Sunday, July 1, 2018

No More Adjectives

We have come to the place where every superlative—Amazing! Remarkable! Incredible! Wonderful! Awesome! Mind-blowing! Fantastic! Extraordinary! Exceptional! Unbelievable!—has been used up in vain efforts to capture our experience here in Dzodze, Ghana. The net of language simply cannot be cast wide enough to capture this (fill in the blank from the above list) heightened life we are living.

Today began with the usual warm-up, games and classes —in fact, the last formal classes in drumming/ dancing/ xylophones—and then time to go to the market. I could have walked with any one of the 50 participants and had a rich and stimulating conversation and that in itself is ________________ (see adjective list above). But I walked with one, had a great talk, bought an avocado (my big mission) and set off to lunch at the Traveler’s Inn.

Okay, Ghana, I’m going to criticize you. You really need to get training in Restaurant Service 101. This was the second time people waiting as long as an hour to 90 minutes for a plate of fried rice, which is probably already cooked and sitting in some pot somewhere. I really don’t get why it takes so long. There! One thing our American culture does better!!! Hooray for us!

Back from the market, I rode on back of a motorcycle and there was a rare freedom and excitement about moving down the road with the wind blowing through the hair I’ve long lost. The experience here is all about culture and music, but some ancient memory of traveling free as the wind in a new place stirred a bit.

Arriving at the hotel, I heard the xylophones being played and there were the kids from Nunya Academy messing around on them. Need I say that the music they were improvising alone and in groups was ____________? (see list for this and all other _____________. ) These kids are living proof of Orff’s intuition and my experience that music is not pushing down the right keys and buttons on an instrument reading notes written on paper made by someone else. It is a language and a muscular intelligence transmitted by the mother to the baby on her back through the rhythms of her dance and the vibrations of her singing. And then, like language, children growing up amidst adults who spend hours on end playing, singing and dancing, absorb it like a sponge and become musicians in the true sense of the word. That is, put anything in front of them and they will find a way to express themselves musically on it, be they xylophones, recorders or bamboo tubes. I filmed some of these instant xylophone compositions and will be so happy to use this as concrete examples in my future teaching and lecturing.

Then my hunger for adjectives grew exponentially as I had the privilege to teach some body percussion to 40 Nunya students. Specifically, the old song Juba and the newer Steppin’. Though everybody drums, body percussion as an art form is something new here. (I will return here after a short break in Accra to join Keith Terry’s Body Music Festival and that should be fascinating.) Of course, rhythmically grounded in their bodies, they took to it like the proverbial fish in water, learned the words and the songs so fast and the patterns as well and never once did I have to remind them, as I do in workshops elsewhere, to get down and feel the whole body involvement. And then a profound moment explaining to them what Juba is about, slaves protesting their treatment in a secret message and complaining about being fed leftovers. They got very quiet and in all my years talking about the horrors of slavery and what it must have felt like to have every aspect of your identity stolen by the brutal white folks and still survive, the quality of that listening from descendants of the very people we stole was simply ____________ (multiply all adjectives times ten and add all the synonyms for deep, profound, moving.)

After a short break so they could have lunch, they returned with their band instruments and drums and with the needed help of other participant teachers, I taught them an old Latin jazz piece called Listen Here. This was one of the first jazz songs that really caught my ear riding around at 17 years old with Phil Gear, an African-American high school friend, who played it on his 8-track system. It’s a piece by Eddie Harris that I later did with my students at school as early as 1986, is in my jazz book and one I continue to teach in workshops 30 minutes later, some 20 horns were blowing, drums were drumming, other kids were dancing, some 140 people joyfully engaged and connected by a piece of music that began right here on this continent, traveled to the U.S., dipped down to Cuba, came back to the U.S. and then returned to its mother land.
Adjectives please!!!!_______________________________

From there, it broke into a free-for-all of Nunya kids teaching us games, while over in the corner, our African-American gospel-singer-teacher extraordinaire Tom Pierre had gathered a group of some 20 students to try to teach them a song my mentor Avon Gillespie wrote called Sing, Sing, Sing (not the Benny Goodman one). It was a challenging chromatic canon, but again, due to the musicality of these kids, they made great progress. And here was another once-in-a-lifetime moment. Watching Tom’s face and eyes teaching, I saw my teacher Avon who passed away 30 years ago. He was an African-American who never had the good fortune to come to Mother Africa, but spoke about a longing to do it and here he finally was, borrowing Tom’s body and spirit and hearing these kids sing his song. Tom then went on to do another Avon song Every Morning When I Wake Up and this evolved into an acapella jam session with the 10 guys in the bass session and me. People, it does not get any better than that. Adjectives, don’t even try to express it.

Finally, the Nunya kids left, dinner was served. Had a wonderful conversation with my fellow xylophone teacher Aaron, someone I took one lesson with back in 1999 when I travelled here with my family and now 20 years later, resumed the connection. I mentioned another teacher I took a few lessons with back then, Johnson Kemeh, and on the spot he called him up and we talked. Johnson claimed he remembered me and wasn’t that something?

After dinner, our lovely friend Promise showed me a great card trick and then actually revealed to me how it worked. Boom! I’ll keep that in my repertoire. And then we all lingered around the table and as has happened every day, enjoyed some quiet, satisfying conversations with no drumming in the background. It was a welcome break from five straight days of long  afternoon or evening performances, each ______________, but we all can use some down time.

Do you see what I mean here? The body percussion, Latin jazz and small group singing were three things that qualify as one of the most ___________________ experiences of my long life and here they were gifted in one afternoon after 12 days of superlative-worthy experiences.

So tomorrow is a new month. June began camping with my daughter and the 5th grade and ended with this ___________ day in Dzodze. We go on tomorrow to the town of Ho and head to Accra in a few days time. May July be as fruitful and continue to ask for a more expansive language to fit its gifts and blessings.

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