BABA'S BLOG

Clothing for Culture and for Change

The clothing I often wear resembles the attire worn by Muslims all across the world. I was dressed in gold kaftan today when I entered a convenience store to pick up some water and snacks.

The man behind the counter kept staring at me as if he had a question he wanted to ask. While I was paying him for my snacks he asked, “what country did you come to America from?” I told him that that I was born here. I then got that look I usually get from people which makes me feel more like an enigma than a person. I explained to the clerk that I dress to celebrate my lineage and pay homage of my ancestors.

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Truth be Told – Creative Catharsis

When I was a child I used to hear the elders in my life toss about the phrase, “Truth be told.” I never quite understood what it meant until I became an adult. “Truth be told” is a testimonial phrase. It is what a person will say when they want a listener, or reader, to understand that the words about to come from their lips, or pen, possess a pinch of brutal honesty.

I’ve decided to write a series in this forum and I’m calling it “Truth be Told.” I may decide to only write a few, or it may end up becoming another aspect of my borderline obsessive-compulsive nature.

I’ve been bogged down in a world of deadlines, paperwork and linear thought processes. For me, an artist, this might be considered a “near death” experience. But to survive in a world of “cash is king” one must pay the cook in order to eat the meal.

I’m not a naive. I fully comprehend the importance of splitting my brain in two, at time, in order to assume the respective roles of “entrepreneur” on left and “free spirited” artist on the right.

I sat down earlier today and decided to do something that required as little thought as possible. I needed to clear my mind of excel spreadsheets, marketing plans, grant writing and php coding (yes, yes… I know coding is an “Art” but it does not feel like it when you temporarily lose the ability to converse with other human beings in a commonly understood language).

What I decided to do was to take a walking stick that I have from Ghana and embellish it. I had beads and other things I wanted to add to it in order for it to reflect more of my personality as an artist, as a storyteller.

When I began working on my walking stick, I felt an acute sense of heavy weight falling from me. Inexplicable? Yes, but I don’t know any other way to describe it. It felt, literally, as though a pressure valve had been lifted and, whatever it was that needed releasing, was being released.

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Affirmations Raining Down on Me

The Pasadena Waldorf School has an incredible faire that they’ve hosted for about 27 years. It is affectionately called the “Elves’ Faire.” I’ve performed at this festival for a number of years now and, each year, I’m enjoying it more and more.

The organizers of the fair like to say that it will occur “rain or shine.” Well this year we got the rain, and lots of it.

It was a special day for me because I had my two adult daughters and my granddaughter accompanying me. When you have adult “children” (I know, I know, “Oxymoron alert,” but those of you with maternal or paternal aspects to your personalities get it) it is rare to have everyone in the same place at the same time.

I was hyped that my daughters and granddaughter were with me! As we were setting up I started introducing them to everyone, even people I didn’t know. Like I said, I was a little excited to have them with me.

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Jamaica Blog Day 6

Last night we arrived late in the evening and checked into a beautiful bed and breakfast called “Neita’s Nest.” It was a soothing, very welcoming environment. The little added touches of candles in the evening and the smell of food cooking from the kitchen to a relaxed atmosphere for us weary, worn travelers.

The proprietor, Michelle, made sure that we each were situated comfortably.

I had a lot of work to do so I retired from the group early and went to my room.

The next morning I woke thinking about how fast paced this trip had been and the things I wish I had gotten to do. I was having a few minuscule regrets but this is typical when travel involves work.

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Jamaica Blog Day 5

Day 5 is the final day of the Ananse Sound Splash Storytelling Conference & Festival for me. This is a bittersweet day of mixed emotions. On one hand I am excited to be returning home to the comforts and familiarity of my life. On the other hand, Jamaicans have opened up their hearts and minds to me and I will miss their spirit.

The storytellers involved in the festival have been phenomenal. Being a cultural artist can be challenging, both mentally and spiritually, at times. There are moments when you begin to feel as though you are working in isolation, far from the voice of like-minded souls. Conferences such as these pull you back into the warmth of community.

My participation in the festival closed out with festivities at Seville Heritage Park. When our group arrived, I had the feeling that I was entering a historical landmark long before seeing any signs of it. The acreage of the park was lush and green. Along the drive into the park we encountered the rubble of old stone structures, an enormous furnace and various small wildlife.

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Jamaica Blog Day 4

Up early and off to Marcus Garvey Technical High School here in Saint Ann’s Bay Jamaica. Obviously I was excited and, once again, unable to get a complete night’s sleep. I kept thinking about one of my early mentors, Dr. Anyim Palmer, founder of the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles. As I approached the campus I couldn’t help but hold his memory high as I know he would have been proud of my presenting here in Jamaica.

The school is packed and there isn’t any space that is going unused. The staff and students made me feel more than welcomed. We even had a chance to sit in the principal’s office and, even though he was extremely busy, he made time for us.

I think the thing the moved me the most at the school was the flag raising ceremony. The three students who conducted the flag raising ceremony did it with such dignity and flare well beyond their young years.

Following my presentation at Marcus Garvey Technical School I was rushed over to the Ocho Rios Baptist Church and arrived just in time to do a phone interview. My interviewer was none other than DJ Amber of IRIE FM Radio.. I wanted to call her the “Conscious DJ” after spending a few minutes speaking to her. She definitely has her finger on the pulse of the community.

Listen to the full interview here: [audio:http://BabatheStoryteller.com/audio/IRIE-FM_interview-11-22-2012.mp3]

It was nice being recognized for the work that I’ve put in for the craft of storytelling and my work in communities around the world. As I’m getting older I’m not finding the need for validation any longer like I did in my younger years. The daily, sometimes hourly affirmations from the universe are more than enough.

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Jamaica Blog Day 3

Today was a big day for me here in Jamaica. After arriving in Ocho Rios from Kingston last night I found it hard to sleep. It might not be the cool thing to say but I was experiencing a bit of anxiety over having to present my paper the next day.

I felt like I was prepared. I had done an excessive amount of due diligence and felt I could do this paper in my sleep, and the way I was feeling after the late drive across the country was quickly making that a possibility. Knowing your prepared doesn’t prevent you from battling with your own thoughts.

The title of my paper is “Storytelling as Technology: A Culturally Centered Approach to Techniques for Progressive Instruction with an Emphasis on Global Learning.” Here’s a link to the entire paper.

If you’d like, you can download the entire paper here as a pdf.

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Jamaica Blog Day 2

I started my day workshopping with a group of teenagers who weren’t real familiar with storytelling. It worked out really well. We ended up doing the storytelling together, the entire group, on stage. I was proud of my little group of novice tellers.

There was one thing that made me pause and take notice. The young men and women kept responding to me with, “No sir,” or “Yes sir.” It was like taking a time machine back to when I was a kid and we didn’t dare attempt to treat adults as equals. I thought this type of behavior was a relic of an ancient past. I have to admit, I rather enjoyed that level of respect. Thank you Jamaica! You are doing an absolutely amazing job with these children.

After my workshop, I had a brief “introductory” performance on an outdoor stage. Many people, mostly Jamaicans, had been telling Ananse Tales. Anyone who knows anything about Jamaica knows that, other than Ghana West Africa, they own Ananse Tale (Lock, Stock and Barrel). It would take a guy with lot of moxy to get up in front of a large community of Jamaicans and tell an Ananse story.

Do you know what type of tale I told?

Yeah… I guess I’m that guy… LOL.

Anyway I told a short Ananse tale and it was well received. There was laughter where laughter was necessary. There was rapt attention from the youngest in the crowd and the resounding applause was all I needed to affirm my choice of tales.

I think I hugged and shook hands with more people in this one day than I have in the last year.

If I may be allowed to generalize for a moment, “Jamaicans are chill!” The mood and temperament here remind me so much of Africa that I’m starting to question if I’m really in the Caribbean.

We headed out from Kingston and took a bus to Ocho Rios. We just got in about 10 minutes ago and I whipped out my laptop to blog as promised. It is after midnight and I’ve got to be up and out of here early.

Stay tuned. More exciting adventures of BABA THE STORYTELLER (all caps was meant to sound like one of those cool echoes that major movie stars get when their names are said in theaters) coming your way.

Jamaica Blog Day 1

It is a strange feeling to start out in one part of the world in the morning and end up in another part of it by evening.

When I left Los Angeles this morning there was a familiarity with the environment that I take for granted. Exiting the airport here in Kingston Jamaica through me back to a feeling of West Africa. The evening heat and humidity, the cluster of people waiting outside felt familiar. There were competing sounds of car stereos, laughter and various people trying to get their hustle-on. All of this had me feeling a little nostalgic for Senegal and Mali.

Travel, thus far, has been the smoothest I’ve experienced in years. Maybe I’m becoming a much more seasoned traveler or maybe I’m just getting old, but I like it.

The hotel, The Spanish Court Hotel, is beautiful and the staff have obviously been trained in the nuances of customer services. I haven’t seen a single person without a smile yet. Although I don’t drink it was still nice to be greeted in the lobby with a tall glass of champagne.

It’s 11:00 pm here and I’ve got to be up early for the opening day of the Conference-Festival. I’ll make sure to keep blogging each day of the conference so make sure to be looking out for it.

 

 

Heading to Jamaica…

On the 19th of November I’ll be boarding a plane heading to Jamaica to attend a Storytelling Festival & Conference. I’m excited because I won’t only be performing but I’ll be presenting a paper as well. I’ll make the paper available online as soon as the conference starts.

When most people think of traveling to Jamaica they dream of the country’s beaches, scenic landscapes and Bob Marley. When I think about visiting Jamaica I think about cow horns, Maroon Societies, Marcus Garvey and Walter Rodney.

I am looking forward to communing with like minded intellectuals, celebrations of ancestry and listening to enlightening minds speak. I am hoping to learn something from each and ever soul that I cross paths with, whether they be the cab driver, government diplomat or children.

As usual, when I travel, I’ll make sure to blog each day from the conference.

I appreciate each and everyone of you who have followed me on these treks around the globe.

My Day with Dads

I’m just returning from a small workshop in the city of Watts. It was a gathering of children their fathers. I facilitated the group on how we, as men, can build on our relationships with our children through using storytelling as a mechanism to bond.

This was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in a while. Not only were the fathers receptive but the mothers present were as well.

Anytime I have an opportunity to gather with other men, fathers, and grandfathers… I jump at the chance. That type of work rarely pays big dividends financially but the intrinsic rewards are beyond measure.

This gathering reminded why I love my work so much.

Did they find joy in Malala’s pain?

I’ve been working with both adults and children for more than 20 years, helping them to develop as speakers and listeners; promoting the Art of Storytelling as an instrument of instruction. Recently, I was working in a classroom with a group of 11 and 12 year olds. I’m always attempting to make connections between my lessons and current events. My objective is to, not only teach, but also inspire. I believe in my work.

Anyway… I was working with this group of 11 and 12 year olds and decided to share with them the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani child whose life was nearly taken by an assassin because of her impassioned advocacy for the education of young girls.

I was speaking to my students about being vocal, standing up for what they believe and releasing fear. I was attempting to put their lessons on public presentation in perspective. I wanted Malala’s plight to inspire them as it has me and so I spoke with conviction and passion.

After letting them know that Malala had been shot a few weeks ago, on October 9th, their eyes grew wide. I felt that I had finally gotten them to a point of immersive listening, they were with me and, I believed, we were sharing a path of compassion for Malala’s desperate plight. In no way shape, or form, was I ready for what occurred next.

Many of the children’s hands shot up in the air, anxious to ask questions. I was excited! They were finally completely engaged!

Here are samples of questions they began to blurt out in their excitement, and this is what made my heart sink as I stood before them:

“Where did they shoot her… leg, arms, head… where?”

“Did she die fast or slow?”

“Was there a lot of blood?”

“Is it on video?”

“Did they shoot her with a machine gun or pistol?”

It is typical for youth to blurt out when they get excited. I’m used to managing the classroom when this happens, but I wasn’t prepared for the macabre nature in the tone of their questioning.

I caught the eyes of one of my little boys as he asked, “Was it in her head, did they shoot her in the head?”

He was looking right at me, and the thing that knocked me off balance was that he had a wide, almost deliriously happy smile on his face. I couldn’t avert my stare away from him. I stood there for, what had to be a few minutes, staring into his face. He didn’t look away. He wanted his question answered and he had a level of excitation in his desire to know that left me feeling a sort of queasy.

I didn’t answer his question. I looked away at other students and continued the discussion but nothing felt right from that point on. There felt like, to me, a ghoulish interest in wanting to know the details of her experience. I re-directed our discussion to where I thought we should head. I realized that there were few in the class that shared my compassion for Malala’s plight, they were more interested the gory details of her attack.

Yes, I did ask questions of them. Deep, penetrating questions but these led even closer to despondency with their reactions and answers.

I tried not to let them know that I was disturbed and used the rest of my class time with them to talk about traits of character such as compassion and empathy. This wasn’t the direction that I had planned for our discussion to go, but it is where we ended up. It is what was needed in the moment and I had to be willing to adapt to meet their immediate needs.

I’ve spoken to a few others about this issue. The consensus seems to be that “our” youth have become desensitized to violence, that they have been inoculated against realizing the horror experienced by others.

Is it just me, or is there something incredibly disturbing about the reaction these children had to Malala’s pain?

Elders in all shapes and sizes

While in Mali some years back, I roamed the countryside in search of an elder willing to share folktales and stories with me. I needed someone with wisdom and depth whose feet I could sit at and drink from their fount of knowledge and experience. I ended up in a compound just outside of Bamako called N’tomikorobougou as my base. Each day I would leave the compound and wander the streets of the cities and nearby villages in search of an elder willing to share his/her storytelling wisdom with me.

Each evening I returned disappointed. The compound’s cook and her son were always there to greet me with a warm plate and equally warm smiles. I was a mess. Each evening I would complain anyone willing to listen about my hollow quest to find an elder willing to take me under his/her tutelage.

Each morning, as I was gathered my things to depart the compound; the cook’s four-year old son, was always on my heels, shadowing me. His name was Bassi Traoré and shadowing/observing me had become his favorite pastime. Each day Bassi would follow me as far as he knew his mother would tolerate. He could be found sitting outside the door of my room waiting for me to wake every morning. Bassi would even go as far as waiting for me whenever I disappeared behind the door of the latrine. No matter how hard I tried, I could not shake this determined toddler. Each day, when I had traveled to the edges of N’tomikorobougou I would send him back to the compound, sad faced and looking dejected.

One morning, young Bassi had an angry, determined look on his face when I exited me room. There he was sitting on the ground right outside of my room, arms crossed, legs folded.

“Baba,” he blurted out, “why you no ask me for story?”

This four year old was gutsy. His countenance and demeanor made me laugh a little. I had no answer for him and so I asked, “Bassi would you like to tell me a story?”

He shook his head up and down strongly and, without a moment’s hesitation launched into one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard a child sing. It was the song of a long neck bird enamored with the beauty of a young girl from a village. Bassi interspersed his song with narrative. His singing was beyond his years. It was an astounding display of showmanship and passion.

By the time he finished his tale I was convinced that there was an old soul housed in the body of this young boy.

The epiphany hit me hard. I asked Bassi if he would be my teacher and teach me stories. His smile arched the cheeks of his face hide and wide. I made arrangements with his mother and treated Bassi as I would have any elder by making sure there was some level of reciprocity in our relationship.

From that day forward, Bassi and I were inseparable. I had found my elder, my wise soul to learn from.

It can comical how often we search hither and thither for something that is, and has always been, standing right in front of us from the start.

Education is Not Child Care

I am excited that the Chicago Teacher’s Strike has ended but there is a troubling issue, for me at least, that went ignored. In spite of a dramatic seven-day assault on our senses through ritualized rhetoric, and well-tailored talking points, not a single soul offered insight into the underlying causes of the growing disruptions to our educational infrastructure.

Pundits on all sides kept chanting mantras such as, “Our children need to be back in school,” or “Where are the children supposed to go with the schools closed?”

I got the sense from most people I heard speak that there is a deep seated assumption that our schools are, basically, child care centers and teachers, simply, over paid care givers. I know that most will not admit that they think this way aloud because we like to believe ourselves enlightened. We don’t even need to debate this as an issue, all one need do is examine our policies and actions, as a society, towards our educational infrastructure.

We, as a society, promulgate a politically correct lip service towards the humane concept of “Education for All.” In our policies and actions, we are on a trajectory towards constructing a national model of education based on the warehousing of our young, not educating them.

We need to begin discussing a shift in our attitudes towards education before every school in this country becomes a place where parents simply drop off their kids while they go to work.

Or are we already there?

 

 

Compensated in Crackers

I positioned myself on the edge of the young boy’s bed, close to his outstretched legs with tiny wiggly toes dancing in my direction as he smiled wide. His face was glowing in heightened anticipation of impending story and music I had come to share with him. He’s only four, a magical age where the line between enchantment and reality is blurred by an uninitiated fascination with the world and an unhinged imagination.

For our purposes I’ll call him Josh; not his real name of course but you’ll understand why a pseudonym in a second.

Josh was munching on crackers and watching cartoons when I came into his room. He is a cancer patient at Children’s Hospital. His mother has never been more than two steps from his bedside each time I’ve visited.

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Dominican Republic Day 4

After yesterday’s torrent of activity, today seemed almost like a day of ease. I had a single performance in the afternoon, which freed up my morning to take a walk into the city.

My main objective was to visit “El Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Museum of the Dominican Man).” It is the only place I could find here in Santo Domingo that offered information on the original inhabitants of the island before Columbus’ arrival. I had a two-fold reason for wanting to visit the museum; the first being that I love archeology, history and anything to do with learning the culture of another people. Additionally, I feel that visiting the relics of ancient societies is a simple way we can demonstrate our respect for their contributions to the world.

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Dominican Republic Day 3

When I began my day this morning I entered a vortex of activity that kept me going throughout the entire day until my head hit the pillow at night.

I started the morning with an interview at a radio station, Viva FM, with hosts Carmen Imbert Brugal and José Antonio Rodriguez.  I loved their laid back, relaxed style. They made me feel really comfortable. I played a little music, sang and conversed about the festival and the craft of storytelling. At one point Carmen tossed a question at me that I wasn’t expecting. She spoke of how many people have stated that President Obama isn’t “really” an African American because his father was actually from Kenya and his mother was white. She ended her question by asking me, “so what is your opinion.”

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Dominican Republic Day 2

Today I met some really amazing teachers during a workshop I gave on the Power of Storytelling. The questions they asked were so poignant and their passion for their work was inspirational to me. I carried their enthusiasm for their students and the obvious love of their country with me as I set out to explore the city of Santo Domingo.

I started out strolling through the neighborhood nearest my hotel. It was recommended that I only take taxis when venturing out into the city, but anyone who knows me would understand that would never work for me. One of the things I enjoy most about traveling is the time spent with the people. I love the sights and sounds of bustling cities and villages. This city provided me with plenty of both. As I walked, I saw Haitian women walking with baskets of fruit on their heads. Their grace and elegance made me smile as I reminisced about my time in Africa. I listened to the sounds of horns honking and men yelling to each other down the street about the news of the day. I saw children peeking around corners to catch a glimpse of a foreigner walking through their neighborhood.

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Dominican Republic Day 1

Anyone have any ideas how to get an extremely fragile West African harp from Los Angeles to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic? You know it is too big to carry on, too exotic to gate check, and way too precious to send down a luggage conveyor belt. What any decent griot does is stand at the Delta counter for more than an hour talking with very helpful agents who are also in a quandary as to what to do. After much searching codes on the computer screen, phone calls to headquarters, and locating supervisors…the agent handed over “the situation” to “special assistance needed” representatives. They were able to solve the problem economically in about thirty minutes. The solution, you ask? “CAGPT” stickers placed all over the kora case. Whatever that means….Thank goodness for it. The kora made it to the Dominican Republic in one piece with only one broken string.

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Yes to Violence No to Sex

I’ve tried to keep my blogging addiction in check by getting out in the air, taking walks, and dusting off my rollerblades but so many thing continue happening around me that I’ve got to talk about them.

I was in a line just the other day at a video store (Yes there are a few of those still in existence) and a woman was standing a few people behind me. From her place in line she began instructing her teenage son on movie choices.

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Why aren’t Muslims burning Bibles?

Here in the United States there have been people who have openly threatened to burn Islam’s holy book, the Koran. Most of the people I’ve seen making these threats appear possessed by anger, fear and, often, an irrational hubris crying out for immediate medication or therapy.

I’ve listened to these zealots of myopic thought pontificate vehemently on the savagery and ignorance of other cultures; commanding time on major television news networks, radio stations, and mainstream print media.

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A 10 year old girl died here in Long Beach

Last friday two young girls agreed to meet off-campus from their school to fight one another here in the City of Long Beach California. According to witnesses the fight only lasted about a minute after which each of the girls went home.

Later that evening Joanna Ramos, 10 years old, complained that her head was hurting to her parents. Within hours she was dead. Today the coroner ruled her death a homicide as a result of blunt force trauma.

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Me at an AME Church in Pomona

I just left a church in Pomona California where I performed. I experienced such warmth and true affection that I’m  inspired to pull my car over and pen thoughts to paper. I travel the world, literally, and I’ve met with people from every station in life. I’ve spoken at, or performed in, synagogues, temples, mosques, churches, schools and even a few smokey bars but there is something about presenting before a room full of people, passionate our history, that imbues me with a deeper sense of purpose.

Less than 10 minutes ago I was in a room filled with people singing loudly with me, responsive to my insights, and not ashamed to shout words of encouragement during the performance. We laughed out loud and shared in the storytelling. At no time did I ever feel less than held in high esteem by those present. We shared in a level of timing and communication that can only be described as transcendent. The pastor of the church, Pastor Smith, came to me after my performance and pulled me into a deep, heartfelt embrace before inviting me back to perform for more of his parishioners. What a gift.

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Why is Standing in Line Important?

I know what I’m about to ask is going to sound a bit strange but recent events have me re-thinking of lot of what I had considered the norm. Here’s my question, “Why is it important to teach our children that they must be able to stand in a line?”

Before you answer, hear me out.

Over the years, as a storyteller, I’ve traveled to, quite literally, thousands of schools. Yesterday I noticed something that struck me for a greater desire of insight. It wasn’t as if it was the first time I was seeing this, but yesterday, for some reason, it stood out.

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Covina High School Cool

I spent the day at Covina High School today. As I write this I’ve got a huge smile plastered across my face.

I was invited to play my Kora and do a little singing for the school’s “Multicultural Festival.” It seems each day the students celebrate different cultures from around the world. Today, my day, they were focusing on the continent of Africa.

The students from the ASB set the tone with me. They were all accommodating beyond belief and made me feel right at home. They even helped me get set up by hanging my banner and asking if there was anything else I needed. I have “never” got that kind of treatment at high school before… never.

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Video of Baba touring schools in Mexico


I’ve just finished posting a short video of highlights of my tour of schools in Mexico.

Enjoy! Leave me a comment or a little message letting me know what you thought once you’ve had a chance to watch it.

Peace and a multitude of blessings to one and all!

Baba the Storyteller

No Coke and a Smile

Seven years ago my preferred beverage at “every” meal was Coca Cola in a nice tall glass and poured over several small cubes of ice. It is embarrassing to admit now, but I used to drink at least four 12 oz. cans with every meal. I am not joking! I had grown up drinking the beverage and, to this day, can’t even recall the first time I tasted it.

I ended my relationship with Coke oh so reluctantly. I made the choice to end my ritual of having four 12 oz. cans at every meal simply because I was packing on the pounds like a sumo wrestler. I also had been given advice by several friends that there would be other health consequences if my over consumption continued unabated.

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Inequalities in Education

I recently returned from a school where I spent the day in classrooms, performing assemblies and having lunch with students and staff. The school was immaculate with manicured landscaping, plenty of windows, a huge gymnasium and even an Olympic size swimming pool. Art was displayed “everywhere,” both student work and that of professional artists. The cafeteria prepared meals upon student requests and all of the children had unfettered access to the campus library. Oh… by the way, did I mention that this school is an elementary school serving grades K though 5?

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My Heroes of Hospice

While in Mexico I received an email from the director of volunteers and bereavement services, Kaiser Permanente. It was a request that I perform for a group of hospice volunteers during one of their social gatherings.

My heart was touched that someone would think to include me. I felt honored. There was “no-way” that I was going to miss participating in that gathering, even if it meant that I had to move a few mountains to be there.

So much of my work, over the years, has consisted of being at the bed-side of the ill or those in transition and playing my Kora. It may seem like a terribly heart wrenching experience to voluntarily subject oneself to an environment where another human being has passed or is dying but, there is an indescribable beauty that is born in those moments.

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Cooling Out in Mexico’s Culiacán

I’ve been sitting here in the airport of the City of Culiacán for the last hour and a half. I finished performing for the students of Instituto Senda. It is an odd feeling sitting in this tiny airport listening to the Blues being played over the loudspeakers and hearing everyone speak Spanish.

I really must relate my experience at Senda because it was extra ordinary. This the school held an assembly of all of the students, parents, administrators and staff. Apparently they do this every Monday. The children have been raising money for causes such as Cancer, feeding the hungry and other things. There was a young child there who was on stage saying thank you to the entire school for the support and resources he received to treat a hearing defect.

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Art or Infrastructure

There are many things to dislike about Mexico City: the smog, the insane traffic, profligate smoking, where 51.2% of all men can be found toking on cancer sticks in every crevice of public space. Add to these issues the congestion of 8 million souls populating a land mass not meant to sustain half that number and you have a recipe for sustained urban planning nightmares.

What is it about this city that continues to attract and inspire people in spite of its many faults? For me it is quite simple. Art.

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Dinner with The Angel and Victor

It would be a misnomer to say that last night I attended a “dinner party” because the gathering was so much more than that. Ever since I first began this tour of Mexico I’ve been looking forward to meeting two phenomenal storytellers, Victor Árjona and Ángel del Pilar. They are cornerstones of the Storytelling Movement here in Mexico and represent my aspirations as a cultural artist really well. The fact that they offered their home as an oasis in the evening made my respect for them grow exponentially.

We arrived, a few other storytellers and I, around 7:40 pm or so. The electricity was out in the building and we had to ascend about five flights of steps. As an aside… it seems to me that there exist an incalculable number of steps in this country, from the ancient Pyramids of Teotihuacan to ones inside of the mountains and mountains of contemporary buildings that dissect Mexico City.

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Tranquility in Tlaxcala

Last week I visited a school called “Crecer” which means “to grow” in Spanish. The school is located in the City of Tlaxcala. I didn’t know much about the city except that it was located outside of the metropolis of Mexico City. I always love getting away from the noise and crowds of big cities so a trip to Tlaxcala was perfect for me. I had already suffered a week of hearing sirens every few minutes, incessant horn honking and music blaring around every corner I turned. The fact that I was going to have a two-hour bus ride to get there was even more of an enticement.

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A Homeless Woman Punched Me!

While in Mexico I decided that I would make sure to use public transportation. I honestly feel that public transportation is a sure fire way to get to know the city and people up close and personal. Little did I know when I boarded the subway in Zona Rosa that I was going to experience one particular person up close and “real” personally.

Here’s what happened…

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A Test of Principles and Purpose on the Pyramid of the Sun

I had ascended to the top of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacán and was feeling rather proud of myself until I spotted an old man and woman in about their mid-70’s appear over the crest of the steps about 20 minutes later. My jaw dropped. This was no easy climb. The steps are uneven and narrow in some places, the incline is ridiculous in others and climbing the distance from top to bottom puts a burn in your body equivalent to a punishing workout.

The old man was being held up on his right arm by a woman equal his age. She appeared a bit stronger while he actually walked with a limp. These two had climbed the Pyramid of the Sun together without any assistance! It was both a thing of beauty and awe inspiring at the same time.

I lost track of the elderly couple while walking around the top of the pyramid. It is huge. I didn’t see them again until I began my descent down the dangerous steps. They had already begun going down before me. They were about 10 steps down below me and moving at a very slow pace. The steps are uneven and jagged in some areas and I noticed people in a rush crowding the elderly couple, almost trying to make them move faster. There wasn’t much room but some of the impatient philistines found ways to maneuver around them. I was appalled at the behavior of these people and rushed down the steep steps to position myself between the elderly couple and the remainder of the people descending the pyramid. I slowed the crowd behind me and wasn’t allowing anyone to pass. The elderly couple ahead of me were finally making their way down without interruption. I felt good about that.

As we were going down I noticed the old man’s foot slip once and it frightened me so much that I ran down and grabbed his right arm. On his left was his companion and, on his right, me. There were many steps left and the rest of the crowd seemed to get the hint and remained behind us.

It was a slow pace but we finally made it to the bottom of the pyramid. The old man and woman smiled as he said to me, “Gracias Señor.”

As I left the couple I was feeling good about my minimal role in their visit to the pyramids. I smiled to myself as I recalled the motif of tales that have spirits entering our world to interact with human beings, testing us or challenging us to be better. It occurred to me that, in those types of tales, the elderly couple I encountered would have represented a pair of spirits sent to test our humanity.

Be honest with me. Would you have passed the test?

Keeping My Promise to Mikaela-Aranza-Ximena-Ana-Elena

I didn’t want to much time to pass before I kept my promise to a group of young girls at a school I visited recently. I was heading to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat when then swooped in and surrounded me. I was being held captive in the middle of a circle by about group of 8, 9 and 10 year olds pummeling me with questions.

I loved it!

I promised the girls that I would write something about them because, and this was an awakening for me, they actually read my blog! So here’s a little shout out to each of you:

Mikaela thank you so much for writing a comment to me on Facebook.

Aranza you also wrote a comment to me on Facebook and, for that, I am very grateful as well.

Ximena thank you for sharing the story I told you with your brother. I hope he liked it.

Ana you went above and beyond by getting home and telling your mom, grandma and brother the story I shared with you. Oh… and, by the way, tell your mom, the illustrator, that we need to talk :)

Elena you were another gift to me because you shared the story with your mom too. Have your mom “friend me” on Facebook, I’d love to hear her thoughts on the tale.

Claire, in the middle of all the questions and hugs the little group was throwing my way you interrupted and asked, “Would you like a cookie?” Wow! A little girl walking around the playground passing out cookies. That made me so happy.

Lucie I won’t forget you either. You were walking around handing out “toys.” That is awesome. I still have my little turtle you gave me. Thank you.

There was a list of names at the bottom of the paper and on the back who I don’t have references for so I’m justing going to say thank you to Anna, Carolina, Paula, Victoria and Zarah for putting your names on the note.

Each and everyone of you have helped to make my trip to Mexico an absolutely glorious experience.

Thank you.

 

Someone Stole My Stuff!

I’ve been in Mexico City for about a week now. The city’s tempo is just like most other urban centers of the world, fast paced and congested simultaneously. The streets overflow with pedestrians, careening taxis and sirens morning, noon and night.

I haven’t blogged in a few days. I’ve been walking the streets of the Mexico city for hours at a time when not working. Public transportation and walking are great ways to learn a city’s secrets. I have to admit though that Ive been a little anxious about getting back to my hotel to return emails, phone calls, and respond to communications on social networks. My tour manager, Alberto, has helped me to divide my days in half. One half = work and, of course, the other half = enjoyment.

I did have an incident occur a few days ago that I wanted to share with you. My tour manager and I completed work at a school early in the day and headed back to our hotel. When we arrived to the hotel I noticed, as we were exiting the cab, that neither of us had my camera bag.

Time to panic right? We searched the cab and didn’t find it. We assumed that we had left it at the school. There was nowhere else it could be. Since I had to return to the same school the following day it wasn’t an issue.  I found a silver lining for this mishap. Had I managed to bring all of the audio/video equipment back with me, I would have been trapped in my hotel room working. Since I couldn’t work without the equipment I took it as a sign that I needed to just relax. What did I do to relax you may ask? Well, of course, I walked the streets of Mexico City for a few hours.

The next morning when I arrived at the school and inquired about my cameras I discovered that they were not there. They were missing. Time to panic right? I had, literally, no idea where the cameras could be. The school’s administrator went into action searching high and low, calling in the assistance of everyone on campus. The entire school was on alert and searching for my missing cameras.

Here’s my point in writing about this. There was a time, when I was much younger, that I would’ve probably jumped to the assumption that “Someone stole my stuff!” This negative assertion would have been accompanied by a great deal of, self-inflicted, psychological and physiological stress.

The school’s administrator had made my loss a priority and was doing everything humanly possible to bring it to a positive resolution in my favor. When we had a moment to talk, I pulled her aside to speak privately. I let her know that I had no anxiety associated with my loss. There was no one to blame or at fault for whatever might have happened. I told her that if I, the owner of the missing items, was able to put them out of my mind and be at peace, then she should the same.

She wasn’t buying into my Zen theory of loss and continued on her focused mission of recovery.

I was here to share culture, music and time with the students of this campus. I was well aware that the “potential” stress aligned with my missing equipment possessed the power to derail my usual successes. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen, regardless of the circumstances. There is a line in one of my favorite films that I sometimes recall in moments like this. The movie is titled “Daughters of the Dust” and I believe it debuted in the early to mid-90’s. In the film there is a child who has yet to be born speaking in the opening. The child says, “I’m on a spiritual mission but sometimes life gets in the way.” I could be quoting that inaccurately but you get the point.

If I take a step back and examine my reactions to this situation, I have to say that I am really proud of the manner in which I was handling it. The equipment was expensive and yet, I was not feeling any of the turmoil that one typically feels when something like this happens. I chose to celebrate my calm disposition as opposed to fixating on my loss.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first session with the children and didn’t permit any thoughts of loss to disrupt my focus on them and their needs. The second session I felt even more successful and managed to have all of my learners engaged from start to finish.

The students were laughing, smiling and soaking up every word that I spoke. There was nothing else in the world but our time together and whatever we chose to fill it with (music, stories, question/answer, conversation, etc.).

At the end of the second session, while I was releasing the students back to their teachers, the administrator entered from the back of the room. Cradled in her hands was my black bag of camera equipment.

I grabbed her and hugged her with the tightest most sincerely thankful hug I could give. I asked her where she found it. Her answered embarrassed me a bit. It had been left in the cab, she explained, and the cab company brought it back. She, personally, gave them a reward of 500 pesos for returning it. The cab company didn’t want to accept it, they were returning the equipment based on their honor.

It was an ephiphanal moment for me. To leave anything in a cab, anywhere in the world, and have it returned, is nothing short of a miracle. If it had not been for this school’s administrator and staff, I know, with certainty, that I would never have seen my equipment again.

It would be self aggrandizing for me to put forth the premise that my disposition of release, and making the students a priority, helped to create the conditions which allowed for the return of my equipment. My only success is that I never permuted the negative thought of “Someone stole my stuff” to creep into my mind. The bare truth of the matter is that one little tenacious woman, assisted by the staff of the school, refused let the issue rest until they prevailed.

Thank you Frances and all of the staff at Green Gates school for your warmth, hospitality and patience.

The Magic of Language

While waiting to board my flight to Mexico at the Los Angeles International Airport yesterday, I decided to purchase a local newspaper for Spanish speakers . I used to do this more often when I first began learning Spanish, in order to challenge my word knowledge and increase vocabulary. I’ve been a Spanish speaker for a little more than 20 years now. I enjoy languages and my trip to Mexico is a perfect opportunity to hone my love of linguistics.

Back to the story. Well… I’m at an airport kiosk and I place my newspaper, “La Opinion,” on the counter along with a few decadent snacks that I should not be eating. The woman behind the counter takes the paper off of the counter and tries to replace it with another paper. “You’ve made an error, this paper is in Spanish,” she says to me.

“No, I didn’t make an error, that is the paper I want,” I respond.

“You speak Spanish!” she replies in a tone of astonishment.

I’m not sure why this happens but it happens often enough for me to take notice.

The woman behind the counter began speaking to me in Spanish, and, as we conversed, she asked me where I was from. I said, “Los Angeles,” and began to explain my affinity for languages when she interrupted me. “No,” she says, “I mean where in South America.”

Here’s a synopsis of how the conversation went and this happens more often that you’d believe:

Me:  “I’m from the United States.”

Her:  “No… you’re family, where in South America is you family from?”

I take this as a compliment that a native speaker can’t detect the accent in my speaking. I thoroughly enjoy when this happens. I was finally able to explain to her that I wasn’t a native speaker. She was impressed and her enthusiasm heightened as we spoke. She was from Colombia. We started talking about my last  trip to Colombia, the food, the people, the history, etc. Our conversation went on for awhile until it was interrupted by a long line of clients waiting to make their own purchases. Initially I had been the only person standing at the kiosk. We had both become oblivious to our surroundings and were enjoying our conversation in Spanish so much that we lost track of time. Those moments when we are immersed in exchanges with other human beings, and lose ourselves, are enchanting.

I was finally permitted to purchase my “La Opinion” newspaper and continue on my way after a warm hug from her and a few more words of praise for my Spanish. This sort of exchange occurred with me regularly while I was in Colombia last year.

Whether you’ve established fluency in another language or not, people tend to open themselves up to you more when you make an attempt to engage them in their mother tongue. I can’t tell you the innumerable opportunities that have been presented to me simply because I have made an effort to comprehend, not just the languages of others, but their cultures as well.

When I got on the plane and took my seat, I opened my little bag of “decadence” and found a few extra pieces of imported dark chocolate. Had the kiosk operator put them in there by accident or, was this another, typical, Colombian gesture of kindness?

I prefer to think of it as the magic of language.

My Refusal to Fight Him

Late in the evening on October 19th I stood in line with hundreds of other passengers hoping to make it to the ticket counter of Continental Airlines at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo Brazil. I could have given in to the temptation to fume with anger and frustration but I chose to self-medicate. I took out my iPod and placed the earphones into my ears and put on my playlist of old Motown smoothies. Um… you cannot be irritated when listening to Marvin, The Temptations or the Supremes. It is just not possible.

A few times I caught myself singing out loud, really loud, while the line moved at a snails pace. I wouldn’t even have noticed if it had not been for the odd looks and stares I was getting from others in line. What is up these days? People don’t sing anymore?

So I’m standing in line, moving slowly, standing some more followed by additional slow movement until, hours later I finally reached the ticket counter and put my iPod away. Hooray! Right?  Well as soon as the ticket agent eyeballed my instrument case and registered a countenance of shock I knew I was about to have trouble.

“You’re going to have to pay extra for that!” he quipped.

“Don’t you want to measure it first?” I asked.

He went on to explain that he had worked for Continental many years and didn’t have to weigh or size “that” oversized/overweight case. He knew.

All I had asked was if he was going to measure it first and that seemed to put him in a defensive posture.

Trouble was “officially” present and I was directly in his crosshairs.

“Please do not try and tell me how to do my job sir!”

I hadn’t even spoken another word and trouble had already grown another foot taller.

At this point, now I was starting to get irritated. My consciousness altering iPod with its tons of tunes was tucked safely away in my pocket and I was feeling the need to whip it out and put the earphones back where they belonged, in my ears. But even the sultry voice of Mary Wells wasn’t about to redirect the path of this, inevitable, collision of male egos.

He sent one of his assistants to measure and weigh my case. The assistant came back with a measurement and, for the first time, I saw a smile grace his face. Immediately I felt the virtual vinyl LP drop onto the turntable of my mind and play an old Temptation’s track “Smiling Faces.” The lyrics danced around in my head, “smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within…”

“Can you dig it?”

Believe it or not I was managing to remain pretty calm. My irritation was subsiding during his soliloquy of rules and regulations, which I was not hearing because, by this time in my head Stevie Wonder was belting out his song entitled “Uptight.”

“Baby everything is alright, uptight, way out’a sight…”

I smiled during his tirade and it must have caught him off guard because his entire disposition changed like maybe he thought he was dealing with a madman or something.

“Do you understand why you must pay?” he asked.

I hadn’t heard a single word he had said. I knew he was functionally fixated on his position. I reminded myself of the old adage, “All the proof in the world will not change the mind of a cynic.”

I gave it the old college try anyway and spoke, “Before leaving Los Angeles I had taken my case to the airport and had it weighed and measured by Continental. I have copies of your website’s baggage policies as well as the names of the Continental agents who verified that the case does not require a fee…”

I was about to take out my copies of paperwork and the copies of Continental’s baggage policies when he interrupted me and said, “You’re taking up time of other passengers, you’re going to have to step aside!”

He was angrier.

I could see that this was going nowhere good.

I breathed in for a second, weighed my options and told him, “Go ahead and charge me what you believe I should pay.”

His head cocked to the side like that old RCA victrola dog. Ah… I had the element of surprise on my side. He was expecting a continued argument and I appeared to be acquiescing. I assure you that I was not giving in.

I, my friends, was practicing the ancient Art of War.

1st rule: Know your opponent.

2nd rule: If you can avoid it, never battle in another man’s land.

There’s more to it but you can read Sun Tzu for yourself if you want.

I smiled again and told him to go ahead and charge me.

He wasn’t speaking. He was just looking at me rather curiously.

I then said, “Excuse me, there are so many people in line behind me and I don’t want to hold them up. Could you please go ahead and process the case?”

He then asked the oddest question, “You do understand that your are going to have to pay?”

I smiled once more and said as simply as I could, “Yes.”

He processed me and I went on my merry way subconsciously humming “War” by Edwin Starr… “What is it good for… absolutely nothing, say it again…”

Here’s what I had reasoned to myself, as the agent’s earlier tirade  played as low decibel background to my thinking.

I knew the policy better than he did. I had researched and was much more informed. I also knew that any errors on his part would need to be corrected by someone of a more accommodating disposition. I, after all, am a patient man (sometimes anyway).

I walked away feeling as though I had just won a battle without fighting. Something between good karma and intuition allowed me to quickly put this incident behind me knowing I would deal with it later.

Following 15 hours of travel from Brazil to Los Angeles, I was finally back. I went and spoke with the Continental baggage claim people who, instantly, verified that I should not have been charged for my case. The agents annotated my record and assured me that the issue would be rectified.

I was so tired at this point I just nodded, said thank you and went home to sleep.

The next day, a bit more energized I headed to Los Angeles International Airport. I don’t live that far from the airport and going there is much quicker than pressing all of those buttons on the phone and getting disconnected before you even get another human being to communicate with.

I got to the airport and made it to the ticket counter in no time flat. The ticket agent advised me a refund had already been issued. Now check this out… he apologized for the other agent!

The agent then handed me a receipt and explained that the refund would be back on my card within 3 to 5 days.

I left feeling really good and, when I got to my car I realized that I had not even looked at the receipt to make sure that they had refunded me the correct amount. The payment I made in Brazil was in their currency, Reais.

I sat in my car and pulled out the receipt. My jaw dropped and my eyes opened wide. It was the amount!

A big, mischievous smile slowly spread across the expanse of my face.

“Don’t let the handshake and the smile fool ya, I’m only trying to school ya… Smilin faces, smiling faces…”

Today I Danced with a Little Girl

Today I visited my last school on the final leg of this 3 city tour in Brazil. Did I enjoy myself? More than I can say. Do I feel as though my work was appreciated and respected? Yes, and with such grace and dignity that I can honestly say that I was an honor to visit the beautiful nation.

The school I just left, not more than an hour ago is called Lycée Pasteur. It is a French school based in São Paulo. “All” of the students are fluent in French. I was amazed at the level of fluency each and every child demonstrated. Our guide at the school explained that the majority of the children who attend Lycée Pasteur begin in preschool together and continue all the way through their high school graduation as one class. Impressive.

I performed for two groups of 11 and 12 year olds today. I had such an amazing time! The children were warm, inviting and so receptive.

I had a chance to not feel like a complete failure linguistically here in Brazil because I was able to communicate in French with the students.

While I was performing for the second group of children, I couldn’t help but to notice a young girl who kept mimicking my movements. I have a tendency to appear to dance when I tell stories. Ah… who am I kidding? I love animating words and emotions and it comes so naturally that I dance while telling tales, and I love it! Every small gesture and movement I made, the young girl was right there with me. She was seated all the way in the back row, but I noticed here easily. I was intrigued because she didn’t appear to be joking, she was actually enjoying my unrehearsed choreography.

When the session ended, before dismissing the children, I made a point of letting her know that I was aware of her copying “my style.” Everyone laughed. I pointed directly at here and the sea of children parted because they knew who I was talking about. I said to her in front of the entire group, “You like the way I move don’t you?”

The child nodded in affirmation and then I put out a challenge, “Come dance with me then!”

I was surprised when the little girl jumped from her seat in the back row, navigated past her peers and was standing before me in no time flat.

What was I going to do? I just knew she would refuse. Well… I am no coward so I did what any man would do.

I took her hand into mine, placed her other hand on my shoulder and instructed the audience to sing a song that I had taught them earlier.

I wish I could remember her name. This child’s courage was inspirational. Not only was she dancing with me but she was clearly able to enjoy herself in front of more than 70 or so of her peers. I love children like this, they remind me of why I do what I do.

When we ended our little ballet I made sure to end with a dip. She loved it, I loved it, the entire group loved it!

As she returned to her seat, her peers cheered and applauded her loudly.

Then I dismissed the children they came running down the lecture hall from their chairs straight at me. It was a sea of excited adolescence careening straight for me. There was hugs and hand shakes happening all over the place. I must have done my job well because there didn’t appear to be a single soul in the auditorium who wasn’t offering some gesture of appreciation.

This was a wonderful way to end my tour here in Brazil.

Graffiti is not Tagging

Whenever I travel to other urban areas of the world I try to explore their graffiti. Graffitti, not tagging, those are two totally different things. I know we get them confused sometimes but, to me, tagging is ego tripping and graffiti is self-expression.

While cruising around Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo I noticed that much of their graffiti seemed much like the graffiti of the late 70’s and 80’s in urban areas of the United States. I’m continually noticing similarities between Brazil and the United States of 20 to 30 years ago, not just in graffiti.

Graffiti as art makes statements both social and political. I found some amazing graffiti in Rio and São Paulo. I’m thinking of putting a slideshow together of just the graffiti artwork that I’ve taken pictures of. Bogota and Cali in Colombia had some really dynamic stuff as well.

I’m often asked how I’ve learned so much, so fast about places I travel and languages. There are two methods of immersion that I use. Before traveling, I read, research, view documentaries and inundate my brain with more than is humanly possible to “outwardly” retain. Secondly, when I get to another country I “hit-the-streets.” You won’t learn anything about the people sitting in your comfortable hotel room watching television.

I wasn’t able to hit the streets in Brazil as much as I would have liked. I had schedules to maintain and performances to prepare for, but the graffiti gave me a gift of sight that I otherwise would not have received.

I can remember when graffiti artists were the scourge of big urban centers in the United States. Now, when I travel, I see whole governments and businesses setting aside funds to patronize these artists by giving them wall spaces they would have had to sneak in and paint in the dark of the night 30 years ago.

I’ve got to get ready to head to another school. Today is my final day in Brazil. I’ve got a 3 day break back in the U.S. and then I head to Mexico.

I’ll try to get back and update as soon as I can.

Trading Tales with Tartaruga the Brazilian Turtle

It’s late in the evening here in São Paulo, around 11 pm, and I’m just getting back to my hotel room. I attended a small, very intimate dinner hosted by a couple who reside here, Patrick and Teresa. It was an unforgettable evening and, instead of going to bed, as I should because I’ve got an early morning performance, I’m sitting here writing about it.

Early in the day, with rain falling heavily and the scent of São Paulo’s air absolutely satiating the senses, I contemplated canceling my attendance. The thought of staying in my room and relaxing or doing some reading while the rain beat against my 11th story window was very seductive.

I have a thing about commitments though. It disturbs my sensibilities when people do not keep their word and I don’t ever want to be anyone’s hypocrite. Although vacillating in my decision to attend or not, I knew that I would go regardless of how I felt. I value my word above all else.

When we arrived at Patrick and Teresa’s house it was a beautiful, meticulously landscaped, home. Teresa welcomed us and apologized for the jungle that she had created on her front terrace, but I loved it.

We entered and I met her husband Patrick, a journalist who is very gentle and accommodating. Patrick introduced me to the man I had come to meet, Geraldo Tartaruga (Tartaruga means turtle and it is a named he earned in his youth).

We all sat around a dinner table in the kitchen and talked while Teresa prepared the meal. It felt like a moment out of one of the old black and white movies, reminding me of a time when people gathered just for the sake of being together. There was no television, no radio and the conversation flowed like a steady stream.

Geraldo spun off about 7 to 10 stories in a row with ease, each as entertaining and enlightening as the last. Patrick chimed in wanting me to share and, of course, I did. I reached deep into my repertoire and offered a few tales I had learned while in Mali that I’ve never told publicly. Geraldo seemed as delighted with my tales as I was enchanted by his. He and I went back and forth a few times trading tales between conversations as topics changed. It was an extremely enriching experience.

I noticed that, while we were all enjoying our free-flowing conversation, Teresa was busy cutting, chopping and cooking in the background. I was noticing a universal theme being played out here as I watched her glide across  the floor between the sink and the oven and then the oven to the cupboards. The person who usually does all of the work, the cooking, no matter where I’ve traveled in the world, always seems to fade into the background of  whatever is going on around them. I felt the need to bring Teresa into the fold. I interrupted our conversation and asked Teresa if I could take a few pictures of her cooking and the food as it was being prepared. I’ve done this before when in Africa and Teresa was just as pleased and receptive as any of my hosts have been there. She smiled and posed near the oven as I explained to everyone that her role as preparer of our meal was an ancient sacred gesture that sometimes gets taken for granted. I didn’t want to take Teresa or her cooking for granted. There’s a proverb out of Mali that says, “the kitchen was born before the mosque.” I wanted to honor Teresa and, hopefully, I did.

Another two guests arrived as we were sitting in the kitchen talking, Henry and Kazuyo. I would find out later that Kazuyo has been teaching for over 40 years. 40 years of teaching! I was honored to be in her presence.

Teresa served the most amazing meal. The talking and storytelling continued even while we ate. We were definitely a menagerie of conversationalists.

It was getting late and my tour manager, in the most gentle tone ever, requested that I play a little Kora for everyone before we had to leave.

We all adjourned to the living room. Doesn’t that sound kind of 1940’ish, “we adjourned to the living room?” But that is exactly how it felt and what we did.

I was going to do my best to pay for Teresa’s beautifully prepared meal and her husband’s overwhelming hospitality with my music.

As it was getting late, Jana reminded me that we did not have much time before we needed to be leaving. I was able to play two songs for the group, sing a little and share a few proverbs before I resigned myself to my schedule. As I was putting the Kora away, the doorbell rang. It was Rinata, stunningly gorgeous Rinata, Henry’s girlfriend. She entered the room and gave hugs and kisses to everyone before taking a seat. I believe Jana was busy calling us a cab when I noticed Geraldo was trying to get my attention.

Patrick translated for me. Geraldo wanted one more song before I left, he was almost demanding it.

I smiled because I knew what he was doing. I couldn’t resist and told the crowd that I was going to read Geraldo’s mind and tell everyone what he was thinking. A gamble on my part? Yes, but it was fun.

I explained that Geraldo had the largest heart of anyone in the room and that he was not interested in the least in hearing another song. I exposed Geraldo for the romantic he truly was by telling everyone that he was requesting the song, not for himself, but for the beautiful Rinata.

A nice laugh and big smile burst though Geraldo’s lips as he nodded in affirmation.

I played one more song and, as I was playing, a torrent was released from the sky beating down on Teresa and Patrick’s home loudly. It was such an intimate setting. I let Rinata know that I would sing a song to her, for her, but it was a gift from Geraldo.

The room felt energetic in a way that is difficult to describe. It wasn’t intense. It wasn’t a tumultuous type of energy. It was calm and peaceful yet very powerful.

When I ended the song I could hear everyone exhaling. It was a thing of beauty to witness.

I explained to Rinata that she was now obligated to give her hero, Geraldo, a kiss on the check to thank him for thinking of her.

Jana and I were about to step out into the rain to catch a cab down the street when Kazuyo stepped in. She offered to return us to our hotel and refused to have it any other way. She wanted to be the one to take us back to our hotel.

We departed everyone with hugs and kisses. While in Kazuyo’s car she let me know, in all sincerity, that she was trying to figure out a way to compensate me for the song and music that touched her heart. She told me that driving us was a small bit of compensation for what she had received.

My heart was touched once again here in São Paulo, and, as I sit in my room preparing for tomorrow’s performances I can’t help but to feel that something magical happened to me this evening.

Samba Baba Samba!

Well when I left off on my last post I sort of said that I was going to take dance lessons at a Samba School here in São Paulo. That didn’t quite end up being the case. We went but the school wasn’t a school it was actually a club. A Samba Dance Club.

Permit me to set the scene for you. My tour manager, Jana, and I were heading to, what I believed to be, a Samba Dance School. I was very excited until our taxi turned down a very questionable street. You know the type of street that you might peer down into from the main boulevard but never enter? One of those streets that seems to tell its own tale of “nothing good ever happens here, go the other way.” So instead of going the other way, we turned down the street to find the “Samba School.”

I believe I lost my illusion that I was entering a school when the door man demanded to pat me down and search my belongings. Hmmm… I said to myself, this is not like any school that I’ve ever attended. It was easy to see that the disheveled building was a gathering place of some sort.

As I entered I had this really nostalgic feeling that I was entering some place familiar. I was. This place was the Brazilian equivalent of a “Juke Joint!” Alright I know I’m telling on myself, and my history, a little bit but I don’t have any other way to set the scene for you. Kind of dark, a little musty, and the smell of fried food and alcohol permeating the air. There was a solo musician on stage seated playing his guitar and singing to an almost empty house. We were early and had our pick of tables.

It seems there’s a rhythm to how these clubs function and they are as ubiquitous as churches. Most of the clubs open for lunch around noon or so. People from the community gather to eat and meet. Around 4 pm, the band takes the stage and then… Samba!

As we were ordering food and water (I don’t drink and this seems to really freak everyone out when I travel so I try not to mention it), people were coming in and claiming tables. Apparently people send others in advance as a form of reconnaissance table procuring because the clubs get really crowded. Watching the door was so entertaining that I could have come to the club just for that. I watched as a woman walked in with her infant child swaddled. A few elderly women, who must have, at least, been in their 70’s entered dressed to kill and already had their hips swaying to the playing rhythms. At one point an entire family of about 12 people walked in together. There were children, teens, elders, and everything in between. There was something familiar about the scene as I watched people who looked like my own family members take their places in different sections of the club.

Our host arrived with a friend and we ate, talked and laughed a bit. I was really enjoying the mellow mood and then the clock struck 4 pm. The band ascended the stage and, within seconds, the music was pumped up a notch in energy and volume. It was Samba time!

There was a dance floor but it seemed that people just danced everywhere, between tables, near the steps, back against the walls, everywhere. The mood was infectious.

I’ve never been one to hold up the walls so I hit the floor as soon as everybody else. Did I know how to dance Samba? Well… no, but why should that stop me. While on the floor I was being taught a few simple moves. There were arms swinging and legs flailing everywhere but no one was in danger of being hurt. There was a grace in the chaos of movement that made it safe to experiment with my new Samba moves. I don’t even know how I did, I really didn’t care. I just enjoyed the mood of the place. I kept my mouth closed and didn’t talk to too many people. It seemed, and this was told to me by a Brazilian, that I fit right into the demographic as long as I wasn’t saying anything. I was warned that, if the women knew I was a foreigner, I would be swarmed. Now that might be nice for you younger single guys but I’m chill, I like to take it slow and easy. That’s what happens you cross the mid-40 bridge.

I danced and danced some more before my legs started cursing at me, and loudly too. Samba is muscle intensive and if you are not in shape be very careful about how far you take yourself with the dance.

The place began to get hot and the smell of alcohol far outweighed the grease burning meat in the back. It was time for me to go.
I have an intuitive sense of when to make my exits (It’s a southern Juke Joint thing, some of ya’ll will understand and some won’t).

We made our way back to the hotel. I entered my room and collapsed on my bed.

If you were wondering why the blog was a little late getting out, well now you know.

Blame it on the Samba!

Surreal Sensations in São Paulo

I probably didn’t mention it in previous posts but I received an email from the school I visited on October 11th, Lorenço Castanho. They were asking if I could fit, at least, one more visit into my schedule before leaving Brazil. Friday was a scheduled day off, a morning of snoozing, extended dreaming and breathing heavily into my pillow. Who needs that, right? I would much rather spend time with an entire school of people who openly and unashamedly tell me they love me and my work. Can you blame me?

Clara, my contact, was asking if I’d return to meet with their 7th grade classes. The 7th graders, much like the 7th graders in California, have West Africa as part of their curriculum and, in particular, griots.

I returned to the Lorenço Castanho love fest once again and was not disappointed. The 7th graders were equally as warm and endearing as their 9th grade counterparts. I loved their questions about music’s affect on the mind and body. Who would have expected 7th graders to ask such questions? Their laughter left me feeling accomplished and their focus on my words was so affirming.

After I completed the performance I made sure to spend enough time taking pictures with the students, laughing and talking. I think I disrupted the class schedule again but no one seemed to mind. There is something really special happening in that school and the entire staff and student body seem quite aware of it. I wish it was something I could manufacture and distribute.

I had to leave the school a bit earlier than the previous day, at the conclusion of my performance, because my tour manager and one of the teachers at the school had arranged a private tour for me of the Afro-Brazilian Museum.

Yes, a private tour! Me! VIP treatment? Wow!

Once at the museum my tour manager and I were greeted by our host, Renato. This young man was an exceptional docent as he escorted us through the museum. His knowledge of history, art, and religion was impressive. He freely shared legends, tales and history related to Afro-Brazilian culture. As an added benefit my tour manager, Jana, was equally knowledgeable about the art and artifacts in the museum. I could not have dreamed of a better scenario for myself, two Brazilians in love with their history and culture focused on my learning about it. Each of them was so gentle and patient in sharing their impressions throughout the exhibit that I forgot to turn on my audio recorder. I was so immersed in the tales and history that I walked around in an anticipatory haze waiting for the next tale or tidbit of information.

As Renato was explaining a section of the exhibit to me, we were interrupted by a young teenage boy. He approached me, timidly, and said, “Excuse me sir do you mind if I ask who you are?”

I wasn’t sure what had attracted his attention. Maybe it was the two piece kaftan I was wearing or the fact that I had a private guided tour. I wasn’t sure.

The young man wanted to know who I was and where I was from. He was with a school touring the museum and, apparently, I had, somehow, attracted their attention. Before I knew it the entire group were standing around me while a few of them asked questions. It was a surreal moment, if you can imagine. I told them that I was a storyteller and musician and that I was visiting schools here in São Paulo. I sang a little for them (you know I had to right?). I spoke a little about history and culture. They were listening! They were actually listening and taking it “all” in! What an absolutely amazing feeling. I was standing before a group of about 20 to 30 teenagers who were hanging on my every word and I was loving every second of it. The best part? A beautiful young girl with the most alluring Portuguese-English accent looked me in my eyes and said, “I love you.” Out of no where she just spoke here heart. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to leave Brazil.

The group was from a school in a city outside of São Paulo called “Americana (really interesting history about this city and its settlement by confederate fleeing the end of the U.S. Civil War… look it up when you get a chance).” The students were asking me if I would please come visit their school. They wanted more stories and singing. They wanted to hear the instrument I showed them a picture of, my Kora.

I don’t think I’m doing the situation justice here, it felt like a Salvador Dali painting brought to life.

It was difficult to pull away from these teens and continue the tour. The student’s chaperones and I exchanged information. I let the two women know that I wasn’t sure if, or when, I might return to Brazil but, if I did, they would definitely be contacted about my performing at their school.

What an amazing experience! An impromptu storytelling session, a little singing, some kisses to the cheek and then possession of a memory that will last a lifetime.

Renato completed our tour of the museum by offering even more enthusiastic revelations and tales. The tour of the museum was very special for me. I’ve never had a private tour of any institution such as this before. It really made me feel appreciative of all the people who have gone out of their way for me since my arrival here in Brazil.

I had to end our time with Renato so that we could get back to the hotel to rest up a bit. Why you may ask?

Well, if you must know, I have a Samba lesson in the morning and I need to be ready. I’m not in my 20’s anymore and these old-bones don’t quite follow orders as quickly as they used to.

Come back tomorrow, maybe I’ll be able to tell you a little something about my Samba adventure (or maybe misadventure depending on if I can get my legs to obey me).

 

My Invitation to Enter Iran

Last year I received an invitation to attend a festival of storytelling in the country of Iran for 2012. I haven’t spoken much about it since almost everyone I encounter seems to think it would be a horrible idea for me to go.

At odds are two trains of thought. On one hand I know that the average person, in any country, is much like the average person in any other country. We all dream, desire and love in similar fashion. If my travels haven’t taught me anything else, they have taught me this. Citizens of most countries are preoccupied with trying to put food not the table, create a better life for their children, and balance the various responsibilities of friends, family and community. On the other hand, there are the political realities of the world that we’re forced to digest even if we would rather not.

Recent events have motivated me to write to my readership and, hopefully, get some feedback from you.

I had made up my mind that I was going to the International Storytelling Festival in Iran next year, 2012, and then, while here in Brazil I was watching the news and heard that a terrorist plot backed by the Iranian Government had been intercepted in the U.S.

Attorney General Holder announced that authorities had foiled a plot by men linked to the Iranian government to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington. This announcement was followed up by a stout condemnation by Vice President Biden.

I sat in my hotel room thinking about the areas of the world that I’ve traveled. Many places I’ve been aren’t exactly tourist destinations and, part of my purpose for traveling is to offer my friends, family and community back home an alternative perspective on the world. A perspective not filtered through the lens of popular media. I had made up my mind to go to Iran next year because I know the people who’ve invited me and they are genuinely kind-hearted and gentle souls. They have hosted this festival for years now and people from all over the world have attended.

As I sat in my room staring up at the ceiling ceiling thinking about the political repercussions of my travel, the issues of instability due to recent events, the opinions of family and friends, I found myself at a cross roads, unable to gain any moment in thought.

Do you have an opinion?

Embarrassing Truths Be Told

I often struggle with how much information about one’s personal life should be shared with others. What is the limit on information we should give people about ourselves? How much of what we might divulge about ourselves could be deemed inappropriate?

Over the years, more like decades, I’ve noticed a trend towards people promulgating their personal affairs to the world (i.e. blogging, tweeting, texting, face booking, etc.). what I’m noticing is that the majority of us, without exception, tend to divulge only personal information which we’ve thoroughly screened first; you know, edited out the no-too-flattering details that make us appear less than perfect.

I seemed to have been born in the era of, “Me, me, me… look at me!”

Before you say it, I know, yes… me, a storyteller and performance artist, talking about seeking attention. How ironic right?

Let’s just ignore that little fact for the moment if you don’t mind (Big Smile).

Here’s an idea I’m tossing around in my mind. What if we “all” were to not filter any information that we choose to tell others about ourselves? What if we simply had an all or nothing policy when it came to talking about ourselves with others?

Personally I think there would be a lot less talking in the world and a whole lot more listening.

Let me throw caution to the wind and just give you an example of what I’m talking about.

A few days ago I arrived in São Paulo Brazil. It was a little late in the evening, I hadn’t eaten much, I was tired… you know the situation right?

Confession: My patience grows thin and I tend to get a bit snarky when I’m tired or hungry. I think this is a hold over from childhood that hasn’t quite released its grasp on me yet.

It is a flaw in my characters that I am aware of and working on. As I am always saying, “I am under construction.”

Well we arrived at our hotel and, because I was tired and a little hungry, I began looking around for things to complain about.

Wow, this truth telling thing isn’t easy!

Anyway, I’m searching the lobby, the staff, everything, everywhere for something to complain about. The first thing I am able to grab ahold of is that the entire staff look like teenagers. I have raised teenagers and I would choose not to be placed in their care if at all possible. I love them yes, but I’m not quite sure I want to trust them with my well-being. Finally I had something to grasp and fume about (slim but available none the less).

Weren’t there any older people still working in the hospitality industry? Had they all been laid off and replaced by low wage workers? I wasn’t liking this hotel already!

Ah a second thing to raise my level of irritation! They were all wearing yellow sweat shirts. Yellow sweat shirts! What kind of a hotel uniforms its staff in yellow sweat shirts?

Alright bear with me here, I’m not looking too good in this scenario. In fact I’m appearing downright ugly but I’m going to continue because the truth needs to be told.

I must have found, at least, 10 things to complain about before being given the key to my room.

Yes I’m flawed and I am aware of it. I am, after all, under construction.

My mind kicked into overdrive with things to bemoan or complain about. I reached an all-time low when I began to have an attitude with the elevator buttons. Stupid elevator buttons! I don’t like this hotels elevator buttons!

When I exited the elevator, turned down the hall and entered my room I discovered it to be a veritable treasure trove of issues for me to complain about. I had hit the jackpot. I was about to become the mayor of “Complaintville (a small town just south of the City of Impatience).

My mind raced with a list of inadequacies about the room. I needed something. I didn’t know quite what, but I needed something. And then it hit me. I needed an issue worth calling the front desk to complain about. I searched the room and found it. There was no remote-control for the television. Someone had stolen it obviously.

I picked up the phone, attached to the wall next to my bed. Well they had done one thing right, the phone was easily accessible. I punched in “0” to get the front desk. Nothing. No sound, no dial tone… nothing! Ah ha another thing to complain about! I was on a roll.

I kept trying to punch in other numbers, hitting other buttons to see if I could get the phone working. Someone was going to hear my complaints this night and they were going to listen and listen well.

I started to place the phone back in it’s receiver, preparing myself to just take the elevator back down to the lobby in order to register my mountain of complaints. As I was putting the phone back onto the receiver I noticed it was one of those “powered” phones, you know the old type of in-house phones that are more like walkie-talkies than actual telephones?

Incredible! I couldn’t believe it!

I pushed the power button on the phone and, you’re not going to believe this.

The television came on.

I held the phone away from my ear and examined it a little closer.

Low and behold it wasn’t a phone, it was the remote control for the television.

I had been trying to dial a remote control. This never would have happened in the rotary phone era. Back then, a phone was a phone, a huge clunky thing that could be used for smashing walnuts.

Even though I was tired, a bit hungry, my self-imposed state of irritation began to dissipate as I laughed aloud.

Sitting in my hotel room, on the bed holding the television’s remote control in my hand I couldn’t help but to laugh and smile while noticing the source of all of my angst. What was the source of all of my irritations? Me!

As I was sitting there on the bed thinking, I realized that none of the issues I had “chosen” as irritants (yellow t-shirts, age of staff, elevator buttons, inoperative telephone, etc.) possessed any real merit. There was nothing worthy of the negativity “I” had immersed myself in.

The irritation, angst, impatience and negativity were all self imposed, creations of my own thought processes that were only discomforting me physically and no one else around me. In fact, I can honestly say that no one else was even aware of my state. I hadn’t had the opportunity to infect others yet with my, potentially, nonsensical behavior. I was the designer of the scheme placing myself in dis-ease with my surroundings and those around me.

There is an old African proverb I say to myself in times like these, “An angry heart devours its owner.”

In no other instance was this more true than now.

I could have kept this little tale to myself, after all, there was no one in the room but me when I sat there fuming and looking irritatingly at the inoperable phone.

My job though, as a teller of tales, a traveler and seeker, isn’t to become the best self-promoting publicist in the industry. My job is to grow as a human being and, being as flawed as most of us are, to share invaluable lessons that help, hopefully, make each one of us better people.

I know that some of my true-to-life tales don’t cast me in the most complimentary light but who am I to hide the truth of myself from others? Maybe it will make me a better teacher, storyteller, if I can continue to learn from my own foibles. Maybe it will make me a better teacher, storyteller, if others can learn from my errors.

Don’t forget, I’m under construction.

 

Loving Lorenço Castanho

When I woke this morning, had I know that I would hear hundreds of teenage voices telling me that they love me and drowning me with hugs, I would have gotten up earlier and arrived at the school I was set to perform at before they opened.

Today I visited, here in São Paulo, Lorenço Castanho. I performed for students between 12 to 15 years of age, two assemblies.  It was fortuitous that the school’s focus was on the continent of Africa prior to my arrival. They were specifically focusing on West Africa (my specialty!).

It’s so true that the general tone of a school is set by the administration and staff, moreso the leadership of the school. Our liaison at the school was Clara. It would be insufficient to say that Clara loves, not only her work, but the children she oversees for the entire school. It was Clara who found value in my work and enthusiastically opened to doors of her school for me to perform there.

Clara set the tone for my day as well. When we entered the school and she met us, there was no hiding her joy and enthusiasm. As an artist you live for contact with these types of people. They are not only affirming, but also help you to realize that there are others in the world whose values align with yours.

Clara hugged us, introduced us to every staff member on campus, and escorted us to the performance area. Just the walk from the front entrance and through the campus to the performance area left me with the feeling that Lorenço Castanho was more than simply “a school.” There was not one person working there who did not smile at me when I met them. I’ve also become accustomed to the hug and nice little kiss to the cheek thing that women do in Brazil. I’m thinking about importing that to the U.S. Can you imagine all of the women you meet kissing you as you are introduced? There’s something magical in that.

Before performing I must have taken pictures with more than 12 people. As I was setting up, Clara continued to escort a stream of people into the room to introduce them to me. I’m smiling as I write this. People who understand that there is depth to my work and are capable of critiquing its nuances capture my loyalty and friendship instantly. I don’t talk about it often but the work I do is not easy at all. Maintaining language fluency in 4 languages and working on a 5th, keeping musicianship sharp, researching, creating… etc. Although I love what I do, I will tell you that there is nothing simple about it. I just make it look easy because I’m so darn good. (Big Smile)

A huge part of my performing is ad-libbing. Improvisation is a tool I employ in every performance. In fact, my improvising tends to give me inspiration for future performances. The students at Lorenço Castanho gave me so many opportunities to turn left instead of right. There was a young man who kept touching, rather affectionately, the young woman sitting next to him. I couldn’t resist. I am a dad after all and I would want another dad to intervene on my behalf if the same situation arose with one of my daughters. It was innocent enough, nothing over the top, but I enjoyed singling “Rafael” out. He was definitely a good sport about it and didn’t touch that young woman again during my entire performance. Thanks Rafael! The dad in me appreciates you.

There was one young girl in the second performance at the school that just captured my heart. Every time I would walk near where she was sitting she would burst into uncontrollable giggles. I loved it! During one of the stories I told her that I loved her and that I thought she was beautiful (it’s all a part of the story, you’d have to hear the entire tale to fully understand). She burst into those little, cute giggles again. I couldn’t resist it, I kept walking over to where she was sitting just to make her giggle and cover her face some more.

When the second performance finished, the teachers allowed the students to take pictures with me. We took hundreds of pictures together. It seemed like every student there had a cell phone. While we were taking pictures, we were exchanging pleasantries and they were trying to teach me some Brazilian Portuguese, the cool stuff. For some reason they kept wanting me to say, “I am cute!” I verified with the adults around me that people actually say this about themselves in Portuguese and, yes, it is true, especially the youth. I felt a little strange, being a man in the upper register of his 40’s, walking around saying, “Yes, I’m cute… Hello, I’m cute… Pleased to meet you I am cute.” I cut that part of the my language learning short.

Another very memorable moment was when one of the teen boys approached me and invited me to lunch at his home when school was over. I laughed and asked him who would be preparing the lunch, him or me? “My mother of course,” he responded. I had to laugh again and ask him if he thought that his mother would appreciate him walking through the door with a stranger and asking her to prepare us lunch? “My mother would love you, I want you to meet her, she would love you!” He assured me that he lived really close to the school and we could walk there at lunch time. I’m still smiling as I write this. Needless to say, I wasn’t about to make a surprise visit on his mom in search of a meal. I thanked him and let him know that the gesture was most appreciated.

Earlier in the day, Clara had approached me with an idea that the art teacher had. They had a wonderful, very creative idea to bring in 3 blank canvases to the room I was performing in. The students were going to community pain these canvases and the art instructor thought it would be a great idea to have me administer the very first brush strokes on each canvas. What an honor! I love painting and put my own little spin on it for the students. Before choosing the colors and brushes, I asked the students to choose one of three words that I was going to give them (Love, Honor, Friendship). The majority chose the word “Friendship.” I proceeded to choose the brushes and colors combinations and then, with a flourish, offered my own abstract canvas interpretation of the word friendship. Talk about fun!

Clara and the rest of the staff would not allow me to depart the school without lunch. They fed me too! Can you believe it? All of that love heaped on me and they fed me as well.

As I was leaving the school, there were more students stopping me to take pictures with them, staff offering final hugs and students shouting that they loved me.

It was another complete day filled with enchantment and meaning.

 

From Brasilia to São Paulo

This morning, after breakfast, the sky grew darker and darker as the clouds gathered. Initially, It seemed like it was going to be a scorching hot day. The sun was beaming and hot. The wind was almost nonexistent, and then, all of a sudden, clouds came together and rain began pouring down from the sky.

Brasilia, for being a city famous for its heat and dryness, has been extremely wet the past 4 days.  I’ve experienced nothing but downpours and misty mornings. The locals are all telling me this is a miracle, what they’ve been hoping for since the drought began more than 6 months ago.

As I was leaving my hotel this afternoon, riding in the back of the taxi, I indulged in a day-dream. When I was a young student, bored to death sitting in class, I used to day dream often, at very inappropriate times (like when the teacher is trying to teach). My fantasy: “I had come to Brasilia and bought the rain with me. I had become, for Brasilia and it’s people, an omen of good! You’re welcome people of Brasilia! I ask for nothing in return but your blessings on all of my future travels! May the water continue to fall long after I’ve departed!”

What is fantasizing worth if you can’t be a deity in your own day dream, right? Hmmm… there’s a story there somewhere. Hero, story as a metaphor for life, creating your own legend, water deity, etc. You see, all those years of tuning out in class weren’t all bad.

At this moment I’m sitting in the airport typing out this blog.

I enjoyed Brasilia and, I hope, the people I met enjoyed me.  I wish I had more time on these tours to immerse myself in the local cultures and customs like when I’m in West Africa. Maybe another time.

I’m getting ready to board my plane and head to São Paulo. I’ll spend a few weeks there before heading back to Los Angeles for a few days. After only 3 days in Los Angeles, I’ll board a plane for Mexico.

I’m sitting across from a huge window with a view of the tarmac and mountains behind it. I keep looking up from my computer keyboard and getting lost in the landscape. The rain is falling hard. Although the gate area is full of people, it is quiet. Tiny murmurs here and there, the smell of coffee everywhere and the sound of the rain beating down on the roof.

Today Brasilia, tomorrow São Paulo.

I am so blessed to be doing this work.

 

 

 

 

Brasilia Sky No Limits

The city that I’m in currently is Brasilia. Brasilia is the political capital of Brazil. It is where the president works and resides. Brasilia is where the different branches of government have their own office buildings and there is a long main thoroughfare where you can walk or ride a gauntlet of these buildings.

In speaking wit Brasilienses (people from the city of Brasilia) I’m consistently being told how dry and hot the climate of their city typically is. One woman was telling me that the heat can become so oppressive here the many people become ill during the dry season. I was speaking with a teacher yesterday who told me that they are just coming out of a drought that has lasted more than 6 months.

Apparently the drought ended and the rain began to fall heavily on the day I came to Brasilia. It has rained each day that I’ve been here in Brasilia and the locals are telling me that this is highly unusual. Read into that whatever you would like (BIG SMILE). I was joking with some teachers at the end of the day, sharing some of my “traveler’s perspectives.” I let them know that, without their information, if anyone asked me about Brasilia I would have told them that it is a lush green land where it rains everyday. They got a good laugh out of that.

Yesterday morning I had one of those magical moments that remind me why I chose this path. At around 6:45 am I was in the theater of the school when a young man walked in. He approached me timidly and spoke Portuguese. I understood a little of what he was saying as he handed me a small envelope. He told me to open the it and so I did. Inside was a small note folded in quadrants and a beautiful blue and white polished stone. The young man’s name was Johan and he had worked extremely hard to translate his note for me into English. Here is what the note read, verbatim:

____________________

Baba,

This present (or rock, if you prefer) represents

the sky of Brasilia. The stone is from my

personal collection, and I just give one of them for

special people. You are one of them. I am from

the 8th year, 7th grade, and this presentation is just

for the 9th, but I am your great fan. Big successes and 

a life with a lot of lights,

a big hug from your fan,

Johan

____________________

After reading the note I looked into the eyes of this young man and felt such a high degree of sincerity and humility in him that it left me feeling I was in the presence of someone whose maturity could not be measured in years.

Around my neck I sometimes carry a pouch filled with cowry shells that I bring back with me whenever I return from West Africa. These shells have become a signature of mine and I disperse them sparingly to people who touch my heart. I hugged him and asked if he spoke Spanish. Fortunately he did. We were able to communicate clearly then. I let him know that his gesture touched my heart. He hugged me. I told him that I felt sorry that he could not attend the presentation. He hugged me again. I had him wait there while I attempted to find some way of allowing this young man to stay and attend the performance. The administration explained they could not allow it because many in his grade level wanted to be there and, if they found out that he participated, it would create problems. The other students would demand to know why they weren’t able to attend. Both Johan and I understood this.

Before he left the room, I reached into my pouch and handed him 4 uncut cowry shells. I have my own reasons for distributing these shells (cut and uncut, in numbers of 1, 3, 4, or 7). He hugged me again.

As Johan was leaving he pleaded with me to return next year when he would be in the grade level that was permitted to attend my presentation. I could not promise him that but said that I would do what I could.

It was a very touching moment watching him leave the small, dark theater.

The students who entered ranged in age from 15 to 17 years. They were a large, very well mannered group. The program coordinator for the school explained that many were reluctant to come for fear of their inability to comprehend English.

I work with English language learning so often in the U.S. that I’ve developed my own little storytelling techniques to aid in comprehension. I also have my own assessments to know how I’m doing. Let me give you a few examples. A head nodding in affirmation is a universal sign of understanding and, if you see this occurring in your audience, whose language is not primarily English, then you know you are reaching some of them. Using humor to make people laugh is probably one of the single most valuable tools of assessment in my arsenal. If I can get the majority of the audience to laugh at something I say that requires them to infer the entire meaning, then I know I am, at least, dealing with an intermediate level of language fluency. I have a ton of these “on-the-fly” assessments that I use while performing.

Ooops… was that a tangent? Ok, I seriously hope I didn’t start boring you with all that “Art of Storytelling” stuff.

In yesterday’s blog I wondered, “what school has children assembled at 7:30 am for the start of a performance.” Well I found out.

This school is called CECAN/CLIC and the performance was optional for this grade level. The fact that it was at 7:30 am and optional gave me a little pause, which I should not have had. The room was crowded and the teens valued my artistry enough to be there on time with warm, welcoming, enthusiastic smiles aplenty.

The performance went extremely well and I found myself boxed in the middle of a huge throng of teens immediately afterwards on the stage. I had been warned by my tour manager that we had another performance across town and that I needed to pack up so that we wouldn’t be late. The crowd, and the love they were sharing, made this a little difficult for me. I don’t know about you, but, for me, when you are surround by 30 or 40 people and they all are showering you with praises and hugs… well… it is a bit difficult to walk away from that. Hey, come on, I’m human and that level of positive reinforcement feeds me in so many ways.

It went sort of like this, “Baba we love you, Baba that was a great performance, Baba can I have a hug, Baba you’re the greatest, Baba may I take a picture with you, Baba will you sign your autograph for me, Baba…”

So you see what I mean? Who would walk away from that?

I did. I had to. It hurt tremendously, but I didn’t want the next school I had to visit to have a bad first impression of me.

My tour manager and I raced across town in a cab to a school called, Thomas Jefferson. It is a language institute that serves many of the schools and colleges here in Brasilia. I had two performances in intimate settings with much smaller groups. Many of them had only been studying English for 1 year. My assessments worked just as well with them as with the older students I had performed for that morning. Younger children either are focused and enthusiastic or not. To capture their enthusiasm and get them to focus requires an entirely different set of performance tools, especially when dealing with lower levels of language fluency. I was ecstatic that the groups were kept to between 10-15 in attendance, with parents present. It is so much easier to illicit language comprehension when you can spend a good amount of time looking directly into the eyes of each of your each audience members. With 10 to 15 people this is easily accomplished. I could see that some of the children were having problems during my introduction so I used some of the techniques that I’ve learned from griot cultures in Africa (guided repetition, slow rhythmic speaking, elongating words, extended eye contact with those struggling to comprehend, etc.)

There I go again. Technique, pedagogy, process, methodology … blah, blah blah. Honestly I can’t help myself sometimes, I just can’t help myself.

Anyway those performances went equally well and I was able to return to my hotel room and relax. I love sitting in silence. I know that sounds boring but, after performing all day, one of my favorite things to do is just return to a space where I can sit in silence.

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