The King is Coming

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Photo by Artem Pochepetsky on Unsplash

Jamaica is a beautiful country. I’m in love with its hills and gullies, its lush landscape and jawdropping mountain views. As much as I rep The Bahamas, I’m proud of the Jamaican in me as well, and I’m always excited to come and visit.

I’m here now for a few weeks and it’s been great so far; the right mix of low key and stimulating. I’ve driven around Kingston, gone out to dinner and to church, and stayed home catching up on reading. My conversations have been about their national ID card controversy, the instability of the Jamaican dollar, the popularity of Juici versus Tastee patties and Jamaican versus Bahamian ways of speaking. Already I’ve eaten saltfish, curry and Devon House rum raisin ice cream. If you ever come to visit, go to Devon House. Or somewhere that serves their ice cream. It’s uhmazing, and they give you plenty plenty so depending on how you’re feeling you might want to share a single scoop.

While I’m here I plan to do this-year-assessing, next-year-planning work, to cook and write down family recipes, and to read read read. Also, um, it’s December! Which means Christmas is coming and I’m super excited. I’m following this advent devotional from Desiring God, and bustin’ out all the music. Last year I listened to Christy Nockel’s Thrill of Hope album on repeat, and the prelude has been playing more frequently in my head recently:

The whole album is lovely and heart-swelling, on the mellow side of Christmas tunes.

In addition to the devotional from Desiring God, I found a scripture writing plan for the names of God that I’m using in my quiet times. I’ve never done a writing plan like this before, but I’m so thankful that I’ve found it because it couldn’t be more appropriate for advent.

What do you have planned to finish out the year? I’d love to hear about your favourite Christmas  music!

 

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UB Lessons: Taking Hard Things a Day at a Time

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Happy Sunday! And to all my American readers, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. As close as we are to the US, Bahamians are well acquainted with your grateful feast. Many restaurants and families organise Thanksgiving meals, but it’s by no means the big deal that it is for you, and definitely not a holiday. For plenty of people the day passes like any other, as it did for me this year. The date barely registered for me, and if it weren’t for instagram I probably would’ve had no idea. I’ve eaten no turkey or mashed potatoes, no pie or green beans – it was just a Thursday in my world.

Well, not any Thursday – the last one of my semester! I have final papers to mark now, but the teaching part of this term is o.v.e.r. I am so happy, as well as proud and thankful. I won’t say that the time flew by, because I felt every day of the last 14 weeks, but I do look back in satisfaction at how far I’ve come.

In the beginning, the close of the semester seemed like a horizon stretched out in front of me – far away at the end of my vision, out of reach. Learning how to manage each classroom, brainstorming activities to keep my students engaged and interacting with one another, planning how to actually deliver the material, and marking, I was swamped. On top of figuring out how to teach, there were many admin and/or tech related issues to resolve; as soon as I settled one another took its place. Focusing on the end of the semester didn’t give me any relief, it just made me feel tired. I wondered how I was going to make it to the finish line, and what state I’d be in when I got there.

Instead, it was more productive for me to consider my work in small chunks, taking the semester one class at a time. I celebrated at the end of every week and as time went on I became more comfortable at the front of the classroom. Many of the side issues went away, and for the ones that didn’t I found workarounds. Now here I am, having taught a semester of college! I handed out surveys in my final classes and the students all reported greater confidence since they’ve learned things, so that’s marvelous haha.

I’m sharing my accomplishment to encourage you in whatever hard season you might find yourself: this too shall pass! Maybe thinking about the end isn’t helpful because there’s so much to do between now and then; taking things a day at a time might be a better strategy. Then one day you’ll look up and realise – hey! I’m doin this thing! – and a few days after that you’ll look up and say – hey! I’ve done this thing!

I’d feel silly sometimes about being frustrated and upset, knowing that 14 weeks isn’t long, and there were surely people with much bigger problems in much longer seasons of difficulty. But it was still my season, new and hard to me, and I still had to work my way through it. It’s important to keep our problems in perspective, to recognise our privileges and luxuries, but not as a way to dismiss how we’re doing. And in whatever difficulty we’re having, breaking things down into smaller pieces, moving through with a view to steady improvement and skill development, our mountains can become molehills. Or maybe not, but we’ll certainly climb them. 😉

Forgive me for that corny analogy. I’ve gotta go mark now.

Freestylin On My Birthday!

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Photo by Lucy Heath on Unsplash

It was my birthday last week! I had an amazingly joyful day, spending time with friends and family, baking and keeping myself amped up with cheers and freestyle raps. Yes, you read right! Driving to my dad’s house for dinner after work, and then at my dad’s house getting ready for dinner, I was coming up with rhymes about it being my birthday. That was pretty much as deep as they got haha. Here’s one that stuck with me:

Bakin’ chocolate cookies
Eatin’ chocolate cake
And she celebratin’
Because she’s 28!!
28 yup! 28 yup!!

Now imagine appropriate arm movements and head gestures, plus some jumping around, and you’ve got a better idea of how said rap was performed. I had so much fun. I was loud. I felt free. I just let everything else go and focused on the fact that I was alive and had a whole day to celebrate.

The day started off just fine, more on the low-key side. Then somewhere around mid-afternoon it was like a switch went off in my head. I don’t remember there being much of a coherent thought process, but I felt an urgency to be enthusiastic, and grateful, and to create more excitement for myself. It was my birthday! Who better to feel it than me?? So I started, and once I got going there was no dampening the turn up.

It’s been a few years since I was that amped about my birthday, but I plan to continue this trend in the future. Aside from making my day even more enjoyable, it was a chance to just be and tap into the spontaneous, exuberant side of myself. Days like my birthday remind me that even being fluid and carefree can involve conscious decisions.

Anyway, I know you can’t hear my actual birthday rap performance, but I can leave you with one of my favourite songs of late. I love to dance to this one, and often dream of learning the choreography. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and have a great week!

Rushin’ to Bacchanal – My Podcast Episode!

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Photo by Torrell Glinton

I made a podcast! Well, I made an episode of a podcast. Last December I pitched three story ideas to the show Afropop Closeups. I don’t have a background in radio but I love podcasts and have long dreamed of making one, so when I learned they were accepting pitches I hopped to it! I was over the moon when they got in touch to say they wanted me to produce one of the ideas, and got straight to work in January.

The story is based on work I did for my master’s degree, but I still needed to do interviews, update my research, source music and write a script. Having the background knowledge was a helpful foundation, but there was still a ton of work to do. For six months I laboured, right up until a week before my studio date in the middle of June. Then I got together with the season’s executive producer and Afropop’s sound engineer to record the narration and mix all the audio together. After a marathon studio day, we were finished! Then I had to cool my heels till the season launched.

Developing the episode was a long, sometimes arduous process, particularly when it came to script writing. I had hours of great interview tape, but only 20 minutes of episode time to work with. Editing everything down into a comprehensive, enjoyable script was often overwhelming. By the last couple of weeks, when I had wrangled the content into a manageable document, I began to feel really proud. When it came time to go to New York, when I was actually in the studio with the executive and the engineer, I was thrilled!

We had a lot of fun working together, and it was amazing seeing and hearing the script being animated into one seamless experience. All the notes I’d written, all the sound cues I’d flagged, were surrounding me and coming together the way I heard it in my head! When we said goodbye that evening I wanted to run and play the episode for everyone. If I had my druthers, I would have broadcast it then and there, but I had to wait till the season was complete and the show was ready to release each episode on a schedule. I’ve been very patient all summer.

So what’s the story about? There’s this centuries old Bahamian parade called Junkanoo. We live and die for this event, and it’s been denigrated, celebrated, advertised and hidden at various times in its history. Bahamians love Junkanoo. Trinidadians have their own masquerade festival, Carnival. It is just as old and serves a similar purpose in Trinidad as Junkanoo does in The Bahamas.

A couple years ago the Bahamian government decided to introduce a new festival, a Bahamas Carnival, to attract tourists to our shores. As the name implies, they modelled this event on Trinidad’s Carnival, rather than our own Junkanoo. My episode explores the controversy that ensued. I hope you’ll give it a listen, and let me know what you think!

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A Little Dance Music Before Bed

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Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The best kind of bedtime is the one I’m able to ease into. I’m not a fan of those frantic days when I work right up until the nth hour, then force myself to stop and get to sleep as quickly as possible. Neither do I like those nights when I get home late and only have time to brush my teeth, wash my feet, face and hands, and schlafen – the way my dad used to instruct me and my siblings when we’d get into similar situations as children. I don’t even really like watching a tv show or movie as the last thing before bed. No, the best bedtimes are the ones where I get an early start: shower, listen to my ‘sleep’ playlist as I put on pj’s, read, and maybe listen to one more song before I really close down.

I developed my sleep playlist in college, when I started having trouble falling asleep and someone suggested to my mum that I create a wind-down routine. The top two songs on there are ‘Solitude’ by Billie Holiday, and Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 no. 4. I love them both, but I’d like to wax a little poetic about the perfection that is Chopin’s mazurka.

Mazurkas are Polish dances, though this piece doesn’t exactly conjure visions of people partying in my mind. In fact, I don’t really think of anything while it’s playing; it’s the kind of music that clears my head. I am captivated by its lilting melody, its almost saccharine sweetness. Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation is perfection: most of the time gentle and light, but with enough vigour and passion to keep the experience interesting. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and still marvel at the way he makes the piano sing. I grew up playing the instrument, and even at my most coaxing, delicate moments I felt like the sounds I produced were plonking and clumsy.

As Rubinstein performs it, the mazurka is 4.5 minutes long. It starts with a basic, four bar, four note melody, a little melancholy. There’s a brief pause and then we get into the body of the piece, which takes that same melody and uses it as the basis for a number of rhythmic and melodic variations. It lifts and twirls, with trills, grace notes and little runs, always with steady chords underneath the movements, grounding them. There’s a portion kind of like a bridge in the middle that introduces new material, and then we return to the familiar melody and some more variations. The music ends at the beginning, tidily, with the same first four bars, but with so much more emotion; it’s like we’ve become intimate partners because of the way we’ve seen the melody move.

When the mazurka comes to rest, I feel completely at peace. Rarely am I able to play it just once – maybe I never have? And I am always overcome with gratitude for such incredible gifts in this world – composing and performing – and with amazement at the skill of Chopin and  Rubinstein. The mazurka makes bedtime magical, and reminds me too of the awesome God who made it, and all music, possible.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

James 1:17

 

 

 

 

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Leaving Home to Find It: Bahamian Anthems

I was browsing the shelves in my undergrad institution’s music library when I came across two volumes of Bahamian music. I couldn’t understand how they could be titled the “Real Bahamas” and I’d never heard of any of the singers or songs listed on the back. Of course I checked them out, eager to hear their contents.

Well. My first listen-through was challenging. I didn’t like what I heard, which was disappointing, because I really wanted to! This was the “real” Bahamas after all. Most of the songs were a cappella, and the ones that weren’t had only guitar accompaniment. The music was folksy and the singers were old. Even their voices sounded wrinkled. They growled, mumbled, shouted and dropped in and out of the songs seemingly at will, with the end result being far from the polished albums I’m used to. But there was something about the songs, the stories they told and the dialogue between the singers that encouraged me to replay the albums. That and the fact that I wanted to at least be able to appreciate the content.

Slowly, through this deliberate process, I came to love the music and the people behind it. The “wrinkled” voices sound honest and passionate, moving in their own right, no matter they aren’t intense or smooth like Aguilera, Houston, McKnight or Sinatra. I learned that the guitarist was Joseph Spence, considered a genius in musician circles for his rhythmic innovations and playing that sounded as though there were two guitarists instead of one. I learned too that one of the strange qualities of the music, likely one of the things that made it difficult for me to enjoy it in the beginning, was that the lead person sings the melody inside of the song, with the others harmonising above and below him/her. It can be a little disorienting, although now that I’m used to it all my discomfort in the beginning is just a memory.

“I Bid You Goodnight” was one of two anthems (the name for this genre) I could find on YouTube. There’s a fair amount of Spence’s music on there, and though he’s amazing, it’s not quite the same. Definitely give “Goodnight” a listen, as well as “Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend”, which is one of my favourite songs from these volumes. You can hear snippets of the rest on iTunes. Check out “Sailboat Malarkey” – bizarre but I love it – “Up in the Heaven Shouting” – punchy! – and “Won’t That Be a Happy Time” – which my library tells me is just ahead of “Don’t Take” for the most plays. Let me know what you think, and whether you have any experience with this genre. 🙂

 

Carrie & Lowell

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One evening late last year I watched the pilot of a show that a friend recommended to me. It was ok, somewhat intriguing, and though I watched another episode or two ultimately I decided the show wasn’t for me. The pilot however gifted me with the best body of music that I listened to that year, an album that’s going to stick with me forever.

I thought the intro music was beautiful, so I went looking for the song that it came from. To my happy surprise, it was by Sufjan Stevens, an artist I already knew and liked. I replayed the song, “Death with Dignity”, over and over on YouTube, and slowly started listening to others from the album. This grew into listening to the album in full, and finally buying it.

The year was practically over by then, and I had heard a lot of other new music. When Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” came out I was impressed, and thought that it might be the defining sound-memory of the year for me.  After a few listens, the songs I wasn’t super comfortable with started to grate on me and I played it less and less. I thought I might not find an album of the year after all – no biggie, not something I typically look out for. Then “Carrie & Lowell” came along.

Stevens started composing after the death of his mother, Carrie. Lowell is his stepfather. The album was released in 2015, and each song sounds light and soothing. I hardly noticed the lyrics in the beginning, but the more I listened, the more I realised that they dealt with intense emotions and pulled the curtain back on his childhood and his grief. He cries out to the “God of Elijah” and wonders what the point of singing is if “they’ll never even hear you”. The album is intensely personal, and there are points in several songs that bring me near tears from the incredible mix of the beauty of the music and the pain in the words.

“Carrie & Lowell” is nostalgic, with Stevens remembering things like learning to swim, and his mother leaving him at a video store. It’s mythic and other-worldly, mentioning Greek gods, shadows, vampires. It’s woven together with the lightest of touches, primarily guitar, vocals, banjo and piano. And it’s incredibly honest. Stevens doesn’t hide the fact that his mother wasn’t the best parent – leaving him in a store as a toddler – that she suffered from schizophrenia, or that he was on the precipice of committing suicide as he coped with his grief.

There are days when I listen to “Carrie & Lowell” intently. On those days I can’t help but mourn and muddle through the fog of memory and imagery with Stevens as he does the same. Yet there are other days when I play the album in the background and enjoy the lovely river of sound it creates. Some songs I always have to stop and sing, like “Eugene” and “Death with Dignity”. I find comfort and calm in Stevens’ music, despite feeling almost pierced myself with his heartache. Thankfully, I still have all of my parents, but his album gives me a glimpse into what it might feel like when I lose them. For its emotional depth, sweet melodies and coherence, “Carrie & Lowell” is an album I’ll be listening to and sharing for years to come.

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