I was watching 60 Minutes last night and they reported on a most remarkable orchestra in the Congo. The Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra is the only symphony orchestra in Central Africa and the only all-black orchestra in the world. The musicians are all volunteers, some walking 90 minutes each way to get to rehearsal. I don’t know much about the Congo, but I do know that it has been ravaged by war and is one of the poorest nations in the world. When food, water, shelter and security cannot be secured, why (and how!?) is this group of remarkable individuals going to orchestra practice every day?
It seems that when living in hell, music gives people a taste of heaven. And with that taste comes all those things of heaven: peace, joy, love. For a moment, the musicians are taken from their war-torn reality to a tiny glimpse of heaven. Watch the video, look at the faces of the people. Those are not the faces of the hopeless.
We find music and art in the most unusual places around the world. It seems that it is a necessary part of human culture, even when the things we believe to be basic human needs (food, water, shelter) are not secured. Some of the most beautiful music to come out of the American South came from slave and chain gang songs. The music was necessary, not optional like many contemporary Americans believe.
Does the human need for an aesthetic experience extend into all of the arts? The scientists at Johns Hopkins believe so. In fact, they hosted a symposium to explore “Your Brain on Art.” (One of my new favorite artists as mentioned in a previous post, William Stoehr, was featured at the symposium!) I love to see science and art working together here, as it felt to me like I had to abandon my interest in science when I chose a vocation in art. The two are inexorably linked and it will be exciting to see some of the science that comes from the collaborative work at Johns Hopkins and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. As an aside, if you have never been to this little gem of a museum, get thee to Baltimore! It was a brilliant Medieval Art collection, a wonderful and engaging staff, a cool crypt-like cafe, and it’s just the right size to avoid “museum bazoo.” (You know that feeling you get after seeing too many great works of art? Your head starts to hurt and your knees creak. Is it possible that “museum bazoo” is a result of an aesthetic experience overload?)
Art is so unbearably necessary and so quintessentially human, that we cannot ignore it. The soul begins to crumble when we do. And, while I am known for a bit of hyperbole, I think that the members of the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra would most certainly agree.