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+ By Jonathan Stone  Photos by Joe Karr

The defining characteristic that has always made music uniquely beautiful among the arts is its evanescent quality. An arc of notes upon the air, tasted on the palette of the mind, then gone like wind-blown flowers, but leaving its trace in memory and desire.

Then, we learned to capture the wind, to strain the perfume from the air, our ever-present playlist a cupboard full of the preserves from last year’s gooseberries. Do we want our art to be pure simulation? In the seventeenth century, if you couldn’t take your part in voice or instrument in the music-making, you were rude, a bumpkin. Now a person who cannot discuss American Idol may find himself odd man out in a conversation. Is this a desirable trajectory? It seems we are willing to accept the intrusion of heavily commoditized technology into virtually every aspect of our human interaction. (Marriage counselors report new complaints that partners compulsively check their devices during sex.)

For hundreds of thousands of years, music has been both the medium and insignia of our social cohesion. Now it is a force for social disintegration, each of us pushed into the digital consumer-bubble of our own private 24-hour playlist. Every digital simulation replaces a human presence, and the possibility of mutual recognition in the shared “Gift of Art.” Given the gift of human embodiment, we passively accept the cheap copy. All of which is why I like to perform in the street, outside of every structure greedily clamoring to skim the gold off of art by filtering it through a cash register.

I play Samba, an art which starts under the copper sheen of a tropical sky, in the dust raised by the dancing feet of people who have nothing but can still raise this joy above their suffering, and ends, as Brazil opens like a flower to the world, through the transformation of a musical alchemy, in an art made of whispers, spider webs and moonlight. The money men called it Bossa Nova, which Sambistas despised as a mere marketing term. In Annapolis, it is worth roughly ten dollars an hour in the street.

One day, three years ago, I was playing at the Annapolis City Dock, sitting next to the Alex Haley statue. (It is regrettable that many Annapolitans I speak to seem to be unaware of the significance of this statue, which marks the spot from which hundreds of thousands of human souls were sold into slavery.)

There are quite a few people here on this beautiful and busy Saturday. Off to one side, toward the back, three women are standing and listening. One is perhaps sixty and Caucasian, one is fortyish and Hispanic, and another beautiful girl of about seventeen, is black. This girl is moving gently in a way Americans do not know how to move, suggesting that her body knows everything there is to know about samba. She seems to be restraining an impulse—I know she would like to dance, so, over the microphone I suggest that she step to the center and show us what Samba really is when it’s at home on a Tuesday. She is embarrassed and demurs, but her companions prevail upon her and she steps to the center. I play classic Samba from the 1930s, Ary Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil and other classics while, for about 20 minutes, with a posture like a candle flame, she makes her Samba; sweet, shy, composed, proud, and happy. It is good that I am not reading this music because I can barely see her through my tears. I am an aging white bohemian playing Afro-Brazilian music, while this miracle of a beautiful girl, whose ancestors could have been sold on this very spot, dances through the threshold of her womanhood, the unduplicateable gift of an embodied human moment.

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