Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Jazz Stories: P.S.

“Search for what unites us; understand that which divides us. “   - Carl Orff


This stunning quote from Carl Orff surprised me. I thought I knew most of his memorable statements, but had never heard this one. In ten short words, he summarizes the trajectory of my life’s passions. Music, dance, poetry and community ritual as the joyous forces that unite us, social justice work as illuminating the narratives that divide us with the intention of refusing their perpetuation. And both present in these little jazz stories I’ve been sharing.


In his book Racism: A Short History, George Frederickson looks at the subject through three cultures based on White Supremacy: the United States, Nazi Germany and South Africa. Isabel Wilkerson makes similar comparisons in the book Caste, substituting India’s caste system for South Africa’s apartheid. Both books are well-worth a read for those seeking to “understand that which divides us.”


I mention it here because when I went to South Africa in 2008 to teach Orff workshops, I was struck by both the similarities and differences with the U.S.’s version of systemic racism. Amongst many of the weird manifestations of cultures based on hate, exclusion and supremacy, there were four large groups out of many ethnicities in South Africa: white folks from Britain, white folks from the Netherlands (Afrikaaners), black folks of Zulu ethnicity, black folks of Xhosa ethnicity. The two white groups held the power, but they also hated each other. The two black groups were victims of oppression, but they also hated each other and had a long history of warfare. 


And so here were representatives of each of the four groups come together in my Orff workshop. My lofty vision was that folks would go off in small groups and come back with a piece of music/ dance that they created, with the rule being that some of each population had to be in each group. My fantasy was that here was a revolutionary healing moment, the four groups that historically hated each other having to come together and create something beautiful together. 


When they re-gathered to perform, the heavens did not part and the light of long-deferred healing and justice descend in glorious beams. The pieces were fine, though short of extraordinary. I said something out loud about how it moved me to note that something unimaginable a mere twenty years ago could be happening and there was a sweet moment of renewed hope in the room. 


But though one reality was that the “music brought us together,” the other was that after the workshop, the black folks would have to take at least two buses or taxis to travel two hours back to their townships and the white folks would return to their homes enclosed behind barb-wired walls and security guards at the entrance to their streets. The musical reality was in sharp contrast to the political reality and both were true. 


All of this is contained in the story of jazz, all of this is present in my work giving Orff workshops around the world. The beauty and uniting force of what happens on the bandstand and in the Orff workshop sometimes (or often) in contrast to the division that still exists outside the club, concert hall or school gymnasium. It’s naïve to rest content with the comforting notion that the music is enough, it’s limiting to think that political change alone will bring the deep healing and happiness we seek. What’s most important is that the two remain in conversation. 


This was what I was reaching for in this Jazz Stories little series—one story told through words and history to illuminate divisive practices, the other on the Youtube clip told through the music itself to unite through its power and beauty. I hope someone found this worthwhile—and that Carl Orff would approve.

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