Thursday, June 26, 2014

Under My Skin



6-28-14

The children played and danced for two hours. They had us on our feet many times, singing, dancing and, in the end, joining the dancers as they moved about the courtyard. Now the concert was over, and the brass band from Nunya Academy, after a prolonged time of being greeted and praised by us, and playing games with us (I taught them “Baby Shark”), were finally saying goodbye.

“May I ask you a question?” said the ten-year-old boy whose stamina on the trumpet had amazed me.

“Of course,” I said.

“When do you think you will return to Ghana?”

I felt my heart break.

The Nunya children have performed for us four times in the last two weeks. Nunya is a school without a building, the dream of Kofi Gbolonyo, a local boy from Dzodze who has made it big in the academic world, traveling to America to earn his doctorate in ethnomusicology and finding a teaching position at the University of British Columbia. While still living in Ghana, he envisioned a music school where the poor children of his village could learn to play and sing the both the traditional music of their homeland and of the western world. His brother, Prosper, and cousin, Benzola, teach and direct the children in his absence. From British Columbia, he has, from his own resources, purchased two container-loads of used band instruments, accepting donations only to help with shipping. Once in Dzodze, the instruments are reconditioned by self-taught technicians. Benzola teaches all the instrumental technique; Prosper teaches the theory and directs the band. The academy meets in borrowed space after school. Kofi recently purchased a plot of land outside Dzodze, and intends to construct school buildings there, so that the academy can be a day school where music is at the heart of a full curriculum.

On our second night in Dzodze, the children came to perform traditional drumming and dancing, and they had us. After the performance they stayed for two hours, playing games with us, jamming on the drums, delighting us with their openness and eagerness to try new things. They were back two nights later with an evening of choreographed music games. On Saturday, we were present at a recognition ceremony at which the band and dancers performed. Finally last night, it was the brass band, this time having traveled an hour and a half to the Bob Coffie Hotel in Ho, where we are staying until tomorrow morning.

I have been astonished with how guileless these children are, how much they delight in our attention. They range in age from 10 to 19, so some of them are at the age at which young people find adults hilariously clueless and hopelessly square, and yet these teens were as eager as the youngest in the group to learn playground games from us, tackling them with gusto.

I’ve written many times in this space about how easily I can become attached to children. The last day of school is always a bittersweet experience for me, especially when, as at Hartley, there is a ritual of waving goodbye to the buses. I haven’t taught the Nunya children anything but “Baby Shark” (though had I thought to bring my trumpet, I could have done some coaching, as did two others in our group on clarinet and flute.), and yet somehow they’ve cleared out some space in my heart and climbed inside. When they ask when I’ll come back to Ghana, and I don’t have an answer, I feel my heart break just as it did two weeks ago at Hartley, knowing I would not be returning to that school and seeing any of those children again.

What makes it hurt more is that it’s not just the children. It’s the country. Yes, some of my experiences here have been irksome lessons in the realities of third world living: things happen on a far more fluid schedule than I’m used to, it can take 24 hours to get change for a large bill, vendors expect bargaining and quote prices far higher than what they expect to receive, the water is of questionable quality, the internet cuts in and out, and everywhere (except on hotel grounds) there is litter everywhere—in fact, the village, the town, the city would all look far less shabby if people used trash receptacles—in a word, this place is challenging for someone who has never been outside the first world except for a couple of day trips into Mexico. But the people are like no others I’ve met, friendly, welcoming, helpful, patient with my poor understanding of their accent and complete inability to remember any of the words in their language—or, when I do, to pronounce them in an intelligible way. Their sincere warmth, their delight in seeing a white person take an interest in their culture, and their inclusiveness at drawing us into the dances at every performance and celebration we have been to, goes far beyond anything I’ve experienced anywhere else.

This is a shabby place of dirt roads, mud huts, ubiquitous litter, corrupt officials—everything one might expect to find in a third world country. It is also a thriving democracy with a vibrant culture and an indefatigable spirit that cannot help but win the heart of anyone with an open mind.

Anyone like an Orff teacher.

Ghana is under my skin. It’s in my blood. When will I return?

I can’t say when, but I know the answer begins with “yes.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

First World Problems

6-25-14

I can do without a lot.

No private room? Share a bed with a stranger? Same food for every lunch, every dinner, for two weeks? No TV except the World Cup? No good beer? Nothing but instant coffee? I’m good. In fact, I’m great. I can handle being without all sorts of creature comforts, and often choose vacations that take me away from all these things.

But take away the internet, and oh boy, am I going to get cranky.

It’s amazing how dependent I’ve become on this invention which didn’t even exist for me before 1995, and which I didn’t begin using in earnest until 2003. So that’s really just over a decade of living on the web. But live on it I do.

Except in Ghana.

My first night, at the Hotel Obama, I had a good strong connection, and was able to Skype with Amy. I expected the same for our week in Dzodze, at the White Dove Hotel—and I was mistaken. There was nothing, no way of connecting at all. Even mobile roaming was dicey. I did manage some time at an internet cafĂ© in town one afternoon, but apart from that, I was unable to upload blog posts, put pictures on Facebook or, most significantly, to communicate in real time with Amy. Given the high cost of international roaming, I limited myself to one or two text messages a night.

And I was desperate. I lived with the situation—all of us did—but I wasn’t happy with it. None of us were. Even our guru, Doug Goodkin, who frequently preaches on the evils of technology, was feeling a hankering to post to his own blog. It’ll be better in Ho, we told ourselves; there’s internet at the Bob Coffie Hotel.

And so there was. Barely.

We’ve been here three days, and I’ve had about three hours in that time when I had a reliable enough connection to upload anything, or to have some messaging with Amy. The first night, I tried Skyping, and gave up after about a minute. Some nights, the internet hasn’t worked at all, and it’s just like the White Dove: send a disappointing message to Amy and call it a night.

Tonight has been hit-or-miss. Depending on where in the hotel compound I am, I may have internet, but it cuts in and out. It’s infuriating.

Of course, this is the third world.

Tonight the Nunya Academy brass band came to perform for us. I have seen the conditions in which these children live and go to school. They make the poverty of my Reynolds students look like opulence. The computer and iPad I take for granted at school, even the phone in my office I rarely touch, are all unattainable luxuries in these schools. And my modest suburban tract home? A mansion by Ghanaian standards. The Rockwood neighborhood where I teach is neat, clean, and fully part of Portland’s infrastructure: gas, water, electricity, cable, trash collection, recycling, street sweepers. Infrastructure in Dzodze is water travelers are advised to avoid or filter before drinking, open sewers, two paved roads, and some overhead power lines. Phone service is all mobile. Those who have TV must also have satellite dishes, and I suspect there are not many who do. At tonight’s performance, I saw a child dancing with unmatched shoes, many of them barefoot (though that is a cultural choice for many in this country). All the instruments were battered, second-hand, purchased by Kofi out of his own pocket off of Craig’s List, from garage and estate sales, and shipped by him in a container. The clarinets are using saxophone reeds. The brass instruments have little or no finish remaining.



This is a third world country, and the people here bear all the privations that brings with good cheer, finding cause for joy in the face of challenges that would seem insurmountable to most Americans. They don’t just tolerate these things, either; they transcend them. They take what they have and innovate. Used water and soda bottles are repurposed in the market place as containers for cooking oil. The xylophones we play use scraps of paper from UPS envelopes to create the buzz that is such an essential part of their sound. This is true throughout Africa; this afternoon we had a lecture from Sofia Lopez-Ibor, one of the San Francisco School teachers who are part of the instruction team, about the incredible colorful baskets woven in South America from telephone cables. It’s this African spirit of innovation that led slaves to take the scraps their masters fed them with and create soul food. Denied their drums and traditional religious practices, they created the work songs, blues, and gospel music that ultimately became jazz.

The Bob Coffie Hotel gives us much to grumble about. The restaurant staff is inefficient and clueless about keeping enough change in hand to accommodate our menu choices. Loud gospel music plays in the restaurant and in the lovely plaza nonstop during the day. The internet is unreliable. The bar sold us beers the first night at twice the price they should have. The light fixtures in my room don’t all work—in fact, one of them shorted out with a “pop” when I turned it on the first night. And yet, this hotel is a beautiful facility, and I know we’re far more comfortable than the vast majority of musicians performing for us.

There’s some irony to complaining about first world problems while staying in the third world. It’s a very ugly American thing to do. So while I’m inconvenienced by these “welcome to Ghana” quirks, I’m taking them in stride, doing my best to emulate the hundreds of men, women, and children I’ve met here who live with so much less, and do it with a smile, a laugh, a shake of the butt, a tap on a drum, and a sincere, heartfelt “Welcome!”

After tonight’s concert, one of the boys who’d just performed said to me, “May I ask you a question?” I nodded. He asked, “When will you come back to Ghana?” I swallowed, smiled, and said, “I don’t know when, but I will be back.”


Because for all that it lacks, this place knows, better than anywhere I’ve been, how to live.

Band of Runners

6-22-14

This morning’s run started like all runs so far in Ghana: I was up as early as I could be, out the door before sunrise, hoping to beat the sun for the entire run. There are only two directions to run from the White Dove Hotel, both going through villages, though there is a junction on the westward route that gives access to a country road. That’s the option I took this morning, heading north past groves of palms, corn and cassava fields, and occasional unfinished buildings (see “Building Boomlets”) and dirt driveways leading to small clusters of huts. I had been out about 25 minutes, almost at my turnaround point, when I realized the drumming and singing I was hearing through my headphones, intruding on the podcast in my ears, was coming from the road ahead of me. I had just rounded a curve, and there they were: a group of twenty runners, all keeping step to a bell and two shakers being carried by runners. That wasn’t all: there was a leader calling out songs, drill sergeant style, and the entire group was singing as they ran.

I passed them, waving and smiling (they returned the greeting, of course), reached my turnaround point, doubled back, and caught up with them. They weren’t moving fast; while the cadence of their music was perfect, they were taking small steps. But the unity of both their music and their running was striking.
They appeared to be a group of youngish adults from Dzodze, probably in their late twenties or early thirties. They were mostly men, but there were a few women in the group, too. I ran with them for a minute or two, then passed them, continuing to run to their beat the rest of the way to the junction, where I headed back east to the hotel.


I’ve seen many runners besides myself during my morning workouts, and even saw some less-organized groups of teenagers run past my hotel room before I headed out this morning. Ghanaians run, and they wisely do it before the sun has risen far in the sky. This is the first time I experienced singing and percussion with a run, though it made perfect sense in this profoundly musical place.

Church Is Church



6-22-14

I grew up in church. Until last November, I spent almost every Sunday morning of my life in church. Even on vacations, I usually found a church, though as I grew older, I felt less and less need for that observance. Church had become a job, and little more. Finally, last November, I resigned from a good paying church job because I just needed, for the first time in my life, to have weekends. I haven’t looked back.

With all that said, church is still a comfortable place for me to be. I speak the language, I understand the way people think and interact, and even though I may now find those customs and ideas far less attractive, and find some of them offensive, I know that church is, and always will be, a place I can fit right into, no matter where it is or what its practices are.

So Sunday morning in Ghana, knowing we would be attending a church in Dzodze—though strictly for sociological reasons, to see how they made use of Ghanaian music in a western religious context—I expected to feel right at home. My happiest church experiences in America have been in African-American churches, and I expected this to be similar. I wasn’t wrong: the warm handshakes, the sense of casual formalism, the dual offerings, the way music could take off and grow into something huge and powerful that moved people to tears and collapse, all felt familiar. There was a language barrier, though the church, in honor of our presence, was going out of its way to present the service in both Ewe and English. There were also long periods of administrative details: announcements, the pastor lecturing the congregation on how important it is to join, not just attend, this church. And finally, there was a seemingly endless boilderplate evangelical sermon by a guest speaker presenting an Augustinian lecture on three states of grace that descended at one point to a screed about hellfire and how all the sinfulness of unchurched people—and of some churched people—was going to subject them to an endless fire a hundred times hotter than any they’d ever experienced.

I know my fellow students were squirming through much of this, not just because of the awkward theology, but also because it went on so long (due in part to the need for the translator to repeat everything the speakers said). I could sense they were thrilled by the music, and impressed by how it affected so many of the congregation, many of whom engaged in traditional Ewe dancing—which looked quite out of place in their Sunday finery. Doug Goodkin, our Orff guru, spoke briefly to thank the church for its welcome and to acknowledge that while we come from many faith traditions, we all are part of the same spirit. This received a rousing “Amen” from the congregation, though I suspect it didn’t sit too well with the guest speaker.
We left after two and a half hours, with the service likely to go on for another hour at least. We had another service to attend in the afternoon, and we needed to get lunch first.

That second “service” was a religious ceremony going on at Kofi’s family shrine. As lengthy as the service at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church had been, this event was an all-day affair. Just as we had been expected to dress up for church, we had to alter our dress for this ceremony: women had to have bear shoulders, so all the men left the bus while the women removed their tops and wrapped themselves, top and bottom, in Ghanaian cloths. Men were also expected to be topless, so we removed our shirts, and put on more of the Ghanaian cloth in a way that resembled a sarong. After walking down a dirt road from the bus, we had to remove our shoes to cover the last few feet to the shrine. The ground was squishy red clay, mostly dry, but it had been raining, and there was no avoiding stepping in mud at several points.

The shrine was, at first, like many of the central squares at which we’ve seen musical celebrations, and what we saw bore many similarities to those events, though on a much smaller scale: a bench of drummers playing complex polyrhythms while about a dozen dancers sang and spun around a young man who was leading the singing. There were other, older members of the family sitting around us, and also some adults moving around, occasionally joining in, but mostly seeming to act as managers.

The area was filled with totems and symbols, and clearly much of what the singing dancers were doing was prescribed by tradition: the paint on some of their faces and bodies, the grass skirt and much more frenetic steps of one male dancer, the grass covering a teenaged girl who was holding a calabash of some sacred liquid on her head, after being led in along with a boy who held a bowl with some other symbolic item—a yam, perhaps? Both were expected to stand absolutely still. The girl’s face was concealed by the grass coming down in front of her face, but the boy’s face was visible, his expression stony.

We’d been warned there might be people going into trance, and this certainly happened. The first was the young girl with the calabash, who began to weave, the liquid sloshing onto the ground, then to stagger in one direction or another, until being led back by one of the managers. One of the dancing women was next, suddenly dashing from the dance to spin around the ground, alternately threatening people (including the children) with a sharp ceremonial object and vigorously shaking the hands of everyone, including our group.
Then came the trance that frightened me: the young man leading the songs suddenly stopped, staggered away from the circle, fell to the ground near us, apparently unconscious. The managers tended to him, making sure he was all right. A few minutes later, he leapt to his feet, ran away from the ground, then came back with an empty gin bottle in his hand. Now he became interested in our party, particularly in me, and pulled me off the bench to dance. I saw that Kofi’s brother Prosper, who was our guide through this event, was nodding encouragement, seemed unfazed, and was joining us. As he did, one of the managers pulled the bottle from his hand and tucked it away somewhere. I danced with him for awhile, putting all the training I’ve been having this week to good use, apparently did well enough to satisfy him, and was able to sit back down. The young man then made the rounds, shaking hands firmly, howling from time to time in a manner that led us (after the fact) to refer to him as James Brown. He disappeared again, came back with another empty bottle, threw himself at our feet, and smashed the bottle on his head. The women rushed in, hustled him away, and cleaned up the glass.

Soon after that, we politely left.

Looking back at both events, I am startled to find—and if you’ve been shocked by the traditional ceremony I described, this may shock you—great similarities between them. Yes, the Christian service was heavily influenced by the role of western colonialism in suppressing native forms of expression; even so, it manifested much of the same spirit I’ve felt in many of the performances and events we’ve been to, including the traditional ceremony: a flexible understanding of time, a sense that spiritual events take as long as they take, a friendly encouragement for outsiders to feel at home and participate, and most important, total commitment on the part of the worshippers. This was far more evident during the musical portions of the Christian service than when one or another speaker was droning on about the importance of membership or the perils of hellfire, but there was still no question but that the congregation was fully engaged, body, soul, spirit.

All of this was present in the traditional ceremony. The energetic music that seemed to go on forever, the singing, the dancing, and the power of these acts to bring people into a hypnotic state of spiritual possession, are all things I’ve seen in Pentecostal services, and even some mainline Protestant Black services. Had the music continued at the church, we might well have seen some of the congregants being slain in the spirit, speaking in tongues, prophesying. The way in which the community at the traditional ceremony both respected and guarded those who were in trance, giving them room to do what they were driven to do but simultaneously chaperoning them, removing harmful objects if it seemed they might use them on others and, when the bottle was somehow brought back, cleaning up the mess so quickly, protecting our bare feet—all of this felt familiar to me, an extension of the open welcome we’ve experienced so many times.

With that said, I’m not comfortable with a lot of what went on in both services. I will admit to, at times, being envious of those who can so freely give themselves over to the Holy Spirit that it knocks them out, channels incomprehensible speech through their mouths; and similarly, the trance state of those Ewe I saw yesterday had a freedom to it that is utterly foreign to my own, so very Swedish, personality. I long to be able to let go, to be uninhibited, unregulated, just free to be.

But I don’t want to do it like that. And in fact, I do manage to be free, to cut loose, when I am making music, when I am engaged in an Orff training, and most of all, when I am teaching children. These are the moments I can most let myself be myself, without all the strictures that usually keep me quiet, polite, out of the spotlight.

Doing it as a spiritual practice, though, is not who I am. Spiritually, I am most free when I am disciplined: when I am climbing a trail, writing, employing my musical abilities, using my brain and body to do something transcendent. Letting my emotions have free rein is just not my style.


But it certainly was impressive yesterday. In fact, as I told Doug as we left the shrine: “That was the friendliest terror I’ve ever experienced.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Miawoezo (Welcome to Ghana)

6-21-14

It was a week ago tonight that my flight landed in Accra. Since then, I’ve been immersed in the culture of the place I’m visiting more deeply than on any of my previous adventures save one, to Britain, and I was there for two years. Two features of this trip have made the difference: that this is an Orff experience, and that I’m in Ghana.

Orff courses are, by their very nature, immersive. That’s the Orff approach: rather than tell students about music, plunge them into it, let them learn it by doing it. It’s how Orff workshops and training courses are taught, as well: not by lecture, but by experience. Kofi Gbolonyo, our host and teacher during this master class, has been an exemplary Orff teacher in this regard, getting our hands on drums, rattles, bells, flutes, and xylophones; and getting our bodies in motion, stomping, thrusting, gyrating. He’s also spent plenty of time helping us reflect, explaining, interpreting, translating. Most importantly, he’s brought Ghana to us, and taken us out to it, in marvelous ways, bringing student and community groups to perform for us every night, and taking us out to observe and participate in events in the village.

That in itself would be enough to make this an exceptional experience. But there’s much more: the simple fact that this is happening in Ghana has amplified everything Kofi has been doing with us. Ghana is not a place that one can just see. In fact, it’s not a place one would come to see just for its sights. In terms of natural wonders, there are few, on they are lacking in spectacle. Historical sites are also few in number. There’s no grand architecture, the food is interesting but monotonous, there’s nothing one can purchase here that can’t be found somewhere else. What makes Ghana special is the Ghanaians.

I’ve traveled throughout the United States (Alaska being the one exception) and to Europe, and I’ve never met a people as sincerely welcoming as Ghanaians. Everywhere I go, they are happy to see me, smiling, waving, greeting me. Every group that has performed for us has been eager to draw us into their dancing, and to mingle with us both before and after the performance, playing games, teaching us dance moves (and delighting in our ineptitude). We’ve been feted again and again. And as we’ve met these people, we’ve begun experiencing some of the idiosyncrasies of this place. Fortunately, Kofi is always there to interpret, sometimes as a running commentary, sometimes giving program notes between events, and sometimes with a recap and question-and-answer session afterward. Lately we’ve been observing things that startle us, to which Kofi’s reply is sometimes “Welcome to Ghana.”

Such a moment came yesterday when we visited a village celebrating its last day of school. The school buildings were startlingly primitive, with facilities that make pioneer schools I’ve seen look luxurious:
What was most amazing, though, was the celebration taking place between the school buildings, under a grove of trees that were a quintessential ceremonial ground. There was drumming, singing, dancing, as the entire community rejoiced in the progress their children were making—and that is all of their children. At least three chiefs were present, and all the teachers were honored. After the celebration had gone on for awhile, Kofi was introduced, and now we became the focus of attention. Each teacher presented himself or herself to us, announcing name, position, and age level taught. We were then treated to a “drama” that, at first glance, struck me as a high school class skit.

A young man in ragged clothing came out, acting oddly, yelling to the sky, taking a dildo from his pocket, putting it in front of his crotch, and thrusting his hips. This happened repeatedly. Two other boys, wearing their school uniforms, came up to him and mocked him. One of these boys then went “home” where his mother, seeing the “madman,” angrily told her son not to associate with him. She then made a poisoned cake for the madman, which he took with him. The son again encountered the madman, who shared his cake with the son. The son had to be taken to the hospital, where he died.

What struck our western eyes most was the use of the dildo. When we finally had a chance to talk with Kofi about it, his first reply was “Welcome to Ghana.” He then went into detail: Ghanaian culture is much more open about sexuality than American culture. The focus of the play was not sex, but hospitality. In Ghana, mental illness is not something that is pushed away into institutions, or hidden under highway overpasses. Mentally ill people are accepted into village culture, with the entire community taking responsibility for their care. To reject a “madman” is inhospitable, and may subject one to the judgment of God.

The other aspect of this that led to another “welcome to Ghana” moment was how uproariously the audience responded to the madman’s clowning. In retrospect, I saw a connection to our experience Tuesday, when we were presented to the chief, and the gathering was disrupted by a man who was explosively angry, and was eventually ushered away. While he was carrying on, the crowd was laughing at him. They took his disruption in stride, and rather than become angry at the way he was affecting a solemn ceremony, they found it hilarious.

This is a cultural feature that is hard for me to understand. As Kofi put it, Ghanaians make fun of everyone. It’s equal opportunity ridicule: Christians make fun of Muslims make fun of traditional religionists who make fun of everyone else; men and women make fun of each other; the sane make fun of the insane; and the insane make fun of everyone. We’ve experienced some of this with school children stopping at a gate that opens to the courtyard where we practice dancing, laughing at our awkward attempts to get down Ghana style. Whenever we’re drawn into a dance, the dancers and (if it’s at a community site, rather than at the hotel) audience laugh loudly, but warmly. Welcome to Ghana: everyone is accepted, but acceptance comes with ribbing.

Other “welcome to Ghana” moments center on the rough housing children engage in, which is far more physical and, at times, violent than we western teachers feel comfortable with. There is also the aspect of disciplinarians roaming around performances with switches, snapping anyone who becomes distracted from the drumming (though so far I have not seen any of those switches applied—perhaps because they were used so effectively in the past). I expect Ghanaian children are spanked when they get out of line, though I don’t know this for a certainty. They are also soothed with lullabies whenever they start to cry, and the babies and toddlers I’ve seen at public events have all been as well-behaved as I’ve experienced anywhere—though they’ve also been permitted to wander through the performances.

Much of what seems like “welcome to Ghana” to me is, I think, more of a “welcome to the Third World”: the minivans crammed with people; the motorcycles carrying multiple passengers, including small children, none of them wearing helmets; the incredible loads people balance on their heads; the chaotic yet civil hullabaloo of the market; the proximity of extreme poverty to opulence; and all of this strikes me as exotic and, in a strange way, a sight worth traveling to see. But I could get that in so many other places: just driving across the border to Mexico, flying to southeast Asia, or to Rio, or anywhere that heat and humidity combine with generations of poverty. What I’m far less likely to experience is the welcome.

There is one other side of this that is far less attractive. There is one class of humans who are decidedly not welcome in Ghana, or really anywhere in Africa: sexual minorities. It is illegal to engage in same-gender sexual acts in Ghana. Other countries are getting more press about this, perhaps because the penalties are more severe, but homophobia is a prominent feature of African morality. It’s what’s holding American Methodism back from fully embracing gay ordination and gay marriage: our African members will soon outnumber Americans, and they are resolute in their opposition to opening their hearts and minds to gay people.


It’s a sad postscript to this love letter to Ghana. With their cradle-to-grave musical culture, their profound sense of hospitality, their openness to innovation, and their delightful sense of humor, this place could be a paradise for a musician—unless he or she is gay.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Down and Dirty

I see connections.

At the music festival, in the performances we have every night, the way school girls dance when they chance by our compound and hear us drumming, there is a particular Ghanaian style of thrusting the elbows back, then forward, while stepping on the beat in a crouch that is almost a squat, and somehow gyrating the core and glutes. Dancers want everyone to join in, and draw in spectators to their performances, pulling them out of their seats or away from the shade tree from which they’re watching. Kofi calls the move “breaking the back,” and likens it to pulling away from a knife attack from the front then the back, over and over again. In some ways, it resembles the chicken dance, though much more active and full-body. In terms of coordinating all the movements, it feels to me like trying to get the Charleston basic step right: my body just can’t pivot on that many axes at once.

Or, more likely, I’ve never learned to.

Most of Orff movement training takes a balletic approach. I’d never done this kind of dance before taking my Levels training, and I found it liberating and empowering, especially as I learned how to extend energy through my limbs, reaching out as far as I could, stretching, elongating myself. I was defying gravity, seeing how far I could break free of its involuntary embrace. I came to realize that western ballet, with its leaps, throws, extensions, and en pointe movement, was all about reaching toward heaven. I could see it growing out of the Greek influence on Christian theology, in particular the dualistic approach to heaven and earth. For many Christians, death is still seen as an escape from the near-hell of earthly existence.

Contrast that with the thoroughly grounded movement of Ewe dancing, and of the American dance styles that evolved from African patterns: cakewalk, Charleston, swing dancing, dirty dancing, salsa, break dancing. The exceptions in American pop culture are the dances most influenced by European fads: waltz, foxtrot, and more recently, disco. These dances retain the elegant line and extension of classical European dance, the stretch toward heaven.

We asked Kofi about the origins of the Ewe dance, and he said that, historically, it’s been around since ancient times: some of the earliest European descriptions of West African culture describe the same movements we’re seeing here today. He pointed out that the crouching posture is related to the kind of work Ewe do: farming, rowing boats, fishing, washing clothing at the river bank. As to the elbow/back movement, he had no idea. It’s just what they do.

Similarly, the Ghanaian xylophone, a set of tuned boards using gourds as resonators, has a buzz that, to western ears, sounds like it’s time to take it in for repairs. In fact, the buzz is intentional, built into the resonators by drilling holes and, traditionally, covering them with spider web, though modern xylophones are built with fragments of UPS envelopes as the buzzing medium. The buzz just sounds good to Ghanaian ears, more connected to the earth, than the pure, bell-like tone of a western xylophone.

The Ghanaian atenteben, a bamboo flute similar to a recorder, is intentionally built on natural overtones, rather than having the even temperament of a western instrument. Ghanaians like the sound of two notes clashing in a way that creates beats—a sound that will drive a western musician to the tuner. It never occurs to western ears that the pure, beatless sound of a well-tempered perfect fourth is, in fact, as artificial as the electronic devices we use to scour those intervals free of beats.

Spiritually, I see a grounding in gravity that is the polar opposite to the European ideal of breaking free. Living in a climate of heat and deprivation, people from throughout Africa have had to innovate, making something from not much. The Ewe, in particular, seem to do this with smiles on their faces. Accepting what life presents you, embracing it, celebrating it, and turning it into art, is a cultural strength lacking in many western societies. Presented with a deficit, Americans feel defeat, become depressed, give up altogether. Ewe, on the other hand, take what little resources they have and make something of beauty and power from it. Their dance and music is infused into children from infancy, draws in entire communities, fluidly adapts historical forms while simultaneously honoring their ancestors. It grows out of a connection to the earth borne on proximity: they live in earthen huts with dirt floors. Their marketplaces are unpaved. They break down old termite mounds and use the sturdy, water-resistant material as bricks. They sweep floors with palm branches. They extract decades of life from vehicles that Americans would have scrapped many times over, turning them into taxis, trotros, farm vehicles, trucks. Their development is incremental but certain; and like their dancing and their music, it has a power that comes from the earth itself.

I don’t know whether the Ewe believe in a heaven, though I have learned that their sense of the spiritual is of immanence: every tree, every creature, has a spirit, and the ancestors are always present. The dances and rhythms change only gradually, though a traumatic event may provide the occasion for more significant adjustments.  There have been two shooting deaths in Dzodze in the last four decades, and both were the occasion for making a changes to the town’s song and dance.


Music grounded in spirituality, taught from birth; dance so much a part of one’s being that too hear music is to be moved by, and have to move to, it; a fundamental attitude of cheerful acceptance and transcendence of whatever the world has to offer: I have much to learn from this culture. I daresay all Americans could stand to take some lessons at the feet of these masters of music, however young they may be.

Finding One



The greatest challenge to the classically trained western musician—or to any musician, including jazz, rock, country, Latin, whatever field, who has studied in the west—in adjusting to traditional African music (and here I include the entire continent) is the oral nature of its preservation. Until the arrival of European ethnomusicologists, none of this music was written down. Free of the printed page and the necessary strictures of notation (systems for recording meter, rhythm, duration, pitch), African musicians created music of incredibly complex polyrhythms with little or no regard to where the beat would fall. When they dance, they find it with their feet. When they play, it floats freely.

Lacking this frame of reference, it can be difficult for a western musician to figure out the meter of an African piece. During a drum circle experience yesterday, Kofi introduced us to a new bell rhythm, then asked us what meter it was in. 2, 3, 4, 6, 8—we all felt those meters, in one way or another. “You are all right!” he said, then led us through a lesson in keeping each of those meters while playing the rhythm. It was challenging—often it felt like the sort of improv game that leaves players feeling like their brains have been broken—but in the end, we all had it.

Today during xylophone class, Eske taught us—or, really, demonstrated for us—a new piece in 12/8. The challenge for all of us was finding 1. We knew where we wanted it to be, but depending on how you asked him, Eske might tell us it was in a different place—or right where we felt it. He doesn’t notate his music, he just feels it, and he teaches it by modeling. It’s only in creating a version that others can learn on their own, without the benefit of a teacher, that a musician must be particular about the actual location of 1.

Kofi has told us there is no word in Ewe for music, that in fact music is simply the fabric of life. From infancy—before, really, since pregnant women have their own dance—Ewe children are utterly immersed in music and motion. Strapped to their mothers backs, with their legs wrapped around their mothers’ waist, they sleep soundly in the midst of vigorous dancing and drumming. As soon as they’re moving about on their own, they are dancing to the same music they once rode to, using every step that’s been modeled to them for the two years they were on their mothers’ backs. It is not possible for them to imagine a situation where music is not as present as the air they breathe.

Contrast this with western culture, in which music is something meant primarily for entertainment, something for which there is a time and a place, something that can be easily dismissed or cut from a school budget as frivolous. Any school that has done this has quickly learned how the lack of a music program sucks the spirit from the curriculum, and every time I’ve come to a school as a result of music being restored to the budget, I’ve been greeted with wild enthusiasm by both teachers and students. We understand how vital music is, but we’ve lost its importance as a piece of our culture. And we’re not sure how to get it back.

But let’s go back to 1, the first beat, the beat that every western musician has to find as a fundamental reference point before any music can occur:, the first thing that makes a piece possible, especially if it involves more than one musician: ultimately, the best ensembles, the best musicians, just start. They are in communication with each other at a level that is deeper than the metronome. They find the beat, play it, sing it, plunge into whatever they’re performing, and if they’re fully engaged, body, soul, spirit, what follows is more perfect than the most metrically precise performance a band director ever beat out of his players. This is music at the meta level, music under the skin, in the bones, in the lungs and heart and guts and gonads, music that happens so transcendentally that, when it’s over, it’s as if the performers are awakening from a trance. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in that place a number of times in my life, but nowhere near as many as the performers we’ve heard every night, and will continue to hear until we board our airplanes back to our western lives. If I can hang onto this, perhaps I can get myself to let go of 1 when I’m back in the metrical world, the world of numbers of timetables where music is diminished, but still as essential as blood, water, food, air.

So Much

6-16-14

I know what to expect from an Orff workshop. Typically, they start with the presenter inviting everyone into a circle, then teaching a greeting/mixer musical game by lining out a song and the movements that go with it. Once the song is learned, variations are developed, leading organically into deeper learning of the concept. If it’s a 1-2 hour workshop, that one concept is likely to be the entire event.  If it’s an all-day workshop, the learning will be broken into units, each exploring a concept that ties into the central theme. And if it’s a 1-2 week course, each day will have a theme, again tied into the overarching conceptual framework. The learning will involve singing, dancing, playing games, drumming, barred instruments, and recorders. There’s little, if any, lecture, and rather than have participants take notes, presenters prepare an exhaustive set themselves describing every game and including scores for the songs to hand out afterward, the better to keep everyone’s hands free to play and participate. I first encountered this process in 2005, and it revolutionized the way I teach to every age level. The learning is so much deeper than taking notes from a lecture could ever be, however stimulating the presentation.

I knew what to expect—until yesterday.

In fact, the introductory session was thoroughly “Orffy,” with each of the four instructors teaching a song/game as described above that had us on our feet, singing, dancing, switching partners frequently, moving around the room, and learning different styles and languages. At the conclusion of each game, the instructor talked briefly about what being in Ghana means to him or her. After all these presentations, the head of the course, Kofi Gbolonyo, gave us an overview of what we’ll be doing and a brief lecture about Africa—something I’ll write more about separately, as it upended everything I’ve ever thought about this continent. After all this, we dressed up for the afternoon’s events. And this is where it departed from what one expects from an Orff workshop.

We climbed on the bus and were taken into Dzodze, to the compound where Kofi’s mother is the matriarch, and served a banquet of Ghanaian dishes. These were not especially exotic, but the hospitality of our hosts was marvelous. Then the bus took us to the center of town where a music festival was in progress. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:




We were drawn in from the moment we arrived, children running up to us and encouraging us to dance with them. In fact, as Kofi had explained earlier, we were expected to dance. We stayed here for about an hour, until Kofi told us it was time to be presented to the chief of his neighborhood.

As the music festival continued, we were led to a covered area about a block away where a gathering of elders was waiting for us. As I learned from my guidebook, being presented to the chief is an essential part of visiting a Ghanaian village, and Kofi had arranged to present all 38 of us to him. There was an elaborate protocol involving drumming, speeches, and the pouring out of libations to honor the ancestors, all of it translated from Ewe by Kofi or his brother Prosper. The history of Dzodze was told tooo us, in English, by an elder. Finally came a moment Kofi had not expected: the chief had decided to elevate both Kofi and one of our San Francisco instructors, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, as honorary king and queen of music education in Dzodze.


He instructed Kofi to remember where he came from, even as he travels around the world, and told Sofia she is welcome here whenever she may come, and to consider Dzodze her home. Both of them were presented with regalia and given seats on the dais. Through this entire ceremony, a cannon was fired at every significant moment. Finally we were led back to the festival square to dance some more, then to the bus.
After a quick trip back to the hotel to use the facilities, we took one more trip into town to see the marketplace, then through town to a site in the country where Kofi has purchased a piece of property to be the home of the Nunya Music School, founded by Kofi and currently meeting in the homes of some of the instructors. Back to the hotel again for dinner, and then, when all of us were sagging and ready for bed, came the experience that transcended an already rich day.

The Nunya School teaches traditional Ghanaian music and dance to children between the ages of 10 and 19. Last night, sixty of them came to the hotel to drum, sing, and dance for us. For ninety minutes, the children amazed us with their performances. After the full day we’d had, many of us were struggling to stay awake, but we didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

The performance finally ended and now it was time to interact with the children. At first we were just greeting them, but then they began teaching us dance moves, laughing with delight at our clumsy efforts to imitate their fluid movements, shaking our hands, posing with us for pictures. By itself, this would have been plenty, but now it began to rain.

I’ve experienced downpours like this before, mostly in Texas and Illinois (despite Oregon’s reputation as a rainy place, drenching downpours are rare). The rain would not let up, and quickly flooded the courtyard where the performance had taken place. Driving rain like thus was far too intense to permit the children to be driven home, but they didn’t mind: they played in the flooded courtyard, chasing soccer balls, splashing about, delighting in the cleansing of the heavy air. That wasn’t all, though: they joined us in the covered areas, continuing to teach us not just to dance, but to play intricate rhythms on the drums, shekeres, and bells. Some of them taught playground games, always of interest to Orff teachers. The impromptu jam session lasted until well after 11, and as tired as I’d been during the performance, I was incapable of going to sleep once I finally got to bed. I finished my blog from the first day of the trip, and still couldn’t sleep for hours, with the rhythms and songs of Ghana still ringing in my ears.

Welcome to the Hotel Obama




6/15/14

I saw wonders from the air: Windsor Castle, the neatly organized fields of Dorset, the more American-looking fields of France, the Sarah Desert, a thunderstorm flashing below the plane, and finally, the lights of Accra, not all that different from the lights of Portland, Chicago, New York City, Dallas, or any other city I’ve flown over—not from the air, anyway.

Then the doors opened, the humidity hit, and after 34 hours of travel, I stepped onto Ghanaian soil.
It was a rude awakening: waiting in a slow queue to be passed through customs, struggling to claim my bag, and the moment I was out of the luggage area, being confronted by scammers pretending to be airport officials, hoping to get something off me: a tip, my passport, perhaps even my suitcase. I had been warned by a sign in customs, and managed not to give in to any of them. Once out of the chute, I met Kofi, our director and host, who had hired three taxi drivers to ferry us to the hotel. Note that number. We had to wait for several other Orff people to arrive, then finally headed outside to the taxi area. Somewhere in there, a fourth man insinuated himself into our group, helpfully pulling my bag across the street, firmly shooing away the many scammers wanting to do what he was doing, and convincing me he was one of our official helpers. Kofi had to go back into the airport to assist with a passport issue, and the moment he was gone, the fourth man started pressuring me for a “tip.” In my fatigued state, I wasn’t thinking clearly—the proper response should have been “ask Kofi about that,” at which point he would have probably given up. Instead, he managed to get $25 out of me. I was confused about the situation, had no idea he wasn’t really part of our group, though I might be reimbursed afterward, and gave up far too much money to a grifter. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I noticed he wasn’t with us. The next day, I asked Kofi about it, and saw a cloud come over his face. This man was not part of our group, and should not have done what he did. I later learned he managed to pull the same scam on two other people who arrived separately.

For all that, the Hotel Obama was a delightful idiosyncrasy. Every room has an American name that evokes thoughts of liberation and civil rights: Coretta Scott King, Democracy, 1865, MLK. I stayed in the Lincoln bedroom, sleeping like a rock in an enormous bed.

The next morning, I took a run, and discovered much that I had not noticed on our short taxi ride: shanty towns, open sewers, a huge assortment of aging Land Rovers at a lot on our road. A walk later in the morning exposed me to street vendors carrying all their wares on their heads, businesses with odd Christian names (my favorite: Moses Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Car Repair), unfinished buildings with no apparent construction underway. Riding the bus to Dzodze, where we will spend our first week, we passed through village upon village all featuring the same battered tin roofs, decaying mud brick homes, many of them constructed, Kofi told us, from termite mounds. Motorcycle taxis, trotros (minivans) crowded with far more people than they were meant to carry, and slow lorries filled the road. Our driver passed many of them with seconds to spare as oncoming traffic drew much too close for comfort. Children waved at us from the side of the road, delighted to see so many white people on a bus.

We arrived at our hotel, the White Dove, well after sunset, had dinner, and then an evening session to get acquainted in the Orff fashion: with musical games. It’s an international bunch: exposed me to street vendors carrying all their wares on their heads, businesses with odd Christian names (my favorite: Moses Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Car Repair), unfinished buildings with no apparent construction underway. Riding the bus to Dzodze, where we will spend our first week, we passed through village upon village all featuring the same battered tin roofs, decaying mud brick homes, many of them constructed, Kofi told us, from termite mounds. Motorcycle taxis, tiny vans crammed with people, an occasional trotro (a large pickup truck with the bed filled with chairs for riders), and slow lorries filled the road. Our driver passed many of them with seconds to spare as oncoming traffic drew much too close for comfort. Children waved at us from the side of the road, delighted to see so many white people on a bus.

We arrived at our hotel, the White Dove, well after sunset, had dinner, and then an evening session to get acquainted in the Orff fashion: with musical games. It’s an international bunch: 34 participants from eleven different companies, and our four faculty members from three different countries.


Everything about this place is like a dream: the smells, the sounds (I spent several minutes at a rest stop just listening to the strange sounds coming from a meadow), the fields being tended by just one person, palm trees, thatched huts, women carrying huge loads on their heads, tiny huts operating as stores, the blazing sun allied with the thick air to drench us with perspiration whenever we stepped off the bus. As exotic as all this seemed to me, I had no idea what was in store for me the next day.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

By the Time I Get to Ghana

6/13-14/14

By the time I get to Ghana, I will have been in transit for 32 hours.

Heeding the advice on the Portland International Airport website, we left the house at 4 a.m. "Arrive two and a half hours early for international flights," it said. I thought there'd be a heightened security experience, extra scrutiny of my documents, other things I couldn't imagine, since I haven't flown internationally since 1990. In fact, the only difference at check-in was that I had to present my passport instead of my driver's license. Then I got to kill two hours at the gate.

By the time I finish this trip, I will have cooled my heels so much I'll need to defrost them. Five hours in Chicago, eight hours in London, plus those two in Portland, means almost half my travel time is being spent sitting in airports, waiting for flights. The people watching may partly make up for it: as I've been sitting here in Chicago, I've seen some frighteningly young USN sailors in their uniforms, have seen a variety of small children tugging adorably tiny carry-ons, have heard repeated flight announcements in Japanese, and now found myself sitting across from a security man, apparently on break, whose eyes frequently rest balefully on me--wondering, perhaps, if I have plans of sneaking one of the airplane blankets stacked on the seat next to me into my carry-on, just to be sure I get one tonight. Which I did, once he wasn’t looking, and then didn’t need, as the flight was well-stocked with blankets.

That last sentence came twelve hours after the previous paragraph. I’m now at Heathrow. My sleep on the overnight flight can be tabulated in minutes, rather than hours, so my hope now is to just push through on those minutes until I’m at the hotel in Accra, and reboot my body clock there.

On the shuttle between terminals, I eavesdropped on a random group of men in their 20s-50s prognosticating on the World Cup. The variety of accents told me they were from all over this island. It’s one of the things I loved about living here. It’s not something we see much in Portland: except for an occasional Jersey moment from Amy and a touch of Midwestern from Pat Short, most people I know, wherever they’re from, have settled into Standard West Coast Dialect.

For my second breakfast (they actually served food on the flight), I stepped into a place at Heathrow boasting “full English breakfast,” and they certainly did offer every aspect of the meal I could ever have turned my nose up when I lived here. What they did not offer, I discovered to my chagrin, was scones. I’m still hoping to get a proper scone, but beginning to wonder if this staple of British tea cuisine has gone out of favour. (See what I did there with the “u” in “favour”?) I also discovered that, while I can charge my gadgets on British voltage, the iPhone at least does not take well to being used while charging.

I wish I could linger here for a few days, get away from the airport, wander around London, look in on some of the places I loved so much a quarter of a century ago. I know it’s, in many ways, a whole other city from what it was then; but St. Paul’s should be just as I left it.


Five more hours, and I’ll be in the air again. My next dispatch will be from a place I’ve never been.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Leg Flying Torso


By the time I get to Ghana, I will have been in transit for 32 hours.

Heeding the advice on the Portland International Airport website, we left the house at 4 a.m. "Arrive two and a half hours early for international flights," it said. I thought there'd be a heightened security experience, extra scrutiny of my documents, other things I couldn't imagine, since I haven't flown internationally since 1990. In fact, the only difference at check-in was that I had to present my passport instead of my driver's license. Then I got to kill two hours at the gate.

By the time I finish this trip, I will have cooled my heels so much I'll need to defrost them. Five hours in Chicago, eight hours in London, plus those two in Portland, means almost half my travel time is being spent sitting in airports, waiting for flights. The people watching may partly make up for it: as I've been sitting here in Chicago, I've seen some frighteningly young USN sailors in their uniforms, have seen a variety of small children tugging adorably tiny carry-ons, have heard repeated flight announcements in Japanese, and now found myself sitting across from a security man, apparently on break, whose eyes frequently rest balefully on me--wondering, perhaps, if I have plans of sneaking one of the airplane blankets stacked on the seat next to me into my carry-on, just to be sure I get one tonight. Which I did, once he wasn’t looking, and then didn’t need, as the flight was well-stocked with blankets.

That last sentence came twelve hours after the previous paragraph. I’m now at Heathrow. My sleep on the overnight flight can be tabulated in minutes, rather than hours, so my hope now is to just push through on those minutes until I’m at the hotel in Accra, and reboot my body clock there.

On the shuttle between terminals, I eavesdropped on a random group of men in their 20s-50s prognosticating on the World Cup. The variety of accents told me they were from all over this island. It’s one of the things I loved about living here. It’s not something we see much in Portland: except for an occasional Jersey moment from Amy and a touch of Midwestern from Pat Short, most people I know, wherever they’re from, have settled into Standard West Coast Dialect.

For my second breakfast (they actually served food on the flight), I stepped into a place at Heathrow boasting “full English breakfast,” and they certainly did offer every aspect of the meal I could ever have turned my nose up when I lived here. What they did not offer, I discovered to my chagrin, was scones. I’m still hoping to get a proper scone, but beginning to wonder if this staple of British tea cuisine has gone out of favour. (See what I did there with the “u” in “favour”?) I also discovered that, while I can charge my gadgets on British voltage, the iPhone at least does not take well to being used while charging.

I wish I could linger here for a few days, get away from the airport, wander around London, look in on some of the places I loved so much a quarter of a century ago. I know it’s, in many ways, a whole other city from what it was then; but St. Paul’s should be just as I left it.


Five more hours, and I’ll be in the air again. My next dispatch will be from a place I’ve never been.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

And Now the Sadness

It took me by surprise.

Yesterday, a Reynolds High School freshman broke into his parents' gun locker and took an AR-15 type rifle, along with magazines capable of holding hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a semi-automatic pistol, and a large knife to school, where he shot another freshman to death and wounded a teacher. The teacher was able to escape to the office and initiate a lockdown. With police closing in, the shooter took his own life.

I've written about my outrage over the laxness of American gun laws many times. The knowledge that, in this case, the gun had been locked away by "responsible" owners lends the lie to the notion that these weapons have any business being in the hands of enthusiasts. A teenager with a death wish will find a way around the locks. It's fortunate--if we can call it that--that there were just two deaths. Given the firepower and the quantity of ammunition, there could have been dozens.

But I'm setting aside the outrage now. For more than 24 hours, I've put most of my emotions in a container so I could focus on the children who I'm teaching for the last time. That container began to crack this morning during the end-of-the-year assembly. A slide show was projected before the whole school, image after image of smiling children, accompanied by a sound track of popular songs. One of them started out softly, but the children knew what it was and began singing along. I didn't recognize it until the chorus set in, and the cafeteria erupted with hundreds of child voices singing, "Let it go! Let it go! Let it go!" The effect was incredible. For all the jokes we've been telling about that song and how tired teachers are of it, hearing it this way was powerful and moving. I found myself choking back tears, glad the room was dark enough that no one could see me dabbing at my eyes.

I had just three classes after that. Two of them got videos; the other, a combination of two stories I like to tell: "The Freedom Bird" (which I have now modified to add a more powerful, but also more nuanced, anti-bullying message) and "The Guava Hunt," which is just good silly campfire fun. The final group of children left, and I moved things around getting ready for tomorrow's move back to Margaret Scott School, dropped in on the 4th/5th grade talent show (mostly lip syncing), and finally came back to my office. There I read an email announcing that Reynolds will hold its graduation as scheduled tomorrow night, then opened up my browser and found the Oregon Live story that divulged the identity of the shooter, as well as many details I hadn't previous known. I scanned through a photo album that included shots of the young man in typical teenaged poses: selfies, hanging out with a friend. And then it hit, without warning, and I began to weep.

Tomorrow night, 600 or so seniors will walk across a stage at Reynolds High School to accept diplomas. It's a time for joy, for gratitude, for hope, for anticipation. This year, it's also a time for grief. It will always be there for them. Whenever they look back on this moment, their memories of it will be clouded with the knowledge that one of their own, for reasons that may never be understood, took an assault rifle and turned it on his fellow students, and one of them died.

As a teacher, as a parent, as a human being, I cannot begin to describe my own sadness over this event--though I can, and will continue to, express the anger I feel when, as you will see exemplified by the comment section of the Oregon Live story, gun lovers paradoxically turn these children's trauma into yet another soapbox for their demented beliefs.

What grieves me most is how many young lives those who worship guns are willing to trade for their shitty right to own a killing machine. Two more have been thrown in the furnace of your hate engine, gun lobby. How many more? How many will it take to get the rest of the country screaming loud enough to finally be heard, so we can start melting these abominations down into something that's actually useful?

The Second Amendment Is About Gun Control


II. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. --U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights

As controversial documents go, this one is short. It's also convoluted. Like much of the foundational legislation of the United States of America, the second amendment to the Constitution suffers from dependent clauses and the passive voice. With that said, it's telling what the first half of the amendment states, quite plainly: "a well regulated militia..." The entire reason for a "right to bear arms" is maintaining a well regulated militia.

Set aside for a moment the reality that the role of maintaining security has become the province of an immense military-industrial complex with highly regulated armed forces and police forces at every level of American society, that said military and police forces are under constant scrutiny from elected civilians from city hall all the way up to Congress, and that only a small fringe believe there is any place in America for volunteer citizen militias of the sort that have fought in wars throughout modern history, with or without the sanction of government officials. Most Americans are quite comfortable with having the ATF shut down cells of wingnut militias with huge caches of weapons.

Set that all aside and focus on these two words: "well regulated."

Libertarian gun advocates like to skip over this close and go directly to "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," as if the amendment began there. It does not. It begins with regulation--and not just light regulation. The words are "well regulated."

You know what's well-regulated in our culture? Tobacco. Alcohol. Automobile ownership and operation. Water quality. Pharmaceuticals. All of these are areas the government regulates with enormous rule books over which teams of lawyers haggle and politicians campaign, but the existence of which cannot be questioned. Nobody wants to drive through downtown Portland without stoplights, purchase pain relievers from an unregulated marketplace, or drink tap water treated to Third World standards. Similarly, while the most libertarians of conservatives may argue differently, most of us are happy keeping cigarettes and whiskey out of the hands of children.

And most of us would be happy doing the same with firearms, mandating that all who own these deadly devices have at least as much safety knowledge of them as is required to possess a driver's license. The National Rifle Association is even in agreement with this principle--that a responsible gun owner is a knowledgeable gun owner--and yet will not stand behind any sort of government regulation to require this.

Instead, there is a patchwork of state laws, some more strict than others, but none rising to the level of the most relaxed of European laws concerning firearms. Every school shooting generates hand wringing and calls for reform, but all such efforts die in the face of virulent opposition from the NRA. Even laws that simply mandate safe storage of firearms, to keep children from accidentally killing each other, are opposed by the gun lobby, as hundreds of children every year die needlessly because their parents can't be bothered to keep guns out of the hands of toddlers.

And always the argument is "second amendment rights." The Constitution guarantees these rights to anything-goes gun culture, the lobbyists argue, conveniently ignoring the first half of the amendment.

How long until we stop cherry-picking the Constitution? How long until we start enforcing the mandate of the first clause, that this right to bear arms be well regulated? The security of not just our borders, but of our children is at stake. Yesterday a 14-year-old died at Reynolds High School when a man brought a rifle into the building and opened fire. Last week a "good guy" who sought to stop two shooters in Las Vegas was killed by one of them. Point a gun at a human being and pull the trigger and chances are very good that someone will die. I'd feel a lot more secure if the people owning these weapons were required to be licensed, just like all the drivers around me during rush hour. And since the Constitution doesn't just suggest it, it practically requires it, when are we going to start operating like a democracy that takes its own founding documents seriously, and impose some regulations on these tools of death?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

So Close

Reynolds High School is 3.6 miles away from Hartley Elementary School, where tomorrow I finish my teaching year. This morning, a person with a gun opened fire in a locker room at RHS. A teacher was wounded, a student died and, later, the shooter was killed. There may have been two other shooters. There's not much news available yet, and the district is being particularly secretive about what happened.

I've written a lot in this blog about guns and shootings. I'm always upset by shootings, especially when they happen at schools, but who isn't? Imagining hundreds of children cowering in fear, being led out of the school with their hands on their heads by police checking for more firearms, and the subsequent mob scene as parents try to reunite with them, injects so much trauma into the formative experience of school that I can't help but be moved. To have it happen in my district, at the school attended by every teenaged big brother or sister of the thousand students I've taught this year, makes an incident that would upset me wherever it happened personal.

As I write the beginning of this post, I can hear delighted screams from outside where children are enjoying a "Rockin' Recess," their reward for improved attendance in the month of May. As far as I can tell, none of them knows about the shooting yet. I hate to think what conversations they'll be having tonight; and the thought that one of them could be going home to learn that a big brother will not be, ever again, is almost too much to bear. I'll have to stuff that in a box for the next two hours as I go into the gym for my final lessons with two kindergarten classes and one second grade class.

* * * * *

I'm back from teaching, with twenty minutes until buses leave. I'll see if I can gather my thoughts adequately to turn this into something I can post.

My first thought is about the violent impulse that runs so deeply in American culture. When gun defenders (such an oxymoron) insist that the one thing that stops a "bad guy with a gun" is a "good guy with a gun," they remind me that our answer to so many problems is shoot first, ask questions later. That's how we got into Iraq and Afghanistan. It's how, if the hawks in Congress get their way, we'll get into Iran. It's how we wind up with so many young people coming home missing parts, if they're lucky enough to come home at all.

I see this in my students, but they are, after all, children: the impulse to lash out at whatever or whoever has caused you pain, grief, suffering, or even just annoyance. I see it in the road ragers who blast around me at rush hour, endangering everyone around us to gain a car length or two. I see it in our approach to corrections, as we channel so many minor offenders into prison cells where they are punished for inordinately lengthy sentences. Of course we want to fight back. It's hard-wired into us: the only way to keep the carnivore from coming back the next day is to put an arrow in its heart. But we don't have to stay that way. When a second grader hits back, it's a sign of immaturity. When a teenager carries a gun into a school to silence a bully, there's still some immaturity at work there, but there's also a culture that says gun violence is somehow not so bad, not something that has to be worried about, certainly not something that has to be legislated, just so long as there are more guns around to put the killer down before he can kill anyone else.

Yesterday as I was on hall duty, I overheard a second grade boy talking to a classmate as they carried their breakfasts to their classroom. "My daddy gets out of prison today!" he said, his voice happier than I've ever heard it, a huge smile on his normally angry face. I don't know why this boy's father has been in prison, whether it was drug-related, gang-related, perhaps a robbery, maybe some act of violence. I do know these children have got enough to worry about without having to imagine someone might bring a gun into the building. And yet when we have a lockdown drill, we have to, as gently as we can, explain to the children why it's important for them to stay in that corner with the lights off and their voices silenced, explain that there could be someone with a gun walking around outside the building or, worse yet, roaming the halls. It's a horrible, scary world we live in, a world alien to my experience (though, in all fairness, I got a terrifying dose of "Your Chance to Live" civil defense lessons when I was in junior high, so I could worry about nuclear attack).

There have now been 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook, the one that was supposed to finally get us taking gun violence seriously. 74 schools terrorized by people holding guns, and still the loudest voices are those insisting the answer is more guns, more death, more bullet holes in school walls and whiteboards and desks and students. It's as if our response to a wildfire was hosing it with gasoline.

The reaction of the gun lovers to an event like this is terrifyingly fast. I had a text from Amy this morning about the event, and went online between classes at 10 to check the details. The local news sites I looked at had already been besieged by dozens of pro-gun comments, leaping to the defense of the deadly weapons that had just taken the lives of two young people and wounded a teacher. One of them wrote that the solution was arming teachers and administrators, putting armed guards in schools, turning learning communities into prison camps.

My reaction was also instantaneous: keep your damned guns away from me and my students. The day someone brings a gun into this building with a government sanction is the day I leave public education.

Thankfully, I don't believe it will come to that. But I don't know what else it can come to, as long as these murder machines continue to pour into our country, and politicians affirm again and again that they are on the side of the shooters.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sturm und Drang



It's been a long time since I dipped into this Bible.

In 1996, I got an early inheritance: my father's piano. My parents had two grand pianos in their living room, a 1926 Schiller and a 1932 Cable, and were about to buy another, a brand new Kawai. Two grand pianos is two more than most houses have, and one more than most of the remaining, piano-owning, homes; it's something I've only seen in the homes of full-time piano teachers. In any case, having three in that living room (along with the full-size church organ) was clearly out of the question, so the Cable came to live with me.

It had been several years since I'd had a piano in my home, and I went slightly nuts over the thing. On my next trip to Portland (I was living in McMinnville at the time), I dropped by the Sheet Music Service (remember that store?) and picked up a complete two-volume set of Beethoven's piano sonatas. There were a few I wanted very badly to learn, but this was about more than adding the "Waldstein" to my repertoire. I was going to play all of them. Slowly.

That's what I did. Starting on page 1 of the first volume, I worked my way through all 32 sonatas. It took me months, and much of it was extremely frustrating--some of them are written in horrendous keys, and modulate into minor moods with seven sharps or flats, plus double-accidentals--but I soldiered through them. It was like the discipline I set myself in high school, and again the year after I finished grad school, to read the Bible from cover to cover. By the time I finished, I had learned many things: that Beethoven was even more brilliant than I'd thought; that much of the dissonance and complicated rhythm I'd believed was invented by twentieth century composers had, in fact, already been worked out a hundred years earlier; and most importantly, that I was not nearly as good a pianist as I had thought myself to be. Playing these sonatas did vastly improve my abilities to play in all the major and minor keys, so by the time I was done, I was much better than I had been. But I was never going to be a concert pianist.

Four years later, newly re-divorced and now ejected from ministry, I undertook this exercise again, but with a difference: now I had a great deal more time on my hand. Now I could linger on passages that were especially difficult, not moving on until I at least had a handle on them. Most importantly, now I could concentrate on a few sonatas I really did want to be able to play, even if I could never master them. I focused in on two in particular: the "Pathetique" and the "Waldstein."

"Pathetique" I had always loved because in so many ways it embodied the spirit of "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress), a movement within the classic era that prefigured romanticism, and which was always best embodied by Beethoven. This sonata, in C Minor, anticipates so much about Beethoven's troubled life: the loneliness, the growing deafness that robbed him of the pleasure of hearing his own music performed, the fist constantly shaken at the powers and principalities of both this world and the next. Thundering, ominous chords, give way to rushing wrath, then take a break for one of the most soothing slow movements ever written. But peace cannot abide for long, and soon we're plunging into a furious rondo that ends with one last flash of lightning. It's brilliant music, exciting to listen to, a thrill to play. I spent many an hour trying to master it well enough to be able to perform it, but the only movement I got to that level of playing was the peaceful middle. (I actually performed that at a wedding I conducted a few years later.)

It's been a long time since I dipped into this musical holy book--more than a decade, in fact. In the intervening years, I've become a much better pianist, learning to play jazz, gospel, and pop music, to improvise freely, and to play for improvisers. I've also had several church jobs. And I've been teaching piano lessons for ten years. I'm as confident playing now as I once was preaching, and frankly, I communicate better at a keyboard than I ever did in the pulpit. I'm no longer afraid of playing in difficult keys; in fact, they're almost all alike to me--at least, when I'm faking.

Tonight, I decided to test whether all that improvising and faking could translate to Beethoven. I went to the bookcase and came back with the sonatas, and opened to "Pathetique."

What happened was not unlike getting on a bicycle after many years away. After a few minutes of fumbling, the muscle memory clicked in. But there was a difference now: my skills have improved significantly. I worked my way through the entire sonata, pausing occasionally to hone a passage, but for the most part, I just read it, as I would read a passage from the Bible. Yes, the notes, the chords, the rhythms were familiar, but I was coming to this after a long absence; even so, my fingers felt at home, and now they could do much of what used to daunt me with aplomb.

It felt great. I know it was far from great playing--I was often too loud (as I tend to be when I'm working on something difficult), my tempos were mostly significantly slower than what they should be, and I made a lot of mistakes. But I played it, and I loved playing it, and I did not at any time feel like I was playing beyond my ability. It was like putting my running shoes on after a long layoff, and discovering that I could actually run faster than before (which is definitely not how it's been working with running).

So I'll be back, Ludwig. I'll take another stab at the "Waldstein," that 200-year-old hard rock sonata. Maybe I'll even dip into the "Apassionata." Hell, maybe I'll have another go at working my way through all 32 of these puppies. I probably don't have another marathon in me, but I do have half a lifetime ahead to get to know these masterpieces better--and maybe, just maybe, get one of them, every movement of it, polished enough to play it in front of an audience.

That's not as much of a stretch as you might think. Beethoven was the greatest improviser of his day; and improvising at the piano has become my bread and butter. What could be more fitting than dusting off a 200 year old improvisation, and playing it for an audience of improvisers?

Stay tuned.