This morning, as I was struggling to clear the cob webs from my mind and impatiently waiting for the coffee to drip enough to be a cup, I set my phone on the kitchen counter and started to listen to music. Music and coffee, two of the many things which nourish my inspiration to write; all the sudden the true source of my muse joined my side. I will let you in on a little secret, the serendipity I referred to in “Serendipity’s Trace” are two fold; the grace of God that blesses me and the blessings of people who nurture me with their stories.
The music I was playing was an Ethiopian instrumental album titled Memories (Tizita) by Teodros Makonnen. The first track of the album was “Japanwan Wedije”, a song by Tilahun Gessesse that Makonnen was paying homage to with a melodic ode by way of a saxophone. The mending power of music is such, the minute the tunes started to cuddle me like a gabi, I forgot about the anxiety of waiting for my coffee. Suddenly, my morning symphonic meditation was interrupted as an older fellow named Bill joined me in the mission kitchen. I will readily admit, as much as I love being among people and get my inspiration to write from people, there are times I just want to be left alone and be on my own. Thus, I was initially miffed when my “me time” was converted into a “we” conversation.
But my reticence about “we” soon turned to oui! as temporary irritation gave way immediately to a smile when Bill heard the music and said “is that Japanese music?” I will admit, it does not take much for me to smile; what too many disregard as meaningless, I always try to find meaning in. What I realized in Bill’s question was the transformative nature of music and the ability it has to overcome barriers and bond strangers into fellow sojourners. Without going into too many details about Bill, let’s just say that Bill and I have life experiences that are vastly different and divergent. This broken world would defy Bill as “white” and me “black”; Bill is in his sixties and I am in my forties. I mean we could not be any more dissimilar; we were inversions of each other, but these differences melted into non-existence when we met each other on the basis of music.
Music is nothing but an extension of culture. Culture is what binds humanity; though there are countless customs throughout the world, in the end we are all united by the central tenets of culture like music, food, dance, literature, history—all of which are grounded in love of communal experiences. When I write endlessly about the need to get rid of labels that divide us, I am not saying that we need to all be automatons without distinctions and differences. Humanity is best served by our accents, as in the various flavors and personalities we all bring to the table. I’m not preaching that we need to be one when I speak of oneness—singularity is not possible here on earth. What I am hoping for when I speak of unity is that we arrive at a point where we can love what makes us different while valuing what we all have in common.
In the mission kitchen, on this random Wednesday, what I valued and appreciated above and beyond my buna (coffee) and the music was the fact that Bill and I bonded through culture. Bill, an aspiring guitarist, and I, a still sanguine writer, were able to shed our disparities and connect on a human level as we talked about music. I know I write about Ethiopia a lot, I will not hide the fact that I have an abiding love for the soil—my earthen womb—which gave birth to me. But my love of Ethiopian culture is not myopic; I do not in any way let my love of my heritage reduce the value of the endless cultures that speck this planet. If anything, my Ethiopian heritage is a gateway to loving and appreciating other cultures as I always identify with the diverse heritages of this world through the prism of what I know about my own traditions.
It was not an accident that Tilahun Gessesse’s Japanwan Wedije was playing the precise moment Bill came into the kitchen. Japanwan Wedije is a homage that Tilahun—one of the kings of Ethiopian music—was paying to the people of Japan. The history that Ethiopia and Japan share is profound; during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Ethiopia and Japan were on their way to solidifying a treaty between the two nations and in the process marrying two disparate cultures so that each nation could benefit through mutual cooperation. The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was a bilateral treaty where both countries aspired to leverage their capacities and address their deficiency by working together instead of working apart—economists call this the theory of comparative advantage. Ethiopia and Japan went as far as sending imperial envoys to each others countries and to intermarry the royal courts to solidify the treaty through the union of blood and families. Sadly though, the treaty was never signed as war interrupted normality and Mussolini imposed his monstrosity by unleashing chemical warfare against my Ethiopian ancestors.
But what mankind takes away, God blesses back seven fold. This is a wisdom that Rabbi Dove imparted to me when my own journey grounded in hardship started two years ago. Though by no means is Ethiopia doing well currently, hobbled and being bled contentiously by a neo-Mussolini by the name of Hailemariam Desalegn, the mouthpiece Tedros Adhanom (link) and the TPLF fascists, Ethiopia nonetheless remains blessed for we keep surviving heartbreak and hardship and our ability to smile in the face of oppression is awe inspiring. At the root of Ethiopia’s resiliency is a culture that values sharing above taking and a community which values giving gurshas (feeding others) more than gluttonous materialism. Ethiopia went through the hell of mustard gas and poisoned water wells and emerged on the other end a cohesive nation—a thee thousand year empire cannot be erased by man made weapons. Likewise, Japan endured the horrors of two atomic bombs and fires of hell against the countryside and yet still retained the essence of their culture. The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce might have been abrogated by reality, but the two countries share an abiding love for each others cultures to this day.
What Ethiopians and the Japanese people share is something that we all share. Though at times war can unleash hatred upon the people and impose hostility among the citizenry, in time the embers of wars give birth to the light of our common humanity. My new home America and Vietnam were once the deepest of enemies during the 1960’s, but now the people of both nations are able to partake in each other’s culture without the bitter memories getting in the way of friendships. What I pray for all of us continuously is that we don’t let geo-politics get in the way of our universal humanity. America once unleashed hell on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, yet today Japanese people love American culture the same way they adore Ethiopian heritage. Japan once loosened bombs and torpedoes on Pearl Harbor but in the same place where explosions ruptured homeostasis, the people of Hawaii and Americans (as a whole) now can’t get enough of sushi and Japanese culture. My ancestors were brutalized in the most atrocious ways by Mussolini’s tanks, planes and guns, but I do not harbor any resentments towards Italians as I love Italian culture, cuisine and art.
We live in an age of uber economies as we race to erase inefficiencies and hoard more and more for ourselves. What the rich don’t tell you is that the inefficiencies they are erasing are the jobs we depend on to sustain our livelihood. But this race to elevate economies will always entail a winner-loser paradigm because capitalism requires scarcity and the permanency of haves versus the have-nots. Maybe the answer is to care less about economies and pay more attention to the ecology. An ecology that consists of diverse cultures that has at its core the essence of common struggles and common hopes. Sometimes we let customs get in the way as we care more about how things need to be done, making others conform to our ways, instead of appreciating our unique abilities. I like to think of humanity as one big family; within this family, everyone has a different culture which are our first names. But within this same family, we are all bonded by the same last name which is human. Humanity is our last name, the singularity is within our hearts and beats within our spirits.
Salute, gobez, l’chaim and arigato to the things we all have in common as we celebrate our unique talents and our diverse cultures. As we recognize our customs, may we respect the choices and the observances of others. The ego and our arrogance always get in the way of friendships and serendipitous blessings; if we do less to prove our worth and understand that what makes us valuable is within, not without, well then maybe wars would be no more and the treaties of friendships would not need pen and paper. The treaty would exist the minute we shake the hands of strangers. So take the time today to make a new friend who is not like you; put aside politics, religion and the endless isms that fracture us and instead speak to someone who is not in your congregation and does not sing from the same music sheet as you. Want to make America Great Again or restore hope and change, these aspirations will not be fulfilled by politicians but by us. Be less about protecting customs and instead value the boundless cultures that makes us human.
Imagine the totality of humanity being one big orchestra. Within this orchestra exists many instruments and many ways of playing each musical apparatus. The orchestra would be no more if everyone played the same way and their talent was all based on manipulating the same gizmo. The orchestra that is humanity soars and exists within a melodious harmony when we all play our music through different paths and divergent personalities. And it is in these contrasting personalities—from old man Bill who identified with the music I was playing this morning, to one of my Ethiopian-American Twitter followers named Politics Peach (yes I said Ethiopian-American for this hyperlinked reason) who mentioned economies, to the two Latino guys and one Ethiopian-American fellow who I was just now cooking lunch with—who all contributed to this article. We are part and parcel of the same family, many organism floating in a finite time but connected by infinite love within us. Customs make us different, cultures give us flavors, but love is the common thread that makes us all human. #JapanwanWedije
We are a people made one by hopes forged through this universal notion called love.
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Check out the Ghion Cast below, an homage to what we have in common, the love that is inside all of us. Music speaks for us, may we let love be a universal language that transcends borders and differences.
To the people of Japan and cultures globally, this is a musical shout out to you, Japanwan Wedije means “The Japanese girl I loved”, may love rule the day from Tokyo to Denver to Adwa and beyond.
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