When the time came, I was glad high school was over. Despite having what I would characterize as an exciting “nightlife” (after all, I performed regularly on stages), I was very much a nerd. I had horribly unfashionable glasses, a large, unattractive mullet (thanks, Mom!) and being that I was more of an intellectual/reader than an athletic star (that would be my brother, Mr. Basketball…), I was not a ladies man. My experience in high school was a mixed blessing. I recognize that I had a great education and some very interesting classes and teachers. On the other hand, it was mostly a time of trial and feelings of inadequacy. I never did totally fit in with the “majority crowd”, keeping to some small friends, whether it be other intellectual kids (nerds), or other Latino/African-American groups.
I had heard of Berklee College of Music and had begun to entertain the idea of going there. However, my father was worried I wouldn’t get a rounded-education there. He suggested one of the local Universities in the very same town, which happened to be the major campus of that state’s University. During the summers, they’d have these major jazz concerts featuring the likes of Billy Taylor, Max Roach, Poncho Sanchez, Manny Oquendo and Libre, etc. My father felt that the music department there would be strong enough to give me the education I needed while giving me the pedigree of a liberal-arts education at a major university. Unlike the stereotypical American kid on TV, I didn’t have any major problems with my parents and didn’t feel the need to trek across the country to a faraway college. I applied to only that university and was accepted.
College days were….interesting. I spent one year and half in the music department, before I made the decision to leave it. I toured with its Jazz Big Band through the East Coast, even winning a contest for best college jazz band and opening for Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. There certainly were some nice experiences, being the “percussionist” of the jazz band (I never did get much play time on the drums…they gave that spot to some other, more jazz-proficient players). I was frustrated that I wasn’t being given opportunities to develop my drumset technique. The director of that university’s jazz department had a reputation for being quite the a-hole to certain people. The moment inevitably came where him and I would have an unfortunate encounter. I opted to leave the department and he gladly signed me out of the department. As life would have it, later, as a professional, adult musician, we’d share various stages performing in the same group and his personality had changed. I later found out that the stress, irritability, and short-temper he used to have was due to a (now ex-) wife that made his life a living hell. He had remarried and had a child, which apparently was the love of his life. He finally had found a life balance that worked for him.
My exit from the department led me to follow another of my passions: public debate. I enrolled in a sort of “pre-Law” program, though the University did not have an established pre-law course of study. By then, aside from my music, I was an avid history and political reader and was heavily influenced by the writings of people like Pedro Albizu Campos, Juan Mari Bras, Ruben Berrios, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela. I was quite the Leftist…Che Guevara and Albizu posters in my dorm, Puerto Rican and Lares flags on my windows, and even sporting a Guevarist-like beard. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree… As a student, I was heavily involved with various causes and enjoyed public debates and ruckus with the Campus Republicans (who were my sworn enemies!). In retrospect, that was probably the first signs of my Shango personality coming through. I’d make fiery speeches in front of thousands of supportive students, even once opening for Ralph Nader at one of his pit stops on the campus during his failed presidential campaign. I wasn’t much of a Naderite, but who could reject an offer to open to that many people. I later found from my father that a friend of his commented on my speech, “you know what….your son gave a much more exciting speech than Nader did!”. And with the popularity of those incidents and my newfound confidence, also came my first lady friends. The days of high school anonymity were long gone…it really was as if Shango had finally said, “ok ok…this is one of my sons, I can’t leave him hanging…”. What son of Shango can live a life of deprivation and no ladies? None I’ve ever met!
I graduated from University with that pre-law-style degree and felt strong longings to return to Puerto Rico. On my regular summer trip to the island, I visited the University of Puerto Rico’s Law department and even grabbed application materials. But, that wasn’t meant to be. A former boss at the university offered me full tuition coverage if I worked at his office. I’d have to find a concentration that interested me, because a Juris Doctor was not offered by this University. Given that I was already a political junkie, I chose Political Science and began a Master’s Degree on the subject. As quickly as I had started it, I finished it. I moved out on my own with a girlfriend at the time and pursued the PhD program on the subject and then what I later found out to be a major Osogbo in my life made its first appearance: Osogbo Intori Eledda. “Negativity Because of Your Own Head”.
Without delving into many details, let us just say that I wrote an essay that got me in trouble. These were the days of post-911 hysteria in the United States and the public was heavily patriotic. Dissent was not welcome and heavily punished. Being the omo-Shango that I was (but didn’t know), I forged directly into a national controversy and my thoughts were made public. A media frenzy ensued and the consequences were that I had to leave where I lived to stay out of the public limelight. I was whisked away to Puerto Rico and ended up at my grandmother’s home in Humacao, Puerto Rico. As I stood at night, looking at the palm trees swaying in the night wind, I wondered myself, “oh my god…what did I do”. The incident would become a seminal point in my life.
I had left my girlfriend behind. I had left all my possessions save my electric bass, my books, and a laptop computer behind. I quickly became bored, ordered three congas from Ebay, had them shipped to Puerto Rico and spent the next 3 months doing nothing but self-teaching myself how to play congas (the one instrument from the trio of Latin percussion instruments where I was weakest). As the Odu Oshe Melli says, “perdiendo se gana”…I had lost money, my reputation, my PhD studies…but I had gained a very strong conga technique while at Puerto Rico. Without knowing it, I had developed my technique to such a level that it soon became one of the instruments I get called for the most. Soon, I began to miss my girlfriend at the time, called her to Puerto Rico, spent some time there, and realized Puerto Rico had nothing to offer me. I knew no one, none of my father’s contacts were calling back about music work, and the economy was crappy. With very few funds left, I proceeded to follow my girlfriend back to her parents’ home in a region between two capital cities in two different states.
My life there was pretty miserable. I had lost all my dignity as a man, having to live literally on a bed thrown within the living room of her family’s home. Being as they were Asians, it was common for them to have many extended family members and friends in their home at all times, but for me, it was the mark of shame. Here I was, a man of 25 years, with a Master’s Degree, and I had to depend on lower-income Asians to support me? The Orishas had thrown me through a learning experience. After some heavy nights of profound crying…profound pain, I came out the other side resolved to find a job. I sent out applications to various jobs and finally landed employment as an academic counselor at a nearby college. My job there was pretty routine and while I enjoyed working with young, needy, Latino-African-American students at this college, my music passion called and was not satisfied. I found partial satisfaction attending a weekly latin-jazz night where I was allowed to “jam” with the group on stage on bongos…but I had practically very little income from music performance. I was depressed, felt unfulfilled as a man, and was not totally sure I truly loved the woman I was with. It took some major soul searching but I decided to “go back to basics”. I decided to return to the area where my father lived and reconnect with musicians there. It entailed breaking up with my girlfriend but it turned out to be the exact path I needed to follow…
In the final part, I will detail how the Orishas, through Anya, found me…or did I find them?
Awó Ogbe Ate