“Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world… Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
I am not sure how old I was when I started dancing. I have memories of entertaining one of my aunts with my version of ballet, self-accompanied (some kind of melody) la-la-la-ing as I pranced around her living room while she tried desperately to hide her laughter. I soon moved on to the very modern (in its time) twist – gyrating in front of the TV screen in England. But it was in Jamaica that I found my rhythm; first energetically swinging my arms and bouncing to the ska, the bluesy trombone of musical genius Don Drummond wailing in the background while the guitar emphasized the off-beat. A syncopated innovation that still captures people all over the world. As I grew a little older (still no more than 9 or 10), a slower, groovier ‘Rock Steady’ emerged, and as the pace slowed the lyrics became more love oriented.
By the time reggae had taken over, I was getting ready for high school (age 11 in the British and thus Jamaican system). At dances on the verandah of Tavanore (the second location of my high school – an old great house which mysteriously burnt to the ground one night) we would mix up the rock steady with the more modern reggae, Heptones splicing into the conscious prophet Bob Marley, but never forgetting the rude boy music that might close out the evening with classic ska.
The history of music anywhere in the world is a history of influences. In Jamaica, the originator of ska and reggae, the influences wafted over from Miami on AM radio; returned in the ‘grips’ of farmworkers who were bringing the latest jazz, rhythm and blues and even (gasp) country music! On the north coast, self-taught musicians transitioned from mento (played on simple banjo, drums and marimbula – a box with strips of metal ‘plunked’ by the player) to whatever the tourists wanted to hear. The influence of Africa permeated the sounds, no matter where in the diaspora the music was played. Generations of pain and suffering played out on simple hand-made instruments as well as expensive, classic violins.
Growing up I inhaled the sounds, the smells, the tastes of this exotic mix of cultures. I felt the thrum of the drum traveling up in the night from the ‘poco’ church on the bottom road. Pocomania (literally: a little madness) was one of those mixes of religious traditions. Like the Santeria in Cuba, the descendants of Africans had found a way to marry their forbidden traditions with the Christian rituals of their slave masters. How could anyone object when they were singing Christian hymns and praying to the one God of the Europeans? And yet. Drumming which stirred up the senses; beat in your chest like a transplanted heart; made you want to jump on your feet in a whirling dervish; songs which reached way back and into your soul, haunting your night dreams.
There is something ridiculous about any concept that holds one race superior to another. Especially when race is not a concept which can be identified by DNA. Especially when the race which for the last 10 centuries or more has dominated the world has actually far less claim to intellectual or any other superiority. The history which propagates these myths ignores the history of Africa, a continent which had universities, libraries, a scientific tradition and so much more for far longer than any country in Europe.
Even as a young girl I recognized the injustice, and also recognized that I could be absorbed into the culture; I could talk the talk and dance the dance and be accepted; but I could not erase one truth: to the world I was white with all of the attending benefits. I have (I hope) been able to play my part in demonstrating the real truth: we are all one people. But we still have a long way to go.
It is my Zumba class that now teaches me the African dance moves I didn’t learn in school. I am trying to get my hips and joints to flex in ways that don’t come naturally to me (or perhaps I am a few decades too late in my quest!). As I try to learn the moves so that muscle memory can take over and I don’t have to think about which direction my hands should be reaching as my legs are stepping, I smile with joy and give tribute to the ancestors, to those whose love of rhythm and sound created this fusion; this mix of lyric and melody; of beat and strum. I raise my arms in supplication and thanks; I swing my hips in appreciation of the body I was given; I clap my hands and hoot in delight; wondering some in the class don’t seem to feel the same sense of fun.
On this rainy Friday morning I give thanks that over the centuries,something good has emerged out of evil. I exhale gratitude for the gifts and generosity of a people who were oppressed and killed due to greed and ignorance. I wish that we could all pause and acknowledge the pain and suffering that still exists all over the world (and right at our doorsteps). This weekend, Native Americans (or as they are called in Canada, First Nations People – a reminder of the truth) gather for a Pow-Wow in Hollywood Florida, another proud tradition that we should also honor. And if you get a chance, rock out to a reggae beat; slow dance to a Motown classic; or just dance like no one is watching, and imagine me as I try to keep up with my young slinky Zumba instructor!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!