Thursday, September 1, 2011

I sent money to the Department of Homeland Security

Never Done: I sent money to the Department of Homeland Security

Let me start by saying that sending money to Homeland Security is not the end goal here; it was a means to an end. -- the end being getting a visa for a wonderful Zimbabwean musician to come from Canada to do a program at the JCC. But this is not the beginning of the story; it's just a stop along the way. Maybe the beginning of the story was that in 1986 when I first started spending time in the Pacific Northwest, Dumi Maraire was teaching in the ethnomusicology department at the University of Washington. Dumi was a master Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) player who, while he lived in Seattle, spawned Zimbabean marimba bands up and down the Pacific coast. I knew some people in one band, and loved the music, and when I moved to Portland in 1990, I started taking marimba lessons from a tall skinny white American guy named Kite. I must have been a good student because before long I was invited to try out to play in Portland's marimba band: Boka Marimba, and before long I was in the band. I felt more connected to this music than I had ever been before to any other music. Maybe it was in part the physicality of the experience of playing the marimba and hosho (gourd shakers.) Maybe it was the time in my life. And maybe it was that I really loved the music.

But here's the tragedy. The longer I played it, the more I became aware of the ways that I didn't understand it well enough to be playing it in public. I was fine. I was a great performer. But I had a hard time grasping the cutting rhythms that were essential to the music, and the more I played, the more I heard them, and the more I heard them, the less I was able to play them. In the end, this made me stop playing. I think if this was happening now, I would understand that I was in a deep and confusing place of growth, and to somehow stick with it. But instead, I did something else that turned out to be wonderful and formative: I decided to learn "my own" music -- Yiddish music.

OK, flash forward 20 years. I am in Toronto with Josh, at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival with the film Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. Josh edited the restoration of the film, and I did bits and pieces of work on it. The festival treated the film gorgeously. In between screenings, Josh and I took a walk around Toronto. We were heading back toward the theater when I heard the sound of mbira. Not just any mbira -- Zimbabwean mbira. And not just any mbira playing. Good mbira playing. I felt drawn to it -- like in a folk tale or a psychedelic trip. I tracked it down a couple of blocks until I found two young men playing on a street corner. I listened for a while, and then I introduced myself, and they introduced themselves: Pasi and Mutamba. We got to talking. We told them why we were there. Mutamba was interested in the film. We got him a ticket. He came and brought a friend. We spent some more time talking.

Every now and then you meet someone who shines. They don't have to shine every minute -- it's not a pressure kind of thing -- but they have a presence in the world that just reaches for humanity. Mutamba has that. We started talking about some projects we might work on together. I had an idea for a short film about a shared culture in the Zimbabwean and Jewish cultures about temporary structures. Jews build sukes (sukkahs) -- temporary shelters -- to remember the fragile shelters Jews lived in during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. In the Zimbabwean folk music repertoire, the song Nhemamusasa, which means Gathering Branches for a Temporary Shelter, is about the structures that people lived in during wartime.

We shared ideas about it. We stayed in touch. We became Facebook friends. We tracked each others' lives from afar. I donated to a fundraiser he had to raise money for a project for AIDS orphans. I want to try to describe this: we barely know each other, but we found a level at which to stay in touch which is both respectful of the fact that we really are not close friends, but at the same time acknowledges that we saw something important in each other.

Fast forward again. I got the job at the JCC, and I was in a meeting about programming a sukes (sukkot) event, when it dawned on me: this is it. This is the moment. I could bring Mutamba to come do a program, on sukes, in the suke, that ties together our traditions of temporary shelters. I pitched the idea. People loved it. I emailed Mutamba. He was up for it. We set up a phone call. When I reached him, he was working in his community garden. Oh, did I mention that he's a gardener, and also a social worker? He's such a complete person.

And for all of these reason, I was willing to give a significant sum of money to the Department of Homeland Security to get Mutamba an I-129 Visa and a P-3 classification as a Culturally Unique Artist or Entertainer, to come to New York to do an intercultural musical exploration of temporary shelter. (October 14. Mark your calendar. It will be on the roof of the JCC, which should be magical.) The mide (middah) of Frugality: Be careful with your money encourages us to be thoughtful about the ways we use our resources, and to consider the impact of our spending (and non-spending) on others. I found this perspective super helpful as I put the check in the FedEx envelope this afternoon, knowing that the impact of spending this money would be widespread and transformative.

No comments:

Post a Comment