Introducing time and song mathematics
Personhood. Thought. Voice. Reaching forward…
b. find it in stone,
the calculus of a people, unbroken.
They judge us by the doors we come through while taking no note of what we have taken up in our hands. Use ink. Use marker. Use crayon. Use water.
Stylus. Wooden spoon. Creation is the opportunity of quiet. Bring to chaos, silence. Out of silence? Listen. A pathway…
“Let go of your past, but don’t pretend that it never happened.” — Oscar Wilde
I’d like to tell you a story — having listened, we have heard. I am American so of course I, too, am Africa. By definition, through these words, I, too, am all of Europe. Parts of the Middle East. Through these words, language — English as lingua franca. Jamaica, up in the hills where night rises into firesong. In the melody, I, too, am Brasil. Brasil? Brasil. My craving for warmth, spice, and music.
With no explanation, as a little girl I was introduced to Astrud. She was simply there in the background of the day. Either a person can hear themselves embedded deeply in the heart of music or they do not.
By the time the 1900s reached 88 years-old the world at large was listening to Johnny Hates Jazz, Terence Trent D’arby, The Escape Club, Richard Marx, The Bangles, Jody Watley, Keith Sweat, and The Jets. I, eighteen years-old in 1988, the summer before my junior year of college and working in a store on Nassau Street that sold only socks, was listening again to Brasil:
Astrud’s restraint became Djavan’s “Madness”, the sound of my Brasil coming of age.
Then came the warriors. An invitation to a demonstration of capoiera, after having learned with great care about Quilombo. Quilombo? Quilombo!
She taps the mic…This paragraph is written to be spoken aloud: Either you recognize yourself in the music or you do not. And if you recognize yourself, what do you hear? I’ve often wondered while growing up listening to the musical culture of people, “What does their food taste like?” and, “What is their local seasoning?” When I sit down to any meal I often think of the taste as music. What is the flavor of any region’s summer afternoon? Harmony to the palate is how I see in my particular world. Seasoning. Flavored food. Experience. What does it taste like, the meaning of my quiet?
Let me tell you something about my mother’s particular kind of bread pudding. This: She always made two. One for my father, and one for the rest of my family. There was a particular ingredient — coconut — my father didn’t much care for. And so he got a whole tray all for himself. When word got out there was bread pudding in the house the first question was, “Which one’s ours?”, followed by folks walking away with huge chunks, making off like bandits. How did word get out? Stepping off of an elevator in late afternoon onto a floor where bread pudding is in the oven is a good clue. Or, coming home and seeing most of it gone. Cousins in close proximity can be ruthless. In another household it might be tiramisu. Or cobbler. Or apple crumble.
When I was living alone in graduate school I called home to Brooklyn one day and asked my mother to write down for me all the recipes for the food she made that I loved. I gave her the list over the phone and she sighed. She said, “I just make what I make, there are no recipes.” Yeah, there were. I watched how my mother cooked. I remember the stories she told about her grandmother. Those recipes were in her head. She cooked from memory. It was clear to me when my mother was in the kitchen she was listening. And tasting. And adjusting. And saying to me out loud, “Taste this and tell me what you think it needs,” when I’d reached my twenties. She never once asked me what I thought was missing.
Eventually my mother grumbled a little bit about how she needed to get some sheets of paper but she did agree — she would write down what she could remember. I asked early enough to know that anyone who was around down in Brooklyn got to reap the benefits while I was upstate. And I had the presence of mind to ask way before Thanksgiving and knew what and all to include. My mother wrote her work down over the time it took to prepare dishes which were, in fact, meals. If you mentioned a pot of something, that was code for everything else that came along with that something, including dessert — my mother’s bread pudding. “A bowl of rice” was shorthand for, at the very least, rice, garlic, peppers, onion and some kind of greens.
Oh, I knew to be patient. I went back and forth a few times on breaks without ever asking. To make sure she had ample time to not forget the pudding. And when she handed me the stack of pages…it was there.
There are recipes that have ingredients people follow to prepare dishes. And there are recipes that describe in detail every movement, letting you know why everything you grew up with and maybe take for granted tastes exactly the way it does. In seeing how my mother wrote out her recipes I could see short stories of how to cook that were not just about the ingredients to prepare any meal but also timing. And care. When to add what. When to turn that. Why to leave something on a bit longer. When and why done means done and when done means rest and finish later, just before family comes home. In reading her work, I got a much better sense of how to use a spice rack. What makes a family trade secret a secret you keep in-house. My mother wrote down for me sheet music. I had asked at other times growing up, but it was only when she saw I was living alone and wanted to eat at home no matter where I was that she knew I was serious.
In the interest of full disclosure I now know, “Tell me what you think it needs,” in addition to teaching a young woman how to cook also meant, “At what point did you come in and sneak a spoonful?”
When I graduated from school and entered the world of work, I had the presence of mind to not just go play handball on summer weekend afternoons. I went to a Kinko’s and stood in front of the self-serve laminating station. Different times. From time to time I would just stop off and preserve things on paper I thought were important that would fit in one small bag and that I never wanted to lose. Something written on a piece of envelope instead of notebook paper. An afterthought? Cornbread stuffing. And also my first learner’s permit. A congratulatory letter from school saying I passed my Master’s Exam. My mother’s recipes took up a nice little chunk of time.
The beauty of spice is that it is everywhere when you know how to look. After going to Singapore it made total sense to head straight to the bookstore and get the premier work that explained the reason why an island nation, the ‘Lion City’, had for so long been the center of the world’s spice trade. Where those spices were distributed throughout the world. Where they came from. My mother. My father. The Caribbean. The east. Saffron. Curry. Pepper. Cloves. I think you are beginning to see what I am saying here. On my first trip to India I may not have taken much, but I certainly took with me my mother’s recipes. And, after having read — having been taught by being sent with a list to “go do grocery shopping” — I knew exactly how to listen for flavor. I had my mothers pages with me, and I have them still. I made sure to be demure when asking for a little less of something by way of spice so as not to insult the chef. And to take care to ask, “How long does it take to make this?” knowing full well the answer would be, “Hours,” because I wanted the best sense of when to start.
The gentle care of a spice recipe? Each nation’s people in the Caribbean have their own sofrito, but around every corner each person has their own imagination come to life in the form of curry. Do I listen to what my plate of food tells me when I sit down to eat? Yes. I most certainly do. Do I look for harmony in a spice rack? Yes. I do. The same way a person looks for stories in stacks of books. My father’s curry comes from India. So, too, my mother’s. And her mother’s. Their mother’s rice is my mother’s rice and peas, and I know for sure because I have seen. And listened.
When you are pouring through little corner stores and bodegas in New York looking for little bottles and packets of things by sight because the bottles that your mother kept at home never had labels you realize early on that there is something more going on. Alchemy. The shelves are stocked by people from all over the world. Global libraries of spice. And so you have to think back on what kind of music might have been playing in the house when you tasted something. What was the time of year? What holiday? What occasion? And if that occasion was, “I just have a feeling for…” then you better be the one who does the shopping and looks at the calendar. When you go wherever you go, you are a fool if you never stop off in the local grocery store, which is not the same as going to a supermarket. You go where someone is walking with a sense of purpose to pick up that one last thing that auntie’s pot needs. That is the shop keeper you want to go to find home on the shelves. Go where your grocer knows which mangoes are best for chutney. Bells and whistles and fluorescent lights used as trickery to make tomatoes and meat look more red and where the plantain are intentionally scuffed to be make them appear sweet are a waste of time. Go to where you know produce is fresh and priced reasonably.
I understood something my father did with the magic of spice. Something I will never tell. Something that lets me know what he did to hook up his pot roast. My mother never told that secret either. Not even to me when she wrote down for me all she did. She left it to be a moment of discovery which I had over a purely vegan meal, letting me know just how much I am their daughter. Alchemic culinary symphony. Together, my parents. Perhaps even for a time like Johann Sebastian and his wife Anna Magdalena.
Have you really listened to Bach? Sometimes I listen just to remember how to breathe.
In paying close attention to the natural progression of sound in my life — all that it means in terms of color and flavor and movement and trust — it just makes sense that what came next as an amalgamation of America and Africa, and Europe, and Jamaica, and my Brasil would be something so distinct and of itself I could not miss the connections…to me. To the way my brain does the mathematics of the chromatics of sound. When taking into consideration all that it is that makes me who I am. It gives birth to this:
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their mind and their body, their education and their recreation, their love and their religion. They hardly know which is which. They simply pursue their vision of excellence at whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing. To them they are always doing both.” — James A. Michener
“[T]he very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, you reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. Complete your work without worry. Do not be confused. Don’t waste your energy fighting the fever, you must only fight the disease. And I urge you to be careful, for there is a deadly prison. The prison that is erected when one spends their life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your culture, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You don’t have to dwell on changing the minds of racists. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them. They are in prisons of their own construction. But you must know the truth. That you are free.” — Toni Morrison, 1975 at Portland State University
I started school in first grade in 1975. How old are we now, me and Pecola Breedlove? And Sesame Street? Progress in real time moves real slow, but look at where we are now. I am but one example of what the public school system has produced.
Have your good name, your passport, and your mind in tact. Read this planet. It does not matter at all anymore where I have come back from, only that I have come back to myself with a promise to myself, kept.
Cultural movement looks like this. The world is ours. Not someone else’s interpretation of what is right. Or beautiful. Or real. Not someone else’s interpretation of what belongs to us. The world we envision for ourselves is ours.
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I only live life that makes me whole. Do you see what is happening here? I, America. I, Africa. I, European. I, Middle Eastern. I, Quilombo. I, Deborah Cowell, daughter of the Maroon. I sure hope you do. Now listen to this:
Thank you for reading. And listening, too.