“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Steve Jobs
In 1996 I was invited to teach a course of my choice at UC Berkeley Extension. After discussing ideas with the director, Celia Rabinovitch, we settled on “Gospel Music: A Passionate Heritage.” Like many African-Americans, I grew up with Gospel music as part of my heritage accepting it as part of my fabric, however, now my task was to develop a curriculum for an 8 week course. Suddenly I was the student, not the teacher!
So began my journey of discovery, ordering and reading books, viewing PBS Black History Month videos, meeting and talking to others who had done such research. My first discovery was that I couldn’t teach the history of Gospel Music without looking to Africa. Growing up in the early 40’s, Africa wasn’t a popular subject in my community due to portrayals of Africans in films as savages. In my family there was no memory of African heritage because in slavery the history and culture was erased. As I started to research I began to find the origins of what became the Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and Gospel music all uniquely American and yet clearly rooted in African music.
One such video I came across was Bill Moyers’ documentary “Amazing Grace.” Like many, I had played and sung “Amazing Grace” hundreds of times throughout the years yet I was in for a shock when I saw the film and learned the history of the song. The author of the lyrics was John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship transporting captured Africans to market. John Newton knew on some level what he was doing was immoral and yet he was highly motivated to do whatever he could to amass money so he could marry. On one of the voyages carrying a load of slaves, the ship was caught in a horrendous storm. John Newton, who was a prolific writer, went to his cabin and wrote in the ship’s log, “Only by the Grace of God will we be saved.”
Eventually Newton became an Anglican Priest and abolitionist. He wrote the poem “Amazing Grace” which was set to music years later. While there is much discussion about the origin of the melody, I find it fascinating that the one that fits is a melody based on the pentatonic scale, the traditional scale of Native Americans, Celtics, Scots, Asians and regions of Africa. How ironic that “Amazing Grace” penned by a former slave owner had been embraced by so many people of all ethnicities. The lyrics took on an entirely different meaning for me both historically and on a spiritual level. As I was teaching my class and sharing the documentary and the story of “Amazing Grace” I began formulating how to tell this story musically.
In July 2004, I was invited to play a newly installed Rodgers Digital Pipe Organ at the dedication of the Riggio-Lynch Chapel at Haley Farm in Clinton, TN home of the Childrens Defense Fund. World famous architect Maya Lin, designed the chapel like Noah’s Ark providing “safe haven” to the services and meetings held within. As the program opened, I heard African Drummers coming into the chapel accompanied by dancers. Inside the safe haven, I thought about the hull of John Newton’s ship when it must have been terrifying to my ancestors. When my time came to play, I recreated the story of “Amazing Grace” on the organ. Following the ceremony I was approached by Bill Moyers who was in attendance with his wife, Judith Suzanne Davidson. He came to me and said “I knew exactly what you were saying in your performance of “Amazing Grace!” I thanked him for the insights and inspiration he gave me through his film and for the way it changed my life.
While teaching at UC Berkeley Extension, I was also privileged to take an African Drumming course from C. K. Ladzekpo. During one of the breaks, a student asked Professor Ladzekpo, “What is the word for music in your native language?” There was a lengthy pause before C.K. told us there really isn’t a word for music in his language. Unlike the Eurocentric idea that music is a separate entity, in the African culture music and dance are connected to every aspect of life. In that moment I had an epiphany how music allowed my ancestors to endure and survive the horrors of slavery and also understood the power of music in my own life.
“Amazing Voyage” is a journey of connecting the dots; fusing together shared experiences from the Africans who captured other tribes and sold them to the slavers as well as the shared experiences of the slavers and the enslaved. “Amazing Voyage" is an interpretation of this history and yet it’s also a spiritual journey. Whether one is the “wretch” or been made to feel like a “wretch” this is a universal story of redemption, healing, and hope.
- Don Lewis