Sunday, June 17, 2018

Drums, Not Guns

I suppose my whole life I’ve been looking for Paradise. The perfect house, the perfect school, the perfect mate, the perfect culture. Instead I’ve found what we all have—that all heavens are mixed with a generous dose of hell and vice-versa. That all things brightly lit cast a shadow and that good and bad are a dappled path, always inextricably mixed with each other.

When I first ventured out of my Leave It to Beaver mythological paradise, I began to notice and discover so much that was missing in my home culture. First in Europe, where two-hour lunch breaks and long picnics with extended family was valued more than getting ahead in the rat race. A place where a glorious historical past lived side by side with the present. Glorious with artwork, architecture, music, literature, that is. The cultures that actually spawned the sacred masses of Ockeghem to Bach, the paintings from Giotto to Da Vinci to Picasso, the literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Cervantes to Yeats and so on, were every bit as brutal and horrific in terms of things like tolerance and social justice.

Then in Asia, where the “mysterious East” offered multiple pathways of spirituality distinct from the narrow Christian viewpoint, where new glories of music from Indian raga to Balinese gamelan to Japanese Shakuhachi opened my ears yet further, where festivals were colorful and plentiful, where food was different from meat and potatoes, where literature could now include Japanese haiku and so on. And again, wave after wave of brutal empires, invasions, feet-binding of women, atrocities, the whole unending nightmare of history.

And then Africa. The roots of so much music found in the U.S. and the source of an extraordinary resilience, kinesthetic genius and bodily presence, community bonding through music and dance and so on. Here, the victims of the world’s brutalities, but also the perpetrators as well—think Idi Amin, Rwanda, Sudan and so on.

Constantly critical of my own home culture (a practice of love and caring, by the way), I’ve always been so thrilled to discover these other possibilities not in our playbook. And let me confess—I have often leaned too far to the side of romanticizing such cultures, holding them up as the way we all should be and conveniently excusing or not noticing their own shadows that deserve attention. For example, I wrote this on Facebook today:

And so on Father's Day, I'm off to one of my grandchildren's Motherland—Ghana, West Africa, for the 4th time. A place where music and dance abound, where culture counts more than machines and money, where drums are the norm and guns the aberration, where children are both playful and respectful and where everyone greets you with a generous welcome. Miawoezo!

All of the above is true, but the greater truth is that every culture has something worthy to offer and every culture, without exception, including Switzerland, has a shadow side. The point is not to idealize any one culture, but to celebrate the practices within all cultures that offer health, happiness, beauty and justice. Ghana has many such practices, but from my point of view, it has some work to do in tolerance of homosexuality, improving schools and education, expanding options for women. I’m sure if I lived there, I would start talking about those things more. 

But meanwhile, it feels right to let the American public know that this “shithole country” has so much to teach us about human decency and healthy community. One of the more impressive stories I heard from my friend Kofi is that in his home town of Dzodze (where I’m headed), there have been two murders by guns in the last 45 years. Two. And one was an accident. And in both cases, the community ceased business as usual and came together to consider where they had failed as a culture and began a healing process through music and dance. From my point of a view, where any day in the U.S. is an occasion for another shooting (just read today about 20 wounded in New Jersey), where the madness has trickled down to murdering innocent school children, where the NRA merrily marches along unchecked and now gleefully recommends that teachers carry guns (good business for them), where there is very little time taken to seriously discuss what’s going on and gather for healing ceremonies, where prominent politicians make fun of and put down the Parkland victim’s schoolmates who tried to do what the adults have failed to do, the question must be asked, “Who is the real shithole country here?” 

If we had an ounce of sense and moral obligation, we would bring in Ghanaian community members to train us to re-order our priorities. The group could be called, “DRUMS NOT GUNS.” Drums give young people the power they seek, a power that is life-affirming, that brings Spirit into the group, that connects people to each other, that gets people up and dancing. People who dance with each other find it hard to hate each other, to harm each other, to kill each other.

Maybe I’ll find some ambassadors on this trip and begin a world tour, starting with the U.S.A.
Any invitations?

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