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Mark Gauvreau Judge

Concert of the Year

A holy joy.

On Friday, September 19, I witnessed one of the most miraculous things I've ever seen on a stage. I use that adjective with purpose; the only way to describe what happened is with the language of religion.

It was the 2008 NEA National Heritage Fellowship awards presentation, held at the Strathmore Music Center, a spectacular concert hall outside of Washington, D.C. To realize the full effect of what happened at the concert, it's important to list who the recipients of the awards were. They included Horace P. Axtell, a Nimiipuu Indian from Idaho and a musician and storyteller; Dale Harwood, a saddle maker from Idaho; Jelon Vieira, the master of a Brazilian street dance called capoeira; Moges Seyoum, a leader of the music liturgy of the Ethiopian Christian church; the Oneida Hymn Singers of Wisconsin, a choir that sings Christian hymns in Iroquois; bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman's band (Wiseman was out due to illness); Jeronimo E. Lozano, a master of the Peruvian folk art retablo; Bettye Kimbrell, a quilter from Mt. Olive, Alabama; Sue Yeon Park, a Korean dancer from New York; and Dr. Michael White, a jazz musician specializing in the traditional New Orleans style. Admission was free.

The host of the evening was Nick Spitzer of American Routes, a weekly radio program dedicated to American roots music—jazz, blues, country, gospel and various permutations thereof. One by one he introduced the fellowship recipients, who took the stage to explain their art. Horace Axtell, the Indian spiritual leader, was resplendent in his traditional white garb and headdress. He sang a lovely hymn. Jeronimo Lozano was effervescent describing his retablos, with their scenes of religious and community life. Dale Harwood talkd about pride in the craftsmanship of his saddles, which are genuine works of art. Moges Seyoum and his choir were graceful, slowly moving to the front of the stage and back as they chanted an Ethiopian hymn. Jelon Vieira brought a troupe of young dancers to display capoeira's powerful mixture of martial arts and gymnastics. Bettye Kimbrell was a natural comic with her references to "the quilt police" who make sure every stitch is done right. Sue Yeon Park, dressed in a flowing white dress and backed by a group of female drummers, performed seungmu, a Buddhist ritual dance. And jazz master Michael White created magic with his New Orleans version of the blues.

After almost three hours, it was time for a curtain call—one last bow to end the evening. As Spitzer reintroduced everyone, White's jazz band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." That's when something happened.

The audience at the Strathmore rose to its feet to acknowledge the fellowship winners—it seemed at the time like one last blast of applause before the exit. But as they—we—clapped in time to "When the Saints Go Marching In," the performers onstage began to dance. Together. It started when Jelon Vieira's dancers did cartwheels in front of the jazz band. Suddenly the Oneida Hymn Singers, a group of mostly elderly men and women, were dancing with the capoeiras. Then Sue Parks' backing drummers appeared, dancing with anyone they saw. Mac Wiseman's band played along, as did the Ethiopian choir. The jazz band, sensing something in the air, got louder, and kept playing. And playing. And playing. Onstage, the performers formed a conga line, led by one of the jazz musicians, then a circle, each person taking his or her turn in the center. The invisible line between performers and audience evaporated. It had turned into one big party—or revival meeting.

The spiritual writer Stephen Mitchell once described a holy joy "so large that it is no longer inside of you, but you are inside of it." I used to work at a record store and wrote music reviews for newspapers and websites, and I've been to hundreds of concerts over the years. I have never seen anything like what happened on that stage at the Strathmore. It was the most totally unselfconscious explosion of bliss I have ever seen in performance; the people onstage were not hamming for the crowd or blowing kisses. They were as lost in abandon as we were. I wouldn't be surprised if they had forgotten we were there. This was a spontaneous eruption of happiness, a genuine shock in an era when audiences are moronically cajoled, no matter how lousy the performer is, to "get up and make some noise."

The usual media trope would be to claim that in moments like the Fellowship concert a Dionysian revelry is set loose; that the mélange of cultures had melted into one joyful snake of human happiness; that barriers had been shattered by the unifying power of art. There is a lot of truth to that. But to me, what was most astounding was the coiled power resulting from the tension between control and chaos. The penultimate moment of the show, the moment that stopped my heart, was about five minutes into the finale. The band was charging, the audience was whooping, the dancers were dancing, when suddenly everyone onstage parted and Sue Yeon Park appeared. She stepped into the circle and began to dance, seamlessly incorporating Korean ritual dance into New Orleans jazz. She did it with dignity, and holy grace. It was enough to make you believe you were seeing a genuine angel.

As I watched her, I thought of something Jelon Vieira, the capoeira dancer, had said earlier in the evening. Nick Spitzer had observed that his dance, with its martial arts element, often seemed on the verge of breaking into genuine violence. Vieira said that his job, as the adult supervisor of a dance that is done by a lot of young people, is to teach self-mastery. "If you don't have control over yourself," he said, "you have control over nothing." It reminded me of something written by Pope Benedict when he was still Joseph Ratzinger: "Today an illusion is dangled before us: that a man can find himself without first conquering himself, without the patience of self-denial and the labor of self control; that there is no need to endure the discomfort of upholding tradition, or to continue suffering the tension between the ideal and the actual in our nature."

By the time Sue Park drifted into the circle, the performers and audience had reached a level of genuine religious ecstasy that only comes when we have, through hard work and overcoming the actual in our nature, allowed the ideal in our nature room to play.

After about thirty bars of saints marching in, it finally took Nick Spitzer to shut things down. No one wanted to leave; I honestly believe the band could have played for an hour and no one would have moved for the exits. Staggering outside, I heard a woman say she was "swimming in joy." I myself was speechless. Then I heard someone say, "God, I hope there was someone from the media there." I thought of saying that I was in the media. But then I had the decency to admit there were times when language failed. Like everyone else, I just wanted to stay inside the joy.

Mark Gauvreau Judge's new book, A Tremor of Bliss: Reclaiming Sexual Virtue from the Pagan Left, will be published by Doubleday in April 2009.

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