Cliff Notes: Jazz in Worship
Looking Back While Moving Forward
By Rev. Cliff Aerie
Happy 30th Anniversary, UCCMA! While I've been active for less than a decade, I have followed the ministry of the UCCMA for over twenty years. An anniversary (or birthday) is a time of looking back to acknowledge how far one has come. But, it's also a time to buckle one's seat belt and look forward, anticipating the road ahead. So, while others in this issue may wax eloquent about the organization's historicity, let me take the jazz approach. Jazz improvisation is built on a musician's knowledge, practice, and history—a foundation that allows an improviser to "stretch" into the future, creating new melodies and harmonies to enrich the soul.
A close parallel is the African tradition of "Sankofa." Adinkra is a pictorial writing system used by the Akan people of Western Africa, present-day Ghana, for generations. Adinkra symbols are associated with proverbs rooted in the Akan experience. Sankofa is an Akan term that means "to go back and get it." The Adinkra symbol for Sankofa depicts a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned backward.
The egg in its mouth represents the "gems" or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based. It also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom.
This symbol often is associated with the proverb, "Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," which translates to, "It is not taboo to go back for that which you have forgotten."
The Akan believe that the past illuminates the present and that searching for knowledge is a life-long process. The pictograph illustrates the quest for knowledge, while the proverb suggests the rightness of such a quest as long as it is based on knowledge of the past.
As we look around the world today, with all its turmoil, anger, division, and chaos, perhaps we've forgotten the ancient wisdom of harmony, trust, and cooperation. Sankofa—the spiritual discipline of journeying forward with the gems (the wisdom) that our faith traditions have taught us, reminds us that we must go forward. But we must not forget the past.
Each of us is on a journey, moving towards a future unknown. Often, we stumble along the way, quickly losing our bearings if we don't have a solid foundation, a sense of who we are, and the memory of who we have been. Our journeys require nuance—an understanding of what the past has taught us and the experiences that create wisdom— to guide us forward.
About fifteen years ago, when I was on staff at the UCC national setting, the then General Minister and President, Geoffrey Black, and I created a program called "Jazz for the Journey." We brought together an ecumenical group of musicians, ministers, and laypersons from around the country, to experience the power of jazz in worship and mission. Several years ago, we held a similar conference at Eden Seminary, and from time to time, I host Jazz for the Journey meditation concerts. For example, my band, The Oîkos Ensemble, led a performance based on Sankofa this past year. At one point, our drummer set up an African rhythm. As he played, our choral readers shared quotes about moving forward while affirming the past from which we have evolved.
Human beings are created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful . . . and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things. — Desmond Tutu
Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and God's hand in every happening—this is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. — Mother Teresa
Living in the moment brings you a sense of reverence for all of life's blessings. — Oprah Winfrey
If we know the divine art of concentration, easily and consciously, we can unite the inner world and the outer world. — Sri Chinmoy
It is necessary . . . for each of us to go away by ourselves . . . to sit on a rock . . . and ask, "Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?" — Carl Sandburg
Everyone who wants to know what will happen ought to examine what has happened: everything in this world in any epoch has its replicas in antiquity. — Niccolo Machiavelli
Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming. — Alice Walker
No one can know where they are going unless they know exactly where they've been, and exactly how they arrived at this present place. — Maya Angelou
The band then picked up the beat and performed "Dahomey Dance" by John Coltrane. I created lyrics based on a phrase by Maya Angelou:
No one, no one knows where the future goes. Only trust your soul.
Look back, see the past. Move on, free at last. Blessings, live your path.
Happy 30th Anniversary, UCCMA! May the future be guided by the wisdom of all those who have partnered to create the memories of the past. Blessings, as you live your path. ■
The Rev. Clifford Aerie is the minister of imagination, creativity and the arts (MICA) at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, Missouri and is a regular contributor in jazz. You are welcome to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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