Tuesday, July 26, 2011

random notes: seun kuti, swimming, a black yoga teacher

seun kuti in prospect park
Seun Kuti, Fela Kuti’s youngest son, played in Prospect Park, Brooklyn last week. We were planning to go, but then decided it was too damn hot to make the trip down to NYC, what with the East Coast being in the middle of a heatwave and all. 
For those who don’t know, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a hugely popular and influential Nigerian musician who originated a style of music called afrobeat, a mix of traditional West African percussion, James Brown-style big band funk, the modal, free jazz of the mid to late ‘60s and call and response vocals. 
He was also an unabashed critic of the Nigerian government -- for which he was repeatedly jailed, tortured and beaten over the years -- and an unapologetic practitioner of Yoruba, at a time when that tradition was considered by many of the country’s Christians and Muslims to be a backwards relic. 
Somewhat of a cult figure in the US during his 1970s-1980‘s heyday, Fela became known to a greater number of people when the musical 'Fela!' came out on Broadway. In Africa of course, he remains a legend, on the same scale as Bob Marley. Fela died in 1997. 
I saw Fela one time back in 1989, at the Apollo. He was a commanding performer, completely mesmerizing. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. And the music was slamming of course. Easily in my top ten shows of all time -- actually make that the top three.
Fela has another son named Femi, also a musician, who performs a more pop-oriented brand of afrobeat. I’ve seen him play a couple of times as well, first in 2000 and most recently in ’09. He puts on good show but IMO has little of the power and intensity of his father. That’s not meant as a put-down though I’m glad he’s out there doing his thing. 

Seun, who took over his dad’s band Egypt 80, is supposed to be closer to his Fela musically in terms of playing those long, extended jams so I’m looking forward to checking him out sometime. Just not when it’s 102 degrees.
my favorite lake
Here’s the lake where I swim all summer. It is surrounded by white rocky cliffs and you have to hike in about 20 minutes through the woods to get there. The water is usually freezing cold, sometimes so much so you lose your breath the first minute or so after diving in. The water is quite clean but murky as lakes tend to be and there are snakes in it (non-poisonous). 
Although located in a state park, most of the lake is not open to the public for swimming; you have to be a member of this swim club to join and prove you can go 10 laps or so in deep water. There are over 800 people in this club and as far as I know, I’m the only black person -- this little nugget corroborated to me by the founder. Like a good white liberal, she asked me if I could help get the word out to some other black folks about the club in case anyone wanted to join and I flat out told her that that was a nice gesture on her part, but probably a waste of time. I did agree to put up some flyers though.
Once past the early years of childhood/youth, most -- certainly not all -- black Americans don’t seem to be too into swimming. Maybe it’s the hair thing for the women, maybe it’s not having access to swimmable water in one’s formative years. I dunno. One thing I have noticed, at the YMCA I go to which is located dead center in the little black section of my town, there are plenty of black folks there working out but they are NOT to be found in the pool. You get the kids sometimes in the shallow end as part of a group class or sometimes splashing around with their parents, but as far as serious lap swimming goes, I’m pretty much it. 
In the three years I’ve been going there regularly, about 2-3 a week, I’ve only seen ONE other black person doing laps. (I was like “Hey there, sonny!”) Which is too bad. Swimming is such a powerful way to connect with the water element, and not to mention great exercise. 
Along this tip, we -- I can’t speak for other nationalities -- also don’t seem to be as much into the experience of raw nature as much other ethnicities are, although I wonder if this is more a matter of class than race. More thoughts on this in a future post, that is, black Americans’ relationship to the Mother.
a black yoga teacher
I was away visiting my mother for a few days and while I was gone I took a yoga class at the local YMCA. To my delight and surprise the teacher was black. Not only that she was also 80-years-old. In more than 20 years of doing yoga, I’ve only had a couple of black teachers, so this was a real treat. 
Eighty-years-old and mad limber. And when she moved, fluid as a dancer. At one point she was lying on her back, raised her leg up and touched it to her nose. 
I talked to her after class and she told me she’d been practicing yoga since 1955 and teaching since 1965. So, a fringe negro for sure. 

(“fringe negro” is my little term of affection for black folks who are far outside the mainstream. I use the word “Negro” because I like the way it rolls off the tongue and because it is non-PC and tends to rankle. I do NOT use it as a synonym for ‘Uncle Tom’ as it’s often employed today. I myself wear the label ‘fringe negro’ proudly and I’m always happy to meet another member of this very small tribe.)
You would have to be fringe to be black and doing yoga in 1955. Hmmm, maybe I should interview her for this blog. . .  
Anyhow, she was very masterful in her teaching. All those years of practice definitely showed. She focused you inward -- as the best yoga teachers do -- while at the same time adroitly conveying the proper alignment/breathing for each posture. 
Best of all she had a definite spark. You know, like life was still fun for her. Lots of folks lose that as they get older from just the vagaries of life beating them down or from following paths that don’t serve them. So that was great to experience. I think I’m in love.
Fela's biography is back in print after more than 20 years.
International Association of black yoga teachers: http://www.blackyogateachers.com/

Monday, July 18, 2011

From Jehovah’s Witness to Buddhist-Pagan

As I’ve mentioned, one of my goals for this blog is to present the full flavor of black paganism, from Afro-Diasporic to Wicca. This week’s interview spotlights Janai, 36, a Maryland-based graduate student in information technology who was raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness but now self-identifies as a “Buddhagan” (Buddhist-Pagan). Janai blogs at My Buddhagan Chronicles.
Black Pagan: Can you talk a bit about what your spiritual path?
Janai: Where do I begin? I had to coin a new label for my path: Buddhagan, which is Nichiren Buddhism and Eclectic Paganism. I don't really consider myself a witch but I'm definitely not Wiccan. I honor the Triple Goddess and emphasize the Female Divine. I practice by myself but when my work schedule allows, I attend ritual with a group of solitaries who meet once a month. I'm always learning and like many others who have "converted;" I feel like I am finally home.
What drew you to both paganism and Buddhism? 
I felt that the spiritual component was missing from my life. A co-worker for some reason invited me to a Buddhist intro meeting. Like Pagans, Buddhists do not proselytize but she is a very good friend of mine and felt that I would be interested. I admit it was a bit strange with the chanting but the information made sense to me. This opened my mind to explore other religions, Wicca/Witchcraft being one of them. I decided that Wicca was too inclusive for me so I started reading about Paganism in general. I was very surprised that it wasn't evil like I was taught that it was.
How long have your been on this path? How did you get into it? 
For a little over one year. After grabbing two very basic books on Buddhism and Paganism, I felt like this was it. I've always had a fascination with the moon and planets and the seasons. Now I knew [there] was a name for it. I feel complete now. I know everyone does not believe in God/dess, but for me, it's very comforting knowing that She exists. She does not impose any rules on us. I study and do ritual because I want to, not because I have to.
Can you describe some of your practices, like which gods do you worship (if any), meditation, rituals, prayers, anything. 
I align my practice with the phases of the moon. Once a week I do my own Tarot reading. I (try to) chant two times daily “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and recite two short passages in Japanese from The Lotus Sutra. I'm drawn to the Egyptian pantheon, specifically, Isis, Bast, and Hathor as I am trying to conceive. 
As husband is Pagan-friendly, I plan on learning about his favorite patheon, Norse. He has willingly helped me with several rituals. *wink*
What was your upbringing like in terms of religion? 
I grew up Christian, Jehovah's Witness specifically. My father never converted but my mother was and is very devout. This meant no holidays, knocking on people's doors, no friends that weren't JW, no boyfriends/dating, no choice. Even after I was grown and had my own child, since I was still living with Mom, I had to follow her rules.
What was it like making the transition out of being Jehovah's Witness into your current path?  Can you talk a bit about that time in your life? 
Well I sort of didn't have a choice. After my second child out of wedlock, I was shunned or "disfellowshipped" as the Witnesses call it. This means that no other JWs can talk to you, including your family. After trying several times to go back, I realized that this wasn't for me. I was miserable and I realized I was only doing it to please my mother. 
I'm still going through the transition. Since I had no social circle outside of JW, I was all alone. It is still very difficult for me to make friends now. I have conversed with former JWs who have gone through the same thing. It's like being deprogrammed after being brainwashed for so many years. I still have feelings of guilt, depression and betrayal. 
Do your friends and family know about your spiritual path? Do you have a spiritual community? 
My family knows and they don't talk to me. You know, the whole shunning thing. I haven't seen my mother, sister, and brother in years. The sad thing is, the religion is telling them not to talk to me. 
My current friends know if it happens to come up in conversation. I mean, I don't avoid it. My spiritual community is online mostly; there is a fellow Pagan sister at work. I've attended Buddhist meetings but my work schedule is weird so I can't attend like I want to.
What recommendations would you have for someone who wants to explore their own spiritual path? 
From my Buddhist path - faith, study, practice. Have faith that your heart will lead you in the right direction. We all have the Divine in us. Study what interests you. If it doesn't sound right to you, move on. Conduct your own research. Don't let anyone tell you that you are wrong. If some of it sounds right, take what you need, leave the rest. Once you've found your path, practice. This can be meditation, ritual, chanting, or a day out treating yourself.
I thank Janai for sharing her story and also laud her for her finding her own way after being shunned. Spiritual Abuse is a serious problem in some faith communities and finding support can be a crucial element in overcoming its devastating effects.

Spiritual Abuse Sanctuary is one website I found that has a lot of good information, including some accounts of Jehovah’s Witness shunning. For more of a pagan perspective, Lilith Silverkrow is a Portland, Oregon-based black pagan who does shamanic soul coaching in the area of spiritual and other forms of abuse. Her website: newpaganjourneys.com

Some info on Nichiren Buddhism: Soka Gakkai International - USA
A new site for Buddhist-Pagans: http://www.pagandharma.org/

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jim Morrison died 40 years ago

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” -- William Blake

Around 4:30 this morning, just as the sun was rising, I woke up with Jim Morrison on my brain. Jim Morrison, the lead singer of ‘60s rock band the Doors
Later I went online and saw that Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of his death in Paris, back in 1971 at the age of 27. 
The BBC report said that crowds of people -- including bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger -- gathered at his grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, as people have nearly every year since his death. Lighting candles and singing songs and such-like. I myself made the vigil when I lived there during the mid-80s.
This morning wouldn’t be the first time that Morrison had visited me from beyond the grave around the anniversary of his death. In July of 1990 I dreamed that he came back to show me a tattoo on his torso, an Aztec-style labyrinth. (This was a product of my imagination; I don’t know whether Jim had any tattoos in real life.) Since I'm not usually in the habit of dreaming about dead rock stars, this was a real treat.
Being such a huge Doors fan way back in high school I knew a lot about Morrison, including, at one point, when he died, so I guess one could say that my memory of the date of his death was basically triggered by the calendar. Or maybe Jim was out there trolling for babes on the ether, and I just got lucky.
Either way it’s all the same. Looking back, I realize that the music of Jim Morrison and the Doors had a huge influence on me, pagan-wise, although I didn’t know it at the time. In 1980, ‘81, I listened to them probably every day for about a year. 

I would turn off the lights, lie on the bedroom floor with a stereo speaker at each ear and listen. Until way past my bedtime. I scratched their logo into the wooden desks at school when history class got boring. I loved their music -- it was very dark, during an era when so much music was about love and flowers and sunshine. 

Their sound was a mix of psychedelic rock, jazz, and cabaret, with a smattering of blues. All the band members were great musicians, but it was most definitely Jim’s voice and lyrics that kept me mesmerized. Haunting is the only word. I was hooked for life.
Jim Morrison sang about all sorts of mystical, witchy things, like the moon, and ecstatic mind-states, and holding rituals in the forest. He said all we needed to do was “break on through to the other side” and I believed him. I still do. 
He was inspired by Greek myths and tragedy, the writings of Nietzche, Native American spirituality, Jungian psychology and voodoun, among many other things. He handfasted one of his girlfriends, who was Wiccan, and strongly identified with Dionysus, the god of wine. 

Many people said he evoked that deity on a regular basis, and that Dionysus rode him hard, and that it killed him in the end. Jim sang a lot about death. In one my favorite lines, he juxtaposes the Christian promise of salvation versus a more pagan/earthly sort of transcendence and finds the former sorely lacking: 
“I'll tell you this: no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”
Doors concerts were like shamanic journeys, with Jim and the band going into trance and taking the audience right there with them. He would jump down into the crowd and lead everyone in dance.
A lot of people thought that Jim’s lyrics were pretentious. They didn’t realize that far from performing some kind of schtick, he was dead serious about all of it. When he said, “I call upon the dark, hidden gods of the blood,” he meant it. And in 1970, at the height of the band’s fame, he turned his back on the rock scene and moved to Paris to write poetry. Died of a heart attack several months later.
The Doors were seminal in shaping the ‘60s rock scene, and they still influence today (both musically and mythically; Jim was the first rock star -- to my knowledge -- to inspire stories of being secretly not dead, and lo these many decades later, folks are still saying he’s alive, somewhere in the desert).
Here’s a link to the best essay I could find online regarding the Morrison-pagan connection.
Tonight, when I see the waxing moon going down behind the ridge out back, I will have a glass of wine, pour some out on the grass and think some more about Jim Morrison.