Fête de la Musique: Making Music and Memorializing

February is my memorial month, four weeks of sifting through archives of dozens of journal entries, hundreds of emails, multiple early book drafts, and other previously unpublished writings so that I can remember, reconnect, literally re-collect, and offer something valuable to you.

It’s a tender and unpredictable process. In spite of my especially heavy professional and private schedule this month, I’ve found myself at my computer in the middle of the night more times than I can count, often listing with longing, tears blurring my vision (or streaming freely) as I return to pieces of writing and living that have shaped me profoundly, and to others I’d somehow forgotten.

Here’s a photo I found in my midnight rummaging. The accompanying text is from Global Mom, where I bring you here, the Pont des Arts, a bridge over the Seine where the music of life is pulsing over the Cit of Light. These are the last lines before the lights go out and his pulse stops under a bridge in an irrigation canal in rural Idaho.

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It was the night of the Fête de la Musique. Throughout that June night, Paris vibrates with its annual city- wide festival of music, when musicians of every sort—madrigal choirs, rap artists, reggae bands, orchestras, flamenco guitarists, string chamber ensembles—are free to make their music any place they want in the streets or in concert venues and for as long as they can hold out. As the name Fête de la Musique says, it’s a music party; but fête is pronounced just like faites, the imperative form of to do, making of the title a typically French jeu des mots or play on words: “Do music!”

Nothing could have suited our firstborn better. Parker, who as I’ve written was part of a circle of local percussionists, met with them on the Pont des Arts for many hours of pure drumming explosion.

Walking toward that bridge, you could feel the electricity thrumming in surging beats already in the ground and through the air. Crowds had already packed the bridge, so the children couldn’t see over all the heads, and Randall and I couldn’t see around all the bodies to find Parker. But we knew he was there somewhere. Maybe listening. Maybe hanging out with friends one last time.

As we moved closer, Dalton and Luc, who could see under people’s arms and between their knees, spotted their big brother. “Hey, Parker!” Luc yelled. But the drum beating was so thick, you couldn’t hear your own voice as it left your own mouth, let alone hear the voice of a waify seven-year-old.

Luc pulled me by my hand toward the crowd, then motioned to Randall to hoist him on his shoulders. “The crowd!” I yelled over the din, “there must be hundreds!” At least four or five hundred people on that one bridge alone, and they split apart just enough so we could edge our way toward the source. And there he sat, djembe between his knees, the white boy with blue-gray eyes, his hair cropped very short to his well-shaped skull, the American boy (but who would have ever known?) named “Par Coeur” by the likes of Shafik, his closest Tunisian drumming buddy, and five others all of African descent. There they all were, swaying and pulsing to the pounding of their own djembes and large tub drums, or rocking, eyes closed, as they pummeled their instruments together.

The energy could just about lift you off your feet. It made the bridge tremble and sway. And standing there in the push of all these people, I sensed I had to hold myself together, had to keep myself from throwing my arms in the air and spinning for sheer delirium. This was a Paris I understood, a place where millions of people sing their songs and beat their rhythms but do it all at once. Somehow, it’s not cacophonic but something beyond it, a grand intimacy and intimate grandiosity strung along the river and its several bridges.

Over those bridges, under those bridges, behind the museums, in front of the Metro stops. Children, old people, all colors, all persuasions, tourists, policemen, the homeless, the political elite. Everyone on one night crowding the skies with their music. In the center of this—really in the physical center—sat my boy, the one who’d banged into pieces my big Tupperware bowls on linoleum in New Jersey and broken to splinters my mixing spoons on the wooden kitchen floor in Norway. Who’d gotten his first drum set from a retiring musician down the street on our island and had beaten the sticks to a pulp. Who every Thursday late afternoon and in the fifteenth arrondissement of this city, had shown up for his drum lessons from a French percussionist with a long gray beard tied neatly with a red macramé bow. There was this son, shoulder to shoulder with the world, whamming and jamming with his people—all people, everyone and anyone who would stamp and clap and catch the hem of his rhythm.

“Dad?” I heard Dalton trying to raise his voice to get Randall’s attention through the noise. “Dad?” our blonde and reticent eleven-year-old was standing, a bit self-conscious, awed, visibly, by his brother. Not as comfortable yet in his skin as this muscular drummer was, but every bit as thoughtful as your average fifty-year-old.

“Yes, Dalton?” Randall crouched down to hear better.

“Dad,” Dalton was watching the movement ripple through crowd encircling the place where the seven drummers sat, feeling the surge of the drums’ cadence. “Dad, do you think . . . heaven’s anything like this?”

Randall and I laughed a bit then smiled. But Dalton was sober, stone cold serious.

I’ve held those words as if in plaster in my mind. And I have had to wonder.

Christmas Music: What’s on Your List?

One word —Christmas — and I start humming.

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

In my internal cinema, I’m sitting cross-legged on my grandparents’ moss green velvet carpet, my back sweating against a snapping fire while watching Grandma Belle with her lavenderish silver halo of curls list from side to side on the embroidered cushion atop the walnut piano bench.

Belle’s back is to us. I watch her fingers romp and caper up and down the keyboard while she cranes her head back to us —cousins in plaid, uncles in red vests, aunts in flouncy blouses— and while she lips the lyrics, coaxing from youngest to oldest more volume than you’d expect from a couple of dozen full-bellied folks. But no one —not the stiff uncle with a starched hair piece or the sullen fourteen-year-old with an extreme Toni permanent (me) slacks off or slips from the rhythm.

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At some point, we’re all shouting, “You better watch out/You better not cry!” and then we’re pa rum-pa-pa-pumming (even the teenagers) in unison. We’ll all be hoarse by the time the candles on the mantelpiece have wax pooling at their bases. Belle turns “Good King Wenceslas” into rag time, chords hopping and slapping in the left hand and embellishments tinkling like tinsel in the right. Her legs are jigging beneath the keyboard. She switches gears and makes “I’m Dreaming Of a White Christmas” into a tearjerker with the longest cadenza known to man. No one, not even Bing Crosby himself or my trained operatic soprano mother can sustain Belle’s last note, that over-the-top “whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.”

Belle played like that every Christmas Eve until well into her 90s.

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It’s Grandma Belle I recall every Christmas. Belle, and all the pianists, organists, choirs and soloists, instrumentalists, quartets, trios, orchestras, street accordion players or subway pan flute artists— all the music makers who, over my half-century of Christmases, have made my holidays ring.

Now you understand why, although I don’t really get into accumulating stuff, I do collect Christmas music. I have to. I listen to it (in secret) all year long.  (Officially, only from Thanksgiving until January 1st.)

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And that’s why I want to share with you my CD titles.

A word about this list: it’s alphabetized (not in any order of preference); it’s incomplete (I haven’t included my dozens of digital files, and I note with a gasp!! that I don’t have enough jazz and what’s this? No rap, country or reggae?); and it’s eclectic (From Thurl Bailey, a hoopstar-turned-crooner to Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.)

So I need your input. Can you post your musical treasures in the comment thread? Titles, please, of single songs or whole albums, and maybe include a bit of background as to why. Why this recording? Why this version, this instrument, this language, this key, this style?

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  • Amy Grant: Home for Christmas
  • Andy Williams: We Need a Little Christmas
  • Anonymous Four: Wolcum; Celtic and British Songs and Carols
  • Barbara Hendricks: Chante Noël
  • Barbra Streisand: A Christmas Album
  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (von Karajan): A Christmas Concert
  • Burl Ives: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Canadian Brass: The Christmas Album
  • Celine Dion: These Are Special Times
  • Choral Arts Northwest: A Scandinavian Christmas
  • Christmas Music: Christmas Peace; Piano, Guitar, Angels
  • Concord Jazz: A Concord Jazz Christmas
  • Curnow Music: Holiday Favorites
  • Dave Brubeck: A Dave Brubeck Christmas
  • David Archuleta: Christmas from the Heart
  • David Tolk: Christmas
  • Diana Krall: Christmas Songs
  • Die Wiener Sängerknaben: Ihre Schönsten Weihnachtslieder
  • English Heritage: Spirit of Christmas
  • European Jazz Trio: Silent Night
  • Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Album
  • Garrison Keillor: A Prairie Home Christmas
  • Garrison Keillor: Now it is Christmas Again
  • Harry Connick Jr.: Harry for the Holidays
  • Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas
  • Helene Fischer: Weihnachten
  • Ingolf Jentszch (festliche Weihnachtsmusik): Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen
  • James Taylor: At Christmas
  • James Wilson: Holiday Favorites on Guitar
  • Jim Brickman: Peace
  • Jim Brickman: The Gift
  • Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas
  • Johnny Mathis: The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis
  • José Feliciano: Feliz Navidad
  • Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration
  • Kelly Clark Parkinson: Romantic Christmas
  • Kenny G: Faith; A Holiday Album
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas Volume One
  • Kurt Bestor: One Silent Night
  • La Chorale de Saint-Pierre: Les Plus Beaux Cantiques de Noël
  • London Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikovsky Nutcracker
  • Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas Extraordinaire
  • Mel Tormé: Christmas Songs
  • Meryl Streep: The Night Before Christmas (Rabbit Ears Series)
  • Moore Light: Christmas with Bach
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and the Canadian Brass): A Christmas Gloria
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Hallelujah! Great Choral Classics
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Handel’s Messiah
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Noël
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Once Upon a Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Rejoice and be Merry
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Ring Christmas Bells
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Spirit of the Season
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Great Messiah Choruses
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: This is Christmas
  • Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  • Now That’s Music: Now That’s What I Call Christmas!
  • Osmonds: Christmas Album
  • Patricia Carlson: Christmas; A Creative Harp Collection
  • Reader’s Digest: Merry Christmas Songbook
  • Robert Shaw: Handel’s Messiah; Favorite Choruses and Arias
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Glade Jul
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Norsdisk Vinternatt
  • Skruk: Stille Natt
  • Sony Music: The Best of Christmas Vol. 1-4
  • Steven Sharp Nelson: Christmas Cello
  • The American Boy Choir: On Christmas Day
  • The Boston Camerata: Noël, Noël! (Noël Français)
  • The Cambridge Singers: Christmas with the Cambridge Singers
  • The Choir of Christ Church, Oxford: A Tudor Christmas
  • The King’s Singers: Deck the Hall; Songs of Christmas
  • The New Christy Minstrels: We Need a Little Christmas
  • The Piano Guys: A Family Christmas
  • The Roches: We Three Kings
  • Thomanerchor Leipzig, Dresden Kreuzchor: Silent Night
  • Thurl Bailey: The Gift of Christmas
  • Tim Slover: The Christmas Chronicles (Radio Drama)
  • Time-Life: Treasury of Christmas
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Bergweihnacht
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Europäische Weihnacht
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories
  • Vanessa Williams: Silver and Gold
  • Vienna Boys’ Choir: Christmas Joy
  • Windham Hill Christmas: The Night Before Christmas
  • Wynton Marsalis, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade: A Carnegie Hall Christmas

And to everyone, I wish you a blessed and harmonious holiday season.

The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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Global Mom: Dreamcoat

Weddings. Messiah barn burnings. Feminine hygiene product pitching. New Orleans Jazz. Embassies. My own Mormon church.  And then at last, a biblical musical. It seemed an appropriately epic way to end our Norway years.

Josef Og Det Utrolige Farvet Drømkåpet needed a lead narrator.  Barbara, my multitalented musician girlfriend was already directing the musical’s children’s chorus and doing orchestrations from a massive keyboard, working her big circle of local music talent to build the band.  She was overbooked.

Since I’d already done the English version, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in New Jersey, the producers thought I might be able to do it here. So I said yes to play the narrator in Norwegian.

Then I became the show’s artistic director.

And choreographer.

And even found myself back stage in one of the performances, training dogs. (They were the biggest hounds I had seen in my life, cast in this show as Ishmaelite camels.)

The closing night of Josef, I walked out into the parking lot, costumes in a suit bag, humming one of the show’s tunes.  When I stood next to my car overlooking Oslo fjord, I stopped abruptly in my tracks.  I looked straight ahead.  Had I not noticed before? Across the road and down one block was a small barrack painted barn red. Next to it, a chain link fence.  There was a gravel parking lot and four swings, a simple metal slide, a teeter-totter. I’d known it all first under a meter of snow. And where I was standing that night, still in my stage makeup, congratulatory roses in my arms, was only a few meters from where I’d once hidden behind the steering wheel of my parked car, thermos of peppermint tea in my hand, scouting out this intimidating but undeniably enticing new world, weighing the dangers of a thing called barnepark, considering the foreignness of this cold, impenetrable land.

Somewhere in the middle of the post show cast party we held at our home, I felt the same vice grip I’d had in that dressing room at the television studios.  The whole Bradford clan, Melissa, Randall and their three children, and a dozen of the main players in the cast were gathered around our long Norwegian table, then watched taped footage of our closing performance of Josef.  Claire bopped up and down in the lap of Anita-Marie. Parker was with Tormod and Per Trygve who’d played Jacob’s oldest sons, Reuben and Simeon, doing phrase-by-phrase translation from the Norwegian text to its English original he had learned when I’d done the show in New Jersey and this nine-year-old son, then three, had memorized the whole script. Dalton, now toddling sturdily, raided every last refreshment platter.  Randall did crowd control and video machine duty while dispensing casual Norwegian one-liners to all our guests. 

Here were the faces.  Faces of real people whose language I spoke and whose humor I caught, whose regional accents I could identify, whose families I’d eaten with and worked with and sung with. These folks, they brought me a Thank You gift.  A Thank You gift! . . .?. . .They said they wanted to thank me for helping with their show, for serving them.  I tried to tell them nei, det er ikke lov! And that they forstår ikke.  I tried, but know I never managed to tell them or Johanne or Britt from barnepark, or Bente or Pia or my whole loving church family, or Barbara or Sigrid from Nesøya Skole, or Ellen my jordmor, or Gunnil from barselgruppe, or the nameless conductor on the sinking Yamaha keyboard, or little Karolina or Louisa who’d checked my grammar as well as my sanity, or strawberry-blonde Jesper who’d just needed toilet paper, or my neighbor who’d hiked over my head and shoveled off my roof, or the many nameless but not faceless others who filled our Norway years – I know I never managed to tell them thank you and that nei, nei, nei, I had not done a thing for them. It was they and their country that had done endless much for my young family and for me.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: An Ambassador

There would be many other singing engagements over the two years that would remain in Norway. There were months when I was learning new music every week, my children wandering in and around the piano or sometimes around other vocalists or orchestra members. I was recruited to sing at all sorts of functions; the library’s opening social, a 50th birthday gathering, the kindergarten’s closing social, the local book club, a corporate mid-year social, a neighboring town’s Late Winter Song Evening, another town’s Early Spring Poetry Reading, a high school’s mid-spring chamber concert, and the frequent American Broadway potpourri.
Breech after flagrant breach of the sisters’ pact.

When invited with three other American musicians to give a private concert at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, I took along nine-year-old Parker. He sat primly in his navy suit and bow tie, his hair parted on the left side and slicked flat like a confederate soldier.

“You have to sit right in that seat, honey,” I told him, pointing to an upholstered chair in the front row, “Because in one song, I’m going to give you the signal like this,” I nodded just once and discreetly, “and then I’ll come get you with my hand just like this,” I took his fingers in mine, “and then I’ll bring you uon front of the audience. Then I’ll sing right to you. Right into your eyes. Kneeling in front of you. Got it?”

“Got it. I don’t have to sing, too, do I?”

“No, you only have to listen. And you also have to help me not mess up, buddy. Can you do that?”
It was “Not While I’m Around,” a lyrical, haunting piece from Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, “Sweeney Todd.” When I pulled the young boy with a bow tie and confederate hair to my side and knelt on the stage and sang right into his eyes, I nearly abandoned all efforts at composure. I nearly forgot about the respectable audience, the professional distance, I almost forgot about Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador sitting right over my shoulder in a gown and suit. I nearly let emotion seep into my vocal chords, a perilous thing. But I was composed and tried not to feel the moistness of his palms as I held his two hands, tried not to sense a quiver climbing up my sternum. I just kept singing the tender tune a bit baldly, I think; “Nothing can harm you,” I sang to my child, “Not while I’m around.”

And I finished, as I remember, with a smile so totally incongruous with the broader context from which that song is taken – a smile, now that I think about it, like that of a weather channel person waiting for the camera to blink on – I ended smiling with my head tilted, squeezing his skinny suited shoulders, giving him a peck on the cheek and dismissing him with a tap on his rump, clapping the fingertips of one my right hand on the palm of my left,  nodding to him and then to the audience, “Too cute, isn’t he?”

(Some minutes in life you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness. Others you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness and to mentally redo them altogether.)

After a performance with fellow artists. The Great Dane favored us with a solo.  It was in Danish, of course.  And great.

 

 

I didn’t take the children to all of my performances. One such, I described in my Journal:

Flå is a small arts community tucked deep in the folds of Hallingdal. Flå had invited an “American Broadway Singer,” to appear at their annual Arts Days celebration.

I stood in a glitzy American gown on an outdoor stage with microphone in hand and sang three hours of show tunes and big band standards flanked by twenty-five somewhat rigid but nevertheless hearty and well-amplified members of Hallingdal’s civic “Big Band.” The locals, robust and impossibly well-scrubbed, wielding sausages and wearing boiled wool knickers, stomped patterns across the pavilion’s dance floor till all the Aquavit ran dry and the moon peered over the rough ridges of Hallingdal’s towering walls. I went through everything the band had in its repertoire; Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, even Neil Diamond.  Which was a good fun even though I felt strangely like a disco ball rented for a country picnic.

But then there was this last number, a traditional Norwegian Saeter tune I’d prepared just for this event. When it was announced, five band members, rosy-cheeked, woolen knickered, flannel plaid, stood to join me.  Against the evening chill I slipped the bass player’s boiled wool jacket around my shoulders.  Three of us sang tight harmony first with Ole on the accordion, then all six of us sang in a capella harmony, arms wrapped around one another’s waists or shoulders.  We howled like mountain sheep herders under the moon’s perfect spotlight. And on the way home, driving alone down that ancient black canyon, I decided things don’t get much better than this.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Pontifigation

Avignon, runner-up to Vatican City for being the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, epicenter of Catholicism. For over a century, this fortressed city was the seat of seven Popes and two anti-Popes during what is known as the Great Schism or the (Second) Babylonian Captivity.

(For a more detailed history lesson — and trust me, this infamous stretch is as convoluted as history gets — google any of the above capitalized words.  Except for the title. I haven’t notified Google about my fig puns.)

Our Sunday afternoon we spent in this auspicious setting after having attended morning meetings with the modest (30 members?) congregation of our LDS church which meets in an unremarkable building on the outskirts of town.  We didn’t visit either just for the contrast, but if contrast would have been what we were after, we couldn’t have chosen better.

“Outskirts”, in Avignonese, means anything outside the huge, intact walls encircling the whole medieval center of town, which is dominated by this, the Papal Palace.

Well, that palace, yeah. But also a few restaurants that didn’t do so much business, I don’t think, during the Plague.

When Pope Clement chose Avignon over Rome as his home, the Western Schism in church leadership/doctrine/politics/even musical preferences got enormous traction.  Avignon was a breeding ground for secular (or popular) music — like the love tunes crooned by the Provençal troubadors, medieval equivalents of Elvis, Frank, Mel and Nat — and it was here over a couple of centuries and thanks to the tastes of a couple of Popes in particular, that secular music merged with the sacred. Something called polyphony — “many voices” — flourished during and as a result of what we otherwise call the Crisis of the Middle Ages.

Historians call that new wave of multiple merging voices ars nova, and what we get from that centuries later is every bit of harmony you’ve ever heard. In other words, thanks to crisis, schism, division and a fortressed city like Avignon we have The Beatles, The BeachBoys, Styx, Foster the People, Pentatonix, Racal Flats and, of course, MoTab.

(For a more detailed music history lesson, see David and Donna Dalton.  My parents.  Growing up, I never learned how to tell score for football, tennis or golf.  It crippled me only slightly as a teen, as did some other black holes in my knowledge, many of them — but not all — numbers-related. And totally due to my own laziness.  Like telling score. But wanna talk musical scores? Chat polyphony? I’m all over it.)

So, why am I lecturing you from this polyphonic pontifical pulpit? Is it all about Popes? And Dark Ages? And Schisms? And newfound harmony?

Nope.

And yep.

Avignon, to me, is a monument to all the good that can grow out of disaster.  Those who witnessed firsthand the messiness of papal estrangement, captivity, separation and divorce, (and the Great Schism was the greatest divorce Christianity had known, surely capable of having taken out the church for good and forever), those witnesses wouldn’t have been able to foresee, I don’t think, what beautiful harmony would eventually emerge from that period of catastrophe.  Music as we know it — from the contrapuntally weaving majesty of symphonies and choirs to our simplest hymns — rose from a widespread and profound split.

Majestic harmony from cataclysmic disharmony.

Avignon put its name on the map not only as a launching pad for all modern music, but as an important outpost during the French revolution. In 1791, the massive gothic Pope’s Palace with its 18 feet thick walls, made a perfect and unassailable prison and garrison.  Once again, it was the one fortressed spot on a tattered map.

And for the rest of us that afternoon, it was the one perfectly unassailable shady spot on a Sunday.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.