Monthly Archives: September 2016

Dancing with Speeches #39 For Keith

Another speech making day has arrived and the only speech I want to give is in my own voice. This week I head into the anniversary of my father’s death. He loved jazz music. The family turntable rotated with strains of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet and Stan Getz on the saxophone. Lena Horne’s voice would be heard along with Eartha Kitt’s sexy voice and we would dance around with air horns. Having been on a road trip with a pop up gospel choir to the towns of Memphis, Chicago and New Orleans, he is haunting me in the lead up to what would have been his 80th birthday on 3 October. So this week’s speech is dancing with his ghost in New Orleans.

I headed to Preservation Hall in New Orleans to sit on a wooden bench, in a dimly lit room home to many of the greats over more than a century. Huddled together with friends and strangers from all around the world to soak up the atmosphere, take in the sound and to pay homage to a heritage that grew so many of us up in the tradition of jazz. The genetic pathway from gospel to speak easy was easily found as each musician took their line, quartet blends and times for individual instruments and their master to shine.

In the confessional darkness of the confined space, the patrons swayed in their seats and  invisible memories formed a cloud in the room, uniting us in a common consciousness to transcend our own journey’s to the music which had lead us all there on this night. This is a no frills space – the most basic and modest of settings where everything has not been stripped back – it has never been embellished – a purity, an intimacy and acoustic. So far away from the loud, raucous, ecstasy moments in church I had experienced on the trip, the modesty of Preservation Hall was disarming. Primitive, not primal, it is a place of deep knowing and sophistication and simplicity writ large.

To listen to a quiet voice you need to be quiet and still, sometimes to even lean forward and strain to hear. A good lesson to learn at Preservation Hall is: in the space between sound you are invited to learn more about the music, the song and the musicians. The rest makes the space for the sounds to be heard. In death, I find I continue to be instructed and parented by my father and to be in such a place as Preservation Hall, I can preserve and reserve these memories and re-interpret them for the age I am in. His first grandchild is next to me in the Hall and we come to the space with him in our minds and to pay homage to his memory and the music he loved.

Tennessee Williams said New Orleans was the last frontier of Bohemia. The liberalism and almost careless abandon of bodies and booze for sale are juxtaposed with the rock solid presence of Preservation Hall. Taking a stroll past 722 Toulouse Street you can find the place where Williams laid his head to rest in the Crescent City. The bohemian lifestyle is not something I would associate with my Dad. He did however hold liberal social values and spent a lifetime of advocacy as an educator in public service for diversity to be celebrated and fostered through equity and access for those who had any number of physical, psychological and intellectual challenges. Perhaps he would have thought of New Orleans as his spiritual home in the same way Williams did. My guess is he would have found himself at Preservation Hall, in Louis Armstrong Park and down at the French Market sipping on a coffee and enjoying a beignet – and that does sound a bit bohemian come to think of it!

I have a new CD from the stars of Preservation Hall that will get a whirl and dance from me with my absent dance partner. And as the saints go marchin’ in, I am pretty sure Dad is sitting at the foot of Louis crooning along about our wonderful world. Cue the music.

Dancing with Speeches #38 George W Bush in New Orleans

When George W Bush finally arrived in Jackson Square in New Orleans to offer comfort and announce his Government’s response a lot of people (including me) thought it was too little and too late.  This week I am in New Orleans and have re-visited that speech and am offering another one that might have been given by the President of the USA.


While the streets and wards are covered in debris and refugees have fled to all parts of this country -there is nothing empty about New Orleans. NOLA is filled with a big heart.

This is a town where lives are changed every day by human, natural and supernatural energies. However, Katrina did not come like a thief in the night she announced her coming on every meteorological device days earlier, in the reports of problems with the engineering of the levee for years and in the ecology of the swamps for decades. Katrina was a perfect storm in every sense of the word – a howling, rolling merciless force of nature ready to bring a nation to its knees.

As in centuries past, bodies and parts of bodies floated in the streets. The cries for food and water only just soothed by the Coast Guard, rescuing and offering comfort unsurpassed by any other emergency service or organised effort. Neighbours helping neighbours, strangers seeking shelter huddled together in the Superdome, looking lost together and calling on the heavenly and earthly powers to come and save them.

This is a call to all of us – it is a wake up call – we need to wake up and understand the people of the Cresent City are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of systemic failure, climate change and human pride. The systems that have failed are more than an engineers error – they are serial and nearly a generation old. We didn’t listen, we weren’t paying attention and were arrogant enough to think we knew what was best and the electoral cycle was the only time frame to worry about. We didn’t pay attention to the meteorologists, the hydrologists, the geographers and planners. We missed all the cues and didn’t learn from the rehearsals provided by the elements and engineering.

We didn’t plan for what was inevitable.   No amount of money will replace personal treasures, homes and most especially loved ones lost. No amount of government assistance now will replace the lack of courageous and informed decision-making past. No about of recovery and rebuilding will heal those who are traumatised forever. This is our quest to be in this mess together. As your President I call on your forgiveness of our common failure and sweep aside this horror, to rise up together in a spirit of compassion, so we can all recover and rebuild.

I will commit to rebuilding trust, confidence and quality in decision-making. I will build on the spirit of resilience and goodwill of the people of New Orleans. I will call on Congress to gift the necessary funds to rebuild the infrastructure, document the lessons and create a new generation of leaders to protect and defend New Orleans to meet the challenges ahead in partnership with the great States of Louisiana, Mississippi and all across the Gulf and indeed our whole great nation – because the lessons from this disaster are ones we need to apply as we plan and prepare for future disasters. I invite all the volunteers and first responders to see themselves as saints marching in to New Orleans.

Like a tree planted by the waterside, New Orleans will not be moved, and as fellow Americans we will not be moved in our mission to help you come home, and be restored to fullest of health. I am calling on those with the skills, the heart, the networks and ideas to come together in New Orleans and to stay as this recover is going to take decades. The newcomers will be the brain gain to the City and bring hard work, creativity and a festival spirit to their endeavours.   We are a nation of entrepreneurs and there has never been a better time to call on that mentality and endurance to help get New Orleans back on its feet. I want us to parade together with brass bands blazing into a future where New Orleans is making its best music and magic.

I call upon all the great spirits of New Orleans – ones past and present to energise us when we are feeling low and to help us celebrate when we recover.



Dancing with Speeches #37 MLK in Chicago

Dr King arrived in Chicago with nonviolence and equity on his mind. At The Freedom Movement Rally in Chicago, he rallied his troops for justice and talked about being tired – tired of inferiority, injustice, overcrowded schools, poor housing … and the litany went on the people said Amen!  For an overview of the context see this collage from The Chicago Tribune. There is so much more to reflect on and write about! This is a sample of a big speech still in the making.


The tyranny of gradualism and promises of democracy were bearing in  King’s heart on July 10, 1966 in Soldier Field, Chicago. For a city that went on to host the acceptance speech of the first black American President on Nov 4, 2008 in Grant Park – this city has come a long way. The promise of democracy and all it delivers for all citizens is not complete. While the tall buildings elegantly scrape the sky, the hungry, deranged and homeless are still eeking out an existence on the street.

The rats scurry along the gentrified riverbank in the shadow of a tower of the one of the biggest rats seeking to lead to ‘free world’. The language of hate and fear are on one side of the scales as the forces of resisting changed and demanding change are diluted by the indifference and lack of confidence in the ballot box.

Organise, organise, organise – walk down every streets, knock on every door, register everyone eligible to vote, have all the conversations that need to be had – the urgency for equity is not over …. And yes, let justice roll down like a river and like Joshua get ready to fight the battle at Jericho to get those walls a-tumbling down! The walls of hate, the walls of division, the walls of fear, the walls of greed – let all these walls come tumbling down. We have seen walls come down all around the world from Berlin to Beijing and now someone wants to raise them again. Don’t be victims of disappointment. Pick up the weapons of truth and build a force that no political machine can resist.

The clouds of Chicago on a rainy morning forecast along with the psalmist (Ps126) seeds sown in tears will be jumping for joy when the harvest is reaped. This is not the time to grow weary, it is not the time to give up. This is the time when all lives matter, this is the time to keep rising and be liberated from the slavery of poverty, hardship, poor housing, lack of education, unaffordable health care. The promise of the rainbow was ‘fire next time’. We must fire up our hearts, galvanise our passion and like Mary stop the weeping and the mourning, and get up, rise up. It is time to dare everything as James Baldwin encouraged and now what seems to be a prophecy, race relations are at the crossroads in the USA once again.

This is not a time for gradualism, and even while each small step adds to the march, it is a march that is required, one fired up with nonviolence and armed with facts, figures, truth, fuelled by the desire for freedom.




Dancing with Speeches #36 MLK

I am in Memphis, Tennessee and so I take Martin Luther King’s hand to dance with today. His speech, the night before he was assassinated, took him to the mountain top, and from that vantage point he saw a storm brewing, and in that storm he drew from his scriptures the journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land and was not afraid as he was already free and had “seen the glory of the Lord”.  The speech was delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, USA.


I have listened to the sounds of the Mississippi flowing and the back beat of the bass and those horns blowing on Beale Street. I have heard the click clack of horses hooves and the stomping of the feet and tumbling of the young boys. I have heard the call and response of singers of duelling pianos and their key masters seeking some love in the form of a few dollars from a crowd getting fuelled up with alcohol. I have heard the sounds made in Studio A at Stax and listened to the midwifery of rock ‘n’ roll at Sun Studio and Gracelands.

The coming out of the cotton fields and slavery is not yet complete, behind the glamour and glitz there is poverty. Yet the joy and promise of better days is shining through in the smiles and welcome of strangers. This is the key to Memphis – a currency of cool, laid back, Southern hospitality. A place that birthed so much of what we take for granted in our musical roots, our social and political roots, is looking for a spit and polish of its own. I wonder if, like Rome, Memphis peaked early, or is it like Florence has become a museum to masters from the past?   Martin Luther King asked his God to help people and all people around the world in that part of the twentieth century to rise up and embrace freedom and he was excited to be living in his time and to confront the choice not between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence. This is the choice that remains with us right now in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Human rights are still on the agenda. Environmental rights for our planet and all the global commons unites us as a species in a way no government or lines on a map marking out territory can never do. We are all children on this planet and to live like we are all connected and all have to stay together to maintain unity is more true than it has ever been in the history of this third rock from the Sun.

MLK reminded his congregation, that prophetic night in Memphis. He called on everyone to remember that when the slaves stuck together against Pharaoh that is beginning of the end of being slaves.

Can we see how we are enslaved by greed, hatred, fear? What if we all understood what it meant to see ourselves as one family, in solidarity with those taking a stand and get a doctor to the ones who are sick and can’t see what they are doing to spread the diseases of fear and hate?

Overcoming this fear and hate is no easy task – the merchants of it are everywhere and are going to the ballot box and taking those who are weak and vulnerable and anxious with them and in the dog whistles are out calling others to follow.   How about joining the chorus:  Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around; I’m marching to a brand new world ?

It’s time to gather up all the voices and hear all the sounds that are building the new world and helping the old one to crumble, and with those voices a chorus helping justice roll down like a river, a mighty Mississippi River in the hearts and souls of those who know what a brand new day will look like and the taste of freedom. The salt of tears, the salt of sweat, the salt of blood, will be the salt that takes away bitterness and enhances the flavour of life.

Speaking truth to power is the instruction. The how-to manual chapters are:  stop buying things exploiting our fellow human beings and our planet; keep supporting those people and processes building equity; affirm and support each other in the journey; listen and learn and take direction from those most effected; and most of all … keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking. This will help us develop the kind of dangerous unselfishness that MLK asked us to aspire too. This is the dangerous unselfishness of the Good Samaritan and is as true a parable for today in Memphis as it was on the shores of Galilee for Jesus and his friends. Just imagine the shock of being helped by a stranger, indeed worse than that a strange enemy? The Syrian or Mexican refugee may well be the one to save the US from themselves – now would be paradigm shift for some – but I doubt for Memphis. Memphis knows what it means to be on the outside and to come calling on the world with sounds of trumpets blazing heralding a new day.

There was no going back after MLK was assassinated, but the journey ‘ain’t over. Memphis has been to the mountain top and seen the promise of the Lord. It is beholden on each and every one of us to bring that promise to fulfillment each and every day.


And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!