In 1972 across a crowded room I saw a young Ethiopian woman and felt a roaring flame in the middle of my chest. It terrified me and I almost immediately doused the fire with rationality and with the comforting thought that I wouldn’t have to see her again. Fate often has other plans in store. One day I stopped to see an Eritrean friend who had a shop on Lake & Hennepin, The Ethiopian Exquisite. I walked in one day and she eagerly introduced me to her cousin, the very young woman I was trying to avoid.
To make a long story short, during these days of the Black Arts Movement when we were reclaiming African identity, I was making friendship and family with Ethiopians and Eritreans. Like many African Americans during that time, we were dropping our “slave names” and taking names from all over the continent of Africa. As I talked with my wife and one of her friends, two names jumped out at me: Alemayehu and Toelde. Alemayehu stuck. In many ways it reflects HOW I am in the world as one translation of Alemayehu means I see the world. My poetic and spiritual process is about observing the world with a hungry vision that absorbs, digest and translates reality and reflects it back so people can hear, sense and feel the power and glory of this gift of Creation, our common home. Earth and the human family are mysteriously all interconnected with all else with a wisdom that too often beyond our human understanding.
What does it mean to be spiritual and to be an artist? To be consciously spiritual means that you understand or seek to understand the connection between yourself and the rest of the universe and ultimately the connection between all things without a center. The center is everywhere! Being an artist to me means being creative with the facility to share that creativity. Spiritually motivated artist create from the inside out. The blue print of Creation from the smallest atom to the swirling solar system and beyond is repeated again and again. Spiritually driven artists project an energy that yeans to connect with people and seeks to create the space where all those who participate in the performance (audience performers, spirits seen and unseen) can experience how all our energies are woven together.
It wasn’t until I began to explore my Native American heritage and was welcomed into sacred ceremonies that I felt like I really had encountered the Oneness of all things – the Great Mystery. It was within Dakota and Lakota ceremonies that I as finally able into integrate all the varied mixture of people and experiences that were my life. My signature piece, WE ARE THE RIVER, flowed out of those experiences. The fullest performances of this weave together music, song and dance. It takes on the function of ritual, leaving the performers and audience feeling empowered, peaceful, healed. They experience a kind of personal revelation.
WE ARE THE RIVER (a poem reflecting on my first Dakota sweat lodge) was possible in part because I first had a powerful healing experience. As I remembered that experience from the center of myself, words, rhythm, melody and movement flowed out. Using emotional memory (a term from acting), I opened a door and allowed my body to communicate an interpretation of what that experience of Oneness was like. I am trying to write about a process that feels like creating from the inside out, but is equally about having an energy flow through your Mind-Body and then out into the world again.
I don’t know what their process is specifically, but recently when witnessing Twin Cities artists Nothando Zulu, a storyteller, Mykal T. Rambo, a singer/actor and Susanna de Palma, a flamenco dancer/choreographer, I felt like there must be something similar in their processes, they are such powerful communicators!
What I worry about in trying to put this down on paper is that it will sound ever so esoteric and mysterious. I don’t think of it as such. This is about communicating authentic emotions and experiences. It’s about being human and believing that all of life is a spirit filled fabric that we are all woven into – animal, vegetable and mineral in an eternal circle of creation – recreation. There are certainly other people who believe other things. That’s fine. They are all my relations too. Lord have mercy! Today, the 2,500 year old plus wisdom of the nappy headed Buddha tells me that we are inter-beings. I am because you are!