music teacher, a job that would be quite different (if not redundant) in a culture like Ghana or Bali. But just about any 5- year old on the village street here has a PhD in body awareness, mimicry, ability to blend and connect with a dancing group.
I’ve said many times elsewhere why, but it’s worth repeating again:
1) Carried, held, tied to the back throughout infancy.
2) All of the above with a mother who is singing, playing and dancing—with the baby on the back.
3) Surrounded by a musical language every bit as ubiquitous as a spoken language and absorbing it like a sponge with water.
4) In a culture of adults who take children everywhere, don’t send them off to the corner with a video during music-making and let them play on the instruments when the performance is done.
5) A community of adults who never question for a moment whether music is important and play, sing and dance their way just about every day of their lives.
It’s easy to over-romanticize all of this and portray every Ghanaian as a fully realized human being. Naturally, not. But I sure love their warmth, their spirit, their ability to play and dance such joyful and complex music, their generosity in constantly inviting everyone into the center of that joy, their ability to respond and their responsibility to making life on this earth just a little bit happier.