Many Rooted Trees

My friend and I were talking about the musician Gillian Welch and how she, despite her California upbringing, has always felt she had bluegrass in her veins. Welch was adopted, so this inkling was not outlandish; in fact, it was borne out when she discovered she did have blood ties to the South. But it got me thinking about the sense of being rooted to another place or time.

I told my friend about Shumba, a young white American I knew in Sacramento who had lived in Zimbabwe for a few years. Shumba had felt so at home in Harare that he learned the local Shona language in weeks; at live music shows he found that his body moved in motions it already seemed to know. He was such a good dancer that he was invited up on stage one night by the renowned Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo; the crowd was so taken by this long-haired white man dancing and singing African-style that for a few months Mapfumo made him part of his show. In fact it was Mapfumo who took to calling him “Shumba,” which in Shona means “lion.” Shumba told me about one time when he entered a rural village, and the kids started pointing at him and yelling, “Umlungu! (White man!)” Shumba’s first instinct was to look around and think, Where?

I had another friend at this time who displayed more of a chronological displacement than a geographical one. “English Jason” was a Brit who worked as a newspaper archivist and was the good friend of my housemate. Jason looked and sounded like a character straight out of a Evelyn Waugh novel: long swoop of blond bangs hanging over a boyish face; baggy knee pants; a tweed jacket over a perfectly pressed shirt and tie (even in the heat of summer). Jason would come over and watch old movies and drink good Scotch with us. Jason was single but yearned for a woman who would appreciate his penchant for books and walking instead of driving. This was not an affectation: Jason spoke without references to modern commercial culture and eschewed current vernacular. He told me that his favorite year was 1934 and that he truly felt he was meant to live then.

I wonder if we all have, in varying degrees, these callings to other places and times. I know that when I lived in Tunisia with a host family as a high-school exchange student in the late eighties, I felt strangely at home in the bustling souks as the muezzin offered his prayers from the mosque’s loudspeaker. The first time I heard live Arabic music I felt something rattle deeply in my bones. As the summer wore on and my skin turned bronze, I was often mistaken as a Tunisian; by the end of my time there, my Tunisian father admitted that he’d been shocked by how familiar I looked when I first came off the plane. “We were expecting an American,” he joked, “and out popped someone looking like an Arab!”

Questions of appropriation live just beneath the surface here though. I may have resonated with Arab and Tunisian culture, but my identity and lifestyle were undoubtedly American; when a burly security guard tried to kick me and my Tunisian friends off the “tourists only” beach, I had no problem stepping up and claiming my Western status as I tried to convince him to let our group stay. The author Greg Tate has a book called Everything but the Burden that examines white Americans’ zeal for African American culture: they may wear baggy pants and sing along with hip-hop songs, he argues, but at the end of the day they never have to actually deal with the realities of being black.

Still, as I consider how the Lebanese singer Fairuz always brings bumps to my skin and the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti brings a swing to my hip and the Persian poet Hafiz brings a calm hand to my spinning head, I wonder if honoring the callings from different homes is in fact an effective antidote to alienation; perhaps the soil literally under our feet isn’t always the most grounding. Plato long ago hypothesized that we were once born into a tribe that over time was splintered across the globe. He suggested that one of our missions is to rediscover our own lost people. Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the “karass” is similar to this. Perhaps the tickling of Fela’s saxophone is an invitation back into some primordial circle.

Folks in AA talk about the folly of “pulling a geographic”: thinking that moving from one place to another will make their demons somehow magically disappear. I get this, but I also think there are regions, cultures, and eras that speak to something in us, and that seeking these out over the course of our lifetimes may be integral to feeling whole. A few weeks ago I watched a band of twenty-somethings from New York City jam old-time Southern music so masterfully that the old timers in our little North Carolina town shook their heads in disbelief and then promptly got up and started stomping their feet. No wonder the band called itself Spirit Family Reunion.