The Meaning of Life

On my first morning in Kigali this summer, I woke up to Jason Derulo singing “Whatcha Say.”

I had one of those surreal moments where I panicked, forgot where I was, remembered I was in Rwanda, and then promptly wondered whether I was sure it wasn’t a dream because Derulo was definitely playing outside my window. When I finally untangled myself from the mosquito net and confirmed that I hadn’t left my iPod on, I opened the curtains and saw the answer. There, on the dewy lawn beneath the faint pink rays of a Kigali sunrise, was Alphonse (our security guard) sweeping leaves into a pile while jamming to “Watcha Say.” I looked on for a moment, watching Alphonse step and sway to the beat while humming the radio lyrics under a warming golden sky.

Here was my first lesson: Don’t assume that just because you’re in Rwanda, you’re on a different planet.

As I would quickly realize, everywhere you go in Kigali – the supermarkets, the taxis, hotels, even just walking down the street – you’ll hear radios playing top-forty American hits, African pop and sometimes even jazz. Often, the songs that are played are mash-ups and remixes of American pop with African artists. However, out of all the familiar songs and music genres that I heard around me, I missed the one that was dearest to my heart: Classical.

As far as I know, there are only two pianos in Kigali. One is missing a third of its keys and sits in a cobwebbed corner of the church at One Love. The other sits on the second floor lobby of Kigali’s most luxurious hotel, Serena, where it functions more as a piece of art than an instrument. It took me over a month to discover the Serena baby grand, but once I did, we were inseparable. Whenever I had time outside of teaching, lesson-planning, research, meetings, etc – I grabbed my Rach. 2 and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” hailed a taxi-moto and seated myself on the cushioned bench at Serena for at least the next three hours.

On my first day with the baby grand, I almost choked on the dust that flew from beneath my fingertips into my nose and lungs. But as we got to know each other and I downloaded more of my favorite pieces – by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Mozart – we also started to make more friends at Serena. Classical seemed to be a novelty in Rwanda, and a person who played it was considered even more of an oddity.

I mentioned before that when I first came to Rwanda, the thing I missed most was playing piano. Funny thing is that my search for a piano in Kigali and the subsequent hours of playing Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt brought me in touch with some of the most important contacts I made in Rwanda. I’ve spent hours at Bourbon Coffee over cups of steaming African tea discussing classical music with future sponsors, NGO workers, foreign diplomats, and Rwandan government officials who had heard me play the piano at Serena Hotel.

Most were completely unfamiliar with classical repertoire and asked me why I played music, how I came to play music, and what I thought about while I played.

They may as well have asked me, “What is the meaning of life?”

To which I would respond, “That’s easy. It’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.”

You may disagree – which is fine – but what we can agree on is that the answer cannot be easily expressed in words. Which is why it is through music and art that I have developed my “philosophy of life,” if you will. Words are finite. For any given language, there are a limited number of ways that we can describe our experiences and express how we feel. As George Orwell says, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We are simultaneously limited and enabled in our thinking by our grasp of words.

Music is a language.

You’ve heard the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Music, like art, is more expansive and powerful of a language than words. Unlike the language of words, music and art have an infinite vocabulary. The possible combinations of notes, chords, harmonies, and colors are endless – which means that the amount of experiences and emotions that both mediums can express is also infinite.

Individually, each note on the keyboard may not stimulate a response – just like each alphabetic letter has no meaning when it stands alone – but combined with others, we can create meaning. Infinite meanings.

However, “meaning” is still complex because with an infinite number of combinations comes an infinite number of perspectives and interpretations. We may both look at red and agree that it is “red” but I may see your “green” and you may see my “purple.” Neither of us is more right or wrong than the other, but the point is that we have looked at the same thing and come away with two very different meanings.

We live our lives constantly striving to find meaning in what we do, trying to find a purpose for our existence. Just as there is one history and many “stories” of that history, there is one world and many different experiences of that world. Within each person is an entirely different “world,” and within communities and societies, entire “universes” to be discovered.

My philosophy of life is to hear as many stories and live in as many worlds as possible, in order to enrich and expand my own “world” to more closely approximate meaning and truth. As a corollary to this philosophy is a desire to expand and enrich the worlds of others by facilitating an exchange of stories and worlds to promote understanding.

I find that music gives me a medium through which to express and communicate greater meanings across language and cultural barriers. More than just sharing and expressing my experiences and feelings through playing the piano, music allows me to process experiences in a way that words cannot.

Only through sharing, learning, and trying to understand other perspectives can we work towards making the world a better place for everyone – wouldn’t you agree?

In any case, food for thought. Give Rach. 2 a listen – I promise it won’t disappoint!

Happy holidays.