by Stacy Widelitz
My opinion has always been that if you want to learn about, and feel connected to, a culture other than your own, listen to their music, watch them dance (or, even better, dance with them), and eat their food. I was fortunate to have grown up near New York City. The variety of ethnic restaurants was staggering, and my family was adventurous. We had a tradition – if it was your birthday, you got to choose an ethnic restaurant where we’d celebrate. We explored Indian cuisine, Cuban, Greek, etc.. In Chinatown we ate at a table in the kitchen amid the hanging chickens and ducks, listening to the chefs shouting with no idea what they were saying, or why they always seemed so angry at one another. At an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, the chef, upon finding out it was my mother’s birthday, prepared a saffron and rosewater cake just for us. It was as if the chef was saying, “Look, here’s something special from my country. Taste it and understand.” The cake was exotic, and it was delicious. And I think we did understand a little more about him, about his pride in his people and culture.
My parents were also adventurous in their musical tastes, and that trickled down to my brother and me. Our family’s record collection included music of Japanese Kabuki theater, the South African activist and singer Miriam Makeba, The Red Army Choir from Russia, Cuban big band music, and much more. I started playing piano as a child, and turned professional when I was fifteen-years-old. I started getting work as a composer when I was nineteen, and I believe this wealth of culturally diverse music was an influence and a help in my career. Much later, when I was working as a composer for film and TV in Los Angeles, I scored a documentary for ABC about the plight of the black rhinoceros. I used African rhythms and instrumentation in my score, which was nominated for an Emmy. The rhythms didn’t feel foreign to me – I was listening to them as a child.
The human brain is hardwired for music. Studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients, even when they can’t recognize their loved ones, will recognize a favorite song, sometimes even singing along. Differing languages, customs, and religions can separate, even alienate, people, but music binds them. It is primal, and there is no better way to reach people on a deep, emotional level. I’m lucky to have co-written a song, “She’s Like the Wind,” that became an international hit, and is still heard around the world. I’ve heard it on a bus in Havana. I’ve heard it in a theater in Berlin. I’ve seen the song pop up in a blog in Vietnam, and a Hong Kong edition of Vanity Fair. It has transcended language, customs, and religions. That is the power of music as a cultural force. Music is abstract – you can’t see it or touch it, but you feel it in your heart and in your soul. It’s spiritual, used in sacred rituals around the world. In my mind, music is one of the most effective tools for bringing people together, and for creating a sense of common humanity.
The saying in musical theater is that when you’re too emotional to speak, you sing. Dancers take it further – when you’re too emotional to sing, you dance. I think of the great scene toward the end of “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba has told the Englishman that if he’s happy, he dances. If he’s sad, he dances. Toward the end of the film, the once-reserved Englishman finally understands the power of this emotional release, and he and Zorba dance on the beach together to the wonderful bouzouki music of Mikis Theodorakis. In my late teens, I was fortunate to work as an improvisational accompanist with The José Limon Dance Company, one of the premiere modern dance companies in the world. My experience over those three summers taught me that dance is music made physical, and that there is no movement without rhythm. On a trip to Cuba in 2016, I got to watch a rehearsal of Habana Compás Dance Company. All the dancers were also trained percussionists, so they were creating their own music as they danced. Their complex rhythms and movements were an expression of sheer joy – spiritual, primal, and cathartic. I didn’t learn about Cuba from a book – I learned about Cuba by experiencing their music, dance, food, and their profound love of the arts. OK, cigars and rum played a role, too, but they’re related. I learned about Tuscany by wandering through Florence, going to the wineries in the countryside, and taking a cooking class in a villa run by two lovely sisters. Their great-grandfather was a well-known Italian composer, and there’s a signed photo of Puccini on the piano (which I got to play). These experiences are what made all of my trips overseas, whether it was Cuba, Denmark, Germany, or the UK, unforgettable. What better ambassadors are there than the arts, especially music and dance, and the food.