In July of 2010 I was touring Poland, sharing music, stories, food and lots of laughs. I was working with a man who is like a brother to me, Michal Malinowski. As we traveled about, Michal kept raving about a Japanese art form known as Kamishibai. Apparently, he had met a man he called Mukashi Mukashi and this man introduced him to the ancient art form.
The Art of Kamishibai originated in Japanese Buddhist temples during the 12th Century. Monks used rolling scrolls to teach lessons of morality to illiterate audiences. Fast forward a few millennia and the art form survived with a revival in the 1920’s and 1950’s. Men who rode around on bicycles selling candies began to use Kamishibai as a way of pulling together greater numbers of children to purchase their wares. They would ride village to village with a small wooden box containing a large display window. Instead of the rolling scrolls used by the monks, these entrepreneurs traveled with a set of illustrated boards, which they switched out as their stories progressed.
Michal had bitten into the Kamishibai fruit and nothing could stop his proselytizing. His passion for the spoken word is one of the reasons I consider him to be a brother. Being trapped in a van with him for hours on end, I learned much more than I desired to know about Kamishibai.
When I left Poland I put any thoughts of this art form behind me.
I had just finished a performance for an assembly of teens at an all girls Catholic School in the La Molina District of Lima, Peru. It went over amazingly well. I always try to balance my presentations with wit, humor and just enough surreptitious instruction that the audience isn’t even aware it is happening. I was proud of my performance this day. The feeling of accomplishment that one gets when your work is completed and you have given your all is exactly what I was experiencing.
The messages I attempt to leave each and every audience with are: “self-awareness is key to discovering your life’s purpose,” “remembering and respecting the sacrifices of those in your past is not only important, but a prerequisite to understanding your place in the world,” and, finally, “a reverence and deep respect for the culture of other peoples is the only worldview that will build tomorrow’s, much needed, global community.” I take these concepts seriously and reiterate them throughout every presentation.
I know the theme of my performances sound rather heavy but music and storytelling have a way, like sugar, of helping the medicine go down. Of course it would be a healthier brand of sugar that I am dispensing.
So I finish the performance, put away my instrument and pack away all of my gear. My tour manager and I head out to the reception area with the school’s coordinator. It was such a calm, serene feeling walking through this pristine campus of delicately placed flora and fauna, meticulously manicured lawns and trees with branches bursting with color. As we navigated the pathways leading to the reception area, we passed classrooms, offices and the like. My ego definitely got a bit of a booster shot as we heard children yelling my name and calling for my attention. They were literally begging me to look in the direction of their respective classrooms to acknowledge each of the smiling faces, and enthusiastically waving hands.
As we were entering the rear door of the reception area I looked up into a tree and saw an unusual bird. I can’t tell you what type of bird, something that looked like a cross between a parakeet and a sparrow. It was luminescent, stunningly breathtaking (well, to me anyway). The bird’s dominant color was a deeply, evenly toned, yet vibrant red. Thin lines of black seemed to have been painted on areas of its body as to highlight its beauty. It was in that moment that I, you might say, quite literally, lost my mind. I reached into the backpack of equipment I keep with me wherever I travel for my still camera. The entire time I was reaching for the camera I was keeping my eyes focused up into the tree on the bird. My lack of attention to the immediate task at hand, retrieving the camera, had me fumbling for it clumsily. My eyes were locked onto the beautiful red flier in the tree above my head. I finally managed to get the camera out of the backpack. I hit the power button, aimed and took a quick shot. I always do this with birds because you never know if that one shot will be the only one you have a chance to get. Birds have a tendency to not be the best at posing for pictures.
I was right. Within seconds it lifted off, flew away and alighted to another tree at the other end of the campus.
As I was watching it fly away, my feet, involuntarily, began to follow. There was no thought given to my actions other than, “maybe I can get one more shot.”
I was now, mindlessly, running across the campus’ lush green lawn, leaping over small bushes and avoiding near collisions with statues of various female saints. All of this for the sake of capturing another image of this tiny creature’s radiance.
The bird rested on a leafless branch. Quickly, while still in motion and not focusing, I snapped another shot off. To my surprise, it remained on the branch a little while longer, just long enough for me to get two more pictures. I was delighted! Excited!
It then took flight again, back in the direction of the tree across campus where I had originally spotted it, and, once again, my feet, without permission, took chase. I didn’t think about it until much later (and I felt really bad about this when I did finally think about it) but, I was trampling all over this school’s painstakingly manicured grounds. All of this for the sake of capturing, like some sort of an addict, “one” more shot, just “one” more.
The bird began to feign flight away from the tree, stop mid-air and then, just when I would start running in its direction, abruptly alter its flight pattern and return to the tree. It did this several times, each time returning to a different branch. It had me starting and stopping, changing directions attempting to chase it. It was at this point that I had the epiphany, “This little bird is toying with me!” I was being made to dance like a puppet on a string.
While running, I watched as it took to the highest branches of the tree. “Wonderful!” I thought to myself, “That is a shot easily captured if I can get close enough.”
I did have one redeeming moment of clarity during this “narrow minded performance of me” for the world. As I was running, I began pulling the camera up towards my face with the intention of focusing the shot while in motion to avoid losing any time during which the bird might fly away again. I am very proud to say that I lowered the camera, realizing that I was headed towards an inevitable tumble over a bush or face plant into one of the awaiting trees.
When I reached the tree, to my surprise, it remained seated in that one spot. There was the most enchanting, blue sky as a backdrop to its perch. It was posing! This bird was actually posing for me! In my excitement, I had lowered the camera and was just standing there staring at it. The thought of potentially losing the shot woke me from my stupor. I fumbled to get my camera in place, and focused. I took my time in this moment and did not rush. I was willing to take a chance that I might not capture the paralyzing image before me. It remained stationary as I zoomed in. I inhaled deeply and then exhaled as I took the shot. I got it! I actually got the shot I wanted! Hysteria took possession of me and I felt an overwhelming “need” to dance. I’m not sure if I did or not, but a celebratory dance was definitely emanating from somewhere deep inside of me in that moment.
I laughed to myself as I slowly came back down to reality. I had captured enough shots and didn’t want the universe to see me as greedy. I stood there staring up at the bird.
The voices of the children yelling my name from surrounding classrooms re-entered my ears. Had they been screaming this whole time? How was it that I had not heard them?
I heard a child’s faint voice ask in Spanish, “¿Que hace Baba (What are you doing Baba?)”
I looked down and, just below the height of my hips were three little girls, maybe 4 or 5 years old. Their leader, there is “always” one who is the leader, was staring up at me while I remained fixated on the bird above. How long had they been standing there by my side? I couldn’t tell you. She asked again, “¿Que hace Baba?”
She had that curious, perplexed look that children get when the world isn’t quite right and they need an adult to set things straight for them.
I pointed up into the tree and explained, “Trato de capturar la belleza de ese pajarro allá arriba en el árbol (I”m trying to capture the beauty of that bird up there in the tree).”
The three of them giggled and then ran off in the direction of the classrooms.
The three little wise ones had helped to lift the cloud of narrowed focus that had temporarily blinded me to my surroundings.
As I turned to go back towards the reception area, I realized that I had had an audience. There were children in classrooms with their faces pressed against the windows looking out and yelling, “Baba! Baba! Baba…”
A couple of nuns were standing at the far end of one of the walkways, just standing, observing as you would imagine nuns doing. My tour manager, a few teachers on break and our school contact stood over to the side, all eyes on me, each face possessing pleasant, unreadable, smiles.
Without warning, the self-conscious side of my mind kicked into full gear, “oh my goodness, what must these people think of me?”
For a moment, and only for a slight moment, I was embarrassed. I did my best to put my self-conscious self back to sleep with gentle, repeated lullabies of, “Life is meant to be lived.”
Even if I could, I would not change a thing about what had occurred. Never does a picture capture the brilliance and beauty of what is before us in life but, at least, I’ve got something to share with all of you.
It has been a week of constant, rapid motion, daily performances and digging deep to pull from that reserve of energy fueled by passion for one’s purpose. One of the issues of being a professional speaker, musician and performer is that there is “never” a moment that you can place your performance on cruise control. Every organization or individual that patronizes your services expects to receive the highest caliber presentation they can and your task as presenters is to “exceed” their expectations. I strive to do this, but when the weekend comes it is time to recharge. In this way I can ensure bringing the best that I can to all the audiences I encounter.
To say that I was tired by the end of this particular week would be an understatement. The last thing I wanted to do was plan more activities for the weekend, but… I had been invited by my “brother-in-spokenword,” Wayqui, to visit his school, La Escuela de las Palabras (School of Words). There was no way that I was going to miss an opportunity to commune with other storytellers here in Lima. So I pushed the “I will sleep tomorrow button” on in my mind and prepared for a day of more movement and activity.
One of the brothers from the school, Renato, was kind enough to go out of his way and pick me up to make sure I made it to the gathering. He is a kind gentle soul who, by all appearances, is a very soft-spoken man; that is until he takes a stage to tell stories. His ability to command the stage was not only impressive, but equally entertaining. It was a joy to watch him do his thing later that evening along with other tellers from the school.
When we arrived to la Escuela de Palabras, they were already in session, seated in a circle on the floor of one of the main rooms upstairs. Two candles sat in the center of the circle. It was one of the warmest, most inviting environments I have ever entered. I felt welcomed immediately the moment I crossed the threshold.
It would take a while to detail all that occurred, but suffice it to say that I was immersed in the love of words by some very beautiful souls. One of the highlights of my afternoon was being enchanted by a fantastic storyteller, Rosario Rivadeneya Ortiz, re-telling a tale I had written many, many years ago. It is such a feeling of accomplishment witnessing someone else, not only perform, but enjoy material you’ve created.
Probably the “most” powerful moment for me occurred when the shy, somewhat demure Doris Layme Almonte raised her hand to volunteer to share a story. Earlier I had chided Doris for her shyness and tried to encourage her to tell a tale, but she retreated even further within. I don’t know if this ever occurs with any of you but, you look into another person’s eyes and what they display to the world, externally, is not a tenth of who they are internally. I could see something in her and I wanted to just hear her tell a tale. Near the end of the session, Doris raised her hand and the entire room sounded off in excitement and anticipation.
In no way was I prepared for the strength, power and force of telling that emanated from this young woman. She began telling a very complex Andean Myth that would have challenged even the most seasoned of wordsmiths. Her eyes lit up and her facial expression became that of a person possessed of their passion. It was a thrilling experience.
You know I have to throw in my clumsy moments as well. I have to be honest if you guys are going to continue reading this journal.
Since I’ve been in Lima, my Spanish speaking abilities have soared. I’ve sat with strangers on the street, in restaurants and held full-on conversations. When I’m with my brother Wayqui, there is “never,” I mean “never” any English spoken. I’m really proud of how my fluency continues to increase (in spite of age). Well, the clumsy moment. When I was being introduced to everyone and they were saying who they are and what they do, one of the tellers, Sylvia Box, said that she’s a Spanish Teacher.
That’s all I could think. Here I was cruising through the culture and language like a champ and now I was going to be judged by someone who teaches the language. Damn!
Initially, I stumbled quite a bit while addressing the students. My nervousness at being in the presence of an actual Spanish Teacher got the best of me. Sylvia’s delicate demeanor and gentle guidance actually helped set me back on my comfortable path of fluency. She only corrected me when I begged for help and often nodded in affirmation letting me know she was understanding everything I was saying. I even got the greatest compliment from her near the end of the session when she told me that I had an excellent command of the Spanish Language. Can you see my big, big smile?
I had planned to finish the session at Escuela de las Palabras and then head back to my flat in Miraflores for some much needed rest. They were having an evening activity following the session where some of the students were going to take the stage at the Peruvian-Japanese Cultural Center in the Jesús María District of Lima for a show entitled “Encuento Amateur de Cuentacuentos y Monólogs: Tengo la Palabra.”
I later learned that this is a show that Wayqui has been coordinating with the Peruvian-Japanese Cultural Center for quite some time. The show is free and draws huge audiences. Amateur storytellers open the show and then, sometimes, two or three professional storytellers will close. Wayqui has found a way to put into practice what many only talk about. His students are challenged to grow in their storytelling by actually performing in front of large audiences.
Well… like I was saying, I had planned to depart and head back to my flat after the gathering at the school, but they had all been so welcoming and warm that I felt I would have been remiss if I did not show my support for those students taking the stage that evening. When I told Wayqui that I would go with them to the evening’s performance and he announced it to the students, they erupted in cheer and applause. That made it all worth it. I was, quite literally, being inundated with love, appreciation and respect. Who could walk away from that?
When we arrived at the cultural center, I was made an honored guest and invited to partake of everything offered in the green room. Wow! Everywhere I turned I was being affirmed in my decisions.
The crowd was almost all adults, maybe a little between 80 to 100 people at any given time. It was extraordinary to watch this audience rapt in the tales of the tellers and responding with enthusiasm.
I didn’t make it back to my flat until 11:30 that evening and, for those who know me, you know that is well past my bedtime.
Sunday will definitely be a day of rest but, I’m also quite sure I will spend time reflecting on the incredible day I had with my new family at la Escuela de las Palabras.
Working in schools across the world is a unique experience. I find that we are more alike not, especially when it comes to personalities. To the letter, it is almost eerie the similarities in personality I encounter when I visit schools. The people may speak different languages, wear different clothing and even exercise different religious practices but, as a rule, they all exhibit similar traits and characteristics of their counterparts the world over.
There is one personality that I am continually confronting that I am working hard to combat. It doesn’t happen often, well, actually, it occurs often enough that, when I enter a school I encounter a personality we might call the, “Well Poisoner.”
This person’s actions are rarely, if ever, malicious in nature. Actually they are expressing a care, concern and respect for me, and what I’ve come to do in their school. I realize this and hold no ill will, but there are consequences to our meeting.
Yesterday I finished a performance at a school in Lima and hopped in a cab to get to the bus terminal. My tour manager, Yoli, and I had just enough time to eat a quick meal and hop aboard a Cruz del Sur Bus taking us from Lima to Trujillo. Little did I know that my ride was going to be eleven hours. Yes… I said it, eleven hours. It took me a shorter time to get from Los Angeles to Lima (eight and a half hours). Luckily we were riding huge comfortable seats in first class. One word of warning to anyone over five foot eight planing on visiting Peru, “You will definitely experience discomfort because of your height, and a lot of it.” The first class seats were amazingly cushiony and comfy but, stretching out was not an option for me.
I thought I would enjoy seeing the country side as we headed north towards the coastal city of Trujillo but the land in that direction is pretty much barren, dry, desert. The buses are enormous though and actually have stewards and stewardesses.
I laughed when the stewardess came on over the loudspeaker and adamantly proclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the toilet aboard this bus are for urinating only, not to be used for any other purposes.”
It is so funny the reception one gets when leaving the borders of your own country. Today I visited a school and was literally mobbed for autographs. Can you believe it? A lowly storytelling man with harp in hand, mobbed for autographs. I must have signed hundreds of pieces of paper, notebooks, etc.
You know you’re doing good when your audience already knows some of your songs, stories and about your life. What an amazing experience.
Day by day I’m getting a more complete picture of Lima Peru. Everyone I meet is excited about the country’s food. Have you tried this, have you tried that? I must get asked these questions twenty times a day. I’m taking things slow. I want to avoid that “uncomfortable, bloated” feeling we see advertised so often in commercials.
So, here it goes… on Monday I met up with a Peruvian Storytelling brother that I’ve been communicating with for months. His name is Wayqui (which in the language of Quechua means “Friend”). I appreciate this man so much! He went above and beyond to make sure I felt welcomed here in Peru.
Wayqui and I hit the streets Monday and walked, took buses, walked some more and shared stories along the way. I visited the major Plazas here in Lima and even got some inside scoop background history on a few things. There isn’t anything like passing the day with someone local to learn what “really” going on. My once healthy United States diet has been ravaged by my policy of trying things, at least once when abroad.
Wayqui and I went to a restaurant and I had to order the national dish, Ceviche. Now, first of all, you must know that I am not a fan of “anything” raw unless it’s fruits or vegetables but, when in Peru, do as Peruvians. The waiter brought some peppers to our table to accompany the meal. I love a little spice so I started to drop a few on the side of my plate. Before I could dive in, Wayqui warned me to touch one of the peppers and just taste my finger. I did as requested but there wasn’t anything on my finger after touching the pepper. “Just try it,” he urged.
So I placed my finger on my tongue to taste the nothingness that appeared on it and… my mouth literally erupted in flames. I downed the bottle of water that the waiter had brought to our table and then demanded another. There was nothing on my finger! I pushed to small bowl of peppers over to Wayqui and he commenced to putting them down like little pieces of candy. I was more than happy to let him have them all.
I hope to hook up with Wayqui once again. He teaches a storytelling class and I would love a chance to go and meet with his students. My schedule is really busy but I think I’ll be able to make time to drop in on he and his students.
Monday morning was a performance at the National Library of Lima. A school called Saint George’s brought their students over by bus. From the first to the last performance, I had a ton of fun. What was really interesting though was that the woman who coordinated is married to a very well known storyteller, “Mukashi Mukashi.” He’s man who specializing in a form of Japanese storytelling using decorative boxes with animated scrolls known as Kamishibai. That’s an over simplification. There is so much more to the Art of Kamishibai.
Anyway, his wife was the one coordinating my activities and, as we talked, we found out that we had so many people in common. Her husband has literally inspired each and every person I know doing Kamishibai, from my brother Michael Malinowski in Poland to my friends Victor and Angel in Mexico. I shot an email off to him and hope to meet up with him sometime during this tour.
Oh, ok… something odd did happen after one of my performances. As we were taking pictures, a young girl of about 9 or 10 years old asked for my left hand. Innocent enough right? So I give this little girl my left hand and she pulls it towards her face and kisses my gold cowry shell ring. Now when you travel you don’t know if something is a custom or if your dealing with something from the Outer Limits. I thanked the girl and she ran off to her school bus. After inquiring from several Peruvians I have discovered that “this” was not a Peruvian custom. So… I don’t quite know what happened and I doubt I’ll ever see that child again to ask her.
Let’s talk about traffic in Lima for a second. To understand how people drive here all you know to know is that it is an adrenaline junky’s dream land. In one word to describe the manner of driving, “Threatening.” If I had to use another word, “Suicidal.” Now, I’m the one riding in cabs trusting these Kamikaze pilots so I don’t know what that says about me. Pedestrians offer a whole other mind trip. I’ve actually seen people “consciously” walk out in front of moving cars in the coolest, calmest manner of anyone. I wouldn’t even mention it if I hadn’t witnessed this routinely. In conversation with Wayqui he made things really clear, “Street lights and signs are very decorative here in Peru.”
Alright I think I’ve met my quota of words inundation for one evening.
Let me know you’re reading the blog, leave me a few kind words from home or just check in.
Dooni dooni kononi be nyaga da.
One of the things I do when I travel to new places is “get lost”. I do it on purpose. I know it sounds dangerous but it is really one of the best ways I’ve found to get to know a city and get to know it well. I’ll usually start with the local transit system. In Senegal it was old, beaten down mini-vans operated by private owners that doubled as buses for public transport, in Colombia I hopped on modified jeeps that sat 8 to 10 people and in Brazil, well… Brazil has amazing pubic transport.
Here in Lima the buses are regular buses but operated by private owners/companies. They cost pennies on the dollar but aren’t built for comfort. I rode one for a few miles and wandered the area, meandering through the streets.
It wasn’t too difficult for me to notice that I had walked miles upon miles and had yet to encounter a person of color, specifically someone of African Peruvian descent. It wasn’t as though I started out looking for this but the absence of people of color was too conspicuous to ignore. I put this thought out of my mind and sat in a park reading a local paper “Diarios Peruanos.” I don’t typically drink soda but you can’t visit Peru and not try, at least one, Inca Kola. It did. It was good. Sort of a light cola/vanilla taste to it. Not too far off from the Vernors I used to drink as a kid in Detroit.
I just arrived in Lima Peru a couple of hours ago. I’m feeling the years. It’s true what they say about Father Time. I don’t make it a habit of cursing but airline seats will push even a saint to edge of madness. It seems like there is a conspiracy against anyone over six feet tall to make sure our travel is as hellish as it can possibly be.
I’ve already met with my tour manager, Yoli, gotten the instrument put back together (not tuned yet) and reviewed the itinerary for the next five weeks. Common sense would’ve dictated that I try to relax for a few moments for jumping into work-mode but, well… you know… common sense ain’t so common.
I’m looking forward to making some connections with the African Peruvian community here. It is part and parcel of why I do what I do. Whenever I travel and connect with the different communities across the globe I feel like the pieces of a torn fabric have be re-woven much stronger.
Last Monday was the culmination ceremony for the “Speaking-Listening” residency of the middle schoolers I’ve been working with in Santa Ana for the past four months. The road getting them through the barrage of speaking and listening challenges over the last few months has been littered with conflict, joy, tears, laughter and, sometimes, even a few miracles.
I had about 200 students participating in the culmination. Whereas the focus is typically on the speakers, my attention was directed to the audience. Together, me and these six classrooms of middle schoolers had labored through some pretty intense focused listening exercises. This was their time to either succeed or fail as supportive, focused listeners.
Each speaker that approached the stage pushed pasted their individual fears and doubts. It was exciting for me to witness. To say that I swelled with pride would be an understatement. There were a few hiccups in the focused listening of a few in our audience but I will take two or three falling down and getting backup as wonderful odds.
It is an indescribable sense of satisfaction to witness as students implement, in real world situations, practices that you’ve taught them. I watched as “my” kids exercised short, simple breathing exercises to push nervousness away, reposition their postures and move forward towards the edge of their chairs.
When we reached the end of the culmination, I approached the stage to tell them what an amazing group of scholars they’d proven themselves to be when a young boy raised his hand near the center of the audience.
I had never seen this young man. He wasn’t in any of the six classes that I had worked with. His eyes were very sad. I was drawn to him. I walked from the stage, down the aisle and approached him. When I asked him why his hand was raised, he simply said that he had a story to share.
Even though I had never worked with him, or even met him for that matter, I allowed him to take the stage. I have a policy of being as supportive as possible when children exert themselves in a positive manner or express an interest in something.
The young man took the stage and began to tell a tale of a boy suffering being bullied. Initially, a few children giggled, more from nervousness than anything else, but gained their composure as this young man, confidently, stood his ground and continued with his tale.
His speaking was interrupted by long, choking pauses and, eventually, a stream of tears. By the time he finished, he had commanded the audience in a way that demonstrated several of the lessons I had shared with my students.
The protagonist in his tale was obviously him and everyone cheered and clapped loudly as he exited the stage in tears.
I took that moment to articulate to everyone the amount of heart it takes to stand up and speak out when others choose to remain silent. I lauded this young man as an example of courage that they should follow.
I had never met this young man before but I shared how proud I felt of him and what an honor it was to have listened to his words.
When we finally dispersed the classes for lunch, I watched as one of my students approached the young man and placed his arm around him.
My student walked with his arm around the young man’s shoulder and, as they passed the stage, he looked up at me and said, “Baba… I’ve been through what he is going through and I’m going to help him.”
My heart swelled. This young man stepping up to help another had been one of the most meek in the beginning of my Speaking-Listening Residency, but I had watched him grow in confidence over the months. He had taken the lessons on not succumbing to fear and empowering his own voice to heart.
It is a bittersweet existence, continually walking into and out of the lives of so many people for brief periods of time. I know that, with each group of students I encounter, my life is altered in a good way. I would like to think that I contribute something meaningful to each and everyone that I come into contact with as well.