A Reflection on the MUUS Ologundê Residency

Ich-Du: Can Music be the Hyphen?

The Austrian-Israeli-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes his ideas of interpersonal relationships in the book I and Thou. Ich (I) - Du (the familiar form of You) is the holistic, mutual dialogue two beings can have with each other, when neither treats the other as object and when each accepts the other’s existence as legitimate and authentic - without qualification and without having to prove value to the other. Through this kind of mutual dialogue, Buber says two beings may truly meet.

For the purpose of this reflection, I will assume the necessity for I - Thou relationships, not just between individuals, but between groups, communities, cultures, nations. I will assume that the other type of relationship, I - It (which sees the other as an object, in terms primarily of how the other fulfills one’s own needs), does not result in the type of sustained relationships built on trust that we need.

How do we have an I - Thou dialogue? We have to establish some sort of language so that we can communicate, some baseline where we can begin to explore our differences and commonalities. I feel art, and in particular music can provide the medium for that dialogue. When I first started MusicUnitesUS, my aim was, in seeing music as a common language, to cross boundaries and begin a mutual dialogue, avoiding the pitfalls words can sometimes lead to. I have since substituted the word ‘medium’ for language, because I think some musics can be as difficult to translate/understand across tradition as spoken language. But even with that substitution, ‘music as a common medium’ is still problematic. I saw that so clearly in our recent residency, Ologundê: An Afro-Brazilian Journey in Music and Dance. Looking at the challenges in this residency offers insights into the challenges we face in the world as we attempt to have conversations across culture.

To explain the issues that came up, I will focus on one aspect of the multiple presentations that Ologundê, a group of Brazilians who now live and work in NYC, gave during their three-day stay at Brandeis. This aspect was the public performance of ritual dances of candomblé, the religion that emerged from the Yoruban traditions enslaved Africansbrought with them to Brazil. The rituals themselves, when performed inside the religious community are not for public consumption and are not meant to be explained or analyzed - “candomblé is a religion of the hand”, as Mother B, a priestess of a terreiro in Brazil says. Abstract discussion does not elicit axé (power), it is the embodiment of the the orixás (gods) through ritual enactment that calls forth and circulates axé. The performances we saw were representative of these rituals, but in all the events we attended during the residency, we were told that there were some things that could not be revealed or spoken about to those who were not initiates. Time and again, the question would come up in one form or another: “What is the secret? What does this really mean? What does that mean? What is the mystery?” We saw dances and learned that the dancer represented an orixá, or god…and observed movements, costumes, objects, music that related to that particular orixá. As the events continued, there was an increased interest in what this or that ‘meant’. And there was a gentle and firm response that the performers could only go so far in the explanation.

There were ‘breakthrough’ moments of understanding for me. The first happened when one of the female dancers, who had told us she was an initiate - in the ‘child’ stage of learning the tradition (a stage where she herself is not to ask questions, only to observe and do what she is told at gatherings), began to talk to us about ‘the sacred’. She said to us that every religion, every person has a sacred place, and that that place was not somewhere that another would be able to enter at will. She said that there was nothing wrong with talking, reading, trying to study about candomblé - being curious about the other, etc., but that that would not bring any of us closer to the sacred place of candomblé. We could even sneak into a ceremony and take photos, we could write about things that “should not be written down”, but we would still not know that place unless we went through the whole process that is required. That process would take years and years. She herself was only in the beginning of that process. She said there is one way to come closer to understanding candomblé. “Go to Brazil, be with people, be with the life there, watch and listen.” And of course, there is no shortcut to the process - become an initiate.

I felt a disappointment, I suppose. And it is the first time I thought of my well-honed powers of analysis and logic as a short cut to something, not enough, ‘fast food’, and maybe not even the way to truly understand. One of the male dancers went further to say: “What if I told you the mystery? What if I had the words and I gave them to you? Do you know what you would do? Laugh. ‘This is it?’ you would say.”

Other moments occurred for me while watching different dances. Oxum, the goddess of fresh water was dressed in gold, wore a crown, her face was hidden behind a curtain of beads, and she carried a mirror. As I went to all the events, and listened to some of the explanations, I learned that Oxum was looking into the mirror at her reflection, admiring and valuing her own worth, beauty, being. She was appreciating her own power and strength (axé). The veil of beads protected her from negative energies, and protected us from the forces she had, that might not be positive for us. There was also the implied sacred space. Likewise, the capoeira, the dazzling martial arts display of strength and physical virtuosity was more than an ‘I can do it better than you’ affair, it was graceful, it required each dancer to be acutely aware of the other; despite the capoeria’s martial arts identity, this was a celebration of relationship and mutuality. I found myself thinking back, imagining the training the enslaved Africans imposed on themselves. How empowering the capoeira must have been, and how playing it together was supportive, encouraging, and hope-engendering.

By watching several times, I was learning, feeling, thinking. There was some verbal guidance, but much of what I got was by watching and taking it in. This is how the knowledge was transmitted. I did not participate in the hour and a half dance workshop, but 40 other students did, learning some of the ritual dance moves, and playing capoeira in pairs. This was another way to take in the knowledge that was offered to us.

The final concert was beautiful, and of all of our concerts in the Residency Series, the most problematic for me. We learned at the preconcert lecture about the roda (wheel, circle, social group). All of the rituals and dances we saw were supposed to be performed within the roda; nothing outside the roda mattered. Our concert hall is set up in the traditional shoebox shape of a Western recital hall. We could not really have a roda, although the performers told us that they formed a half circle on stage so that we could symbolically complete the circle in the audience. Before the performance, backstage, the performers formed a small circle and spoke quietly, ending with the word “axé”, and the evening began. There were many beautiful and exciting moments, there were self-conscious insertions of humor in an otherwise powerful and often enigmatic representations of the rituals of candomblé, maculêlê, capoeira, and samba de roda.

Throughout the performance, it felt odd to me to be sitting in the hall observing in this formation. I never felt so strongly that I wished for a venue in the round. Occasionally the performers asked us to clap with them, and although this was better, I never could get rid of the feeling of being outside what was happening. Some presentations work better than others this way, but I think it was the nature of what we were watching that made this so disjunct. Candomblé is not a tradition one comes at from the outside.

The experience was very thought-provoking for me. It raised the essential question that MusicUnitesUS is trying to explore…how might we cross cultural boundaries so that we may come closer to understanding and appreciating the ‘Other’? Back to Ich-Du, how might we create the hyphen so that there can be a mutuality, a dialogue? How do we go about this when our very ways of processing, transmitting, taking in knowledge seems to be so different, one “of the hand”, the other of the mind? Clearly, for this dialogue to take place, the I and the Thou must each be willing to learn a little of the other’s way. How might we do this better with MusicUnitesUS? How might we ‘set the stage’ so that we do it better, on campus, in our classes, and in our social interactions? How does this relate to the larger questions that we must grapple with on a global scale: the environment, politics, relations between communities, cultures, nations? What are the elements that might be set in place to prepare the way for an I-Thou dialogue between two very different beings/cultures/traditions?

- Judy Eissenberg