Back in August, after playing acoustic guitar for over five years and not improving all that much, I began taking lessons with Diane Sanabria, a dear wise woman musician warrior who teaches not only songs but music theory, sense of humor, and life lessons. This afternoon at our lesson she didn’t just show me Travis picking patterns. She took me on a trip to New Orleans, elaborated on the history of African poly-rhythms that started stirring things up to create ragtime and eventually jazz. She honored the African origins that led to Merle Travis’ famous picking style.
She spoke about how much deeper the experience of learning a musical instrument can become when we also study the history and origins of musical styles. I was practically jumping out of my seat. And of course I was reminded of my all-time favorite On Being podcast, “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi,” when professor Fatemeh Keshavarz says, “I don’t think you can free people from the context in which they live. And I don’t think even if you try to do that, that that serves a useful purpose. I don’t see Rumi as detached from the Islamic context at all. In fact, I see his work as utterly and completely immersed in the Islamic tradition. I tell you, it would be hard to read a single ghazal, not even the Masnavi, which is expressly a work with theological and mystical intentions. But even a ghazal, it would be hard to read a ghazal and not find quite a few allusions to Qur’anic verses, to sayings of the prophet, to practices in the Muslim world, so I don’t think we need to separate him from his Islamic context.The way first I visualize this myself is that he goes through the religion, he lives it, absorbs it, and uses it in his way. So in the process, he subverts a lot of things. He changes a lot of things, reinterprets a lot of things, but he does not step outside of it. He lives in it.”
Just as we can’t extract Rumi from his Islamic context, and we can’t pull jazz out of it’s African American and African origins and suggest that because these productions of art are so transformative they must be somehow universal and therefore “neutral” (i.e. often meaning white-washed), my dear guitar teacher believes in the power of historical knowledge to bring added meaning to creative learning in real-time. And I agree with her. Finding a new way to do things comes from studying how it has been done and transcending that to create something new.
I think I will go practice my guitar now.