Sunday, April 19, 2009

Attention and Response-ability

Chanda Mama from Playing For Change on Vimeo.

Well, i've got J'net keeping me honest about writing towards one of the many books i fancy gestate within me, and yet are perpetually deferred in favour of innumerable (if always seemingly worthy) endeavors (or distractions?). And i'm reminding myself of advice i learned from writer Alan Garner (a childhood favourite and author of one of my favourite novels ever: Strandloper) about feeding and harnessing the "magpie mind" - that appetite (or capacity?) of the mind to collect "shiny" objects at the expense of focusing on a (shining?) path. While the collecting has its obsessive and distracting side it also can be used to see new connections, new patterns amongst the ocean of information and knowledge in which we swim.

And so it is that my mind has been connecting a variety of pieces about responsibility, reciprocity, music and more. Learning about Playing for Change (see previous post) i am inspired to think about how music does indeed connect us all around the planet, across cultures, across times. I remember discovering WOMAD in 1981-ish - the album and then institution - that Peter Gabriel and others founded and which was a quantum leap in global awareness of non-western music. I had a radio show at McGill University at that time and i used it to teach myself about (and share with others) that world of music that had, until that point, been the purview of anthropologists. And i am forever grateful to Peter Gabriel and his co-founders for helping me to populate my musical life with some of the richness of the world's sounds. (An odd footnote to this is my stint as a music producer when, for the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of South Africa in 1990, i managed a music tour - i was the desk guy and my friend Bruce Burron was the road manager - of a Mozambican group called Eyuphuro. I found enough money - about CDN$10,000 - to cut a dozen tracks here in Toronto which we digitally mastered and then sold to Real World Music, the commercial arm of WOMAD. Later we learned that Billboard Magazine had included the album in it's "top 100 world beat" category. It looks like Real World still sells the album which they called Mama Mozambiki.)

Playing for Change's video productions are wonderful gifts. Which makes me think about what kind of economy they represent insofar as we share the wealth of beauty and joy that is the product of their labours. The gift economy aspect of all this is an intriguing and, i believe, vital thing to understand better. Nor is it separate from the capitalist economy that is, arguably, what underlies the greater part of the internet (as well as most of the infrastructure of global communications). I'm pleased to see that Playing for Change also has a non-profit (charitable) aspect and they feature three initiatives (in Guguletu and Johannesburg, South Africa; Dharamsala, India and Kathmandu, Nepal) to which they donate support. I do hope they prosper. And it's obvious that the musicians who themselves are donating could receive a positive benefit from this that could help them prosper.

But how will internet fame affect them? For fame is a dangerous condition that seems to offer material wealth for a fatal cost which only begins with an elimination of private life and continues through the slow crushing and making miserable of the soul. (Or perhaps we are seeing the dawn of the new kind of economy imagined by Cory Doctorow in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). Street musicians can make a fine living while also relying on relative obscurity to protect their privacy. And i'm sure some thrive in their chosen medium while others, no doubt, barely scrape by. What will happen now to Grandpa Elliot who has been an established street performer for a long time? I would only hope that he remains in control of his fate. Similarly, what of internet sensation Susan Boyle who has instantly won the affection of millions with her disarming forthrightness and stunning singing. I appreciate Dennis Palumbo's point in The Huffington Post:

But I can't help wondering, what would have been the reaction if Susan Boyle couldn't sing?

What would the judges and the audience have thought, and said, had her voice been a creaky rasp, or an out-of-tune shriek? Would she still possess that "inner beauty?" Would we still acknowledge that the derisive treatment she received before performing was callous, insensitive and cruel?

The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?

Again, i hope that Susan Boyle can maintain some control of her fate which, of course, presumes that she had that control to begin with. But who am i to hope anything for someone i am never likely to meet or know, except through the heavily mediated lenses of the internet and mass media? I guess i just hope that her soul doesn't get stomped by the new attention showering down on her. And i avoid reality TV precisely because i find it so hard to bear watching the indignities people suffer (both those they are put through and those they seem willingly to rush into).

I am reading Martin Buber's work and came across this passage on "responsibility" that has been on my mind as i ponder the connections of global music and internet fame - just how do we "respond" to these moments and the people who are living them:
Response
This fragile life between birth and death can nevertheless be a fulfillment - if it is a dialogue. In our life and experience we are addressed; by thought and speech and action, by producing and by influencing we are able to answer. For the most part we do not listen to the address, or we break into it with chatter. But if the word comes to us and the answer proceeds from us then human life exists, though brokenly, in the world. The kindling of the response, which occurs time and again, to the unexpectedly approaching speech, we term responsibility. We practice responsibility for that realm of life allotted and entrusted to us for which we are able to respond, that is, for which we have a relation of deeds which may count - in all our inadequcy - as a proper response.
in The Way of Response - Martin Buber - Selections from His Writings edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (NY: Schocken Books, 1966) p.19.
I believe that every moment of every day is an opportunity to practice this kind of responsibility. Which isn't to imply that i come anywhere near the implied ideal of doing so. And so, back to J'net's task of keeping me on track with writing ... that's something i have to respond to now.

1 comment:

Koous Collection said...

great post my handsome mister!
Glad I can help inspire the depth of your loving soul waiting for expression!
your stories continually give me more insight to who you are from your experiences and who you are becoming from your reflections and ambition to collate you vast accumulation of events into your future books!

just KEEEEEEEEEEEEP TYPING... no more word twist... sorry I introduced it to ya!

lovingly J'...