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Why the djembe matters to me (Part 1)

Permanent Linkby michi on Tue Mar 30, 2010 4:19 am

I've been thinking of writing down this story for about three years. Both for my own sake, because I think it is useful to reflect on the past, but also because I think other people might find something here that will touch them. This is a very personal account of why the djembe matters to me and why I continue to pursue Mandingue music. Mine is only one story out of thousands; the djembe has many ways to teach what people need to learn…

My name is Michi, and I live in Brisbane, Australia. I'm 50 years old now, and I've been drumming for six years—with a passion. The way I found the djembe is tied up with my upbringing and life as an adult, and with my journey from music to science and back.

Music and the performing arts were a big part of my early life. I was born and raised in Germany as the son of a professional musician. I grew up literally swimming in music and was recognised as musically gifted from an early age. I played harmonica by the time I was three, picked out simple tunes on the piano when I was four, and started learning recorder when I was six. My first serious instrument was the guitar, which I started learning when I was seven. At thirteen, I joined my first rock band and then spent the next ten years living and breathing music, playing guitar, singing, and performing with various bands. Pretty much the only time someone would find me not holding a guitar during those years was when I was asleep… As a teenager, I also was a professional TV and movie actor. I composed a rock opera when I was sixteen (which was performed quite a few times in Munich), and I founded a choir and conducted it for seven years until late 1983. In the early eighties, I participated in a number of professional theatre productions as an actor and singer, and sang as part of a choir for a band that blended rock and renaissance music. (There is even an LP from that period :) ) The first twenty-odd years of my life, I was well and truly steeped in music.

By 1981, I was a fairly accomplished singer and guitarist and quite well known in the local music scene; I was considering studying singing and guitar at the Munich Conservatorium after auditioning there and getting encouraging feedback from a professor. My father was dismayed when I told him that I was considering a music degree. He'd always said "Michi, you can become anything you like but, please, not a musician." Looking back, I can see why: our family suffered seriously at times because my father was on tour for much of my early life, playing in Kurt Edelhagen's big band (among others) all over Europe. And, for part of my teenage years, I didn't see my father all that much either because he was performing most days of the week until the early hours of the morning…

Before getting a degree, I had always planned to do a long overseas trip so, in 1982, I went to Australia and travelled for six months all over the continent. Within a few days of arriving, I knew that this was the country I wanted to live in. When I returned to Germany, I started the application process to migrate to Australia. Apart from music, my other interest always had been the sciences. I loved chemistry and electronics, and I figured that if I wanted to make it in Australia, I had better be something other than a tenor. So, I followed my other passion and decided to study computer science. I settled in Australia in January 1984, arriving with a backpack of possessions and entering University of Queensland six weeks later.

Having broken with my past pretty much completely, I was determined to succeed in Australia. I took my studies very seriously and, because I was as poor as a church mouse, ended up working long hours on top of my studies, doing anything from driving cabs to cooking pizzas at an Italian restaurant to teaching mathematics to high school students. With all that going on, there was no time left for music. I used to play guitar 15-20 hours per week; within a year of my arrival, that had dropped to zero. Studying and earning enough money to pay the bills took priority, and failure was not an option. So, instead, I studied and worked with a vengeance, graduating in 1987 with first class honours, topping the year and winning a number of university prizes. (I continued to listen to music with keen interest all my life, but never returned to playing guitar.)

I spent the next fifteen years building a very successful career as a software engineer. I wrote a book about distributed computing, spoke at dozens of international conferences as a keynote speaker, was chief scientist for a large and successful company, and basically built my career and fame. By 2002, I had outwardly achieved everything I could have possibly dreamed of. Having started with a backpack and no money, I was married to a beautiful wife, had a son I was proud of, was moderately wealthy, had a big house, a sports car, professional success, and was internationally recognised as an expert in my field. I'd also worked 70-hour weeks for fifteen years, was travelling overseas for around three months each year, spent much of my life living on airplanes and in nondescript sterile hotels and, despite all my success, my life was empty and I was depressed as all hell.

Then, in late 2002, something happened that was life-changing for me. My son was 13 years old at the time, and a family friend suggested that I should take him to something called "Pathways to Manhood". This is an event run by an organisation dedicated to helping young people make the fundamental emotional shift from being a child to becoming a young adult. A bunch of fathers and their sons go into the Australian bush for a week, accompanied by a few facilitators, and conduct men's business, culminating in a modern initiation rite for the boys. This was a very intense week, both for the sons and the fathers. A lot of time was spent exploring truly deep and fundamental issues about responsibility, sexuality, emotion, what it means to be a man, what it means to have successes and failures, and more. Emotionally, it was a roller coaster ride, and we experienced pretty much every part of the spectrum: joy, happiness, love, grief, anger, contentment, and everything else in between.

I took my son to this initiation with the intent of doing something for him and the other boys, teaching him about the deep issues that surround the transition into adulthood. The experience was beautiful and deeply important for both of us, and I believe that this was probably the most significant single thing I have ever done for my son. As it turned out, I had gone there to teach, but found that I had far more to learn than I had to teach…

Looking at the other fathers at the event, I realised that these men were very different from me. Some fathers had had failed marriages, some had struggled with drug problems in the past, some had a criminal record, some had been abused as children, and some were under serious financial pressure. Outwardly, with all my trappings of wealth and success, I had none of these problems. Yet, some of the men around me had something I lacked: a source of inner strength, peace, and balance that I could not find in myself. I walked away from the event realising that there might be ways to live my life differently, ways that didn't depend on conventional measures of success. Trying to learn more, I got in touch with the men's movement, attended a number of workshops on personal development, and started dealing with some of my own issues. Looking back, I now recognise this as my mid-life crisis: I had finally reached the point in life where I had to make some changes and find new meaning; either that, or perish.

Enter the djembe…

[Continued in Part 2]
Last edited by michi on Tue Mar 30, 2010 7:41 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Re: Why the djembe matters to me (Part 1)

Permanent Linkby BarefootJoe on Wed Jan 19, 2011 7:18 am

Wow. It's surreal reading about a person going to the very same degree I went to, only 19 years earlier! Loved reading your account of how the djembe has changed your life and it has even sparked in me some thoughts of leaving the software trade too...
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Re: Why the djembe matters to me (Part 1)

Permanent Linkby michi on Sat Feb 05, 2011 8:11 am

BarefootJoe wrote:Wow. It's surreal reading about a person going to the very same degree I went to, only 19 years earlier! Loved reading your account of how the djembe has changed your life and it has even sparked in me some thoughts of leaving the software trade too...

Thanks! I'm sure that there are many stories like this. It's just that people don't write them down all that often.

Michi.
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