Within the pretty pale pink walls of the Adolfo Mejia theatre, in the centre of Colombia’s Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena de Indias, a thin man in jeans and a T-shirt with ‘BACH’ on his back, reveres his heroes. Chopin ‘single-handedly revolutionized piano-playing forever.’ Beethoven ‘with one hand dragged classical music to the romantic age. For the first time, it became about feeling, and what went on inside.’ And Rachmaninoff is ‘my favourite. I love him so much that I had his name tattooed on my arm in Russian. Though I don’t speak Russian, so it might say Elton John.’ Between speaking he is of course addressing the keys of a piano in a manner befitting such giants.
Cartagena, with its colossal Spanish colonial cathedrals in candy yellows, pinks and blues, is known not only as a hub of great beauty for its Historic Centre, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in the sixteenth century, it was also the headquarters of expansion of the Spanish Empire and a place of great wealth. This was due both to the gold found in Sinú tombs, plundered early on, and the millions Spain poured into the city for its protection. As such, it was ransacked in turn by Spanish and English ‘pirates’—like Francis Drake, say locals—jostling to take it over. Nowadays its riches are confined to the beauty of the Historic Centre (beyond whose walls the vast modern city sprawls), from the cacophony of flowers spilling out over every wooden balcony to the views out to sea beyond the fortress.
British pianist James Rhodes is here for the city’s twelfth Hay Festival, a Colombian off-shoot of the original in Hay-on-Wye, to perform concerts, give talks and promote his book Instrumental (published in October 2016). He was invited by Hay Festival director Peter Florence and Colombian insurance company SURA, one of the festival sponsors. He has arrived in Cartagena after a similar program at the other Colombian Hay, in the
city of Medellin. Integral to all of this is his story which he shares, from the severe childhood abuse that led him to find salvation in the piano aged seven after hearing Bach on a found cassette tape – ‘overnight, everything changed’, his challenges with his identity, a late starting career as a concert pianist aged thirty-five and finally, some resonation in Felix and Susana (an educational program, covering topics relating to sexual health and peaceful co-existence, aimed for children between the ages of four and twelve) in Colombia. This is SURA’s education program supporting similar victims with a sense and experience of healthy community living to help strengthen relationships among children, family and schools. Indeed the very names Felix and Susana were inspired by the Spanish words ‘feliz’ and ‘sana’ meaning happy and well.
‘It’s just an amazing organization,’ says Rhodes, ‘a programme going into schools to help protect and get people talking about the body, and abuse and sex.’
This is my second visit to the country and the reason I am here in Cartagena again, as well as the first time, is thanks to another important initiative promoting peace and physical well-being: El Colegio del Cuerpo. Now celebrating its twentieth year, The School of Body is a dance collective based here in Cartagena, presenting its young attendees with a new ‘ethic’ of the body. The school is guided by a body-based philosophy, which informs its pedagogy. It is not only a dance school for some seeking a career in dance who may go onto join its professional dance company Cuerpo de Indias, but also a centre to give all students a sense of respect for their bodies and enhanced social skills and values through the art of contemporary dance.
Many of the original pupils came from some of Cartagena’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, on the outskirts of the city, where violence was often commonplace. Not to mention the past five decades plus of Colombia’s notorious armed conflict or civil war with its horrifyingly violent consequences, which has of course formed the backdrop for children at both The School of the Body and Felix and Susana.
I came to know the former six years ago, for six weeks’ research in Social Anthropology; exploring the body’s place in education and learning. I am here again now to process Cartagena’s Hay Festival through this lens in the context of the (revised) peace deal that was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in November 2016, to call an end to the violence and usher in a new era of peace and stability. This starts with the disarmament of the FARC guerilla force, before the gradual integration of its fighters back into society.
Needless-to-say this moment and its meaning are in everybody’s minds, which makes Rhodes’s presence in Colombia all the more poignant. And just after Cartagena he will play in Bogota, in the Teatro Colon, the same venue where one day later Cuerpo de Indias will open 2017’s Nobel Peace Summit, with their show Negra/Anger for an international delegation of some thirty Nobel Peace Prize Laureates including President Santos himself.
The show is dedicated to Nina Simone and Aimé Césaire, two peacebuilding icons and civil rights activists. And the production is both a protest and denunciation of the social divisions that have gone before in Colombia, particularly along racial lines. Cartagena itself sadly still shows these kinds of realities; its beauty can be beguiling.
The work is also a celebration of the diversity of Colombia, whose indigenous, African and European heritage is clear through the mix of races, religions and culture of its population. After all, the famous tales of Colombia’s legendary writer Gabriel García Márquez were often inspired by the dreamy syncretism and character of the people, so influenced by such a mix.
Felix and Susana also takes care to emphasise the positive. While the sexual abuse statistics in Colombia are horrifying (every hour two boys or girls are victims of abuse and only 10% of complaints result in a ‘guilty’ verdict) the centre’s focus is on the wellbeing and happiness of its children. As patron Paula Jaramillo explains, ‘there is no sense in drawing out the negative.
You have to focus on the positive.’ And the positive in both programmes speaks for itself.
The School of the Body reveres the body as a temple or a sacred space, to be protected and respected, and which places it at the centre of education, as opposed to the periphery where it plays second fiddle to the mind. Director and co-founder Alvaro Restrepo questions the use of bodies held static at desks throughout formal education (other than the odd Physical Education class) and wonders as to the extent of social benefit such an education can afford. Whereas, his body-based method means constant social interaction with other pupils and, as in the case of dance, the mutual trust and respect required and adopted within safely executed dance moves such as lifts, for instance. As one student explains, ‘If I lift my dance partner, we must respect and trust each other.’
The organization has developed a comprehensive plan including not only the arts in education (a tough call in Colombia where arts funding is now severely restricted due to the costs of the peace implementation) but even advocates for a more holistic education including both mind and body in the general curricula around the globe. It challenges head on the Cartesian mind/body divide in most schools in the West, prioritizing an active mind and still body and instead merges the two as an intractable whole, which must develop as one in any successful education.
Rhodes recalls President Trump’s claim (made to illustrate his skills of assertion, opinion and aggression in his business bible The Art of the Deal) that as a child he punched his elementary school music teacher in the face, for ‘not knowing enough about music’, giving him a black eye.
‘My feeling is: Well, if that’s true, you’re in a rather unique position to make sure that every other elementary school music teacher has the tools they need so they do know what they’re talking about. You know that story about Churchill being asked to take money from the arts to fund the war and he said, “then why are we fighting the war..?” I mean that’s really true—sad but true. Where would be without it? Well, look where we are
without it. It’s taken a huge dive.’
Restrepo’s approach to teaching is that a good teacher ‘helps you find your wings so you can fly. If not, what the hell is education for?’ Needless to say, this did not happen for him in school. Meanwhile, dance was out of the question in his machista family who expected him to pursue a more conventional career for a man and it was only aged twenty-four that he started dancing and soon trained in New York with the legendary dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham.
Rhodes too, though loving piano from the age of five when he was so abused, repeatedly, that he needed three back operations, did not settle into his career until much later. Diverted into heavy drugs as one route to solving his problems (another was undertaking a psychology degree to figure himself out—to no avail) he stopped playing aged eighteen. For the next ten years he undertook a series of jobs from working in finance in the City to serving Whoppers at Burger King. It wasn’t until he attempted to become a music agent that the agent he sought out as a mentor declared he was not set to be an agent but a concert pianist. Only now did he return to the piano, ten years later, aged twenty-eight, not having played a note in-between.
In this second coming, he certainly delved into the lives of loner composers and musicians like him, finding solace in the stories and autobiographies of greats from Bach to Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
He delights in retelling an anecdote about Mozart writing the big show piece aria for a lead in Così fan tutte who he happened to hate. ‘He realizes that every time she sings a high note this woman lifts her head and every time she sings a low note, she lowers her head. So Mozart fills her aria with jumps from high to low to high, so that, in his words, “her head will bob up and down like a chicken on stage”.’ All the same, says Rhodes, the aria he wrote to mock this woman ‘is one of the most beautiful operatic arias ever composed.’ ‘So these guys are very brilliant. They would have been amazing to hang
out with. They aren’t just these untouchable geniuses. They’re funny and human and crazy and damaged and they’re like all of us.’
He also reminds us of the ages of his ‘rock-star’ heroes when they achieved what they did, awe-struck by the idea that by the time of Beethoven’s early death he was really sick, isolated, heartbroken and completely deaf, and yet had written thirty-two piano sonatas.
For Rhodes too the path has been long and filled with pain and dilemma. Even after becoming a successful concert pianist performing, and speaking, all over the world and writing his memoir Instrumental about his experiences, the challenges continued.
Rhodes’s book, praised by Stephen Fry for explaining ‘why and how music has the potential to transform all of our lives’ was initially banned from being sold, due to its highly sensitive content, almost reinforcing the threat Rhodes claims every paedophile makes to his victims when the abuse is going on: ‘If you ever talk about this terrible things will happen, catastrophic things. You cannot imagine the terrible things that will happen if you tell anyone.’ Only after a yearlong battle in the Supreme Court, and two million pounds in legal fees did Rhodes win his case and be allowed to tell his story once more.
His anxiety however is constant and he says he feels he has been running away his whole life. All the more remarkable then his achievement, in spite of all. And yet for him, being a concert pianist is ‘just a job like any other job. You just show up and play the best you can. When I worked in Burger King I was just as nervous before going to work as I am before playing to two thousand people. Really. I mean I might fuck up a Whopper.’
And so Rhodes is as human as the heroes he reveres. In fact, watching him, his thin frame, his modest quarter-bow, which he makes, you sense, as a mere nod toward that classical concert convention, while bucking the others (jeans and T-shirt instead of black tie or tail coats, score or no score and when score no designated human page turner). Not unlike the School
of the Body’s company featuring dancers of all races and shapes in contrast to what went before on the stage of Cartagena’s main theatre and indeed, in dance traditions themselves; not to mention placing the body in the centre of education, plucked from its traditional place on the periphery.
I am particularly intrigued by Rhodes’s insistence on turning the pages of his own score, not least because amidst playing Rachmaninoff in concert in Cartagena he whips one with such fervour that he unsettles the score which tilts toward him like a tsunami, and begins to fall…
Yet he catches it, mid-air, without losing a second of his focus, in spite of the gasps of the audience. Such is his passion, and resolve, his commitment to the craft that saved him.