What I love about New York City is that you can go to a free De La Soul concert in the park and meet the daughter of the former royal physician of Nepal.
For those of you who don’t follow hip-hop, De La Soul had a big hit with a song called “Me Myself and I” in the late 1980s and have since gone in a more experimental direction, putting out a number of musically innovative, politically savvy records that have entered them in the New York hipster pantheon with artists like Sonic Youth and Public Enemy. Their free Summer Stage concert attracted what looked to be the entire under-40 population of the western half of Brooklyn. Jenny and I were clever enough to arrive an hour early, and even then the line already stretched for several blocks and looked like some kind of pro-diversity advertisement: frizzy-haired Jewish lesbians, thirtysomething African-Americans with picnic baskets, Asian college kids all lined up to share an afternoon with each other.
Once inside the concert grounds, we wended our way to an open patch and sat down behind a blanket that was shared by three Indian girls. Gradually over the course of the day, something like fifteen Bengalis managed to gather on that blanket, all of them terribly excited about their pot-laced cigarettes and their beer, and I actually heard someone say, “De La Soul isn’t coming on for hours, yaar!” As happens at these kinds of public events, we all got to talking, and when I mentioned to one of the guys that I’d been to Nepal, he grabbed the girl next to him and told her.
“I’m Nepali!” she exclaimed. “I feel such a kinship with you!” She was born here but had been back about a dozen times, most recently to experience a bit more of the country and go trekking up to Muktinath, the same shrine we visited. I asked whether she was Hindu — she was — and then which of Nepal’s ethnic groups she belonged to. “Actually my family is from Bengal,” she explained. “My father is a doctor. Do you know the prince who shot everyone?” I nodded, having heard in detail the story of the crown prince who went mad, killing most of the royal family and then himself. “My father delivered him when he was born,” she said.
Central Park in summer is a glorious carnival. From certain angles it looks like a liesure painting by Seurat or Renoir — indeed, it was exactly this sort of Romanticism-inspired urban park that so interested the Impressionists — except that it’s as if the exotic characters in Rousseau’s and Gaugin’s paintings had taken over from the prim French ladies with bustles. On Sunday I found myself back in the park, this time with my friend Maggie. We ended up at Summer Stage again, where we watched a couple of terrible acts from New Zealand, then continued on toward Bethesda Fountain. In the plaza above we heard drumming and followed the sound into a dense crowd of people. At the center were a group of drummers — some African, some Carribean, some Latino, some Caucasian. They made a fantastic noise with their congas and djembes and rattles and gourds, and in front of them danced a small crowd, led by an African man draped in cowrie shells, sporting a fantastic multicolored cap and waving some kind of brush in the air. There was also a stunningly beautiful African woman wearing very little, her body covered in a sheen of sweat as she stomped and twirled and shook her hips in a manner that would make Shakira jealous. Soon the two African dancers were pulling people out of the crowd and giving impromptu African dance lessons, until the central space was filled with bouncing, grooving bodies. Some of the other dancers were very good, but there was something about the African pair — a kind of intimacy or naturalness — that made me think they’d probably been doing this — exactly this — for their whole lives. I thought about what it must feel like to live in such an incredibly alien place as America must be to them, and then to come to the park and dance as they might have back home; I had the strange thought that it must be something like the feeling I got when I was in Korea and I opened up a box full of New Yorker magazines.
We moved on from the drum circle and promptly passed another, this one involving some kind of large metal horns. Next to them rollerbladers were threading their way down an impromptu track of empty bottles. Down by Bethesda Fountain a man was going through a well-worn acrobatics-and-comedy routine, and just beyond were two young white guys playing a classical trumpet duet. We walked from there up into the Ramble, the wonderful part of the park that is meant to feel like wild nature, and in which you can almost forget you’re in the middle of a giant metropolis. As we lay upon a lawn watching a gondolier punt along the lake, Maggie picked up a tune on the air: it was the same song she’d been singing that morning in her capoiera class. Sure enough, we walked back to the fountain and discovered a white-clad circle of dancers taking turns performing the Brazilian combat-dance, while a few others played exotic Brazilian percussion and string instruments.
Yesterday I got in touch with my friend Daniel to see what he was doing for the evening. “Going to see Antibalas in Fort Greene Park,” he told me. Antibalas, which means “bullet-proof” in Spanish, is a 13-piece orchestra that plays Afrobeat, a heavy funk sound invented by the Nigerian pop star/political leader/demigod Fela Kuti. They’re sort of charmingly collectivist — one guy makes the announcements and political pronouncements, another sings, yet another conducts the group — and they manage to put over radical leftist politics without coming off shrill. And, well, they lay down a tremendous groove. Fort Greene Park was bouncing, and again I found myself dancing in a racially mixed crowd, many of whom were local to the neighborhood. When Antibalas sang a song with the chorus, “Is this America?” I wanted to shout, Yes! Yes, this is America, this park full of people from everywhere, all dancing to one beat, free to groove to a political rant or to go buy a hotdog instead, beautiful and open and smiling and swaying on a cool summer evening with fireflies.
I’ve come home.