I had an interesting storytelling gig last night, one that I will not soon forget. I was called to tell tales at a late-night, old school back yard party. Well…old school for some anyway. The music alternated between the gentle crooning of Frankie Beverly and Maze to the hard thumping beats of DMX with the Rough Riders.
“stop, drop, shut’em down open up shop…”
Sorry I got a little distracted. The Hennessey and Sutter Home (those are alcoholic beverages for you non-drinkers out there) was flowing as freely as was the conversation and food. It was a very relaxed, you-are-family-when-you-walk-in-the-door type setting. My host reserved one of the rooms in his home for me to gather myself and prepare for the performance. Venues usually set aside a spot for me so this wasn’t unusual. The difference here was that I kept getting a little side tracked in my preparations because the DJ started playing some Parliament Funkadelic. I don’t know about ya’ll but there is something about Parliament Funkadelic that just won’t allow me to stay in my seat. It didn’t help my situation any that the DJ had blended several Parliament hits all together into one long, very long, track. I forced myself to escape the Knee Deep Aqua Boogie Motor Booty Affair and refocus. It was difficult but I am a professional so I managed to pull it together. How else can you capture a boogie?
If I’ve lost my Justin Beiber or Engelbert Humperdinck demographic, please be patient and bare with me, I will establish a higher level of universal coherency in a second.
Although I was a stranger to everyone there, they made me feel at home. With the amount of food I was offered, had I accepted, I wouldn’t have had to grocery shop for a week. In the room set-aside for “me,” people were coming and going freely, making conversation and doing their parts to make me feel welcomed. My host, a man named Tony went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable. I was “the entertainment.”
By the time I went out to take my backyard stage, it was almost 10:00 pm. The audience was all adults with maybe a few teens mixed in. The scent of alcohol and cigarettes was everywhere and the crowd was hyped before I even sang a single note. There were extraneous conversations and laughter being shared all over during my opening set but I didn’t mind. I’ve got a zone, a place in my head that I go when I begin performing. It is difficult to describe but somehow, almost magically everyone present is focused within a few seconds and exactly where I need them to be.
Last night was no different. The side conversations and laughter abated within a minute or so of my beginning to play my harp and sing one of my opening songs.
I fused narrative with the sounds of my Kora and singing as well. When I have an audience focused like this, I like to take an opportunity to make as much eye contact as possible. This always serves me well later in the performance.
I was able to teach a simple call and response song in the Bambara language to the crowd and, surprisingly, the most inebriated ended up being the most gifted singers. Their enthusiasm and love of song possessed no barriers. I was loving every second of it! At some points during the performance, “I” felt like “I” was the one being entertained. There was a fulfilling level of reciprocity that existed between us.
Our call and response had the added benefit of bringing everyone back together when a few, inevitably, wandered off the beaten path of my storytelling. If I had shut my eyes, minus the content and setting of my performance of course, my imagination could have transported me back to my younger years in the choir at Marlboro Heights Missionary Baptist Church.
By the time I ended and closed with the final song, I received an ovation that had me grinning ear-to-ear. I couldn’t help wipe the huge, embarrassing grin from my face. I had come to nourish but was leaving a well-nourished soul myself.
My work never lends itself to monotony. I love what I do and I love those for whom I do it. I wouldn’t change a thing about the magical life I live. Yes, my friends, I can indeed dance in the water and not get wet. Storytelling goes with “everything!”