The Music of Hospitality

6:07pm, Wednesday.

I’ve just finished a long day commuting around from meeting to meeting, and I’m standing underground in the Jackson station, waiting for my last train of the day. My mind is still on the busyness of my day—and how much is left to do before bed—so, at first, don’t even notice the music resonating from the other end of the long narrow platform. And yet, slowly but persistently, the rhythmic melody drowns out the noise of my scrambled thoughts.

This sounds really good, I think, surprised that I even notice music in the L stations anymore.

Only able to hear the musicians from where I’m standing, I try to piece the band together by sound. There’s definitely a drummer, shuffling out complex rhythms on what sounds like a really nice kit. There’s a bassist too, who, despite only playing a total of four notes, is squeezing every ounce of soul out of that simple line. I can’t tell if that’s one guitar or two; the rhythm and solos overlap and intertwine, making it impossible to tell. Behind it all is this phantom female voice, chanting drawn-out non-words that sound at once miles away and tangibly near. The music slows, mutes, then bursts open with cymbals crashing, voice and guitar wailing with/against one another.

Apparently I’ve stepped closer to the music, because now I can see a small crowd that has gathered in front of the band, which is still obscured from my sight by a pillar. Suddenly, I feel like I’m missing out on something, so I purposefully make my way across the platform, the music swelling with my approach. I squeeze into the crowd, and for the first time I can see the band.

And they’re not really a band at all. It’s just two guys sitting by a pillar, two guys who seem irreconcilably different from each other. The first, a younger white guy—a Columbia student, if his skinny jeans and newsie cap are any indication—is sitting on a small amp, a Taylor on his lap and a thousand dollars in loop and effect pedals at his feet. The second man, a significantly older black man, sits on a crate, dressed in torn up sweats which, combined with his disheveled beard and wild hair, persuade me that he must be homeless. He’s seated behind a makeshift pile of drums: a cracked cymbal stuck to the end of broken drumstick sticking out of an upside-down bucket, a larger plastic barrel that sounds surprisingly like a bass drum, and a rusty snare titled on its side.

I glance around the growing crowd, trying to figure out if I’m the only one surprised by unusual duet. It’s only then that I realize that the beautiful vocals I had heard echoing down the tracks aren’t coming from a performer, but from a hunching elderly lady in the crowd; her eyes dart back and forth wildly as she reads the sheet music printed on the concrete, visible only to her.

I look back to the musicians, who seem only aware of each other’s presence. Their eyes locked, they nod once in unison, just before exploding once more into a prism of emotion. Transfixed, it takes me a few moments to notice the rest of the crowd around me. A middle-aged man has his iPhone out, recording the performance on video. An older man in a cardigan—a retired professor I decide—taps his toe and bobs his head just over the shoulder of the drummer. A young woman, smiles as she drums her fingers atop her pencil skirt and Coach purse. A foul-smelling man with a bag of cans grunts and moans softly, complimenting the thump of bass with the sound weary joy. Hurried passengers push through the crowd with the desperation of the hurried city life, but the couple dozen of us in the audience are in a completely different place, a city where people gather underground for the sole purpose of listening to good music.

The headlights from my train are already illuminating the backstage, signaling that I have only a few seconds more to appreciate this impossible moment. On cue, the music quickly fades, ending triumphantly with a one last surprise crash of the cymbal. We clap sincerely, a couple people toss coins in a jar, and I get on my train, a carton of lives who were just seconds too late. Still, as the train pulls out I notice that a few of the passengers in my car were also in the audience at the station. They look different, somehow, smiling for no reason and still tapping their toes; I suppose I look like that too. I catch the eyes of the mother across from me, who just a minute before stood next to me in front of the guitarist. We silently agree that yes, that was something. She and I—strangers who had never spoken to each other—are, at least for a moment, friends.

In fact, it seems as if all of us standing around those two musicians had somehow become friends, or rather, remembered that we weren’t actually strangers, but had been friends all along. The music created a space which pulled each of us—along with our worries and weariness—into each other’s lives, a space in which a poor old man and an affluent student are welcome to co-create, a space in which each of us is free to drum and dance and grunt and sing and clap and smile, a space in which we can be more than just our job title, skin color, or social status.

In other words, music can be incredibly hospitable.

Hospitable music doesn’t tell us who to be, but invites us just as we are. It’s empty, but not lonely. It doesn’t force itself on us, but it’s not afraid to be what it is. It’s vulnerable, risky.

And it changes everything. It transforms public space into a home, strangers into family. It reminds us who we are, that we exist for each other. And this moment sticks with us long after it’s passed, because deep down we long for welcome. We want to share the space of our lives. It’s like we’ve been imprinted with the mark of hospitality, a mark that years of busyness and social pressure effectively cover but never erode.

It’s like music is a memory of the creative hospitality for/by which we were made.

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