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Riffing On the Tradition: You Must Believe In Spring

I spent last Saturday at my “office,” an Uptown coffee shop called First Cup Café. I have been going there since it opened nearly 10 years ago, not only because I'm more productive there than in my apartment, but because it encourages a social environment rich with the type of political and cultural discourse that one historically associates with coffee house culture.

For example, Saturday, I met a visiting musician from Ghana named Mohammed Alidu.
We spoke of his impressions of the New Orleans music scene, discovered mutual friends and compared and contrasted our respective traditions.

His particular tradition is fascinating because the drum he plays can be manipulated to literally speak phrases. Descended from Bizung, the first “talking drum” master from nearly 600 years ago, Alidu explained the responsibility that master drummers have as historians who teach their culture through drumming and how important it is to be not only connected to one’s past, but to be proud of it as well.

Of course, he was preaching to the choir, when he told me that he thinks of culture as something that comes from within us and is constructed by looking back at our traditions before they can move forward. I tried to explain how commercial forces, marketing, and, for us here in New Orleans, tourism has encouraged many to tailor their expression to what they think their audience wants.

I have hope that our cultural community is starting to overcome this “letting the tail wag the dog.” Thanks to efforts like the Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans, we’re finally speaking with a unified voice to determine our cultural landscape and what the city needs to do to ensure that it flourishes. Each victory we have when a performance venue is legitimized by our city’s permitting process still feels like the surprise, when one is flying, of an on-time arrival or luggage that doesn't get lost. But, being listened to is gradually becoming a reasonable expectation.

There is a message of peace in Alidu's music. He tries to create music that makes people want to be better. At our first meting, his thoughtful demeanor and positivity was extremely welcome, following these last weeks when, perhaps like many of you, I was having difficulty understanding just what kind of a world it is we live in.

As we spoke, I started to remember what it feels like to believe that our music can make a difference and can help people realize how connected we are. Granted, it might be even easier if we manage to do more with our craft than sell beer or hotel rooms, but nonetheless,  If we take cues from musicians like Alidu, we can counter the culture of violence that surrounds us.

If we strive for a higher level of freedom in our expression, we can demonstrate that the processes of dialogue and negotiation are undoubtedly worth the effort. We can empower others to reach deep to their inner strength and resolve by treating our profession as a calling that, like a religion, ties us to our past the way Alidu discussed being connected to the spirit of Bizung. If we celebrate our past instead of deny it, we can inspire our listeners to embrace the best, most beautiful aspects of our shared history as an inroad to mitigating our differences.

As it has always been, it is we, the artists, who can and must obliterate the contrivances and cop-outs of “us and them” by all creative means necessary.

Please consider it. I don't think we can justify doing less, and wherever you are this season, my wish for you is health, harmony and the fortune of opportunities to cherish and honor those closest to you.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for his holiday performance schedule. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]