Beauty in the Time of Pandemic

Below is a 3:30-minute video of a small but momentous occasion.  My son Aaron—a wonderful musician and talented teacher and conductor—leading the Gage Middle School orchestra, Riverside, California.  He’s been teaching there for 20 years and thousands of students. When he first got to Riverside it seemed they wanted him everywhere, and actually had him teaching both high school and middle school during a head-spinning set of years before he settled down at Gage, his first love anyway.

It’s a young and small orchestra playing in the combined middle and high school Christmas concert that didn’t happen last year for an obvious reason.  Strings are the hardest to master as individual instruments and it’s harder yet to get them to play together well, so there are errors here.  But now as 2022 begins with some of our largest surges yet, we reflect on how the pandemic has created lots of small but momentous occasions like this one.  Who knows what will happen next?  On this night, though, Live Music Was Back!  Despite the masks everyone was so excited to just be there, listening, live.

After the orchestra there’s 1:30 minutes of a group playing Larry Daehn’s arrangement of “Barbara Allen” at a festival.  It’s one of the best groups he’s ever had, Aaron says, and the sound is glorious. It’s a band, much bigger and more polished, but this small orchestra will always carry that special, momentous mark the pandemic has left on so many people and occasions.  They’re playing “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” and while I doubt many Southern Californians know much about bleak winters, this group did fight through bleak pandemic challenges and played—together—for us all.

NPR’s 1-A did a show called “Music Education in the Pandemic and Beyond.”  Hear the podcast and read the transcript at this link, and look at the show’s main graphic just below.  It conveys some of the challenges of teaching music during these times, a theme echoed by many, including the hosts of the Rose Parade broadcast Linda and I watched this morning.  Imagine getting a marching band ready, much of it virtually.

The transcript also links to a USA Today article called “Why music education remains essential even during Covid-19 pandemic,” a very brief summary of what reams of studies have shown about the positive effects of music education for decades.  Aaron’s union work made him a voice for these facts for several years.  It makes students better at every subject they take, promotes teamwork and better group dynamics, increases self-esteem, builds skills which span a whole lifetime, enriching us clear through old age. Etc. Etc.  Yet, of course, when budgets get tight the arts seem to suffer first.  They’re seen as add-ons to supposedly more essential things.

In 1974 the future Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker wrote “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” an essay which would become the title essay of her first collection of non-fiction prose.  Though poor, her mother made luxurious gardens wherever they lived, and Walker connects these to the arts practiced by other black women, artists who sang and wrote.  The essay helps us realize that as the arts bring to us and develop in us a sense of beauty and spirit and endurance, they aren’t add-ons at all.  They help us to survive, to be, in the first place. Without that, nothing else can matter.

It’s New Year’s Day, and this is the first article I’ll post this year.  As I do, I reflect that I list the arts first on this site’s tag line: “Arts, Diversity, Social Change…Faith.”  Yet I too struggle to find a balance.  Is there enough arts and arts education on this site?  I think not.  It’s time to resolve to do more.  The arts, and the education that leads to them, need more highlighting because the arts not only stand on their own as they bring beauty into our lives, but are also a strong, swelling undertone which builds courage in us, and a conviction that diversity, inclusion, justice, even faith, are worth struggling for because they, too, are beautiful. Thanks, Aaron and the orchestra, for a small momentous moment reminding us of all this.

Go to the main pages for Arts, Music, and Media and for GuzMusic.  My “Art, Rhythm, Intuition, and Social Change” highlights the role of art in social change, as does my talk at the memorial service for the great poet Carolyn Rodgers.  In my “Ralph Ellison: Survival Blues,” I highlight what this great writer said about how art, here the blues, is a “technique” for survival.

Posted in Music & Meaning, Music & Media Podcasts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Everything Is Cool, Everything’s OK

Bryan Emmanuel Guzman

It’s the Christmas season, but of course loss does not stop.  People lose their jobs, their health, their marriages.  They lose their lives or the lives of those they love.  This year I didn’t want to let a milestone anniversary go by without comment:  this will be the 15th year we spend Christmas without my son Bryan, who died on December 9, 2006, just days after his 21st birthday.

I think of him many times a day, first as a Dad who misses his son, and as a grandfather, knowing none of my grandkids ever met him and have missed out on all the love he would have showered on them. He’s also tied up intimately with my work on race and inequality issues, especially because his oldest brother Rick and his wife Desiree started Bryan House, which became Emmanuel House, then The Neighbor Project, touching first five families, then 30, and now thousands of people, and along the way being named one of the “100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world. Readers of this site know lots about these.

When I preach, Bryan usually comes up.  In a Baccalaureate Sermon I gave just six months after his death, I ended with my experience of sitting with his body for a long, long time at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, saying, in part:  “I understood well the physics, the chemistry, the biology, the what of death before me, but I also still felt Bryan’s person, I still knew him and felt he knew me, and I still treasure every second of that time alone with him.  When I sank again and again into my deepest grief his soul said clearly to mine over and over, ‘Dad, this is OK. This is OK.’  But more than he and I, I also felt the presence—the person—of God there, caring for us two mere mortals, keeping us—despite the cold fact of death—connected to the universe as persons.  Bryan and I felt loved.”

Because he was a wonderful musician, when I watch his brother Daniel perform, or watch his brother Aaron conduct, or listen to most any kind of music, he’s there again.*  And what his soul said to mine—“Dad, this is OK. This is OK”—ties me closely to my second favorite Christmas song, John Prine’s “Everything Is Cool.”  The first lines are “Everything is cool, Everything’s OK. Why it was just before last Christmas, My baby went away.”  He was speaking of his wife, because, as he says introducing another song, “I got an unusual present for Christmas. I got a divorce.”  When I sing the song, I’m literally talking about my baby, because Bryan was the family’s youngest.

John Prine was one of the first celebrities we lost in the Covid pandemic.  His second verse to “Everything is Cool” is: “I was walking down the road just, Looking at my shoes, When God send me an angel, Just to chase away my blues.  I saw a hundred thousand black birds, Just flying through the sky.  They seemed to form a tear drop, From that black-haired angel’s eye. Well, the tear fell all around me, And washed my sins away, Now everything is cool, Everything’s OK.”  The version I like best is on his great Christmas album A John Prine Christmas, but click on the link above the picture below and watch another version.  It’s one of his most reflective.

My first favorite Christmas song?  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” especially the lines: “Through the years we all will be together, If the fates allow.  Hang a shining star, Upon the highest bough”—or, sometimes, “Until then we’ll, Muddle through it all somehow.”  Of course, for us, with family spread from coast to coast, we’re rarely all together, which is one reason I cling to the song.  The shining star is the hope that we will be.  But until then….


Go Here for that reflective version on YouTube.  *And hear Bryan play and sing with Daniel on “But It Was” and other Hypnotist Collector tunes.

Posted in Faith, Family, Music & Media Podcasts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vana Liya: We’ve Got a Brand New Dance

Below is a 7:30 VIDEO of excerpts from a Vana Liya show at the Teragram Ballroom in downtown L.A.  It was the final set of her latest tour, with the latest incarnation of her band.  “I’ve finally found my people,” she wrote on a recent Facebook post. “Everything seems right.” Dan Guzman, guitar, Logan Tyler, drums, Kenny Nishikawa, bass, and on violin Derrick—aka “Man of the Forests.”

It was a typically joyful Vana Liya set, complete with a goofy Dan Guzman mistake near the end that set the whole band laughing, especially drummer Logan Tyler, who was in Daniel’s last band (Light—The Band) and brought him over.

In “Island Style,” my first post on Vana Liya, I called her a “strong gentle,” whose music, like the best Hawai’ian, Caribbean, and other island musics often flows gently even while dealing with tough issues: loss, oppression, a redemption you need but is always just out of reach.  Think anything by Bob Marley.

Look just under Vana Liya’s joy and you see her dealing with depression, addiction, relationship blindness.  This night everyone was happy, glad to be going home, but the song that represented her gentle toughness best was her cover of “The Ballad of Johnny Butt,” a Secret Hate tune that the reggae-ska-punk band Sublime made popular.  Sublime’s version is chunky and growling.  I like its cynicism. In Vana Liya’s hands it flows, and her voice is beautiful, though she begins the chorus with a breathiness that conveys a hint of tiredness, perhaps a recognition of how difficult it is to overcome addiction.  Overall, though, the joy remains, as does the prospect of overcoming. “We’ve got a brand new dance / It’s called we’ve got to overcome.” It was a beautiful evening.

Dan’s bluesy elegance coupled with Logan’s tough drumming bring out the strength and depth of Vana Liya’s writing and singing.  Kenny Nishikawa is as joyful a musician as you’ll ever see.  And as he adds sonic undertones and staccato highlights, Derrick also brings a quirkiness that rounds everything out. I’d say, yes, she’s found her people.

Visit Vana Liya’s website and check out her videos all over the web!
Go Here for more of Dan Guzman’s music and projects.

Posted in Music & Meaning, Music & Media Podcasts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Wokeness Problem – Part 1

There’s just too many f-bombs, b’s, and mf’s and such in comedy these days that it’s hard to use much of it in so-called polite company.  Still, I wish I could.  Bill Burr, Jo Koy, Dave Chappelle, and Richard Pryor, of course.  I’d play a routine here and there to illustrate a point in a sermon or workshop I’m doing, especially on race, or equity, or any number of social change topics.  You can, though, usually count on one comedian: the brilliant Trevor Noah, one of the funniest and most trenchant commentators on race today.  Click on the link just above the picture below and you’ll be taken to YouTube to view one of his Daily Show “Between the Scenes” segments, this one on being “too woke.”

Wokeness and sjw’s (social justice warriors) have come in for harsh criticism these days, and it seems mostly justified.  As Trevor Noah illustrates below, you can be “too woke,” “too much a sjw,” and undercut your good intentions.  I think it’s important to acknowledge those good intentions, though beneath them you can’t help but feel an old, familiar dynamic.  Here come the whites again, the saviors, the privileged ones with the I’ll-fix-it attitude.  They come in and just takes over because their way is obviously the right way.  They read a book or two, do a discussion group, attend a workshop and suddenly they know it all better than people of color who live it every day.  Women also know the dynamic well.  I wish there were a phrase that captures it the way an acquaintance of mine, Tania Modleski, did when she wrote her book Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a Post-Feminist Age.  Maybe “Anti-racism Without Blacks”?

A five-part podcast called Nice White Parents details well how whites come in to an “underserved” school with seemingly good intentions and, as they take over, wind up leaving the school’s original students and the school’s community behind.  The caption under the picture to the right summarizes it well: “In this series, Chana Joffe-Walt asks whether public schooling has been founded on a ‘false ideal of integration’—one that has been the subject of boycotts, protests and policymaking for half a century, but has historically served white families.” [My emphasis.]  The best intro to the series—which you can get on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, the New York Times (which also provides transcripts), and other services—is, I believe, on This American Life.

I will delve more deeply into the wokeness problem in Part Two of this article, but close for now with a passage I have often quoted.  Robert Greenleaf wrote this in 1970 in The Servant as Leader, the booklet that started the entire field of servant leadership studies:  “…the next 30 years will be marked as the period when the dark skinned and…the alienated of the world assert their claims…” and were not “led by a privileged elite…It may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and as instructed.”

It’s a complex problem.  On the one hand, you don’t want to dampen a woke person’s, a sjw’s, enthusiasm completely.  There’s good intentions in there somewhere.  But somehow you do need to dampen the superiority complex of whiteness.  If not, though some surface things might improve, the same system which generates inequality, inequities, and systemic racism will continue on as powerful as ever.  For whites, I’d say if you’re not in the background, if you’re not clearly in a support role, stop a minute and think hard about your “place.”  This advice, it’s important to note, isn’t given because we need to set up a new hierarchy where people of color rule.  It’s a stepping backward to question hierarchy itself very deeply, question it so that true cooperation, true collaboration, true respect can infuse the actions we take together.

Go HERE to watch Trevor Noah on the problem of being “Too Woke”

♦  This article is part of a series based on ideas used in the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop.  Go to the series’ LEAD POST, to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to Part Two of this essay.

Posted in Music & Media Podcasts, Social Change | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment