Sunday, September 7, 2008


This is an excerpt from my Watson final report. It is strange for me to read it now, having settled back into the New England groove so (un)easily.

The essence of this year, I have to think, is really about the trip back, about coming home. I wrote in my project proposal about the “strange homecoming” of jazz when it returns to its native shores in Africa; in fact, those words were part of my project's original title, which I intended purely as a musical analogy. I had not realized at the time how this phrase foreshadowed the queer loop of a journey that I am now completing. I have traveled so many places this year and felt strangely and suddenly at home, left so many communities knowing that I had a place there. I felt my definition of home shift to include people and places wildly different and yet so welcoming and accepting. My challenge now is the return: coming back so profoundly changed, and effecting change, to a place that I have really, officially, and fondly called home for many years. I wrote that American culture carried the “remnant essence” of African culture, “like a seed on an animal's back, to its point of origin. When it arrived it found that many things had changed in its absence.” I now see that, as in many things, this proposing and hypothesizing really ended up describing the arc of my personal journey just as much as the cultural journey I was tracking.

I suspect that quite a few Watson fellows have found meaning in T.S. Eliot's lines: "We will not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." Having done my share of exploration and come 'round to start and finish both, I find that perhaps I do not know the place, or that maybe it does not know me. This “strange homecoming” is the realization that, as Jerry Garcia posited, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It is, in short, the understanding and experience of constant, identifying alienation. So, not knowing and unknown, having not yet reached the end, and with no turning back, I return to Eliot's first line. “We shall not cease...” My Watson journey does not, in fact, end with a homecoming. The arrival quickly becomes the departure as it has so many times before, and the freedom and self-reliance of my Watson mentality spills like water over a dam into the next phase of my life.

A fellow remarked at the Watson conference that he was not sure whether he felt more alienated as a lone traveler on his fellowship year or as a returned fellow with experiences that set him apart from his family and friends. And yet I am beginning to feel that this alienation actually places us in a position of insight and profound agency. What thing is there that I could not do now, having waited four hours for a tow in the middle of Mpumalanga? Having sailed up the Niger River to Timbuktu? The question is no longer if a challenge is surmountable but how. I had a discussion with Funsho Ogundipe about what it means to find out who you are and what happens once you do. He says you never go back – a true conversion experience. I don't know how much I believe in the instant change model; I prefer a long term growth diagram. But Funsho is dead right that with self-realization, there is no turning back. There is only forward and onward and upward. So this is the story of my journey as I watch it recede backwards and in reverse into the rear-view. These are the stories I tell, as I explain myself to others, and, ultimately, to myself.

As I look over my writings from West Africa, I think it was everything I had been looking for and more. Mali was a late addition to my project and completely astounded me with its depth of musical history and connections to the legendary homes of African civilization in Egypt and Ethiopia. I had never expected to find such incredible hospitality, but, with few exceptions, I found people passionate about my work and willing to help; the musical relationships I made will last me a lifetime. The opportunities I had to record with Funsho Ogundipe in Ghana, with Vieux MacFaye in Senegal, to study with Kofi Ghanaba and Djelimady Tounkara, and to perform with Bassekou Kouyate, Toumani Diabate in Mali and Baaba Maal in Senegal may never be paralleled. These people served as musical and spiritual mentors as well. I had more opportunities to teach music than ever in my life, which intimidated me at first, but I quickly found that it is something that I really enjoy, and in which people are genuinely interested. Maybe it was my status as a clear outsider that brought these opportunities so quickly my way, but regardless, this status served me well.

As a musician, my ears sharpened with more exposure to oral traditions, and my confidence grew as I became infinitely flexible, playing with groups from many different genres and cultural contexts. I gathered musical ideas everywhere I went, and started to hear new music that I could call my own. On a personal level, I discovered my potential for strength and self-reliance; but I also became acutely aware of the importance of community strength, of networking, and of interdependence.

I am just now beginning to process what I went through in South Africa, which was really a break with my experience in West Africa. I had been looking forward to South Africa for a long time, because I had read so much about South African jazz and its connection with social change. But I felt my experience there, for whatever reason, ended up being somewhat separated from the musical cultures that interested me; I found myself longing for the dirty soulfulness that had so completely enveloped me in places like Mali. I had been looking forward to Cape Town's relative comfort and organization, but this turned out to be a great deceiver, as this was the location in which I felt the least secure in all of my travels. With my levels of security and home-ness constantly in flux, it was a big shock for me to experience such a stark revision of my expectations.

But I am glad I went to South Africa; though I left feeling stripped raw, I am glad I spent so long there, and ultimately very satisfied that my experience was exclusively a Capetonian one. (I will have to save Johannesburg for the next time around.) The chance to build such an extensive network of friends and colleagues, to really use the resources in the music library at the University of Cape Town's College of Music and the Center for Public Memory, would have been interrupted by an attempt to shift my focus to Jo'burg. So I gained depth at the expense of breadth, which is just fine by me. Cape Town was a place where I could practice on a regular basis, put together a performing ensemble, attend the same jam sessions consistently, and generally become a fixture on the scene.

During my last few months in South Africa, I think I recovered my sense of what it is to have time to myself, what it is to know what I want and to go after it. I came out of this period accepting fewer excuses from myself and others and with a propensity for the frank and honest that can be shocking. I also channeled my emotions into my music; I came out of this period with a thick notebook of compositions, which I owe, in part, I think, to the prodding arm of Mac McKenzie, possibly the best musical partner I could have asked for in Cape Town. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the end result of the months I spent performing and composing with Mac was a musical synthesis of my whole year, a sonic expression of what these experiences had done to me and for me, how they have broken me and healed me, torn me down and built me up time and time again.