Thirty years ago, give or take a month, I arrived in West Philly to look for a place to rent. I looked at a place on Windsor avenue, across the street from where I live, now. I had just graduated with a degree in Labor Relations, and I was moving to Philly because my girlfriend was going to Grad school at Penn. I was looking for work with a union.
One of the things that I thought would help in locating a good place to live was to interview people living on the street about what it was like. The person I interviewed is now my next door neighbor, and her husband was working for a union. What more did I need to know about the block?
That decision changed my life forever (not that every decision you make doesn’t change your life in the same way). It led to me finding a cool place to dance, which led to meeting my wife, which led to more dancing, which led to music returning to my life when a car accident made it impossible to dance. Which led to…. And led to…. And so on.
When we moved into this house after we married, 48th Street was the edge of the gentrified area. Now, I have no idea how far it extends, but it’s a lot further out. 50th? 52nd? When we moved in, it was a pretty quiet area that focused on each block, in terms of most community activities.
In those days, the neighborhood was not only seen as edgy, but also not very cool. It might still be edgy in a different kind of way, but now, as my daughter said on returning from college last week, “The neighborhood is a lot cooler now than it was when I left.”
This was even before Porchfest. How cool are we now?
The band that eventually became Sonic Sandbox started a little over a year ago, when I started jamming with a few friends. When we started, the others weren’t sure what they wanted to do, but I had an idea about how we could improvise together, which is what I wanted to do because playing music that other people know makes me feel judged, and feeling judged makes me not want to play.
I don’t want to be compared to anyone, because I’m convinced I won’t compare well, and I’ve used that feeling to hurt myself a lot in the past. Instead, I wanted to get together to improvise because when you improvise, nobody can tell you that you didn’t do it the way it was supposed to be.
I had a few musical games in mind that we could use to start us improvising, and we started using them to jam together. We tried doing other people’s songs once or twice, but we kept going back to the improvisation, especially as the others came to understand the process better.
Playing at Porchfest was perfect for us, because they just wanted people to make music. They didn’t care about your experience. No one was getting paid. We were all on our own to make things go. But is was a community thing. Strength in numbers. The intangible feeling of support you get knowing that everyone knows this is happening and a lot of other people are out there playing or listening. It’s such a West Philly thing for me.
One of the things I like to do sometimes when we improvise, is to sing a story that I make up as I go along. I just picture some events from my life in my head, and do a musical play by play as the internal movie plays in my imagination. I sang the story that I am now writing.
In the end, I started talking about what I find so cool about West Philly. Porchfest is a perfect example of that kind of thing. It’s all about people not judging each other. It’s about setting up community, connecting to others and not judging. Not criticizing. There’s an awful lot of creativity in this community, and that’s no accident. Creative people locate here because it’s a safe place to play, to express ourselves and to live the way we want to without others judging us. I’m not saying there are no limits, but the limits are a lot more flexible here than in many other communities. West Philly is an oasis for many people who get stigmatized and judged for being who they are in a lot of other places.
I told myself that playing on our porch was just like any other time we get together to jam. We’re just playing, and we’re doing it so we can get out of our minds and into that place where we become part of something larger than ourselves. It doesn’t matter if others like it or don’t. We’re doing it for fun.
Of course, having support does make a difference. So when an audience started filling the chairs I had put out, it gave us a lift. It’s nice to be able to play for others as well as ourselves, and we knew people were there by choice. They could get up and leave any time they wanted, but they could also stay, and stay they did.
I think we were all grateful for the people who listened to us having fun playing together. They were fellow players in the sonic sandbox, and some of them even joined us. We take inspiration from any place we can, and once we started like a pack of dogs, because my neighbor’s dog was barking. Listen hear: It may have started in an unusual way, but what it turned into had a lot of energy, and that’s true for most of what we do.
I think it helps to understand our process when you listen to us. It’s not just about pretty sounds. It’s about accepting sounds. When we accept the sounds we hear, no matter how we might judge them if we were in judgement mode, we can take them to places we’d never go otherwise. That means we have to ask an audience to give us a chance. Don’t give up in the first couple of minutes. It might take us a while, but we will find some place cool, musically speaking, to go. It’s just that we have to wander around in trackless spaces for a while before we can agree on what path to follow. I have fond hopes that people will enjoy listening to us wander, and then be amazed at the incredible scenery we find when we agree on a trail to follow.
Whether or not people listen to us that way, we can still have fun wandering around together and creating a path through the places we’re exploring. We can do that, and we can lead others in doing that through our workshops, and others can watch and listen to us doing that in our performances. What’s important is that we do it. It’s a spiritual practice for us, and as long as we do it, we’re better off, and if we can share it with others, either as participants or as audience, there’s a chance that others will be better off, too. That’s my hope.