Friday, October 30, 2009

Retrospective: A Meeting in the West Texas Desert

This is a true story from when we were on tour in the midst of the Bush regime... a story that carries with it shocking echoes of hatred, bigotry and the seemingly inexorable slide towards fascism that scared so many of us during those years. At the same time, it is a tale of faith, redemption and hope, maybe a way to look at how far we've come since then ... and finally, perhaps, a challenge to remind us how far we have yet to go.

I offer this as a prayer for love, peace and understanding ... a prayer that deepens in its intensity when we are confronted with the horrific alternatives to living a conscious and loving life. May we indeed be the change we wish to see in the world!

Here goes:

April 7, 2005 the desert just outside of Van Horn, Texas ...

I don’t know if I could have even imagined this, had it not happened … out here in the middle of seemingly nowhere, we met Mr. Nolan West (not his real name), a white man who originally hailed from South Africa, at the gas station in Van Horn, Texas. What a powerful message he had for us!

Our interactions started at the gas pump, where Nolan told us (much to our surprise, given where we were) how much he like our “Impeach Bush” and “I love my country … but I think we should start seeing other people” bumper stickers. A very friendly and loquacious man, very passionately devoted to compassion and conscience, he shared his story with us – a story that left us deeply moved and forever changed.

He grew up under apartheid, and was fully indoctrinated in the prevailing prejudicial beliefs of that culture. He expressed deep concern about the ways in which what is happening here and now under Bush mirrors his experience in South Africa. Depicting your “enemies” as “evildoers” is exactly what he saw in his youth and was largely the means by which the policy of apartheid was perpetuated.

He was raised to believe in the “Black Danger,” which held that the black population of South Africa wanted nothing more than to drive the whites into the sea, to murder them without remorse, or at the very least to force them back to Europe “where they belonged.” This “Schwarze Gefahr” was invoked in precisely the same spirit that Bush uses in referring to the “axis of evil.” Nolan knew well, the moment he heard Bush speak these words, that the US regime was headed down the same slippery slope.

Hanging from the rear-view mirror in his old pickup truck was a well-worn American flag, measuring about 6 by 12 inches. Here was a man who loved his adopted country with a fervor few of us who were born here share … and one who passionately believes that caring for the welfare of others is as sacred a duty as any. He would gladly take up arms and lay down his life for this country – make no mistake, our newfound friend was no peacenik. But he was clearly incensed by what he sees happening here – AND in Iraq. Iraq is a “new kind of war,” according to one British correspondent, a very tragic and dangerous precedent in which many times more innocent civilians than fighters are being injured, maimed, and killed on a daily basis.

Nolan was himself a soldier as a young man – a soldier who was trained thoroughly not to ever question authority – particularly the authority of his superior officers in the South African military.

He was assigned to a border patrol post in the north in 1968, very close to the border of Angola. His own epiphany of awakening and true compassion came about at that time – under truly horrifying circumstances.

There was a great tension between the troops in the region and the local tribal villages, in large part because the locals were seen as aiding insurgents who were crossing the border, giving them food, shelter, and water.

One day while on patrol, his cadre of soldiers saw a number of local tribal women walking in the distance, carrying firewood on their heads, as was their custom. The commander of their patrol unit looked at these women through binoculars and ordered his men to “take those fucking Kaffa bitches down.”

Our new friend told us that he was surprised and perplexed by these orders. Clearly these women posed no threat to them. So he asked his commander, “Why, sir?”

His commander replied by handing his binoculars to him, asking, “What do you see?”

“I see a number of women carrying firewood, sir.”

“Look again. Can you tell me how many of them are pregnant?”

He looked through the binoculars, and it was clear that three of them were with child.

“Three, sir.”

“That’s right. Each one of those bitches is carrying the future enemies of your children. Tell you what … I’m giving you the privilege of taking down that one on the left. Take her down, now.”

“But, sir …”

“That’s an order. If you don’t shoot her now, I’ll have you court-martialed for disobeying a direct order.”

Nolan felt that he had no real choice. So he set his rifle on automatic – a setting that would fire his entire clip in one short burst, rather than allowing repeated single shots should he miss his first shot. He aimed as low as possible so that he would hit her legs, not her torso or head. And he fired.

Just as his target went down in the distance, his commander said the Afrikaans equivalent of “attaboy” and patted him firmly on the shoulder. In that moment, Nolan knew he had no choice but to desert. The years of indoctrination fell away in an instant.

As he related this story, his eyes filled with tears, and his face showed the agony of a man who wished beyond all else that he could somehow undo what had happened. Heather and I experienced this same feeling on a visceral level, feeling Nolan’s pain even as our own tears welled up uncontrollably.

Nolan did manage to desert by coming to America when he was next on leave. Had he been caught, he almost certainly would have been imprisoned indefinitely or even executed.

Very few of us ever have such an experience, such a powerful epiphany that so clearly lays bare our conscience. Nolan feels that, as a nation, we have not been listening to our conscience. Rather we are being moved in a direction contrary to our conscience by a regime that is succumbing to the titillating temptation of greed and power. A regime that is moving us into a mode of totalitarianism on the world stage that all too closely mirrors apartheid’s South African equivalent.

It is our prayer that, as a compassionate nation, we may wake up to what is happening before we, too, are asked to pull the trigger.

Remembering Khansahib

Hearing from Jai Uttal about Ali Akbar Khan's sons playing at the Ali AKbar College inspired me to post this memorial tribute ... I miss Khansahib so much, and yet am inspired by how Alam keeps his spirit alive with his passionate playing ...

Ustad Ali AKbar Khan
April 14, 1922 - June 18, 2009

"Music is like a river or stream that has come down to us through time, bringing nurture to man's soul. From the past masters, this music flowed to my father and through him to me. I want to keep this stream flowing. I don't want it to die. It must spread all over the world." -Ali Akbar Khan

"Ustad Ali Akbar Khan embodied the very pinnacle of our great classical music tradition. In his hands, the sarod was an instrument that expressed with unsurpassed beauty and eloquence the noblest aspirations and deepest yearnings of the human soul." -Indira Gandhi

On June 18th, Ali Akbar Khan left his body, thus leaving a truly unfillable void in the world of Indian Classical music. To say the least, having the privilege of sitting with him was one of the great blessings of my life. For those of you who weren't blessed to hear him, let me just say that learning from him was akin to being able to be in the company of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. Khansahib (as we students called him) had an unbelievable connection with the absolute essence of music itself. Over the years, he showed an unparalleled mastery of music, deep knowledge and wisdom, an exquisite understanding of the sacred nature of musical vibration, and, perhaps most of all, an unswerving desire to share the magic of it all with so many of us enthusiastic (but often quite clueless) Westerners. He literally lived that passion until the day he passed; in the last two days of his life, he continued to teach his sons and those students who were able to be at his bedside.

During my studies with him years ago, I was also able to visit with him many times at his home. His irresistible and often beautifully irreverent sense of humor would be coupled with incredible insights into the nature of sadhana and the breadth, depth and power of music. In his youth he would often practice 14, 16, or even 18 hours a day. He also shared many stories that made almost palpable what it was like to grow up under the tutelage of his father Allaudin Khan, who was also Ravi Shankar's guru and widely regarded as the greatest Indian musical saint in hundreds of years .

Khansahib's connection with and reverence for the ocean of sacred sound were beyond compare, reminding so many of us of the absolutely limitless potential and abundance of music. Each and every time I lift my bow to play the esraj, prepare to play the tabla, or open my mouth to sing, it is my unspoken prayer that what I can share will reflect even a small fraction of the gifts lavished on me by Khansahib and the great Zakir Hussain (from whom I studied tabla).

When he played, Khansahib poured every ounce of his energy and intention into making each instant of the music all that it could be ... even as he would begin the first few notes of his alap (musical invocation) at the beginning of a performance, every note would be so perfectly and exquisitely THAT note that tears came to my eyes. In my view, Khansahib could express more in one such note than many musicians can in a lifetime...

And now, each time I see and hear musicians give themselves completely and unreservedly to music (as his son Alam did so beautifully recently here in Portland), I can close my eyes and feel Khansahib's joy as he loses himself in the endless gifts of Saraswati.

Khansahib, you will be missed more than it is possible to express in words. I pray that those of us who were blessed to be in your presence can continue to give ourselves to the music in the same spirit you did, and thus ensure that your music and your gifts will continue to flow into the world.

With SO much love and gratitude,