Chapter Six – Omega Institute

Omega Institute

Back in Buffalo, raising a son, not quite so much time for jam sessions, I wrote and recorded my first album, “Sunrise” and put a photo of my little guy on the cover, in the buff from the back pointing to a reflecting sun rising over the water. Also joined with six other people in creating a free local newspaper with articles and calenders of groups teaching yoga, meditation, healing, healthy eating and all the activities and practices known back then as “weird”, called “The Network of Light”. I wrote columns, interviews, collected calendar items and begged for ads. I bought a used, um, what were they called…oh right…I bought a computer. No internet yet but it sure beat the heck out of white-out on a typewriter.

So where are the famous people as promised in the title? Be patient. A teaser: I encounter the most famous person in the world! But that comes later.

At this point, I somehow found a catalog for a summer camp for adults. Hidden away in the Berkshire Mountains in east New York State, Omega Institute was one of the trailblazers of honoring all traditions. True, Esalen Institute on the west coast at Big Sur was founded in 1962 and Naropa, an accredited University in Bolder Colorado in 1974 were a little earlier. Omega comes in third in 1977. I saw that it had been conceived by students of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the head of the Sufi Order, the same organization whose members had independently chosen to pick up the pieces at the World Symposium on Humanity. Omega was offering courses from people who were deeply committed to their own spiritual and/or artistic traditions so one could study with a Zen Buddhist from Japan, a Native American shaman/elder or an African drummer. Remember, back in the early 80s this was relatively unheard of; people of different paths all teaching on one campus. Most weren’t on self help book tours as it is today. They were merely doing what they were internally called to do, externally supported by the happenstance of where they were born. The decisions on which teachers to invite were made thoughtfully and usually someone on the deciding committee had personal experience with them.

So there is this catalog in front of me and as I flip I see a face that looks familiar. The name was Baba Olatunji. I don’t know how long it took me to make the connection but this was the man who had recorded the album, “Drums of Passion” that I found in the library and played on my little record player years earlier. Wow. The real thing. My inspiration. I was there.

At this this time I was playing two second-hand, repainted black fiberglass congas which I schlepped all the way across New York State and into the very big space at Omega where the six day course would be held. I set the drums up right in the front row, as close as I could get to the portable blackboard that was green and a grand looking drum that I imagined to be the teacher’s. It was. Almost five feet high and mostly cylindrical, it was perched on a custom-made black metal stand. Strips of beautifully smooth, dark stained wood flared delicately up to a 16” diameter head made of white animal skin. There was no other drum like in on the planet. It waited there patiently with the rest of us for Baba to enter.

Born outside of the capitol city of Abuja in Lagos State, Nigeria, West Africa to the Yoruba people, Michael Babatundi Olatunji found his way to the US by winning a scholarship he had read about in ‘Readers Digest’. Though his degree was in Diplomacy, he had the ancient rhythms of his homeland in his blood. (Just as you could now hum the incessant music from the ice cream truck, only better) He formed a band and opened a center in New York City to bring in some extra money and because this was America’s first introduction to authentic African music it caught fire. “Drums of Passion” was recorded in 1959 for Columbia records at his center, which by the way was pushed along with the help of none other that John Coltrane. Baba spoke seven languages including his native tongue of Yoruba (pronounced Your-r Ba).

But we, or at least I, knew none of this while we waited at Omega Institute for the exotic African drum teacher to appear. He did without fanfare. Wearing, as he always did when I saw him, traditional Nigerian clothing – long kaftan type of top commonly called boubou and kufi style cap. He was very well aware, as we politely patronized the foreigner, that he was an ambassador of sorts and he accepted our stupidity with love. He spoke with vowels as broad as the sea as he gave the syllabus for the class. Then finally he walked to the THE DRUM, raised his elbows and played. It spoke with a voice that is branded into my senses: deep, mellow, soothing and wild at the same time with at least three layers of overtones that gave it a melodic quality. I could feel it as I breathed deeply. There was definitely a love affair going on between it and Baba. No one else knew where it’s pleasure spot was but him. He teased the song out of it with strong, definite gestures. As he played he sang a song in Yoruba, in a voice so loud it was probably heard across the entire campus. Interesting that some students giggled nervously probably because they had never heard an African language (or maybe anything but English, except for maybe Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore’”.)

And of course there were the actual rhythms. West African poly rhythms (many rhythms going on at once) sound very complex but are really very simple parts that are woven together. The real challenge is in the weaving. But for Doris Day-listening, Beatles-grooving ears like ours, even the easy parts were, well let’s say it again, challenging. Years later I learned, but will insert here, that traditional rhythms, developed in smaller communities and passed down aurally, are of course, all tied together with the language being spoken in that community. All the subtle nuances of the patterns are way beyond the non-speaker-of that -language’s ability to discern. Also taking into account the sounds of the wind, the trees, the animals and birds, climate and cultural duties in which the language and rhythms were developed, it may be safe to say that white people don’t have a snowballs chance in hell of getting them so right that a blind person from that culture couldn’t tell your DNA had passed through the Caucasus mountains. But Baba was there to try anyway. Besides, the point wasn’t to replicate exactly. That’s what happens to music when it is written down. (I double-dog dare you to try and write down classical West African poly rhythms.) Music and arts of all kinds naturally morph. And we sitting there, unbeknownst to us at the time, were the morphers.

Baba had devised a method of teaching using verbal Yoruba syllables – Gun, go, do, pa & ta. He had us speak the rhythms before playing: “GUN go do GUN go do” over and over till we caught a little of the feeling. Baba didn’t make up this way of teaching drum rhythms. It is the norm all over Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “If you can say it you can play it” the axiom goes. Finally after instructions on how not to hurt our hands we played very simple little parts. Holy cow. I had never heard that many drums play at once. We thought we were hot as hell. I’m sure Baba was probably thinking almost the same thing – leaving out the “hot as” part. In any case, we progressed, deeper and deeper into the sounds, the swaying, the power, the discipline and of course the bonding that ultimately brings a group together, hearts all beating together with the drums.

One of the ways Baba excelled in transferring this almost unteachable art was that through his Gun- go-do exercises, he had synthesized basic underlying patterns running through many traditional West African rhythms. If in the future I/we would come across any complex rhythms from Mali or Ivory Coast or Guinea or wherever, we could break them down into familiar chunks and not be totally lost inside them, and be able to play something that sounded close-ish. If you have had an opportunity to read what brain research has discovered about how brains learn, you know that new learning takes place more effectively when there is already a similar learning waiting in the brain for a twin or least sibling of the original information, that is almost like it. The original memory is strengthen by the repetition and the newer memory builds it’s own house in the same neighborhood. So the more similar learning, the bigger the neighborhood becomes. The more you know, the bigger your capacity grows to learn even more.

He also had us sing in Yoruba as we played. Brain researchers also acknowledge that performing more than one associated task at the same time (like singing while drumming or playing table tennis) networks a lot of brain neighborhoods together. (Very helpful when playing “Jeopardy” among other important tasks.) Baba was genius.

Playing the ancient, woven rhythms that had been played for thousands of years made me feel like I had finally joined the human race. Apparently I was not the only who felt this music deeper that my bones. Put on your history hat for a moment and remember that people from West Africa, who knew and played and danced to these very same rhythms were being kidnapped from their homes for hundreds of years and sold in the slave trade. Though most who were brought to the US were not allowed to speak or sing anything even resembling Africa, they cleverly managed to keep reminders, subliminal codes, generation to generation, in the rhythms of work songs and “Negro Spirituals” and in the cadence of their accents. The man who collected the Brer Rabbit stories (no not Uncle Remus – he was a made up character created to make black people seem safe and docile not for particularly racist ends, but instead to sell magazines) Joel Chandler Harris was a white man who had no idea he was writing down ancient African folktales. He thought they were just cute animal stories that the readers of his magazine would like. But he had some background in music and when he heard the African American slaves singing he remarked to several acquaintances that there was something unique and unreproducible about the rhythms he heard. A bit of an understatement because it was that golden thread of connection to the tantalizing, soul moving rhythms of Africa that gave birth to almost all of what we call American music – from ragtime, to jazz, blues and rock and roll and hip hop. And if you mix in a little Scottish-influenced Appalachian music you’ve got Rockabilly and Country Western. So as I and my classmates and all of the hundreds of thousands of people that Baba taught and inspired, learned and listened to him, we were actually closing a big circle, or maybe continuing on a spiral of musical evolution but now with a big dose of pure unadulterated, original DNA mother music. Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart (I played with him once) was so moved he collaborated with Baba and inadvertently jump started the drum circle phenomenon that can be found in every major and many minor US cities. (for better or worse)

One evening toward the end of our week with Baba we performed for the whole Omega campus. He had me sit in the front and suggested to others they could follow me if they got lost. Privately he told me I played very well. That one comment burst me into a confidence that allowed me to step right up to the guy drummers back home and say “Hey, I’m playing here” when told to let the big boys play. I never got any sexist crap from Baba. Without his support I might have just given up because the pushback from men drummers was so strong. I returned to study with him the next year and he greeted me warmly by name. The next year a friend named Stephanie organized a big event in Buffalo to bring Baba to Buffalo for a Juneteenth celebration (Emancipation Proclamation anniversary). She asked me to prepare a large number of local drummers by teaching them Baba’s Gun go do introductory rhythms. The idea was after months of practice, to play as he entered the celebration. At the last minute the Buffalo African American community who was in charge of the event, held in a public park, told us not to play there because most of us were white. We all lost.

The last time I saw Baba was at that Buffalo event. He was having health problems even then. When he passed in 2003 there were memorial services for him all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of drummers gathered in many locations to ‘drum him up’. There was lots of national news coverage. He had discretely but not so quietly crept into our national collective consciousness.

After Baba I chose to study with another percussionist teaching a summer course at Omega. Collin Wolcott was a highly respected, dearly loved, extremely creative and talented co-founder of the group, “Oregon”. The real reason I wanted to study with him was because while I was in San Francisco, seven months pregnant, I went to their concert. The whole time they played, my baby was moving in a way he had never moved before. Any other time it was a kick in the kidneys, or some other jock move. But this time I swear he was in there dancing, in a round rolling sort of way. Externally it made me nauseous, but internally I was overtaken with bliss that the little being inside there was able to so profoundly and innocently enjoy those sounds. I wanted what they were having.

They were the vanguard musicians of what one might call “New Age” or “World” music, although at the time there were no such things. Labels like Windham Hill and Narada might not even exist without them opening the market. All four members of Oregon had played with the Paul Winter Consort, founded by the soprano saxophone player of the same name, who most famously was the first to record whale songs and wolf calls and compose music around those melodies. Most of what Collin and the rest of Oregon played was improvised, perhaps starting with a theme they had worked with previously. Definitely a jazz feel to what they did, a big dash of Western classical, Native American, East Indian and beautiful indescribable sound scapes with entrancing rhythms. They recorded over 20 albums together. Collin also recorded with many other top artists of his day including Miles Davis, Richie Havens, and even U2 sampled his music..

His band mate Ralph Towner said this about the way Collin worked: (from collinwolcott.com) .”I can still feel the weight of Collin’s hand on my shoulder. It was as if a large, compact animal had gently perched there. With those firm but gentle hands he would coax every sound he could possibly find from any object with a potential for music in it. Anything that would attract his curiosity such as a shell, a box, a traditional instrument, would receive his full attention as he methodically rapped, tugged, plucked on it or breathed through it until he determined whether it would qualify to join his arsenal of musical instruments. He combined the scholarly approach with the instinctive, the passionate with the pragmatic in the most complete and successful ways that I had ever seen. The beauty of such a man lives and teaches us forever. In stressful times, his example still is available for advice and solace. His formidable strength and gentleness still exists and helps to guide us in this life.”

I had no idea what to expect from Collin’s workshop at Omega. Since so much of what he did was creative and in the moment, I wondered how he could transfer that. I guess Collin wondered too, because he took a more studied approach that week. He had been trained in classical Indian music by Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakka. On the first day of class he whipped out some papers he had copied of Indian tabla rhythms. Holy cow. It is the most complex music I have ever encountered. As in most older music forms we spoke the patterns from the papers with the syllables ta ka ti ki in every imaginable arrangement. There is absolutely no way to get from one’s first ta ka ti ki to proficiency on the tablas unless the class happened to last for ten years. Any musician of consequence will tell you it takes ten years to master an instrument. And as it turns out brain researchers are also bearing witness to this fact. Take that Guitar Heroes.

So I think the point of what he was teaching that week was an oh so small sampling of that particular culture’s artistry. It left me with three things: (1) a total awe and appreciation for the music. (2) a definite removal of “learn to play tablas” from my to-do list and (3) a shining, undying model of what it means to be a whole human being.

Within the next year Collin was on tour in Buffalo with a newer group that he co-founded, CODONA with COllin, DOn Cherry and NAna Vasconcelos. They recorded 3 albums for ECM and were on tour supporting one of them. I was writing for a local music magazine and arranged for an interview. When I walked into the dressing room after the amazing concert, Collin remembered me and my name and gave me a warm smile and hug, then introduced me to Don and Nana and each gave me a warm hug. It was a totally unexpected, unrehearsed gesture that felt like a ceremony. What an ideal atmosphere to play music in. Spontaneous love. Trust. In the moment. I asked Collin what he hoped people would get from his music. He said people were free to do whatever they wanted with it. Once it left his instrument, it was not his.

Of course after all these years I am paraphrasing, but the main gist of what he said really turned me around. I had expected him to say ‘I hope people are healed’ or ‘ I hope they feel joy’ or something like that. Instead, in that one simple statement he showed his elegant state of imperceptible ego. The music wasn’t about him or what he wanted it to be, it simply was.

Within a year of that interview news came that he had been killed in a bus accident in Germany while on tour with Oregon. I was surprised at how much I grieved. He left behind a wife and lovely young daughter whom we met at Omega. I cried for her because this was the kind of man that should be raising children and now this girl had gotten all she was going to get from her father. I cried for the unborn music. And I cried a little for myself, knowing his loving live music wouldn’t enter my senses again. I let go of a fantasy that maybe some day I would get to jam with him. But here pondering the question now I realize I actually do jam with him when I play music and observe as the instrument releases the sound and vibration into the world, knowing as some mystics say that sound continues on into the universe for eons.

Earlier I mentioned that Collin had played with the Paul Winter Consort, the first, at least in my hearing, to combine substantive eclectic new age-ish world music with music from nature. Different musicians floated in and out of the group. I listened to his music regularly and was smitten with it’s blending of genres and high level of musicianship, and the resulting feeling that everything was okay.

On one of my trips to Omega, Paul Winter was billed to perform on the summer solstice. Imagine my joy. He performed on his signature soprano sax and then five minutes before the official moment of most intense sun of the year the whole camp, hundreds of people, joined hands in a big circle and sang a song from one of his albums. And guess who found herself unintentionally standing next to him, holding hands? Moi. I took an internal photo for my gallery.

Hopefully at this point I knew how not to be star struck so I did not sweat all over his hand. He was a slightly reserved person so I did not strike up a conversation. I took the moment as it was, appreciating the circumstance, singing with Paul Winter at the moment of summer solstice and I knew everything was okay.

My last year at Omega I was actually on staff, invited to play drums for Dr. Saadi Neil Douglas-Klotz. He led the Dances of Universal Peace which are a newly organized form of what people have been doing together for at least 20,000 years. By holding hands in a circle and singing songs, the brain relaxes and it’s possible even in these times to think of something other than oneself. You get to feel part of a community. I had been involved with this practice for about 10 years at this point and had met Neil a few years earlier by hosting weekends for him just outside of Buffalo. He would later go on to write a pivotal book, “Prayer of the Cosmos” (publisher’s title – not his) that was a translation of the prayer that Jesus spoke, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. Neil learned Aramaic, the language of trade in 33AD, and looked at the prayer as written in several sources predating the St. James version. It reads a great deal differently.

So there we were at Omega. I was officially on staff which meant – aha—I got to eat in the staff dining room! I don’t know if you are able to appreciate the import of this. In all the years of attending as a student, the staff dining room was closed to the general public. But I was no longer the public. I was staff and I could eat in the room marked “Staff” over the doorway. I wondered what was in there? Hawaiian luaus with fire twirlers? Waiters in tuxedos popping champagne corks? I trepidly stepped under the arch, waiting for a moment as though mistletoe hung above. There was none. I entered. It looked exactly the same as the main dining room only smaller. It served exactly the same food as out there in the public buffet line, only less. Oh well.

I dished up my food from the pans in the steam table, and as was my custom at events like this, I selected a seat next to someone I did not know. There was a gentleman with a mustache sitting alone so I asked him if the seat was available and he said yes. I said “Hi my name is Susan” He answered “Hi. I’m Phil”. Get ready for the next big name drop. It was Phil Jackson. If you are like me I absolutely did not not know anything about him. I asked him what he was teaching and he said basketball. “Oh that’s nice” I said. “Do you play basketball?” He was really tall which I could not see yet because he was sitting down, but still I had to look up at him as we chewed. He told me used to play but now he coached.

For those who still don’t know who Phil Jackson is (and I did not learn until I returned home) he was the coach of the Chicago Bulls – you know the Michael Jordan team that won all the championships. “When does basketball season happen?” I asked, not really caring. Truthfully there was not much I cared less about than sports, but I thought I needed to be polite.

His manner with me was very quiet and humble, gentle almost. In reflection I think he might have appreciated someone not asking all about Michael Jordan. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him. He seemed a bit familiar with the work of the Dances of Universal Peace, or Sufi Dancing as it had been called. I mostly remember feeling very comfy with him. We both had to get to our classes so we stood and said a little good bye. Did I mention that he was very tall. It is worth mentioning several times.

When I got home and asked my son if he’d ever heard of him he pretty much flipped and wanted to know why I didn’t get his autograph. It had never occurred to me. As my son and I talked further, after he caught his breath and his complexion turned to normal, I realized that Michael Jordan was the guy responsible for those ridiculously expensive sneakers he could not live without.

Okay so we are still waiting to hear about the most famous person the world, right? That’s in the next chapter; promise.

About susanslackblog

Author, drummer, vocalist, dancer
This entry was posted in Memoir and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chapter Six – Omega Institute

  1. mountaindance says:

    Great post! Thank you!!

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