Crafting Gentleness

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Honouring my teacher

I realised today, when I burst into tears about my recent lung infection, that infact I was grieving the death of my teacher and mentor Jose Prates. Although he passed a few years ago, I was unable to make it to his death bed... I did actually arrive at the hospital only to find he was transferred. We talked a number of times before he died, but it wasn't enough. This last weekend, after I finished the serious of two dancing workshops (to live drumming) I picked up the phone to call him and tell him how I went... and then promptly went into denial. ie. Lung infection. I've been a bit abrupt with friends as well - denial.

I really miss him! Here's his eulogy... A true gentle-man....

Jose Prates - 12th February 1928 - 19th December 2004

The following is Jose's eulogy by David Hall at the funeral service of Jose Prates in December 2004

What a remarkable man … How many men in the history of our species .. have been able to relocate to another country at the age of 63 and make such a difference ?
A woman named Lisa confided in me a few years ago that for years after her divorce, she felt there was no point in living. Life had faded from technicolour to grey.. and with each passing month the possibility of joy seemed to slip further and further away. However, her face was radiant as she told me this. We were outside under the trees at the Narrabeen Salsa classes Jose ran on a balmy Friday night, watching Jose dance with my wife Wendy, who was swooning with pleasure because he was leading her so gently and clearly.
Lisa looked at me and said "Jose has changed my life." She didn't just mean that she had learnt to dance or that she had been able to move beyond the tough times. It was because in joining the community of people Jose was nurturing with dance, she had reopened her heart to life. Jose certainly changed my life. It would be interesting to tally up the number of people in this room and in fact around the world, who would say the same thing.
Jose Prates Da Silva Moura is a man who has made an enormous contribution to our culture and affected the lives of countless thousands of people.
I ask you, what is important in life ? What are the experiences that we cherish and that make our lives feel well-lived ?
Love .. the experience of really feeling alive .. the connections we make with peo-ple that seem to transcend time and put us in touch with our fundamental humane-ness. These were the threads that Jose was able to weave into so many lives in his understated, gentle way.
Jose was a cultural ambassador for Latin American Music and dance, which is indeed one of our world's most precious jewels. I know he travelled the world playing the music of his native Brazil, but I would argue that his sig-nificance goes beyond the borders of one country and speaks of something more universal. It is why when Salsa became a phenomenon his relevance did not diminish, but instead grew stronger.
Just why is Jose so significant ? Why do we feel so bereft that he has left us ? Why is it so important that we pick up the threads he has left unwoven and continue to weave on our own ?
I think it is worth remembering that the music and dance of Latin America is a flower that has grown from the wounds of a cruel clash between the cultures of Europe, Africa and the Americas. I find it heartening that in the face of the barbarism and cruelty of 500 years of blundering human history, the people of the Americas were able to turn the other cheek and not become bitter. Through the creation of Samba, Gafiera, zouk, forro, Son, Salsa, Tango, Cumbia and Merengue, indestructible cultural bridges were forged that laughed in the face of fear and ignorance and created a new cultural identity.
My wife Wendy and I were deeply touched by the vitality and spirit we found in Cuba. We were deeply affected by the apparent ability of so many people to drop their troubles and surrender to the moment when they danced. It was a simple pleasure that everyone seemed to share. We wondered how we could find that in Australia. I mean, I knew we would find Salsa .. but would we find that spirit.
And this is where I return to why Jose was so significant. It is inevitable that in cultural exchange something is lost in the translation. In the competitive dehumanising consumer culture we live in, it is easy for dance to lose its essence. In a time where the simple joy of dancing together was often lost in a maze of complication, Jose taught simplicity and respect. He embodied, in an openhearted and accessible way, that essential transcendental spirit of Latin American culture.
Jose was a master linguist. English was his fifth language. He spent 40 years on the road in over forty coun-tries. He was a consummate showman who loved what he did and perhaps more importantly, loved the people he performed for. I have found many people in the Latin diaspora who feel that that Latin Spirit is a birthright that can-not be shared or even explained. I had many conversations with people trying to fathom the meaning of the clave. It was often a challenging experience as it was difficult to find a common language.
Not so with Jose. His life on the road, his mastery of cross-cultural communication and the nature of his spirit meant that he was able to communicate in a language I and others could understand. So I was able to learn along with many others not blessed with a Latin heritage, the things that were at the heart of Latin American music and dance.
But as I said earlier, it's not the dance. It's not the 258 songs he wrote that are registered with the European copy-right agency. That's right, I said 258. I'm sure many people are unaware of his earlier career. You can hear some of that on the cd Jose worked on right up until his last days.
I wonder … How is it that a man who has just had his stomach removed three weeks earlier was able to dance a Samba like he did at his benefit concert a few months ago. If you weren't there, I can tell you it was unbelievable. How is it that when he was seventy four and was dancing at Narrabeen another young woman was able to remark "That is a seriously sexy man". How is it that in the face of so much possibility and when stuck so cruelly by the capriciousness of fate, he was able to die with such grace, dignity and consideration for others.
Well, I will tell you that for me Jose had many Bodhisattva like qualities. A Bodhisattva, in the Buddhist sense, is an enlightened being dedicated to the enlightenment of others. Jose was a being dedicated to bringing love and opening peoples hearts. I was lucky enough never to see a negative side to Jose. Some of you who may have known him earlier in his journey through life may beg to differ, however I found him to be generous, loving, creative, car-ing, decent, thoughtful, encouraging, ethical, accepting, courageous, kind, tough, resilient, resourceful, warm and appreciative.
He loved me, he loved my wife, he loved my children. He loved Anna, he loved her children. He loved Samiya and Nelson, his own children. Jose Loved many people .. and he also loved life.
I remember in hospital, he was reminiscing about his days in the navy. He entered into a reverie about a visit-ing Italian ship with so much appreciation it made my heart ache.
The thing with Jose was that he realised that Life itself, was an occasion. I remember him at a barbecue at his home in Kensington. It was a beautiful night. There was his keyboard in the backyard near the clothesline. There was a small toy, a band of dancing green frogs that he had placed there for my daughter, Beatrix, He was wearing an immaculately pressed shirt and swaying to the music. We may as well have been at Maxim's in Paris, where he did indeed dine. This was a great occasion. Yet here we were in the concrete backyard of Jose's home in Kensington. We danced and ate and sang .. and really, life doesn't get more fun than that.
Even when faced with cancer he lived with love and appreciation. He realized that if chemotherapy would not cure him and would only reduce his faculties it was pointless. So he refused it and worked with the cancer. Even when he spoke about "fighting this bloody thing" he did so with respect and love. In fact, he speaks about his can-cer making him aware of his body in a new way. He listened to it. Did you know that he only used pain killers in the last few days ? He used massage to control the pain. He was writing music and doing arrangements up until the last two weeks of his life and in the last week was able to oversee arrangements for the release of his retrospec-tive CD. He was conscious and spiritually awake until the end. He not only gracefully arrived at acceptance for his own death but waited for those significant ones around him to arrive there too
Jose's death was as remarkable as his life. Dignity, intelligence, wisdom, appreciation, beauty, profound love and extraordinary creativity.
Jose, Thankyou .. we will always, always love you.

David Hall was a student and dear friend of Jose. David together with his wife Wendy and Jose, ran 'Bang Bang Salsa' on Sydney's Northern Beaches.


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