A Year In Review

From August 2016-June 2017 I traveled to India, Thailand, Ghana, and Cuba with the assistance of a grant from the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund for Musicians. I studied the traditional music of each of these locations in addition to performing, recording, teaching, and travelling in each. In my studies and performances I sought to emphasize the ways that these styles relate to my background in American jazz. While my original intentions were to remain in India for the entire year and study Carnatic music (South Indian Classical music), a combination of personal and musical circumstances drove me to end my stay there after six months. The Trustees of the Beebe Fund were kind enough to accommodate this decision and fund the remainder of my study. After a ten-day trip to Thailand I spent around six weeks in both Ghana and Cuba separated by a brief period of intensive Spanish study in Denver.

 

This was a life-changing experience for which I cannot adequately express my gratitude. I would like to thank my friends, family, and everyone else from the US who helped me make the most of it. I feel this appreciation still more for the new teachers, friends, and professionals who welcomed me into unfamiliar environments that I could not have navigated alone. And a big thank you to the people at the Beebe fund for making this all possible financially. If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember that I count myself unendingly privileged to have done this.

 

This experience meant too much for me to summarize it effectively here. As I look back I am somewhat overwhelmed with the complexity and contrast of the year as a whole. I think the best way to give you a sense of it is with a series of images and some brief explanation.  

 

I had the opportunity to experience the inside of different countries: I sat on the floor all morning playing a Varnam for a Guru named Karaikudi. One afternoon I climbed to a Buddhist temple on the top of a mountain with a Veteran who went by Ning. I stayed up all night on a smoky porch talking with a Rasta named Agbe. I danced Rumba every Sunday on a hot, colorful street with a woman named Maria. Through music, I was able to connect with people on the deepest level regardless of the barriers of language, culture, and geography.

 

I did challenging and meaningful work: I practiced ten or eleven hours a day for a month and a half in a windowless room. I completely stopped playing saxophone for three weeks to play drums in the open air. I danced and sang and thought hard for days and weeks and months. While I did not return with newfound virtuosity as a result of miraculously accelerated improvement, my concept of what music was, is, and will be for me is more developed now than it would have been had I done anything else.

 

I felt fear: I repeatedly had things thrown at me for practicing. I felt a child prostitute’s fingers cut into my skin. I was detained by corrupt police officers. I walked outside during the eye of a hurricane and returned not knowing where my next dollar or meal would come from. While harmless in hindsight, each of these moments carried with it immediate and unprecedented emotion that stole sleep, and kept me a little on edge for an entire year.

 

I felt extreme loneliness and confusion: I went many days with no human contact. I struggled to make myself understood in languages I do not speak well or with limited English speakers. I questioned the value of the material I was learning and the importance of musical work as a whole. I felt fundamentally unsure of the efficacy of my studies, and the trajectory of my career.

 

I felt exotic and unforgettable joy and companionship: I swam in the Atlantic, the Carribian, and The Bay of Bengal. I hung suspended from a rope over a rain forest, Squeezed into a zooming skytrain, and walked along rice paddy as the sun rose. I ate meals in the homes of people the world over. I had relationships of all kinds with women, men, boys, girls, grandfathers, grandmothers, teachers, authors, artists, professionals, chauffeurs, travelers, holy men, assholes, chiefs, hustlers, doctors and musicians.

 

Music was the uniting principle of all of my actions: I soloed for crowds in a jazz club in Accra. I beat drums in a seasonal Ewe celebration. I earned acceptance from a congregation in a two thousand year old Hindu temple. I played as reciprocity for meals cooked, beds made, and friendship offered. Without this focus I would have had a year of hedonistic and fleeting pleasure. Instead I emerge with new concepts, aesthetics, and repertoire that I will study for the rest of my life.

 

These experiences prompted a lot of self-reflection and discovery. Maturation is ongoing and constructing a conclusive narrative of how I’ve grown will always feel a little cliché to me. Accounting for this, I do feel that this moment is the culmination of a year and a half of work—starting six months before I was awarded the grant and began writing this blog.

 

I now think of myself as an artist, a professional, and an adult rather than a musician, student, and child. Since the moment I left my final college examination on December 19th 2015 I was met with the vast freedom and opportunity that my background provides, along with equal feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. In addition to traveling with the Beebe fund I made an Oberlin-sponsored trip to Jordan, Canada, and the Netherlands with my band “Echoes.” I worked hard in the run up to my audition for the Trustees, and my senior recital, but as a whole I spent my last semester at Oberlin as a part-time student striving for something vague without much direction, accompanied by the same internal churning of most aspiring artists. But the repeated privilege and gratification of amazing opportunity, met with work, resulting in happiness sculpted and solidified my personality, musicianship, and independence to something more solid that I feel proud of.

 

My feelings about this year are as diverse and complex as the year itself. I feel pride for the challenges I have overcome and the successes I have had. I feel empathy for the lives of the people I have met that are not as fortunate as me. But most of all, I feel immense gratitude. I’m thankful for this year, and I am thankful for the way that my life up until this point made it possible. I’m thankful for all of the people in my world who support me and inspire me to be greater. I have seen the results when you don’t have as much help as I have, and I deeply appreciate what I have. I am certain that for every one part of me that I am by my own efforts, there are three parts that I have been given. I can’t say it enough: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

 

I’ll leave this blog up but I won’t add anything new. I hope it will serve as a little memento for what I’ve accomplished and who I am at this moment. I feel some fear, but greater excitement for what lies ahead. I don’t think I’ve reached the peak! And wherever I am on the path, I know I’ll keep climbing even if it gets rocky, and doesn’t exactly go up from here.

 

For future readers who are interested in learning more I recommend a few posts to give you a more detailed idea of what this year was for me: “Enjoy it” gives a sense of the initial excitement I felt upon arrival in Ghana. “A Change of Plans” details the reasoning behind my choice to leave India. “Cuba #2” could be a fun read about some specific musical events along with “Ego, Effort, and Ending.” Personally, I will probably revisit “My Tattoo From God” again because it provides (an exhaustively detailed) insight into how I’ve changed and where I plan to go from here.

 

…And just for fun here’s where I’ve been since December 19th 2016:

 

Oberlin, Denver, New York, Cos Cob, Amman, (New York), Montreal, Buffalo, Oberlin, Boston, (Oberlin), Greenwich, Wellsley, Boston, Hartford, D.C., New Jersey, (New York), Amsterdam, Gronigen, Der Haigue, Rotterdam, (New York), (Oberlin), Indianapolis, Denver, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Carmel, Port Townsend, Seattle, (Denver), Salt Lake City, (Denver), Chennai, Kolkata, Madurai/Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Accra, Medie, Kopayia, Ho, (Accra), (Denver), Havanna, Veradaro, Vinales, Matanzas, (Havanna), Denver…

Next up is Chicago.

 

Best wishes and all my thanks,

Maxwelllewis