Days of Funk and Violas

souledout3a“You should praise the mutilated
     world.
Remember the moments when we
     were together
in a white room and the curtain
     fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert
     where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park
     in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s
     scars.”

-Adam Zagajewski,
Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Who says Front Royal ain’t funky? Well, pretty much everyone. But tonight the sounds of Parliament Funkadelic, Rick James, and James Brown are thumpin’ and bumpin’ their bad selves all over Main Street just beside the tidy white gazebo while steam rises from sausage vendor’s trailer and beer rushes out of mobile taps into large green plastic cups.

I’m hanging out here at Dancin’ Downtown with Jose, Maggie, and some friends we’ve run into. While Maggie zooms around with the other kids like a wild animal and Jose sits on a retaining wall watching them, I sneak off to get closer to the action. I’m hovering 30 feet back from the stage in the middle of the crowd and I can’t quite believe what I hear and see.

I look for a street sign to make sure I am where I think I am.

In Front Royal, when there’s entertainment, it’s likely to be a bluegrass trio or Beatles cover band jamming up on stage or, if you’re at the gazebo on a weeknight, you might hear the quaint strains of old world waltzes as members of the local European folk dance club practice their steps. The furious staccato of conga drums rippling through the air around me does not seem at all likely or even possible. Is it being beamed from another planet, one without a restaurant named after Stonewall Jackson?

No, it’s just a local group called the Souled Out band rockin the house with their big sound system and blinding multi-colored back lights. Some brave administrator has hired them to help our quiet town mix it up a little.

I glance at the bunches of people around me. I’ve often noticed that being in a crowd here usually means floating in an ocean of pink and white, with maybe some brown splashed here and there. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself but I know there are other people who live here, people who don’t look like me. Right now, amazingly enough, I’m surrounded by grooving, sweating, bopping neighbors of every color, with a lot more brown in the crowd than usual. And at this moment we’re all focused on the same thing—feeling the groove.

This single-minded pursuit makes me ridiculously happy.

Walking here earlier from our house only a few blocks away, I’d noticed caravans of families making their way downtown—many of them African-American. It felt strangely like some kind of pilgrimage. I now realize they were all coming down to be baptized in the holy waters of a nasty bass beat—babies in strollers, grandmas with canes, adults in wheelchairs, kids, parents, and teenagers just wanting a bit of fun.

Maybe it’s the party-hard attitude of the music that unites us. The band plays mostly funk, but throws out country, rock-n-roll, and ballads—something for every taste. They know how to work a crowd, getting everyone to line dance, goading them to shout back at the stage. I wonder if the racial make up of the audience simply reflects the diversity of the band, which seems to include an equal number of white and black members.

One of the lead singers is a big beefy guy. Playing the conga drums and wearing a do-rag, he reminds me of Aaron Neville. Halfway through the show he lets everyone know, “This is the Front Royal I know. I’m glad I came back.”

Sounds good to me but maybe I feel so happy because I’ve had two beers on an empty stomach. It’s definitely helping.

Maggie and one of her friends shake their butts a few feet in front of me and I stay just close enough to see them.

“Don’t watch us!” she screams with daggers in her eyes—I’m already the embarrassing mom.

Sweaty and red-faced, she’s running on adrenaline, trying to glide like Michael Jackson, slither like Lady Gaga. The adults look like huge trees swaying around her and her friend. An albino boy boogies to my right with a man who could be his father or grandfather.

souledout2a

At a quarter to ten the band finally wraps it up with Brick House. Maggie has to be peeled away from her playmate as the bass player reminds everyone to, “go to church tomorrow” then sings a little tune about Jesus. For once I don’t mind the religious reference, maybe because, in this case, it seems honest and celebratory rather than creepy.

I’m tired and dehydrated. Maggie’s hungry, as always. We stumble home in the dark, stuff snacks into our mouths, and plop into bed, guitars still ringing in our ears.

Shockingly, we comply with the bass player’s admonition and go to church the next morning, where we hear a very different kind of music. We must not stray from the venerable country tradition of sinning on Saturday night and repenting on Sunday morning.

The funny thing is that our church doesn’t require repentance. We’re Unitarian Universalists (UUs), or at least, I am—Jose refuses to align himself with any group, which may be wise. I have to drag him to every service we attend despite the fact that he always ends up enjoying them.

You’ve got to love Unitarians though—everyone can get to heaven and no one dogma is the truth. Even atheists can attend our church. I won’t go into the official seven principles of the UUs but, basically, they boil down to respect for each person’s “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Yes, I know that sounds horrifically new agey but it’s a tenet I can actually get behind.

Not surprisingly, the UU Church of the Shenandoah Valley is an oasis of liberal thought in this area. Sometimes its existence feels like a small miracle. It welcomes everyone regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, disability, religious background, etc. We’ve got your pagans, your Christians, your Buddhists, your Jews, and on and on.

However, as we rise to sing on Sunday morning after our “crazy” Saturday night, Jose and I are reminded of the one thing the Unitarians lack—hymns that don’t make us giggle hysterically. We don’t mean to laugh but the lyrics are just so damn goofy. They make us feel like we’re in a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing those whacky and oh-so-earnest UUs. One song in particular gets us every week. Named, rather generically, “Spirit of Life,” it’s a staple at most UU congregations:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Oh my, where are Bette Midler and Olivia Newton John? These lyrics are on par with “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “You Light Up My Light”—two of the all time cheesiest songs ever recorded.

What I wouldn’t give for a good old Baptist spiritual or some stained glass bluegrass high lonesome tunes or even a traditional Episcopalian hymn. Amazing Grace would be a huge relief.

Well, there are worse things than having to pretend to sing music that makes us laugh so hard we cry—we could be stuck in a church that actually pushes the ideas of original sin, heaven, and hell—god forbid.

What our church lacks in hymnal music, it makes up for with fantastic guest musicians. The director of music at our church is a world-class vocalist and former Romanian opera singer. Her husband is a widely respected clarinetist and professor at Shenandoah University. Both of them have both performed during church services. Her rendition of Ave Maria is an event not to be missed—it brought me to tears and I’m not even a lapsed Catholic. She brings in artists whose musical gifts always surprise me. They provide a much-needed balance to those Hallmark-style UU songs.

Viola3a

This morning she’s invited two young women, Zhuo Diao and Shou Diao, to play viola for us. Shenandoah Conservatory students from China, they appear to be twins. Dressed all in back with their hair pulled back into ponytails, they make a beautiful and striking pair.

What they do with their instruments blows me away. I am grabbed immediately by the plaintiveness of the notes. They play a Chinese composition called “The Song of the Grassland” by Guan Ging Wu. It’s complex and dark in places, light in others. There’s nothing sappy or maudlin about it. The composition feels modern and relevant. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed music from a stringed instrument this much. Once again, I’ve got tears in my eyes but this time I’m not the least bit tempted to laugh.

They play under broad high windows that reveal a perfect blue sky and massive evergreens. Sunlight pours into the sanctuary from every direction. I love this building precisely because of the way it lets nature in. Somehow, the violas’ minor chords seem to make the sky a brighter blue and the trees an even deeper green.

Earlier, during his sermon, Reverend Ticknor had read a poem by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” It is an unsentimental poem about the importance of celebrating all the good around us even as we recognize how broken the world really is. In the Valley, where—let’s face it—attitudes about difference have a long way to go, Chinese compositions, Polish poetry, funk and conga drums and sweat are surprising praise.

As the service ends on Sunday, I keep thinking about how, in DC, it would be no big deal to take in Parliament Funkadelic (the band) one day and a viola concert the next plus any other kind of performance you could possibly want—theatre, dance, music, art—all of it unrepentant and uncensored.

Out here, I never expect it—maybe that’s why it feels like a gift.

-Heather Davis

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3 responses to “Days of Funk and Violas

  1. Hey Heather and Jose,

    Gus was just telling me about your blog – can’t wait to read it all! Greets from Amsterdam…

    xoxox
    Sarah (Martin – owner of epic poem)

  2. Ouch!

    No, actually Spirit of Life is pretty bad. I don’t think any more when I sing it, except when I get to “roots hold me close, wings set me free” which calls up some strange Sisyphean image of a creature trapped, unable to stop trying to fly, yet rooted to the earth.

    Of course, the reason UUs hymns are so dull is that UUs tend to fear passion in religion, associating it with the fervent faith they left behind. It’s why the one word you can say in their presence that will cause them to giggle snarkishly is “Baptist.”

    Anyway, I am glad you are one of us, and glad you drag Jose.

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