Falling into Rhythm

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Running pon di road

Each time my foot pushes into the ground, propelling me further down the road, my breath comes a little bit quicker, heavier, wilder. Afterwards, I wonder how it is that I managed to bounce around the potholes, fly down the hills and trod back up them; I’m not a runner so finding my pace takes time.

When I imagined myself in the Peace Corps, I pictured an integrated me, hungry after working all day in the field with local farmers, wiping sweat from my forehead as I rubbed my clothes clean watching as other women did the same, teaching a class how to improve their crop yield with biodynamic farming. This image, one of hard work and success, ignored a necessary step: figuring out how to fit in. Continue reading

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Kumina Heartbeat

A nearly obscured candle flickered with hope beside a drum on which a man sat, beating out life’s pulse- thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum- as I swayed hypnotically to its charm. The musicians moved with this heartbeat of Kumina music; men and women were drumming drums, grating graters, and shaking shakers, while a surrounding ring of chanters called out for the deceased. Through this ceremony to help the dead pass on, life called out its beating pulse.

My host mom told me Jamaicans generally don’t talk about going to Kumina, the above described music and dance ceremony for someone who has just died. Some church members might call it heterodoxy, or even evil. Many people also associate Kumina with Obeah, which is often classified as Jamaica’s version of Voodoo. In the country with the most churches per square mile, this threat of rejection is real.

The Kumina I attended was in the parish of St Thomas, where these traditions hold steadfast. Because of its remoteness, Jamaican Christians were able to maintain and incorporate many of their African rituals into their Christian practice. “‘Kumina comes out of the Angola region- West Central Africa- and it’s survived in St Thomas as a largely African ceremony, one where the ancestral dead have the power to influence us beyond the grave.’“ (Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard)

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Drummers, shakers, graters, and dancers at Kumina

During the ceremony, when the drummers beat their goatskin Kumina drums, they are calling to the ancestors of the person passing from our physical world to the spiritual realm. The Kumina rhythms are the language of the dead, and are used to transport spirits to here and now, specifically to help pass the spirit of the deceased to the next world. People sometimes become possessed by these ancestor spirits during Kumina. I didn’t witness this, but I believe possession takes many forms.

I watched as men splashed rum on their faces, drums, hair, even each other (in addition to drinking it with Pepsi). They focused on the beat, their togetherness, and their purpose; they were never once out of sync. I felt as if they played inside a snow globe, oblivious to the watchers and voyeurs surrounding them. I found myself swaying to the Kumina heartbeat, hitting each beat with the swish of my skirt.

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The road to Port Morant

After dancing, swaying, chatting, chanting, and looking by candlelight at shadowy figures on drums and shakers, we sped and bumped back to Port Morant to our homes and quiet streets. Dodging another pothole, the Kumina drum’s heartbeat pulsed in my head. I felt the urge to live mindfully, expansively, present, like a wide-eyed child seeing snow for the first time, stretching out her tongue to test its icy softness.

Who could have guessed a party for the dead would be so full of life?

Bluegrass Dragon

When you grow up in a musical family*, you are so surrounded by music that you see little need to seek it out. I saw little need to seek out new sounds until not so long ago. And then began my bluegrass affair.

On a recent Wednesday, my roommate, his girlfriend, and I packed up a U-HAUL bigger than our kitchen and drove West. Actually, my roommate did most of the packing, but regardless, we all ended up at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York. I confess. I had never been to a music festival before, and as an extremely amateur musician, I saw this as a failing. Remedy: Grey Fox!

With our mansion popped up, it was time to head down the hill and check out the music. I could write a detailed analysis of the many bands’ musical stylings, but you wouldn’t give two hoots. So listen for youself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BrFbvOnUVc

I also took a pretty sweet shot of someone hula hooping.
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Over the next few days, I heard many more gifted artists, and some damn fine tunes. But I also had a hard time letting myself slip into the relaxing bliss that is vacation. Part of me felt that I should be listening to as many new bands as possible.

We could clearly hear the bands on the main stage from our tents, so I ended up staying at our campsite reading for much of the time. And then I realized. That was OK! I didn’t have to get up, walk down the hill, and sit in a plastic chair to experience the festival. I could do it while reading about dragons, the Starks, and an Iron Throne. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the music.

In case you’re wondering, dragons and bluegrass do mix well together.

*Your extended family is basically an orchestra.