Finding Otha

When I was a kid in the fifth grade, my mom called my dad's cousin Tuffy and asked him what instrument I should play.  He, a middle school music teacher, said oboe thinking that would always assure me a spot in the orchestra.  But Mr. Music said I couldn't start with oboe and had to play flute first, so I did and by the next year had taken to it enough that Mr. Music said I should just stick with it.  So I did.

When I went off to the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic, I brought my flute but hardly played it because I was too shy, too afraid to draw any more attention to myself than I already did with my white skin and foreign habits.  Plus, I was scared to play anything I hadn't practiced, anything I hadn't read off a page.

To my Central African neighborhood, there sometimes came a blind man and his young grandson.  At some point, I took to calling him Saint Blindman.  Saint Blindman had wrinkled red patches of skin where his eyes should have been.  He carried a gourd guitar with three strings and for anyone who would offer him a coin, he would sit in the shade and sing and play, and it was something extraordinary because it was so unbound.  I recorded him once and played the recording back for him.  Those patches where his eyes should have been, twitched with concentration as he scolded the children to be quiet.  Afterwards he shook his head and laughed.  He had never heard a recording of his music before.  I offered him the tape, but he didn't take it. "What would I do with that?" It almost makes me cry this morning, thinking this thought for the very first time, what a shame I never got out my flute to play with him.

When a coup broke out in the capital and we were evacuated to Cameroon, we displaced volunteers traveled around, trying to figure out what to do.  We came to a town in a lush mountain bowl and walked the paths up the mountainsides, past creeks and waterfalls and somewhere along there was a shop that sold crafts, and I bought myself a bamboo flute.  I've been carrying around that flute for 15 years now.  I played it at our wedding.  It's my husband's favorite line, when he sees me slip it in my purse.  "We're just going to the grocery store, not to join the circus."  But you never know when you might get a chance to play.

Like the other night, when a couple of friends stopped by and we started a little band.  The next day one of those friends sent me some video links to fife and drum bands.  And that's how I came to learn about Otha Turner.  Whenever I learn about something that takes hold of me, I wonder, how could I not have known about this before?  Because when I see Otha Turner playing his fife made of river cane, I get this strange feeling (and I know this is going to sound ridiculous), as if I'm watching something of myself, manifested in an old black man who was a Mississippi sharecropper his whole life. Where along the ancestral line does our DNA meet up?  How stunning it is to add up this series of accidental events, from Tuffy's advice, to a coup in the Central African Republic, that give me access to something so finely laced into my humanity that with a sneeze, I just might have missed it.


  1. Your whimsies, or writings thereof, are a wonderful legacy for your children, Joanna. And the accompanying drawings are like heavenly frosting on top of a delicious cake.

  2. Thanks so much for reading Honeybee, and all the encouraging words. Missing the alley society, especially as the leaves turn red, yellow, orange.

  3. Janet in Gamelan10/17/11, 8:25 AM

    Thank you again, Joanna! As I wrote in an earlier e-mail:"I finally tuned in to your blog, have only gotten as far as the beginning of Finding Otha but am finding the experience delightful. There's something familiar about it. I can't say exactly what since I've read so little, but I relate to much of what you say. And I can hear you saying it . . . which is even more special."
    Now I've read Finding Otha and want to emphasize my previous comments!