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.