Saturday, June 30, 2018


I suspect the reader might be weary of yet another praising of this most wondrous culture in Dzodze, Ghana. But I’m finding it simply impossible to not be constantly astonished by the warmth, generosity, humanity and vitality of these people we meet day in and day out. And parallel with that comes a growing disgust for so much of what is happening, has happened and looks like it will continue to happen in my country. If I unleashed the full force of that feeling, it would be summarized like this: What the fuck is wrong with us??!!!!

We got off the bus today in a nearby village with a festival in full swing. 50 white folks entering a sea of black folks and nothing but handshakes, smiles, warm greetings and welcoming gestures. I’m trying to picture a group of Africans getting off a bus at a country music festival in, say Texas, and wondering how the white folks would receive them. The mind reels.

And then we were seated under a canopy, but the hosts felt it was too close to the big speakers for our comfort, so they moved us further down the field in the open. And then it started to lightly rain. Some of us had umbrellas and little raingear, but mostly we were sitting in the drizzle hoping it wouldn’t escalate. And suddenly we saw a group coming towards us with a canopy that they picked up so they could cover us, leaving the village folks who had been sheltered in the open. (So sorry I didn’t react in time to get a photo!). To our credit, we waved them away, refusing the privilege of being (white) guests while thanking them for the thought. This is worth saying again. They were willing to leave themselves out in the rain to make complete strangers more comfortable.

Back in the U.S. of A., Facebook posted a photo of a billboard for a politician running for Congress that said, “Make America white again.” Children at the Mexican border are being taken from their parents and put in detention camps. The Supreme Court recently upheld our Fascist-in-Chief’s wish to ban “undesirable immigrants” based on nothing but their religious belief (Really? That’s Constitutional?) And some of the media and some citizens keep trying to justify these inhumane actions by joining other brainwashed folks who think they can fool themselves and others that they are something other than a despicable human being.

In fact, many of them are people who perhaps never felt the welcome and generosity we feel every day here, have no role model for what that looks like, feel traumatized and wounded by growing to adulthood never being wholly known or celebrated or loved in any true sense of that word. So perhaps it all can be understandable in some psychological sense. But I’m tired of trying to understand, justify and explain people’s inhumanity. They’re grown human beings who have a choice whether to be decent and they constantly refuse it.

Can someone explain to me why this is okay? No, don't bother. It's just wrong and I'm tired of hearing all the insights as to why people are so cruel and callous. Let's just stop.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Create News

We live in multiple realities. There’s the life we’re living, here now, in this physical three-dimensional moment with whoever is by our side. And then what we read on the news. Which is real? Which is more important?

I’ve long been a fan of not reading a newspaper and certainly not watching TV news. Like the character in the movie Meet John Doe, my philosophy was: “I know the world’s being shaved by a drunken barber. I don’t have to read about it.” But of course, it is important to be “informed,” and more than ever nowadays if you can marry your information with political action. But the question comes down to which reality informs the state of your soul?

So in the little Internet café at the White Dove Hotel, I read about the next shootings in Annapolis. And more about the Supreme Court disaster. Every reason in the world to go down that dark rabbit hole of despair. So after thanking Festis, the man in charge, I told him it was a mixed blessing to have Internet access because now I was depressed about the state of my culture. I suggested that perhaps I should move to Ghana. And he replied;

“Oh sure! Come to Ghana and then you don’t have to read the news. You can create news.”

Isn’t that brilliant? In fact, each minute of the eight days so far in our Orff-Afrique Course, we are creating the news that no one (except my few blog readers) will ever read and as these posts testify, it’s a glorious newspaper of hope, laughter, love and beauty, stitched together with human expression and communion. People wonder how I can be hopeful when I know how many drunken barbers are bleeding the world, but I believe the answer lies in the good news my work helps create just about each and every day. As I long as I can remember to listen to and value and keep living the stories I’m actually living, I can lessen the power of that TV newscaster to beat me down and kill my last sliver of hope.

People, there is a Court more Supreme than the one in Washington, where evil will be judged and repaid in kind and where justice affirms the efforts of all those creating the good news instead of just receiving the bad news. If you have to, read the news, but better yet, create it! The good kind.

The Garbage in the Room

Each day, our travels, classes and performances reveals yet another facet of a culture that offers valuable things difficult to find in day-to-day America. Not only witnessing, but actively participating through dance, conversation and movement has caused so many of the 50 people gathered here to exclaim, “This is the most extraordinary experience of my life.” As if that weren’t enough, I’ve found the conversations with these music teachers at meals to be rich, deep and far beyond the usual banter of “Do you have the i-Phone 9 or 10?”

In talking with one such person about race in America, she was telling me about some conservative Christian families she knew who adopted black children from Africa. Seems like a radical gesture, but these families were raising the kids as if there was no racism in America. And telling them and others that this was so. She predicted trouble ahead when their teenage boy got pulled over by the cops while driving or the neighbor wouldn’t let their white son go out with their black daughter to the prom. We can’t be naïve about these things.

She had taken my jazz course last summer and commented that she was impressed by the way I talked about race and wondered if I ever “got in trouble” from either white folks or blacks. As for the first, never to my face and for the second, not yet. I'm aware of the danger of “white-splaining” racial issues with black folks in the room, but none have ever called me to task for it. And if they did, I'd be open to the ensuing conversation, no matter how difficult it might be. But my view of the matter is that we are each responsible for telling the needed stories and that they may carry different weight according to who tells them and how, but the important thing is that they be told. I’m talking about the stories purposely hidden or kept out of our civil (and now uncivil) discourse, the ones that don’t allow the above parents to casually proclaim that racism is no longer a problem in the U.S.

I also acknowledged the delicate matter of telling these stories to kids without the white kids feeling overly shamed or guilty, but also not accepting, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong and my great-great-grandparents never had slaves." That’s when I give them this image:

Imagine you’re in a classroom littered with garbage. Papers helter-skelter, rotting fruit,  gum stuck on chairs, broken pencils on the floor and so on. Perhaps some of the students are in some clean corner with a screen and shielded from the sight of the garbage or see it right in front of them, but simply don’t notice it or else don’t feel bothered by it. But now the teacher calls attention to it and you simply can’t avoid seeing the mess and smelling the garbage. What do you do? Do you say, “Well, I didn’t make the mess so I’m not going to clean it up!” and then have to come to class day after day to the filth and chaos? Or do you think, “I didn’t make the mess, but it’s disgusting and I need to live in this room and if I don’t clean it up, who will?” And then you turn to your fellow classmate and say “Come on, come help me.”

So that’s the world we’ve inherited. Not only with racism, but with all the ism’s set in motion by those who came before and left us with a God-awful mess that we daily suffer from. And if people pretend not to notice the garbage or convince themselves it’s fine to live in filth or think they can just move to a cleaner classroom (there is none available) or pay money and hire others to clean it up (“Nope. Not an option.”) or actively throw more garbage on the floor (“Well, my grandparents did it, so I guess I will too”), then we’re all left with life in the garbage dump.

My telling these stories about the virtues of the people I’ve met here in Ghana and the extraordinary musical and kinesthetic intelligence cultivated here and the community-based practices, spiritual wisdoms and cultivation of morality and character is my attempt to start picking up some of the garbage of centuries of ignorant and ill-willed racist notions about this remarkable continent. Won’t you join me?

Thursday, June 28, 2018


I’ve always held a deep respect for the power of tradition coupled with an urge for innovation. Tradition is the ritual glue that gives rhythm and form to life, a comforting predictability that we come to look forward to, a sense of being connected to the past and hoisted up on the shoulders of our ancestors. Innovation is the quality that keeps it fresh, alive and growing with the needs of the moment, the gestalt of the times, a sense of actively shaping a future. The best innovation is small and specific, arises from the small details that one can only notice when one has experienced years and years of experience and grows from the deep embodiment and mastery of traditional ideas and practices. And both need to keep connected to purpose, a constant renewal of intent rather than a blind obedience and mouthing of words or empty performance of gestures handed down.

Last night’s performance opened with several xylophone pieces played by an Ewe musician. This is something new. The xylophone comes from distinctly different ethnic groups in the north and this musician was exploring the idea of using it to accompany an Ewe song, as well as learning a bit of the northern repertoire. One thing many Orff-Afrique participants have noticed is the Ewe preference for loud, fast and danceable, at the high end of the available energy level, to put it mildly. But for these Western ears, it was supremely pleasant to sit quietly and feel the soothing tones and mellow sounds of a single musician with a xylophone.

Someone once said to me that “the tradition of Africa is innovation.” Yes, there is a deep and healthy respect to keep the songs, pieces and dances danced for years and even centuries alive. To cite one example, there were dances created for hand-to-hand combat in warfare, some to prepare and ask the gods for help, some to activate the body and spirit, come to celebrate the victory. Even though there haven’t been such wars—and thankfully so— for many, many years, the dances continue. Part of the deep sense of meaning that is soaked through and through everything in this culture is that feeling of connection to the past, living on behalf of the Ancestors.

But, as the Ewe musician playing xylophone testifies, there is a healthy interest in trying new things that come one’s way, especially with the benign intent of “hey, here’s a new instrument. Want to check it out?” as opposed to the missionary idea of “Stop playing your instruments. The violin is the new instrument of God.” And then when someone who has mastered the complex rhythms and dance steps and songs of the tradition turns attention to something new, you can bet that the quality is going to be high indeed. I have sat through too many hours of Western performance artists or free jazz players who never paid enough dues at the altar of disciplined technique and understanding of music that came before and the result is quite different. So it is in the conversation between tradition and innovation that a balanced "tradinnovation" arises.

In my school, I began creating simple little traditions and ceremonies and practices both inside and outside my music class and I had I taught for just a few years or constantly changed them, they would not have had 1/10 the power they now have 43 years later. Back in the beginning, one of the Middle Schoolers looked at it all with dubious and cynical eyes, calling it “candle crap.” She did have a point. We were way too obsessed with little details (“should we burn sage or joss stick?”) and it took a while to get down to the essence. But years later, she sent her own child to the school she attended  and was so pleased to see him enjoying the fruits of these same (improved) traditions that she had enjoyed. 

So yet another bow to this remarkable culture for living fully in the present by honoring the past and shaping the future. On it goes. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Africa Rising

Every day a surprise, another layer of complexity revealed, another little light shed on the Dark Continent of our ignorance about Africa. Our guest was Walter Blege, an 86-year old self-described rebel who is a composer in the Western sense of the word. That is, he individually gathers his thoughts and impressions and expresses them in sound that is notated on paper in the form of new styles of opera, church music and more. But one of his innovations was to included Ghanaian drums, bells and rattles, incorporate proverbs and pay attention to stylistic qualities of his indigenous “folk” music.

He told us some of his long and impressive history, including a schooling where we would be publicly whipped with 12 lashes if he was discovered singing his culture’s music. The missionary presence—at first German in “Eweland” (hence the Catholic presence) and later British—was intimately tied to the colonization of Ghana, the building of hospitals and schools and a Western style national government, all things that seem potentially positive and benign. Maybe. But in any case, the price was high. The trade-off was denying the value of the Ewe indigenous culture and accepting the European view that it all was the work of Satan. So just as the old Testament God insisted “You shall have no other idols before me” and combined religious rejection of native religions in Palestine and demanded obedience to the one “true” God—ie, the one that benefits the ruling class— there was no room for a deeper look at what spirituality really is and how many different names and faces it can have. It was “my way or the highway.” And the highway was going straight to hell in the after-life or a hellish life with 12 lashes if you dared to claim your cultural identity.

And therein lies the dynamic of Ghana to this day. Though northern Ghana is primarily Muslim, another take-over from the outside, Christian churches, particularly Catholic and Evangelist, are everywhere. The modern-day Ewe is faced with either choosing one and rejecting the other or keeping both in his or her life and all the shades of gray in-between. To me, it seems strange to go to a Christian service knowing the history of what they’ve done and continue to do and their attitude about a culture that seems to me many times more tolerant, genuinely spiritual, nurturing and wise. But because indigenous religions are polytheistic, I understand how they can view Jesus as just another one of a long list of divinities and add him to their playlist, so to speak. But in so doing, there are so many areas of confusion that include sometimes rejecting traditional music as the songbook of the devil. It’s complicated.  (I hope to soon ask Kofi what he and others saw in Jesus’ message that he hadn’t found in Ewe culture. An interesting question! I’ll get back to you on that.)

But meanwhile, the conflict continues and seems to be escalating with the “Africa Rising” movement. On the surface, this movement seems like a very positive thing, Africans joining the global economy, participating in the technological innovations and global business practices and claiming their seat at the table of “first-world” cultures. But amidst the thousand and one things to watch out for when you enter that world of material prosperity at the center of one’s values— the loss of all the community connections I keep praising, the connection to the natural world, the rise of therapists as healthy life-styles begin to trade in their gifts for shopping in the mall and on and on— there is another problem here. It is the churches that are tying themselves to Africa Rising and seducing membership in the church by promises of making it in the world of material success. The only price, besides giving lots of money to the church, is accepting their doctrine, which of course, will include yet further rejection of your cultural identity.

All of this makes me yet again so proud of our Orff-Afrique presence here. We come as students eager to learn from Ghanaians on their terms, with nothing up our sleeves but our curiosity and our actually deep need to bring the gifts of this remarkable culture in our own disconnected lives. In other words, we need what they have to offer. We have to beware of the missionary or capitalist idea of using our privilege to just come and take it. “Give me that drum pattern and cool dance move! I think I’ll publish it in my country and get some money.”

So we tiptoe lightly and follow the lead of Kofi and his fellow teachers and work to understand how the music is tied so deeply to all aspects of the culture that it’s dangerous to simply lift a drum pattern out of context and put it in your shopping cart. And we also come happy to offer whatever we have that is of value. In this case, adapting Orff ideas and ideals to the interest some have in learning Western music. Unlike our hunger for dynamic and interesting material from around the world, the Ghanaians are not walking around thinking, “I need a cool Brazilian song! Can you teach me one?” They are open to hearing everything, interested in different songs and rhythms, happy to learn a new game or clapping pattern, but their own repertoire is so varied and rich and carries such deep meanings far beyond pleasing sounds that it is most definitely not a two-way exchange.

But some, like Walter Blege, have been intrigued by Western musical practices and entered that world on their own terms. By so doing, he has been and continues to be scorned by some Ghanaian music academics who frown on him using drums in the Western canon of composition. From the other end, he is criticized by traditional music groups for composing in the Western canon. Some churches still forbid his music to be sung by choirs. It has not been an easy road. But these are the kind of outlaw folks I like! So thank you, Walter Blege, it was an honor to meet you and I hope our Orff-Afrique course paves the way for a future kind of cultural exchange on more equal, respectful and intriguing terms. May Africa rise without losing its footing!