Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Giant in our midst

Had he lived, Sekou Sundiata would have been sixty-five this year. A sui generis spoken word poet and musician and teacher and community activist and visionary, Sekou taught at Lang for twenty years. I didn't have a chance to get to know him well, but I saw him perform several times. The last time was at the Melbourne International Festival in 2006. (He died of heart failure the following July.) A seven-month series of commemorative discussions and performances called "Blink Your Eye: Sekous Sundiata Revisited" started today. My Jazz School colleague R read out a poem I can remember seeing (and still hear) Sekou perform in Melbourne, and before that here, with a backup of four women who took up the same words in close, phantasmagoric harmonies:

HOPES UP TOO HIGH

What if we were Life
or Liberty
or the Pursuit of something new?
Between the rocks below
and the stars above
what if we were composed by Love?

And what if we could show
that what we dream
is deeper than what we know?
Suppose if something does not live
in the world
that we long to see
then we make it ourselves
as we want it to be

What if we are Life
and Liberty
and the Pursuit of something new?

And suppose the beautiful answer
asks the more beautiful question,

Why don’t we get our hopes up too high?
Why don’t we get our hopes up too high?
High!

This evening's event, attended by many people who knew him (including a half dozen past faculty members I haven't seen in years), was a panel discussion about Sekou "Writer / Teacher / Artist / Activist." The first presenter was an alum, who's teaching a course on Sekou in the Reading NYC curriculum I administer at Lang. The next was R, who described to us Sekou's remarkable gift for creative collaboration: for him beautiful answers always asked even more beautiful questions. A professor from Michigan described his way with community artistic-citizenship events. A Jamaican economist - the surprise of the evening, for me at least - recounted how he'd put Sekou's community-building "community sings" to practice in Honduras and Jamaica, where they have helped create a stronger culture of citizenship. We finished with a small "Community Sing" of our own, led by R. We sang "Amazing Grace" together. Amen.

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