Music is life, and life is sweet. A rich tapestry of music and the soul from the pews to Panama.
Being a working artist is rarely dull. I am fortunate that I get to do a lot of different things in music, as I’m not the sort who is deeply satisfied with doing one thing repetitively. This last month has brought me a whole new understanding of how deeply intertwined human existence is with the magic of rhythm, melody and occasionally lyric.
Music may have been around for as long as humans have had language. For rituals, for comfort, and for celebrations; since they first used tools man and woman have likely beat rhythms on gourds and skulls, and blown into hollow tubes. There is a YouTube video of a performance of the oldest known written music. While they have had to guess at what the writing implies, it is fascinating to hear someone even attempting to bring this most ancient Mesopotamian melody to life from out of the past.
I did a concert recently at the Unitarian Society of Marietta OH, and stayed to contribute a couple of songs for their musical celebration of spirituality the next morning. It was a special service programmed by their choir and included folk music, choral performances of sacred music as well as a Gershwin classic, and capped by a rousing classical piano postlude. I added a short meditation on the Native American flute, and a full congregation sing of “Good Things Matter.”
During my “Story for All Ages” I suggested to the kids sitting on the floor in front of me that they should look around the room, and know a big secret. That inside every person in the room was a kid wondering what the heck happened. And that most every kid had once been a songwriter just like them - making up little ditties, changing words to songs, or simply “rapping” sequences of words that sounded good together. Music is in most all of our veins, and in our feet too.
With the memories of that celebration of music and spirituality fresh in mind, we boarded our plane to Panama for our niece’s spectacular wedding. One night we went to Casco Viejo, the colonial center of Panama City, for a spellbinding exhibition of traditional music and dance. It was lovely, and the rich accordion and percussion music was an integral element of the life of the rural campesinos as well as the formal balls of high society.
The wedding was something else entirely - a live band and a DJ trading lively pulsating salsa, merengue, reggaeton, and more. There was even a nod to 70s American disco, and my wife’s favorite, the Cuban diva Celia Cruz. Late in the evening a full Carnival drum line marched in fully costumed like we’d been transported to Rio. A different cultural celebration for Fat Tuesday, much like Mardi Gras down south.
Everywhere we went music was playing, and even though I didn’t like everything equally, it was a deep reminder that music continues to transcend language and culture. When we find ourselves deprived of it, it seems that we wither in its absence. Whether it’s happy-go-lucky dance music by the beach, the hard tales of the struggling poor in folk song, or ritual singing of sacred hymnals on Sunday morning, it is like breathing to us, as essential to our lives and our souls as air and water.
When we returned from Panama, we had a sorely sunburned child to contend with despite our best efforts to keep her well sun-screened. She has a high tolerance for pain, but this time her tears and fears got the best of her. No matter what we put on her, it seemed to sting her badly for awhile. We decided to try something different, but it took a lot for her to screw up enough courage to let us. Through her tears I could hear her humming something softly. Afterwards she said, “Daddy, do you remember when you told me that when I was really afraid that I should sing “This Little Light of Mine”, and that it would help me not be so scared?” “Of course dear,” I replied. She said simply, “It works.”
Tonight in our house we pay tribute to my wife’s Cuban and Panamanian cultural heritage. A crockpot of Cuban pork, rice and beans is simmering slowly, and the music of Panama livening up our feet as we move about the kitchen. Musica es vida, y la vida es dulce. Indeed it is.