We talk within contexts, in groups, in culture, varying with the situation or occasion. I’m trying to collapse the different levels, and unite modernity with tribal spirit. At the most basic level, we pass messages as animals. We smile or show other facial reactions within each other’s sight. It’s more elementary than language. It happens between adults and children and even between humans and their pets. Dogs and cats stare into our faces, trying to connect.
I began the week with an exercise in highly stylized, symbolic communication. Mary sang while I played a Gregorian chant at church. It was written in Latin and titled Adoro te devote by Thomas Aquinas around 1260. It has many verses, but the tune is a real earworm. When chant is performed properly, it produces a meditative effect. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the words.
Then we drove to the “big” town of Port Angeles (pop. 30,000) to experience some of the Juan de Fuca Festival of Arts. I saw an extraordinary instrument used in Gambia and Mali called a kora, being played in a world music group named (of course) The Kora Band.
A kora has 21 strings, is played with the index fingers and thumbs, and it sounds like a harp. Koras are one of the ancestors of guitars, and there are 1000 year-old songs for them that closely resemble melodies found in Delta blues songs composed by the descendants of West Africans brought here in slavery.
Another fine example of non-verbal communication was demonstrated by Maya Soto, a young dancer-choreographer. Maya has invented an exciting, original fusion of hip-hop and modern dance. I’ve not seen anything like it before.
We went outside the theater, where my Mom was dancing at the other end of the emotional spectrum. She belongs to a Hawaiian dance troupe of mature ladies. There is a spirit of peacefulness and harmony with nature that projects out to an audience through the performance of hulas. In a breezy, seaside town built of old wood and concrete, I felt the calm of an island sunset.
Before we left the festival, I stopped at a stand run by charming visitors from Ghana. I’m only beginning to study African music, and there are so many unfamiliar instruments to learn about! I bought a dondo, the kind of “talking drum” played there. Use of these kinds of drums evolved in West Africa both for communicating over distances, and for songs and storytelling. Many centuries ago a hereditary class of poet-musicians called jali rose in prominence. The French called them griot. These bards were both men and women, and all royal families had to have them. They exist all over Africa now, and are still respected and employed for important religious and social occasions. They sing and play many kinds of instruments.
Talking drums are held under the arm and squeezed to alter pitch by means of rawhide strings which loosen or tighten the membrane. You strike the drumhead with the palms and fingers, or use a curved stick to produce more volume. In the hands of skilled players, they can imitate the pitch patterns of speech. The traditions of the griot and their instruments were key ingredients in the vestigial brew that inspired the invention of jazz.
On Memorial Day Mary and I had dinner with our neighbors who are building the new megahouse, hosted by our neighbors on the other side of it. We are acting to build bridges and welcome them to the tribe, because being neighbors is more important and deeper than the differences we may have in politics or religion. I was excited to see that our host had a djembe, another kind of African hand drum. He and I agreed to greet the dawn the next day and test out the sound of our drums, playing unseen from two houses apart.
As the gray clouds parted on the morning of our return to work, we played a few minutes of joyful call-and-response. Our drums shouted our message.
“We are the new drummers! We are the rural tribesmen!”
“We are the jali of the woods!”