I have never been to New Orleans, but I have known loss. I have never had to confront what it might mean to have my city, my neighbourhood, my home, washed under an unstoppable wall of water, but I have known sadness of the sort that leaves its imprint so deeply on your soul that to sit still and remember is to risk weeping. Again.
Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (a requiem for katrina) – an extended, sorrow-filled and resilient lament for the city he calls home – goes straight to those imprints, touches the wounds none of us can ever bury deeply enough to be rid of for good, and invites the listener to hold his or her head high even amidst the sadness.
We had just finished the funeral for a member of our community -— a man who was both a leader in our church and someone I knew as a friend, and who, after a prolonged battle with depression, had taken his own life -— and I was faced with a drive an hour south of the city, deep into farm country, where we’d bury the body in the little cemetery of the prairie town he’d once called home. As I headed out on the highway, I slipped Blanchard’s CD into the car stereo, and though this was not the first time I’d given it a listen, it was my first opportunity to give the disc a real hearing. Close to an hour later, as I turned on to the secondary highway leading into that small town, the second to last track on the album came on. From the first notes of the aptly titled “Funeral Dirge” a deep shiver ran down my spine. The album to this point had been good, moving, but now the music was causing tears to well up in my eyes; tears for my friend whose body we were about to bury; tears for people in a city I’d never seen; tears of recognition at my own vulnerability.
First released in August 2007, A Tale of God’s Will includes music from, and inspired by, the HBO/Spike Lee documentary film When the Levees Broke. While the album does have something of the feel of a soundtrack, it is by no means incidental background music. Blanchard works here not only with his usual jazz quintet, but also with the “Northwest Sinfonia,” a 40-piece string section, yet the orchestration never overwhelms the whole, nor does it send the disc into anything close to sentimentality. In nine originals by trumpeter Blanchard and one each by the other four members of his band, the album tracks the sorrow and the dignity of a particular people facing a particular tragedy, but as I discovered that day on my prairie drive, there is a universality to this project, and one which helps to unlock the emotions evoked by other losses in other lives.
For people of faith, the title of this project begs the question: “What is God’s will in all of this?” I have to confess that when I first discovered the album I wondered if it wasn’t expressing a theological fatalism of the sort voiced in the opening section of the Book of Job — “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” — a perspective robustly challenged through the remainder of that great biblical book. I have a friend whose church in Charlotte, North Carolina, hosted a number of families evacuated from New Orleans, and he commented that in the first few days and weeks of their displacement people again and again said that this was all “the will of God,” something too mysterious and unexplainable to account for in any other terms.
[pullquote]While taking seriously this sense of the inexplicable character of any natural disaster, Blanchard’s ‘requiem’ is more nuanced than this. There is an inherent theological sophistication to the work, as it offers up lament, affirmations of the presence of God in the midst of loss, as well as something akin to the psalmist’s cry for justice and right order. Blanchard remarks in the album’s liner notes that the city initially survived Katrina’s onslaught, and that only then, “the faulty levees that the federal government had built to protect the city collapsed, allowing the flood-waters in.” The natural disaster — or “act of God” as the insurance companies would have it — was not without a very human, even bureaucratic, face. Indeed, this is the side of the story that most troubles Blanchard. “I was so frustrated and in rage. I wanted the trumpet to scream on every track, but I feel that God is using me to speak for all the souls in New Orleans. We’re all still tired, but it’s almost as if things have gone back to normal for people outside while our lives here don’t matter.”
To speak in that context of “God’s will” might well be to proclaim that God’s presence is most clearly seen and heard in the lives of those who insist on telling the whole story, holding their heads high in the midst of the grief and loss. Finding or identifying God’s will is less about the crisis of a city besieged, and more about the choices made in the aftermath.
This is very often true in situations of crisis, pain, and loss. To blithely chalk things up to “God’s will” leaves the wounded and the grieving with only hollow consolation. To discover that amidst the grief there is great dignity, a powerful story, and the chance of a new beginning; that is an altogether different sort of consolation.
Listen to this album. It just may help you to nuance your own theology of the presence of God amidst the pain of deep loss.
Jamie Howison is priest and pastoral leader of saint benedict’s table, an unconventional worshipping community in the diocese of Rupert’s Land.