From mergers to mystery

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To listen to the song mentioned in this post, “Medianoche” by Priya Parrotta, please visit here

A few tourists have returned to Condado, and with them, a reminder of the selling of paradise. I returned from the ocean this morning to find a man talking on the phone outside the newly-opened Starbucks. In the loud voice that I’ve come to associate with conventional tourism, he announced that he had a meeting later that day. This made me wonder — why is here, for a meeting which very clearly has little relevance to this place?

Then it occurred to me — maybe it doesn’t have relevance, but maybe it does. Maybe this man is here for the sort of business trip which, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was all too common. This kind of business trip takes place here largely because of the picturesque setting– the turquoise waters and swaying palm trees that signify home for “locals” …. but also because such meetings often  involve some sort of deal, some merger or some acquisition, which has deleterious implications for environmental sustainability.

The places we call paradise– places in the tropics with exquisite nature and artistic vibrancy– are more vulnerable to these sorts of exchanges than I can bear. In a neoliberal world, paradise is seen as a place to use and exploit without regard for the consequences. In its diverse manifestations across the tropical world, it is a place to enjoy in a “guilt-free” way. For conventional tourists and business-people like the man I overheard, paradise allows for recreation and gain that do a disservice and a disrespect to the people and not-people here (plants and animals on land and underwater).

After several months of respite from tourism, when my frustration at environmental dynamics in Borikén became restricted only to locals, this situation hurts. Why is it coming back? Why was it ever here in the first place?

There is an upsetting story here. In this story, the ocean serves as a backdrop, or a playground, or some disconcerting combination of the two.

A song on the new Climate Soul EP, “Medianoche,” came out of a very different relationship to the sea than the one I just described. Set at night, it celebrates the mystery and abiding magic of the ocean. Being by the ocean allows the singer to dream. This, for me, is such a big part of what being on a tropical beach is. The ocean, after all, is a world largely unknown to us. It is the dwelling place of so many forms of life, who live independently of us but are also affected by our actions. The ocean is a place where we can very easily be reminded of how tiny we are, how insignificant and yet how tied into the webs of responsibility and light that keep this planet going.

What does the paradigm of conventional tourism– or rather, neoliberal tourism– tell us about what the sea is for? The answer– something very different, and very disconcerting. The values and practices of neoliberalism that manifest itself in the kind of tourism I see in Condado resonate and replicate among local society, and perhaps vice versa. But regardless, it is a story about the selling of paradise, utterly removed from the mystery of the sea, and ultimately weak for this very reason.

About a blog

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Between music and the planet lies… a justice-focused blog?

Yes– and allow me to explain why…

Anima and  Esmeraldas both fall under the banner of the Climate Soul Project. The Climate Soul Project– Climate Soul for short– is the branch of Music & the Earth which creates original music. As of two days ago, this music will be accompanied by a series of posts on this blog– liner notes, if you like– that highlight the critical/justice elements of the Climate Soul songs.

Music tends to float above discussion; and beautiful music in particular tends to weave its way through the hearts of a wide diversity of people. Often, though not always, these people rest at different ends of cultural and political spectrums. Some may be environmentalists, some may be pro-justice, but others may not. As an aesthetic form, music might touch all of these people. It might drift away from politics, and detach itself from justice concerns.

But that is not what Climate Soul is about. On the contrary, the intention behind Climate Soul is to create music that can serve as a window into deep, true, uncompromising fights for both social and environmental justice. Bridging the gap between the inherent universality of music, and the urgent need to address specific concerns in the world, is challenging. And that is where this blog comes in.

Here, I will share liner notes that elaborate upon the various choices that make up each Climate Soul song. I will describe the consciousness-motivated reasons behind incorporating certain instruments, rhythms, subjects, and perspectives in this music. These songs were written with both politics and aesthetics in mind; and here, I seek to express the bridges which link the two.

The name Climate Soul itself arises from multiple meanings which dance along the boundary of aesthetic and political. Put briefly however, the music of Climate Soul seeks to “model” soulful relationships between people and nature, and in the process also shed light on some of the injustices that we inflict upon each other. It is intended to, in some way, express possible horizons which, whether by spiritual inquiry or social dialogue or political change, can offer a way out— out of the broken-ness which all too often defines our relationships with each other, and crucially, our relationships with the non-human world.

These hopes are the inspirations and impetus behind Climate Soul. In this blog, I take the responsibility of showing you how they are connected to the music that is emerging through this project.

Aché.

The politics of life

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This post is about an album, only it is not about an album at all. (let’s get this out of the way — In several weeks, a new Climate Soul EP will be released.) It seems a very bizarre time to be announcing a release– after all, the world is gripped in currents of disease, in many senses of the word. We are seeing not only the way in which physical sickness can take hold and spread across vast swaths of the Earth; we are also seeing the ways in which our political systems perpetrate injustices that reveal a hatred of life. Profit-seeking meets authoritarianism meets centuries-old precedents of racial and environmental injustice– all of these combine to create regimes in countries across the globe, including and especially the US, that suffocate people and the Earth. Life itself is threatened by politics: This, too, is an age-old story, and we live in it today.

As I write this, protests for racial justice and an end to police brutality have erupted across the United States, and in other countries as well in solidarity. The protests were most immediately instigated by the murder of an African American man named George Floyd at the hands of four policemen. His murder is the most recent in a very long line of assaults and homicides against African Americans by white police officers. It is also the most recent instance of these police officers in no way receiving just punishment for their brutality– simply because of their uniforms and the color of their skin. Histories, bodies and spirits are on the line in these protests, which are taking place despite the COVID-19 pandemic: One form of health and life is being risked in the fight for another.

“The politics of life” is a phrase which has been on my mind a great deal these past few days. I have been thinking about what it means to defend life– in particular, what it means for our politicians to defend life. True and real defense of life means many things. It means protecting people from physical disease– such as this coronavirus pandemic. It means protecting people from physical harm at the hands of each other– from violence such as police brutality. It means dismantling systems, processes and ideologies that threaten people’s sense of sanity and will to live. And of course, it means protecting the non-human world– the ecosystems which support our lives, and deserve to live and thrive in their own right. A just politics of life would protect and fight for all of these things. The neo-fascists leaders of the world, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, have brutally and unapologetically been doing the opposite.

The politics of life are in their hands, and they are in ours. They can be affirmed by how we see the world, what we choose to fight for, and the ways in which we appraise and value life on this planet– the life in each other, and the life in nature.

The Climate Soul EP is titled Anima, which gestures towards several meanings.  Among them are: (in philosophy) the soul or animating principle of a living thing; (in Jungian psychology) the inner self of a person that is in touch with the unconscious, and/or the unconscious feminine aspect of a person. All of these definitions stem from the Latin word anima, and its Indo-European root, meaning:

“a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle, life, soul”

To breathe… to breathe… this need and call has become a cornerstone in the movement for racial justice, in environmental movements, and in our own private cries for the liberty of our spirits.

The EP is named after this word and concept to suggest the fundamental means by which we are connected to the world around us. I wrote the songs on this album in the hopes that they might gesture towards a deep and affirming politics of life which can take us to any number of landscapes in this world– the landscapes of nature, the landscapes forged through our interactions with culture, the landscapes which keep us sensitive and the landscapes which keep us going.

This post is in honor of all those who have fought for life in the past, are fighting for life now, and in the process are putting their own lives on the line, in defiance of leaders who have no idea what the word “life” even means.

Til soon.

Life of Pi

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As the sun sets and the mystery of darkness takes its place, I wonder about the places I have never been to. I wonder about this world, its waters and its skies and its beings. I wonder at what we call the miracle of life, and I wonder where that miracle resides. Does it have a home? Does it have a name? Does it fly or swim? does it have roots or wings? Where does it live, where on this revolving blue marble where you and I reside? Are we a part of it? Tonight, these wonderings are woven together by a soundscape: Mychael Danna and Ron Simonsen’s soundtrack for the 2012 film Life of Pi.

Based on a novel by the Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi is the story of a young man whose life takes a turn for a mystical when he finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck in the deepest spot on Earth– the Mariana Trench. Stuck in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no signs of humanity even remotely in sight, Pi struggles to stay alive, all alone. Well, strictly speaking, he is not completely alone. Pi does have one companion, who remains with him throughout the story. His name is Richard Parker, and he is an exceptionally fierce and dangerous Bengal tiger.

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At the start of the film, we learn that Pi is from Pondicherry, a city on the southeast coast of India. Pondicherry has, for thousands of years, been a zone for trade and exchange. Like many places in India, Pondicherry has been defined by the coexistence of many religions, cosmologies, and traditions. The diversity of the city’s heritage(s) combine with a distinctively tropical landscape, and the result is the sort of place that could spiritually prepare Pi for his unforeseeable, unimaginable life experience.

Pi grows up a Hindu with an intense interest in Christianity and Islam. Surrounded by animals (his family owned a zoo), as a child Pi is interested in communication in all its forms– including, and perhaps especially, the bonds we form with animals. He is enchanted by mythology, stories of the skies and the unknown. He comes of age with a distinctly Indian sense of humor, empathy and philosophy, and is perhaps open to the cosmos well before his story truly begins. He believes that the divine exists in numerous forms, and that we would be wise to awaken ourselves to that possibility.

Life of Pi is a tale that can be interpreted in several ways. For some, the story can be seen as one great metaphor for human interaction, for the relationships we break and forge within the confines of society. In this interpretation, the tiger represents the aggressive among us, while Pi represents the opposite.

To others, the story is to be taken literally– an inspiring tale of a young man who is able to survive the many faces of nature, and thus learns key lessons about survival at multiple levels.

To me, Life of Pi is an extraordinary allegory that has to be seen, experienced, to be believed. As I listen to the film’s soundtrack, I am reminded of the almost unendurably incredible way in which this film portrays the planet we live upon.

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In his journeys through the sea, Pi encounters nature in her diverse incarnations. He experiences her beauty in the form of tremendous constellations of animals underwater, and stars up above. He finds himself in the middle of storms that rival the strongest hurricanes in their intensity. From still waters to unusual plants to scorching sunlight, from fear to hope to the border of insanity and the shoreline of miracles, Pi experiences the Earth in ways that virtually none of us will first-hand. Would we want to, though? Would we want to be on the edge of oblivion for hundreds of days, keeping company only with a perennially hungry and thirsty tiger? Perhaps not.

And yet, in Pi’s story, we learn something about life that perhaps is too deep for words. Perhaps it is too deep for music as well.

Yet the soundtrack of Life of Pi helps me to recall the richly textured, if inarticulable, insight that the story conveys. For all of the ups and downs, the crests and falls of Pi’s life with Richard Parker, the film’s score sounds like a sequence of rhythmic, steadying breaths. A bansuri (a flute used in Indian classical and devotional music), choral vocals, strings from East and West, and a variety of other instruments help us to recall the beauty, mystery and profound contemplation that infuses this film– and crucially, our own personal responses to it. This movie, and its soundtrack, help me to remember the  the inexhaustible and unfathomable beauty of our planet. They help access that part of me that believes in that beauty, and believes that we are a part of it in a real, cosmic way that, I fiercely hope, cannot be torn asunder.

Temblores

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Earthquakes have sent shockwaves across Puerto Rico this week, causing significant damages in the South and countless frayed nerves in the North. Early on Tuesday morning, as one of the stronger quakes shook buildings across the island, I lay in my San Juan bedroom, pillow over my head, praying and humming to find some sort of stability in this radically unfamiliar experience.

For those who live in earthquake-prone areas of the world and experience this kind of thing on a regular basis, perhaps it is not as scary. But for those of us who have never experienced this before, and never believed that the Earth beneath us could shift and shake, it brings on a feeling of profound insecurity. For me at least, the insecurity during the quakes was physical— the world stirs in sharp and big strokes from under you, and you are unsure of where to go, what to do, how to react. The even greater terror— the tsunami warning that follows these quakes— runs so deep that you can barely say it aloud. 

Fortunately, immensely fortunately, the quakes and tremors seem to be calming down. Those of us who are residents of the northeast capital of San Juan have relatively little to recover from. The main concern for most of us here in the North is the anxiety that this has provoked— feelings of insecurity that are layered upon the still-active feelings of instability which were brought on in the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017. But this unsettled-ness, while of course directly linked to the physical shifting of the Earth, does not have to do only with tectonic plates. It has to do, perhaps more directly, with the suspicion that when the ground shakes beneath us, or the skies rage above us, the government will do little to make it better. 

Insecurity can be physical; it can be emotional; it can be social; and it can be political. As this week comes to a close, politics is what is on my mind the most. Socially, we have once again demonstrated a capacity for solidarity and kindness to one another, and that is a source of strength. Emotionally, we are overwrought, but we are coming up with ways to lessen the stress for each other— through actions as small as words of encouragement on social media, and as large as free concerts in grand theaters which are made open to all.

Politically, however, we are on shaky ground. The governments of many countries on Earth— most notably, places like Japan— are equipped to address the sorts of damages that we have experienced. Often in these places, earthquakes, cyclones, and even tsunamis only momentarily disrupt the pace of life. People can rest in relative ease, knowing that, while there are many forces in nature that we cannot control, their wellbeing has been protected by governments which have anticipated these events, and taken the necessary measures to minimize the suffering that they bring. 

We, meanwhile, have little to no such security. The last time we had a major environmental event, María, the government’s (both local and federal) response exposed the rotting foundations of our political system. Countless articles have been written on this story, and a simple Ecosia search will yield them all. In essence, though, the story is this— that the politicians within the Puerto Rican government and their US counterparts had for years been pursuing policies aimed primarily at open the island up to private sector profiteering.

For well over a decade prior to María, many of us have been criticizing the various measures that have been taken to make it easier for the so-called 1% to exploit the island’s natural and human resources for their own gain. Oversight boards, austerity measures, slashes in public sector funding, neglect of public infrastructure, withdrawing support for essential social services,  repeals of protections for nature reserves, special schemes that effectively legalize tax evasion and private gambling with public money: These overlapping actions and more have created a profound insecurity that runs through us just as powerfully as a physical earthquake.

After María, our worst fears about our government’s priorities and loyalties were confirmed. Politicians here and in the United States regarded the island as a source of revenue, as real estate— not as a home for people, plants and animals who all look to political leaders for much of their physical security. 

Since this summer’s unprecedented protests, which called for the resignation of Puerto Rico’s then-governor, Ricky Rosselló, we have witnessed greater transparency in the island’s governance. Yet the same fears linger. If we experience a power outage, for instance, we know that it is possible that energy will not be restored for months and months. If we sustain physical damages, we are not entirely sure that we will ever be compensated for the repairs. And if disaster of any kind strikes, we have little to no assurance that a safety net exists to give us everything we need to make it alright. 

In the last few days, the word “unsettled” has been given deeper meaning for me. We all know what being physically settled— that is, the ground beneath us being firm— means. Similarly, what does it mean to be politically settled? Most of us, I believe, already know the answer. And when we visualize it, we can feel the ground within us become a little steadier. 

With thoughts and prayers for those in the South, and thoughts and prayers for the countless many across the globe who have experienced and suffered from earthquakes and politics.

Little Women

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Alexandre Desplat — Visit his profile on Spotify, and you will find him listed as the composer of a number of film soundtracks. Among these are Shape of Water, J’Accuse, and Suburbicon. Also listed in his profile is a mysterious album called Godric’s Hollow Graveyard, by Sea Turtle Harmonic… an artist/album name which is a little too close to my thoughts, and my bookshelf. Most recently, Desplat composed the soundtrack to the latest film adaptation of Little Women, which I had the good fortune of seeing today. 

Little Women is a Civil War-era novel by Louisa May Alcott. The novel tells the story of four sisters, growing up in the small and rather idyllic town of Concord, Massachusetts. Since the nineteenth century, Concord has been home to some of New England’s most thoughtful public intellectuals and creative writers. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott all hail from Concord, nurturing ideas and stewarding stories that countless people cherish today. Concord is a beautiful town, though perhaps not nearly as beautiful as it was in the nineteenth century. Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond is surrounded by woods, which are richly green in the summer, flush scarlet and gold in the autumn, and are stripped of their thousands of leaves in the winter. 

Little Women is a story that, in some ways, could only have happened in a small and wooded town like this. The main character in the story is Jo, a restless, strong-willed and exceptionally talented writer who chafes at the expectations placed upon her as a girl. Her three sisters’ personalities (Meg, Beth and Amy) run a wide range; the story follows them all as they come of age, make choices that highlight the differences in their personalities, and deal with life’s challenges together, despite it all. With the exception of a little time in New York, the plot occurs in a nature-filled environment— where friendships are close, community is unavoidable, the ambitious dream of leaving, and the contented never want to leave. 

Little Women has been adapted for the screen many times. The version I know best is the one released in 1994, which stars Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and others. Winona Ryder plays Jo— beautiful, willful, and determined to have a future which does not involve carrying out the usual duties placed upon women. In this latest version, which was written and directed by the alarmingly young and talented Greta Gerwig, Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan. The biggest difference between this new portrayal of Jo and previous versions is that, now more than ever, Jo is more candid about the double-edged swords of her life— the sadness and frustrations of coming to grips with her own personality and circumstances. The same is true of all her sisters, and the result is a film which candidly lays bear the issues that women faced, and continue to face, today. 

This difference is clearly signaled by Desplat’s soundtrack. It is almost difficult to listen to this soundtrack alone, because it is highly energetic— some would even say frenetic. But in the film, it makes sense. It provides an impetus for the girls’ unbridled energy— their creativity, their convictions, their emotion. More than in 1994, the Little Women in 2019 are more honest about the full truth of their feelings. Even Marmee, ever the tranquil mother and role model, admits that on a daily basis she struggles with her fury: Her fury at the moral bankruptcy of the Confederacy, and her fury at the responsibilities she has to shoulder on her own as her husband fights in battle for the North. None of the women and girls in this movie hide their feelings, for better or worse. They are allowed to express themselves, to be complex, to live by their own motivations. 

Meg marries for love but continually struggles with her ambivalence about the poverty that is her husband’s fate. Beth is an angel as always, but suffers the most in this unfair world. Amy, who in the past has been portrayed as vain, makes an important confession: that she has always felt inferior to her sisters, and therefore believes (albeit reluctantly) that she must attract a partner, or else live her life in poverty. And Jo, who will never compromise her talent and her dreams, not even for love, confesses to her mother that she is lonely, and that she hates that the world has to be that way. In recognizing the shadow side of independence, but still not changing her behavior to conform to expectations, Jo portrays for us all the complexity of real feminism… and those of us who feel the same laugh and cry, with relief and recognition, as a result. 

Little Women thus remains relevant for feminism in 2019 (or rather, 2020!). The travails of four girls in rural New England pertain to all of us. Music and nature are, as always, important characters. If you see the movie, consider— how does the setting drive forward the lessons it offers about being a woman and being free? How does the music do the same? 

Nada yoga

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 12.15.37 PMA ten minute walk from where I live, there is a yoga studio. And in that studio, there is a book. And in that small book, there are vast ideas about sound.

When I first began to practice yoga, I was entranced more by yogic philosophy than by asana (the physical practice).  I was enchanted not so much by the physical changes that are possible through a regular practice, but rather by the fact that those physical postures represent only one branch of a much broader system of understanding and interacting with the world.

My first experiences of yoga as a fifteen-year-old took place in a language that I could never fully describe or explain. They did not take place in a studio, but rather by the edge of the ocean. Every afternoon in tenth grade, I would walk to the sea and simply be with it. Since then, I’ve often said that I learned some of the core tropes and concepts of yoga– such as prana (life force), balance, stability and discipline– by the shore. But what does this actually mean? Even after three years of undertaking Music & the Earth, the answer to that question still remains outside the realm of words. The mystical and magical realm, if you like. The realm beyond science or explanation.

But a few weeks ago, in the small bookshelf at the studio, I encountered a book on nada yoga. According to the incomparable Wikipedia:

Nāda yoga (नादयोग) is an ancient Indian metaphysical system. It is equally a philosophical system, a medicine, and a form of yoga. The system’s theoretical and practical aspects are based on the premise that the entire cosmos and all that exists in the cosmos, including human beings, consists of sound vibrations, called nāda. This concept holds that it is the sound energy in motion rather than of matter and particles which form the building blocks of the cosmos.

Nāda yoga is also a reverential way to approach and respond to sound. In this context, sound [and] music carry a spiritual weight more meaningful, respectively, than what sensory properties normally provide. Sound and music are considered to play a potential medium/intermediary role to achieve a deeper unity with both the outer and inner cosmos.

Nāda yoga’s use of sound vibrations and resonances are also used to pursue palliative effects on various problematic psychological and spiritual conditions. It is also employed to raise the level of awareness of the postulated energy centers called chakra.

Music has been used by most Indian saints as an important and powerful tool in the quest for the achievement of nirvana; notable names to be mentioned here include Kanakadasa, Thyagaraja, Kabir, Meerabai, Namdeo, Purandaradasa and Tukaram.

Nada yoga, it seems, interprets the world in a way that makes the connection between music and the cosmos startlingly clear. It turns the link between sound and the cosmos into something that can be described– and ultimately utilized to propel us ever-closer to the elusive wisdom that is at the heart of all yoga. The idea that there is a system out there that can do this with sound is incredible, and terrifying.

Does that system, then, use sound to help elucidate our connections to the universe? Does it describe the ever-ephemeral and mysterious threads that link us to nature, that so powerfully impressed me almost fifteen years ago by the sea? And if it does, what does that knowledge make of us? Does it offer a blueprint to harmony?

This will not be my only post on nada yoga. In fact, I don’t think my engagement with this branch of yoga has even begun. So for now I just have one rhetorical question, for you and for me — If someone were to tell you that sound (or rather, sound vibrations) formed the basis of your existence, how would that change your relationship to music?

Such an immense question, as immense as the ocean and as powerful as its currents, can only have an immense answer.

I cannot wait to open that book again. Namaste.

An afternoon for coastlines

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“Coastlines” is a word that encompasses more of the world than many people realize. About 2.4 billion people (around 40% of the world’s population) live within 100 km (60 miles) of a coast. And more than 600 million people (about 10% of the global population) live in coastal areas—places that are less than 10 meters above sea level… places that for millennia have served as important crossroads and cradles of life… places which are now experiencing sea level rise, a threat that links us, as it threatens the fabric of our lives.

“Our” lives… hm… I write this blogpost as somebody who was born by the sea, and cannot imagine life without a coastline to turn to. My affection for coastlines– as a reality and also as a metaphor for dialogue and a certain bravery—is fierce. Just as Walt Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” I often find myself hoping to stretch my voice from one shoreline to the next, letting my love for this particular ecology be carried by many tides.

Sometimes, when I am in Washington, DC, away from the ocean, I feel a certain restlessness… as if there is something about being close to the sea that is peaceful and reassuring, even when it isn’t. I cannot help but think that this feeling isn’t only personal, but also a reflection of the fact that the stories that tend to take place on coastlines have much to offer the rest of the world.

For this reason, I’ve long harbored a desire to have a conversation about coastlines in DC, and see what people in this different “geography” would make of it. At Shores of Exchange, this conversation at last began to take place!

Shores of Exchange was an afternoon of conversation, laughter and music, co-created by the half a dozen or so people who attended. Some of us had lived on one coastline or another; others grew up in land-locked places with diasporic lineages that took them back to the sea; still others had been brought to shorelines not by family but by their musical curiosity or their interests in social and environmental justice. We were a multi-faith ensemble (so to speak), and our lives had, at one point or another, brought us into close connection with geographies in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia, Peru, Italy, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Musically speaking, we brought to the space a guitar, an oud, and several voices.

With a subject as expansive as the world’s coastlines, and with such a diversity of experiences present, how does a conversation begin? And an even more intimidating question—how does it proceed?

The theme of coastlines resonated very differently for each of us. Some of us were interested in the lived experience of being closely tied to a coastline. Others were interested in history, or in music, or in spirituality, or in sub-themes of encounter and coexistence along the world’s shores. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the afternoon took us in each of these directions. Over cups of tea and sangria and fruit and chaat (a popular South Asian street food), we exchanged thoughts on a number of topics: the connections between geography and violence; the way that music can serve as a window into the details of how people interact in a given place; the striking similarities between musical cultures in disparate coastal regions, and the possible reasons for this; and, inevitably and of course, the difference between the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants.

Throughout, we listened to a playlist that included music from all of the world’s major coastal regions. Speaking and singing, speaking and playing, we multitasked our way through a jam that included musical elements from the Sahel, the Indian Ocean– and (for my part), the placelessness that I think will always be a part of how I regard and make use of my human voice. Singing songs I knew and humming songs I didn’t, I felt the ineffable universality that is sometimes present when cultures meet. It was a positive feeling, and it is affirmed now as I listen to my favorite soundtrack of all time, which I encountered far, far away from any coast ;).

Was Shores of Exchange a one-time afternoon? Probably not—the question of how to bring the realities facing coastlines into the political and social discourses of Washington does not feel resolved. If anything, it is a challenge that feels bigger now than it did twelve hours ago. At the same time, I look forward to seeing how the conversation we just had seeps into me, and into the others who were a part of it.

Perhaps in the music, and the chats, and the speculations about Miss World and Miss Universe, there is a certain humor, or creativity, or spirit that can help us in the challenging times that we live in. Can this city, DC, be touched by these sorts of conversations? Can such dialogues effect a change in the political climate, and lead people in power to make the right decisions for our planet’s coasts? People who have known me a long time will laugh at the “broken record” nature of this last musing, the way any discussion with me about Washington eventually comes back to this. But so it is.

This is part of my barbaric yawp for the world’s coasts. I look forward to hearing yours.

Dumbledore’s Army

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Growing up, my favorite Harry Potter book was, without question, the third: The Prisoner of Azkaban. It introduced some of the coziest and most sophisticated elements of the series: the quaint and magical village of Hogsmeade (with its owl-filled post office and its iconic and signature drink, Butterbeer); the Marauder’s Map, the ingenious creation of a few teenagers; the Firebolt, a broomstick of unparalleled performance; and the Time-Turner, a delicate hourglass that allows you to turn back time, and ends up playing a key role in the story. The Prisoner of Azkaban is also when we are first introduced to Dementors, and to the brilliantly beautiful magic that repels them: the Patronus Charm.

Until recently, none of the other books came close to The Prisoner of Azkaban in my estimation. That is, until I re-read The Order of the Phoenix, and was floored by the parallels between its storyline, and today’s unfolding journey of the world’s young climate activists.

A friend of mine hypothesized that Harry Potter has a real-world counterpart in Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who is taking on the world’s richest, most privileged, and most complacent elite. I think this is true, but really to me, the parallels go much deeper.

HP5 (dork speak for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) is stunningly allegorical, helping us to understand the complex reasons and levels at which an impending disaster (be it Voldemort or increasing greenhouse gas levels) can be denied by world leaders, and confronted by the young, whose futures are most vulnerable to the threat at hand.

For those who are unfamiliar with the book, or have not read it with an eye to climate politics, allow me to summarize.

A dark force is on the rise. It gathers power incrementally, until it is becomes impossible to ignore and impossible to reverse. The least privileged and most vulnerable are affected first, and its most ardent support comes from people of profound power and influence, who believe the world exists for their benefit and have no problem supporting a force that will make injustice even more pronounced and cruel.

Harry Potter, a brave teenager, insists that people recognize what is happening, and act. He spends the summer before his fifth year at Hogwarts consumed by anger at the fact that this threat is not being reported in the papers. It is not appearing in the news, and the government—the Ministry of Magic—is acting like it does not exist. Furthermore, the Ministry is not only denying the problem, but is also demonizing and pathologizing the two people who refuse to keep quiet: Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore (a long-term mentor to young people with positive ideals).

Harry is eventually taken in by the Order of the Phoenix, a group of long-term activists who recognize the problem. When he returns to school, he is ostracized for a while, but then more and more of his classmates, his generation, recognize that they need to organize and confront this threat themselves. The school has been co-opted by Ministry staff who wish to repress such activity. To implement this policy of denial, they resort to violence—because injuring children is less dangerous to their interests than the much more straightforward and ethical course of action: admitting the truth.

The plot of HP5 proceeds in this way, at each turn offering important insights on the dynamics between young people and the political elite in the face of cataclysmic change. Until recently, this story was not so shockingly similar to the “real world.” Yet due to the surging courage of children and teens, and the recalcitrance of the rich and powerful in our own, less interesting but no less turbulent “Muggle world,” the parallels are becoming more striking by the day.

… Perhaps this post has only served to expose the fact that I am a Harry Potter dweeb who will never grow out of it. But maybe also, for those who love this series, this post will move you to revisit this book, and see if there is anything that you, that we, can learn from Rowling’s world of complacent and self-serving leaders, and the brave kids who seek to challenge them.

The Red Violin

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The first time I watched The Red Violin, I thought that its story was intensely ominous, and laced with menacing superstition. But lately, I’ve begun to believe that it is also achingly beautiful, and as searing a testament to the importance of an instrument as ever there was.

The Red Violin tells the story of a small violin, crafted and painted red by Niccolò Bussotti in the late seventeenth century. Widely considered Bussotti’s masterpiece, stories of the violin circulated for hundreds of years, as the instrument passed hands from player to player. By the late 1990s, which is when the last part of this film is set, many people in the world of classical music know that the violin exists, but have no idea where it is. The film traces the heretofore untold story of the violin– where it traveled, what stories unfolded around it, and ultimately, why and how it is painted red.

The story begins in 1681, in Cremona, a small city in northern Italy, situated on the banks of the Po River. Cremona was home to some of Europe’s most renowned luthiers (makers and repairers of stringed instruments), including Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. In the film, Niccolò Bussotti, the maker of the Red Violin, also lives here. As the film commences, he is in the process of making his capolavoro– his masterpiece. Meanwhile, his soft-spoken wife, Anna, is pregnant and anxious about the future. She seeks counsel from Cesca, one of her servants, who makes a long and rather confusing prediction, a story that far better resembles the life of an instrument than a human being.

Anna dies in childbirth, and broken by grief, Niccolò stops working. His last instrument, his masterpiece, the Red Violin, is given to a monastery in Austria, where it remains for one hundred years. It then travels to Vienna, the steady companion of a young orphan with exceptional talent. The boy loves the instrument almost as he would love a mother he does not have. He sleeps with her next to him, talks to her, and needs her. When a terrifying prince threatens to take the violin away from him, he dies from heart failure.

After the boy’s death, the violin is stolen by a band of gypsies, who over the course of several generations, travel from Austria to the shores of England, and eventually to Oxford. There, the violin is bought by a selfish, libidinous violinist who history will call “England’s only virtuoso” but whom Cesca refers to as “the Devil.” His possession of the violin is violent but short-lived. After he takes his own life, the violin travels to China with an opium trader.

Now in Shanghai in the 1930s, the violin is welcomed with open arms by a young woman with a thriving musical career. She passes the violin on to her daughter, who stays in Shanghai as an adult but nevertheless finds herself in an utterly different world: at the cusp of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution. Forced to surrender her mother’s beloved instrument or face dire consequences, she gives the violin to a music teacher– who, unbeknownst to the authorities, has vowed to safeguard dozens of violins in his attic.

Thirty years pass, and the music teacher dies. By now the political climate in China has changed, and so when this reservoir of instruments is discovered, they are transferred to an auction house in Montreal, to be bought by those who can afford them. The film ends when an appraiser who has been, quite literally, in love with the story of the Red Violin for years, steals the instrument from under the eyes of a host of people who are desperate to acquire it. Having discovered that the red varnish on the violin contained DNA of Anna Bussotti, the appraiser feels left with no choice. He switches the real violin with a copy, and takes it home to his wife and young daughter.

Most people see this as the story of a cursed violin, and with legitimate cause, given all of the death and sadness in this film. Yet lately I have started to wonder if the story is not at all about a sinister instrument and the ill-fated people who play it, but rather about the immortality of a kind-hearted woman who was not able to live herself. Yes, the film is filled with sorrow. But it is also filled with numerous moments when the violin gives comfort and joy to the people around it– or rather, the people around her.

Without her, the young boy from the monastery would have died of his heart condition long before. Without her, the gypsies would not have had the joy required to live out their wandering, itinerant destinies. Without her, the musician in Oxford would have offered nothing whatsoever to the world. Without her, the daughter of the violinist in China would not have had reason to question the lines drawn out around her. Without her, the appraiser in Montreal would have lived out his career gruffly, never humbled or awed by the way an instrument can carry so much humanity.

Niccolò Bussotti painted the violin as he did so that he could give the woman he adored a life beyond death. And I wonder if in some ways, that is what this story is about, too. What lives on, beyond the starts and finishes of historical eras, geographic borders, and the journeys of individual human beings? What would happen if we asked questions about immortality in this way, and celebrated what endures beyond us before it is too late? What if The Red Violin were to bring not only tears, but also a wonder at how a single instrument can survive the turmoil of the stories it passes through? What elements of the world around us– especially in nature– have quietly, gracefully done the very same thing?