Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Presence of the Ancestors

For a suburban American Jewish boy who went intermittently to the Unitarian Church and whose main mythological point of reference was the Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, it’s weird how much I talk in my workshops about the Ancestors. All cultures have some kind of notion of honoring those who came before and many cultures still continue the practice of inviting the Ancestor’s voice into community decision-making. For example, every time we take students to Ghana, we go the Chief where he asks permission for the Ancestors to welcome us. (So far they haven’t refused.)

But growing up in non-mystical religion and a scientific cultural thinking, it’s hard to know what to make of the notion that the Ancestors are present here and now, that the Other World is intimately connected with this World, that nothing problematic here can be wholly solved by logic, politics, law or political correctness. Without the participation of the Ancestors, we are like peer gang members trying to initiate other without the guidance of elders. That never ends well. 

Conversely, without us two-legged creatures with opposable thumbs, language and voices, no true healing can take place in the Other World where wandering ghosts who were unjustly murdered, brutalized, traumatized, ignored and not properly grieved roam the earth and make us feel haunted without knowing why. Our responsibility is to live well on their behalf, to use our precious human incarnation to move the arc of social justice closer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to make more just laws, to cultivate kinder and more knowledgeable children and yes, to grieve, grieve, grieve until the tears run dry and then get up and dance!  It’s only in the conversation between the two worlds that any real change and healing can take place.

Enter my Jazz Course. Ever since the first one I taught in 1988 at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota (thank you, Jane Frazee!) with 6 teachers, I have felt the unseen presence of some ancestors moving through me in each minute of class and beyond. And never more so than this 10-day course in the place where the whole glorious music began—New Orleans. As noted in the post “Perpetual Baptism,” they tested me to the hilt to see how serious I was and I believed they smiled and were convinced, “Yeah! This is the real deal!” And then gifted me with such blessings that in spite of every reason to be exhausted managing 45 strong personalities (they’re teachers!) in a variety of trying circumstances for 10-days straight with barely a break, often teaching 6 hours a day, trying to be fair and equitable with giving time and space to my seven other assistant teachers and keep them happy, keeping track of the budget and certificates and forms and 10,000 other tasks, my energy was constant because I was riding on the wave of the Ancestor’s blessings. Not an ounce of ego here—no place for it in that other world—but gratitude and slight astonishment that they have chosen me and I have not been found wanting. 

I write this on a plane returning to San Francisco after six weeks away. That opening course in Lapland feels like several lifetimes ago, the bike riding in Sweden and touristing in Stockholm, the World Music Course in Halifax and then the 10-days here in New Orleans. The gods were with me all the way, but never so tangibly, forcefully and palpably as in this Jazz Course. America is the place I landed in the reincarnation shuffle and I owe it my allegiance. It asks for the whole of my meager self to help make it what it was meant to be and feels so far away from being at the moment. 

So it’s no wonder that that’s where the presence of the Ancestors feels the strongest. I felt them not only in my own teaching, but also in my performing during this time and again, with the remarkable guest artists doing the same work in their own voices at yet higher and deeper levels (musically, not pedagogically) speaking the exact words and thoughts I shared in their own beautiful way. Herlin Riley, Germaine Bazzle, Khari Allen Lee, Ali from the Whitney Plantation—without ever having met each other, we found ourselves all singing the same song in our own key and vocal style. And I felt their blessing as we sang to them when they entered the room and had them grinning ear-to-ear, stopping in their tracks and thinking, "Whoah! What is this?" Extraordinary. 

And so on I continue, back to another World Music Course in San Francisco on Monday. Hope the Ancestors have it on their calendar!

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