Music, Memory and Imagination

by amalia deloney

Memory is defined as “a mental system that receives, stores, organized, alters and recovers information from sensory input.” Research has shown that memory is affected by many different factors–one of these factors is music–which has been found to stimulate specific parts of the brain.  Music has an amazing power to influence our emotions.  Studies have found that music can reduce stress, aid relaxation, alleviate depression, and help store and recall information–in other words, memories.

Two–separate, yet related–events made me think about music and memory, and the healing properties they offer together.

The first is an Arts & Democracy/New Voices gathering held a few weeks ago in New Orleans.  The gathering, titled, “Cultural Organizing for Community Recovery,” brought together 34 people from across the country to discuss the theoretical framework of ‘cultural organizing’ and how cultural tools could be applied in our work.  The focus was on praxis–the intersection of practice and theory–so it also included time for us to share specific cultural tools (visual arts, dance, digital storytelling, etc. ) that we’re using in service to our struggles for justice.

Led by Linda Paris-Bailey, we collectively sang a song written by the The Carpetbag Theatre Inc. Ensemble.

What is my work,
What do I do,
How can I share your purpose too

Listen to a recording of us singing together.

While the lyrics were simple, the impact was profound.  34 people from across the country– brought together based on the belief that the practice of cultural and creative expression is a means to affect deep and lasting social change–singing and riffing together on our shared work and purpose.  Through song we were connected in a non-linear process that the energy and vibration of singing created – collectively storing, recalling and creating memory.

For those who don’t know CBT–for over forty years they have told stories of empowerment, celebrated African American culture and revealed hidden stories.  Their mission is to give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. CBT returns “stories to communities” helping culturally specific communities to re-define how they organize.  Now, think about the lyrics again.

What is my work,
What do I do
How can I share your purpose too?

The second event was a conversation with my good friend Steven Renderos–or DJ Ren.  In search of a new mix to listen to,  I hit Steven up.  In the course of the conversation he told me about an older mix, that I hadn’t know about.  “Se Me Perdio La Cumbia,” made last year, is a mixture of Cumbia from Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the U.S.

In talking about the creation of the mix, Steven shared the following:

"Music to me is like a lost culture. I’m constantly coming across music that draws a particular emotional connection for me. At the same time there are styles of music that I listen to a lot simply ’cause I know my family in El Salvador listens to them as well."

There it is again: music, memory, place, culture.

I’m holding both of these experiences in mind, when I think about new ways of imagining homeland, or creating spaces where we can belong–space that is built to hold our whole selves.

For me, one of the primary healing properties of cultural organizing is its ability to help us reveal the hidden values and worldviews that are implicit in various organizing models.  Specifically, the ways that “Western thought” has supplanted other ways of knowing and being, and the ways that knowledge, is so easily disconnected from its origins. Good cultural organizing, on the other hand, works to strengthen and reclaim models that ground issues of social justice in relevance to our communities and our traditions, cultural identities, communities of place and worldviews.  Belonging is implicit–it rooted in a sense of place–real or imagined, physical and/or emotional.  It doesn’t require “fitting in.”

I’m interested in this practice of decolonizing methodologies–and a practice of organizing that encourages us to see the power of “recovery, strengthening, and new production of knowledge grounded in [our] own traditions and histories [as] a central part of” the process of transformation.

amalia deloney is a Guatemala-born activist and cultural worker cultural organizer and staff member of Arts & Democracy Project.