The Other Way band grew out of my desire to piece together the two activities I’ve decided to dedicate myself to in my working life, which are music and nature conservation. I decided I wanted to try to contribute something, on the artistic level, to averting the sixth great extinction spasm of the Earth’s history. I wanted to start a music project with this idea of contribution at its centre. I want you, dear human that is reading this now, to get into the idea that original music is a “contribution” to something.
I find it obvious that music is not merely a form of entertainment, like Tiddlywinks or Hungry Hippos! Instead, it is a necessity. Nobody knows exactly why it is so necessary, but my best guess would be that it creates unity. A group of people listening to music together naturally experience a sense of togetherness and empathy and mutual understanding, maybe even mutual purpose. For this feeling to dissipate, they would have to stop listening to the music. I’m not an anthropologist, but it doesn’t take much to notice that societies that don’t have music are not nice places at all. A fundamental tool for peace has been removed.
It seems equally clear to me that people need to keep creating new music, to stay relevant to the times. How can particular sequences of tones and sounds possibly be relevant to anything? Buggered if I know, but I think it’s probably best to think of it in terms of the need for human beings to relate to other human beings, rather than the actual tones and sounds themselves. We need to keep using music to foster unity and togetherness and mutual understanding and purpose with each other, NOW, person to person. It is not enough to merely recycle the ways people did this essential job in the past.
Personally, I find myself craving new music at this time. I’m tired of hearing the things I used to listen to. The other day I put on Miles Davis’s ‘Live-Evil’, and I even found that I was tired of hearing that. I didn’t know this was possible, but I think Miles Davis would have understood how I feel.
What sort of music do we need now, then? This question obviously has to be answered with music, not words, but there are certain things I’ve heard that give me a clue. One is this quote from Wayne Shorter…
“A great musical performance is a manifestation of an altruistic life condition, one that transcends the ego-driven pursuit of instant gratification, of the pursuit of money, power, fame. The challenge to take the ‘road less travelled’ courageously and fearlessly, to present authenticity and originality – these are the unique factors that give birth to great performances.”
So, the music has to be based on an enlightened life condition. I love Wayne Shorter so much that I copied his religion. I practice Nichiren Buddhism and chant Nam myoho renge kyo every day! This quote is the inspiration for calling the band ‘The Other Way’.
Another clue came from the South African jazz musician Julian Bahula, who I did a session with years ago. We were talking about free improvised music, and he likes that music, but he said “but we have to do happy music now, for the freedom of South Africa, not go mad”. That stuck in my mind, particularly the word ‘NOW’, which seemed crucial to his meaning.
We’re at a point in history where where we’re probably on the cusp of the sixth great mass extinction event in the Earth’s history, we’re still in the throws of a deadly pandemic, and our ecological impacts are forcing us to call into question the viability of organised human life. I think Julian Bahula’s assertion holds true in this time. We have to make happy, inspiring, uplifting music now, to bring people together, so that they can empathise and co-operate on common problems.
Now, I am not a naturally happy person. In fact it takes quite a lot of effort for me to persuade myself to just tolerate the prospect of getting out of bed. One of the things that helps with this is having some sort of goal. To have a goal we have to be able to imagine the future. This seems to be something many people find difficult at the present time. We have a vague idea that some catastrophe is coming, that humanity has had its time in the sun, that perhaps we’re on borrowed time. This seems to be fuelling a slide into nostalgia, which really doesn’t do it for me. I prefer to try imagining the future, whatever it might be like. If we can imagine the future, even if it’s a troubling future, then this means we can place ourselves somewhere. It means we’re not utterly, irretrievably lost.
Music always seems to offer a bigger perspective. It shifts us out of the barriers of our current problems and into something bigger that transcends this. Watery metaphors can help here. We no longer see ourselves as a single molecule of water, bashing pointlessly against a rock. Instead we can experience the flow of the whole river, serenely meandering to the sea. The bigger perspective engenders a new sense of determination and courage. Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda says that through tenacious practice, we can break through our obstacles “just as water eventually carves a path through rock.” If we can imagine the future, we can determine to change it.
As I found that the tunes I’d been writing began to attract lyrics, they assembled themselves into half-dreamed stories about imagined futures. This seemed to help orientate me towards a way of performing music that is about healing, on some spiritual and personal level. Sometimes the stories are quite dark, but they seem to come across positively when we perform them onstage. People come up and use words like “beautiful” and “inspiring”, and they have more positive interpretations of the words than I do! It seems to me that we all need healing, because life causes us to suffer, and this healing is really the purpose of music. It seems equally clear that if we can’t heal ourselves, then any talk of healing the biodiversity or the planet is probably pointless.
I don’t like it when some people in the environmental movement try to put down human beings. They like to say that the Earth would be better off without us, and that we’re like a cancer. I think this is an unconscionable, appalling and perverse position to take. The Earth couldn’t get on well without us because we grew from the Earth and we’re inseparable from it. It’s like saying your left hand would get along fine without your right hand! No it bloody wouldn’t! I wish they would stop saying things like that and instead get involved with the healing that needs to happen, which music will always be an essential part of.