One of the most impactful moments of my career as a musician didn’t involve a stage or a sound system or an elaborate schedule. One afternoon I found myself in an elevator, going up to visit Joy, a friend’s mother who was in the hospital. Joy was lying unresponsive after a long battle with cancer. She was presenting clinical catatonia, meaning that she was aware and could hear, but couldn’t react to stimuli, or so we thought. The family had invited me to play kora by her bedside since Joy had been a long-time fan of my work.
I found the kora in 1999 through a long, twisting story involving African drumming and a vast, dark warehouse of African art imports in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was immediately struck by the kora’s ability to reach deep inside me; I discovered heartstrings I never knew I even had; infinite meadows of unexplored worlds. I started seeing how kora music touched other people too, and that’s when I dropped everything and traveled to Mali and Senegal to study, side by side with teachers in the traditional way.
After four trips, It’s still hard to keep my eyes dry sometimes. Learning the heartbeat of the kora was one thing, but learning my own heartbeat as a kora player took a lot of courage. I struggled to be the only musician within hundreds of miles following a kora-led path. My African teachers and American fans wouldn’t let me stop though, and today I’m happy to confess that the kora may have saved my life.
I have always gravitated towards music that allows me stop and feel. As a listener, my best moments are when music helps me to know myself better, to see a new color in the spectrum, or reveals to me the inspiring, unimaginable brilliance of another human being. As a performer/composer, my best moments are when I am able to create those moments for others. It’s where music transcends the realm of entertainment and art, and starts practicing health care.
When I played for Joy in her hospital room, a song I knew she loved, her family became wide-eyed and watched the bleeping meters of her blood pressure decrease and her blood-oxygen level increase. She was literally becoming more alive.
I believe that when music is doing it’s best work in the world, this is what it is secretly doing with all of us. It is infusing us with life, challenging us to feel more awake in a sleeping, and at times catatonic world; or revealing to us a new color, or just simply helping us fall more easily in love with ourselves.