“Jack, give your head a shake! “ I shouted this to myself as I began to sweat blood to birth a deeply meaningful column on the difficulty of effecting change in a hurting world for The Afro News September deadline. It was all really meaty, great stuff with a killer hook using Bob Dylan’s birth name, Robert Allen Zimmerman, and his ‘60s hit, “The Times They Are a Changin’” to lead into a critical examination of my generation’s conviction that our youth marked the dawn of a new age of love, peace and justice. Such a downer! If I couldn’t keep writing it, how could I expect anybody to read it?
So here’s the question. If gloom can be found everywhere we look, Africa included, and the problems threaten to overwhelm us, where do we go for the strength to keep on keeping on? The power of sport to lift us above our differences to act with one accord for the good of all was cited in my August column. But for an athletic klutz and noncompetitive guy like me music is where it’s at. Music, so sensuous and yet so ethereal, so immediate but so hard to pin down. If I ever reach Nirvana, Heaven or the eternal Tao it will be through music.
How might I describe the power of music to lift me from the trials of getting by to the conviction that we shall overcome? For a start, music is always about communication, about communion that results in community. (Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by root words and their derivations.) Composer to performer, performer to composer, composer and performer to audience, audience feedback to performer and through the performer to the spirit of the composer, the loops build and build in repeating and self-reinforcing layers that spiral to ekstasis, a Greek term for “Ecstasy,” literally a “stepping out” beyond the self to transcend normal experience.
But only if everybody involved is committed to the process. Music will no more lead automatically to ecstasy than intercourse leads automatically to the transcendent joy of two becoming one in love. Composers writing elevator musac, a performer trying to get to the end of the gig so he can go home or a passive audience demanding to be entertained, any and all can sabotage music’s transformative potential. What’s more, even when ekstasis does occur it need not be an elevation to unity in peace and good will. National anthems have sent soldiers to war filled with a conviction of superiority over a subhuman foe.
So if you are going to pick a soundtrack to run in your mind to feed your spirit in the face of suffering, dictatorship, hatred and all that…stuff, proceed with caution. To what do you want to be lifted? If it’s not to justice, peace, and health for all on a planet that renews it’s environment from the pulse of life you’re reading the wrong paper. If you want to rise to inspiration you must be actively involved as a performer, as writer/arranger or as audience member intent on finding the spiritual, intellectual and emotional heart of the music. Take care to select music that suits your aspirations for yourself and the world. It can be classical, pop, jazz, blues, traditional music from the cultures of the world, any kind of music. For maximum communion listen to your music in live performance as often as possible using recordings to keep you going between live fixes. Finally, internalize your music so it is always with you.
Time to end this column. I’ve got to listen to Robert Allen Zimmerman sing “The Times They Are a Changin’.”