“Sequence, symmetry & simplicity”–my composer’s motto, 1996. 15 years later, inspiration strikes and the same schemes still seem sparkly.
Musical symmetry in the eponymous string quartet I wrote for my grandmother Madra, who would’ve been 105 this year:
a”/d’ d”/f’ f”/c’ c”/g’ g”/e’ e”/a’
This is as close to a personal musical symbol as I get:
c’/f f’/d d’/g g’/c
He’s my age, maybe a little older. We’re a few feet apart in a tightly packed subway car, 8:45. He’s aged a lot in appearance since the last time I saw him, at the sandbox with our infants. I’m looking at him and it doesn’t seem like he remembers that, nor certainly not the brief time we spent playing music together many years ago.
He was young and full of confidence, creative rage and ego; with a giant crown of keratin-rich hair. Later his baby softened his heart and his voice. Now he looks nearly the same as his handbag, which has that overly distressed look that people will pay more for to avoid the actual time, work and experience in creating.
He wears fatherhood on the outside the way I feel it on the inside. That’s not even fair; I know the challenges he faces must be of a magnitude beyond what I can understand. I can understand when it nearly breaks you and you feel tired and alone; in a tunnel opposite the light end.
Maybe he does recognize me, and the forced intimacy of the rush hour run-in is too awkward to bear. He turns away just a bit to avoid direct eye contact. Maybe this is just a bad, sleepless week.
We weren’t ever friends; there was always some kind of transactional relationship that kept us from being peers exactly. I was a guest player or a customer. A sexual rival or a cultural one.
I don’t what his situation is now, only that he had a child with a beautiful, ironic name that belied the struggles to come, or perhaps called those struggles out. So I don’t know exactly what to silently wish him.
I recall that loud warehouse gig where we were all flying in sound for a moment in the middle of the night, lower my head and turn up one corner of my mouth. There may be another time when we meet in the quiet and I can greet him and say his child’s name to him; likely so.
When I was about 13, without any knowledge of my past beyond the fact that I was a black transracial adoptee, I decided to create an alter ego.
In my mind he was a jazz musician, sometimes a cultural diplomat from the West who had reconnected with his own roots in Ethiopia—or depending on the occasion, Ghana, Nigeria or Egypt—and was bringing this back into his own identity or creative portfolio. He was an ambassador to my unrecoverable roots. I couldn’t have expressed it in such language nor such an optimistic light back then. I kept this persona to myself for a while, and it seemed a simple if vague idea; when I brought it out to friends it became complex, debased, problematic.
Primarily I was spoofing myself, in a way that reflected my own blinkered reality, televised desensitization to minstrelsy, and awkward struggle to get past that. If there was sincerity in the gesture, it was a reach for my own identity. Something beyond the identity of a black person who had been raised as racialized but culturally zeroed and invisible—hence performing white—in an all-white community.
The name I came up with for myself was Mboobe (“mm-BOO-bay”), later Mbu’ube. The latter spelling was dodgy, Dune-inspired Orientalism, as I came to realize later, though narcissistically it created a symmetry within the word “me” using the letters of my adopted first name that I liked. An unconscious influence was the jazz/R&B musician James Mtume. I’d also seen the Indian name Mehboob in a newspaper, and eventually learned of the Arabic word mahboob—beloved.
(At the same time, I had started attending confirmation class in the United Church of Canada, where we were encouraged to develop our own personal symbols—as subsets of the obvious big ones, it almost went without saying. I kept the identity above to myself and went with a symbol I found interesting: CXI, the number 111 in Roman numerals. It made the shape of a fish—an early Christian password—or a WWII-era bomb, depending on one’s state of mind.)
During my adolescence and early adulthood, Mboob was my stage name as a musician; an imprint for my formative period as a creative artist, and the cassette albums and mixtapes that came out of it.
Six years ago, I wrote this about the name:
Perhaps there could have been a parallel to Black American jazz musicians of the 1960s converting to Islam and adopting African names, one I wasn’t so conscious of. Regardless of the ridicule such a name and such a bogus re-Africanization might have received—it was merely perhaps a more sophisticated or ironic type of minstrelsy that still made white folks laugh—it was self-acknowledgement. It was my first crack at identity.
The past is almost always ironic. Almost three years ago, I met and became close to someone who was the opposite side of the coin to me—me who had no claim to anything, no properly directed desire for nationhood beyond the lazy, whitewashed imagination of mainstream Canada. She was born in the same place as her family, her people, and was directly and actively connected to an ancient culture and bloodline. We fell in love—insert ellipsis—and later married. I converted to Islam for her, or as some might say, corrected.
During the first few months of our romance, she drafted a new “logo” for me as a gift, this time spelling mahboob in the original Arabic (see text image at top). I knew I wanted to post it, but waited for the right time; until it could also symbolize the strength and commitment in our relationship and be more than just a fetishism.
Behind every apparent urtext (i.e. my “original” alter-ego name), there is a forgotten origin, possibly a buried genetic memory. Now I have a new family, a new god (where there had been none for decades), a new sense of identity. In finding this new beginning, I may have been seeking out, as a dear elder recently put it, what may well have been my ancestral home. Perhaps Mahboob was synchronicity. Or perhaps this is all just probability. I try not to see destiny in things (not my role) nor place too much stock beyond the here and now but, Masha’Allah, I’m happy and thankful. And loved.
We need you jazz and blues people, too.
We need you jazz We need you jazz and
We need you jazz We need you jazz We
We need you We need you We need you
jazz and you jazz and jazz and you jazz
jazz and blues jazz blues jazz and blues
and blues people, too. blues people, too.
and blues people, too. blues people, too.
and blues and blues and blues and blues
people blues people blues, too. too. too.
We too. We people, too. We blues people
We need you jazz and blues people, too.
Source: teenage peer, 1987
You cannot schedule joy. When you do, it will inevitably be deferred by grief all the worse for what it supplanted. Joy has to come to you; you have to be open to its experience at the time it chooses, and while it may elude categorization or expression.
Over the years, I’ve recast those words from specious celebration to epilogue of the moment and back again.
I’ve been bravely optimistic in talking about building before, eager to declare that I’d broken old patterns. Breakthroughs aren’t so easily won. Evolution and movement, though, are things I’ve worked hard towards. There have been small successes here and there, and the occasional grand, unprecedented, unsurpassable elation that we call a blessing. As the years have piled on I’ve taken more care, often to a fault.
Sometimes I’ve let go almost with force. Polarities of obsession.
We can’t escape gaze, whether that of a cultural fetishism or of a possessive lover. Our fears about the other, whether cultural or intimate, are often simply fears about ourselves amplified.
When a relationship is based on needs, those needs will never be met. The best of what I have now with Nina is all about the people; about where they meet as equals, not competitors or providers. It initially was a more insular relationship than any I’ve been in, but when we got there we couldn’t help but turn to the world and say it was ours now. There’s been lots of room for the kind of physical closeness–uncharged, relaxed, protected–that leads to real emotional intimacy.
Rejection is something you can project out of yourself back through the other. Seen it from both sides, it’s draining. So much energy gets put into making things fit when they don’t. But that is part of the work, I guess. There’s always more work to do but it gets easier.
I’m an extremely sensitive person. Decades of performance in white culture have taught me how to hide slights and thus project strength, yet all the while intensifying the (over) sensitivity. Absorbing the bullshit though not totally detoxifying it. I feel some days like I can read people long distance without any contact, and some days that just seems like what it is: projection.
In turn, I’ve gravitated to/attracted people who are in ways even more sensitive than me, overly steeped in the traumas we all live with. Most times, it’s been a recipe for self-fulfilling prophecies, but I’ve gotten much better in at least being more aware that this is the pattern, more or less. And I’ve let it change out of a pattern into what is hopefully a uniquely generative series.
In the end, you don’t know. What really drives us, where it’ll take each of us, why it brings us together and then away from one another, hopefully never very far or for very long.
You can call it kismet, probability theory, a system of explanations, or a refutation of explanation. You cannot schedule a simultaneity. Any which way, don’t take yourself too serially.