Thursday, January 24, 2008

Day 11 "In the Trenches" (dancing-out-the-pain edition)

The great hard-rock frontman David Lee Roth (he wasn't a great singer, but he was a great front-man; see this "100 Greats" post) once said, "You should never go out on stage for a rock show unless you're planning to dance someone in to the dirt." Roth was talking about the sense of frustration that an awful lot of musicians encounter as they try to build a career--particularly in the heartless maw of the pop industry--and about the sense of cathartic, defiant relief that some kind of success in rock 'n' roll can create--not just for the drugged-out stars who stand up on stage and abuse the groupies afterwards, but also for any guy who works five days on an assembly line or a job-site and, at the weekend, just wants to drink beer and scream his head off at a rock 'n' roll show.

Not a very Buddhist sentiment, and not one as a result I'm allowed to espouse. But, if permitted a slight modification / semantic manipulation, it's one I would subscribe to--namely, that in the path toward some kind of creative fulfillment, maturity, and identity in the arts, you're going to encounter an awful lot of people who seem to feel it is their ideological mission in life to make sure you don't get where you want to go. Any teacher, any administrator, any allegedly well-meaning "authority figure" who tries to, or succeeds at, eroding a young person's desire to learn and grow, is committing a great evil in the world--and I would have no trouble taking up Yamantaka's sword against them.

Roth's smartass front-man's statement has a kernel of truth: no matter how successful you are in the arts, somewhere inside you is the memory of times when some nimrod tried to tell you you couldn't do it. Almost all of us have 'em--the only ones who don't are those pampered few who were child prodigies and never had to deal with anything except fawning adulation--the poor bastards (I still remember the European-born piano teacher at IU who once said, to a party full of his students, "I've never washed a dish...I wouldn't know how"). And if you have those memories, then somewhere deep inside you is a knot of anger, resentment, and beneath that lies anxiety or plain naked fear--because what if that nimrod in your dim and distant past was right? It's frickin' hard enough to be an artist in this culture; how much harder does it get when someone who's been presented to you as knowledgeable and authoritative confirms your worst fears: that you can't actually get where you want to go and that you are naive to try?

For 12 years, at IU, various such nimrods tried to tell Dharmonia and myself those things--and even after we'd left, when we would recontact that bureaucracy, we would instantly experience the punch of the memory-button that says "Oh my God, I remember this kind of bullshit. Holy crap, you mean they still act this way?" Those wounds go deep, just like Dave said.

Which is why, when somewhere down the line, you look up and realize that you are where you wanted to go, that you weren't naive, arrogant, or self-deluding in thinking that the long slog across unmarked broken terrain was taking you where you hoped it was, that you do have something to offer, that you are making a difference in some young people's lives, and that, through your agency, or at the very least in those specific hours when those young people are in your teaching space, no arrogant and small-hearted nimrod is going to lay that shit on them, it feels pretty good.

In fact, it feels like a hard, knotted kernel of anger, resentment, anxiety, fear, and beneath all that, hurt, is slowly being loosened. Just to put that goddamned tired old burden down--and to dance it into the dirt--is a profound relief and one for which I daily say prayers of thankfulness.

So to today's lecture in the African Diaspora class. We've had historical, contextual, social/cultural, geographical, and aesthetic background; we've played some polyrhythmic textures together; we've done a bunch of readings and some discussion of those readings; we've started talking about research project topics and strategies; and today, for the sake of changing up the dynamic again (nothing is more inappropriate for a course in the African Diaspora's music than some white guy standing up and "lecturing"), we'll have what Dharmonia calls "the petting zoo"--bring in a bunch of instruments, play and talk about them, pass them around, let people try them out.

The tactile experience of seeing and hearing an instrument played live, of seeing the choreography of the physical technique and feeling the impact on your skin and your tympanic membranes, is utterly different than seeing the same instrument on video or in a book. And then, holding the instrument in your hands is even more transformative.

I know what a profoundly different (and difference-making) experience it was for me, as an 11-year-old, to see the great Martin Grosswendt playing the National Steel and spinning it in the air over his head, and I can assure you that it was an entirely different experience when you were sitting eight feet away. And then he'd catch it, flip it back onto his lap, and pick up the downbeat of the next measure of the Booker White song after the stop-time.

So I'm going to walk into this class today with the little guy pictured in the "Office" photo above: called by various names in various places in West African (hoddu, xalam, ngoni), it's, technically speaking, a "plucked lute", with a gourd body, a rawhide head, a stick-based neck (which serves as both fingerboard, neck-block, and tailpiece), two strings made of fishing line, and anchored to the neck with an ingenious little rawhide friction knot that also serves as the tuner. It's played with a variety of techniques, both striking and plucking, but one of the commonest (and most useful for pedagogical purposes in this class) is to strike downward with the index finger's nail, on one or both of the strings, and to follow on the off-beat by plucking the lower-pitched of the two with the trailing thumb. The technique is percussive and polyrhythmic (two independent parts interlocking with one another), permits a remarkable diversity of beat-groupings and subdivisions (two's and three's and any permutation of the above) and thus links-up with ideas we've already introduced about ensemble, polyrhythm, balance, etc. Today's "petting zoo" further permits introducing the idea of such textures as accompaniment for recitation or song--and thus links back to the social role and power of the jeli, the poet-singer-historian-genealogist who, in the Mande world, is the principle repository of memory.

Which, if you think about it, is my job too.

I would never have imagined, 20 years ago and in the throes of IU's abuse, that I would both Chair a Musicology department and play the hoddu in order to teach my beloved students about an ancient artistic tradition which I think has an awful lot of sanity to teach us moderns.

But I am.

Hear that, you past demons under the dirt? This is me up here--dancing.

Below the jump: sunrise and moonset on the South Plains.


Kim said...

Wow! Nothing like starting the weekend by drudging up a flight of demons, eh? Talk about Friday Shout Out. . .

And to add to your comment aimed at the demons, a little phrase from the gang back home:

"Take that, Junior!"


CJS said...


I remember a day in the Shaolin training room when the sifu said, "OK, for these kicks, I want you to visualize somebody specific." At that time, I had no problem visualizing a specific person, and his house, and the cover image of his book, and of the periwigged composer on that cover (who also hung like an icon over the person's mantle).

Almost immediately I had to stop the visualization, because I was kicking so hard I was scaring the person next to me.

masbrow said...

In Hsing-I, they say "When practicing,believe you are facing a top opponent. When in areal fight, believe there is no one there.
Congratulations Chris,

CJS said...

"When in a real fight, believe there is no one there."

"Who is that 'him' you are kicking? Show me this 'him'!"

You're right. Thanks.