Early this year, I had the most transcendent musical experience of my life. The magic moment came after a rehearsal for a concert of African-American spirituals and original songs. Writer-performer and visionary for the project, Pamela Bailey, had assembled an odd collection of musicians for this concert. There was a folk mandolin player, an acoustic guitarist, a jazz bassist, a gospel pianist, a Latin percussionist, several gospel singers, and a country/celtic fiddle player. Together, we breathed new life into traditional songs and helped bring new songs into the world based in those traditions. Communicating from our various musical backgrounds wasn’t always easy, but over the course of several recording sessions and rehearsals, we fused unity and diversity into a memorable concert and a beautiful EP.
As wonderful as the polished performance and recording was, the highlight of our collaboration came in the practice room. It all started when the Latin tambourine player and the gospel tambourine players started comparing notes and trying out new beats. Then, the violinist launched into a celtic reel on top of the African-Latin beats. The cajon player got into the spirit too, then Pamela started singing the spiritual “Wade in the Water” over it all, as the other vocalists joined in. I grabbed my guitar and strummed along. Together, we created this unlikely Appalachian-Latin-African-Gospel-Folk wonder. We were ecstatic with the give and take, the natural borrowing and layering and collaboration of the musical moment. The music was the melting pot, and the end result was beautiful.
That improvisational jam taught me two important things about the beauty of musical and human diversity.
1) We all have common roots.
As different as our styles seemed, they all shared certain musical elements. That celtic reel and African-American spiritual were based on the same 5-note scale. The chord progression I played came from country tunes that also used the universal pentatonic foundation. The rhythmic emphases may have been different, but all our traditions included 4-beat phrases. Separated, our styles seemed so distinct. But boiled down to our various folk traditions, we had a lot in common.
2) Our diversity is beautiful.
It is possible to be unified in purpose, love, energy, and joy (and harmony and rhythm) and still maintain uniqueness. When we brought our individual cultures together, they did not blend into sameness. Each voice was distinctive while working toward the same creative goal. The combination was utterly unique and more beautiful than its separate parts.
I hope you’ll hear more of that beautiful diversity on the EP (release date TBD.) In the meantime, check out our version of the traditional song, “Eliza Jane” below, and head over to acrossthebridgesong.com to listen to the EP’s first single, inspired by the 2015 Charleston, SC shooting and memorial, and find out more about the project.