On Cultural Heritage & Loss

Sometimes I feel like my brain is filled with puzzle pieces. Separate and distinct elements that fit together into something bigger, something essential, some larger than life truth that only I can pull together

This latest puzzle has been a tough one to crack. Like any good puzzler I have been looking for the connections. The similar pieces—those with flat edges, or colors that appear to mesh in just the right way.

The elements of the puzzle are widespread. They include the near destruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and the damage to swaths of intangible heritage with the Universal Music Group fire, where the masters of a whole range of popular (and lesser known) music were engulfed in a flame. There is an even clearer picture when you toss in elements from Yesterday and the The Band’s Visit into the fray.

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Gargoyle’s look out over Paris from their perch on Notre-Dame in 2013. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

And perhaps all of these are funnels into my reaction to the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which collectively summarizes the idea of loss and cultural heritage in a single remarkable package.

Snap. Let’s begin.

Fire

The first piece was something unexpected. I was in the middle of a convention hall, with hundreds of Star Wars fans, when my heart began to break as my Twitter feed filled with the news of the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame.

Like many others, in that moment I felt an unexpected horror. Not one that surpasses the broader human rights violations we are witnessing elsewhere, but a fearful sadness, a melancholy that came with the loss of a collective memory whisking away with the ashes of Notre Dame’s timbers on the wind.

The second piece is a book. A few years ago Susan Orlean wrote of another burning. This one in a library—the Los Angeles Central Public Library (Central). Unlike Notre Dame this place was not of international and national import, but had its own history, its own beating heart—its own role to play in connecting community with knowledge, and heritage.

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Interior of the Los Angeles Central Library. | Photo By: Juan Monroy via Flickr Creative Commons

The book, if you haven’t read it, is riveting. Much like the fire at Notre-Dame the destruction of the library reminded us of how much we have to lose. Because, as Orlean describes “The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.” While the blaze is suspected to have been started by an arsonist, Orlean deliberately pulls out how the evolution of the library mimicked the broader evolution of societal roles — both in terms of gender, but also class — leading to an institution that served the people of Los Angeles in a variety of different ways.

The third puzzle piece, is not about a building. Like The Library Book and Notre-Dame it does involve fire, but this time it involves losing heritage that is ephemeral and intangible. I have often talked about multidisciplinary storytelling. That understanding our past we have to also consider the broader cultural heritage that existed at the time. But sometimes those pieces of cultural heritage are lost in unfathomable ways. In this case—the Universal Music Group Fire, which was documented in this incredible piece in New York Magazine—most of what was lost exists in another format elsewhere in the world.

But not the masters, not the originals. Like the timbers that burned at Notre-Dame, or the collections that only lived at Central, these masters told a story that more vivid then what we get through a streaming music service. Those base records are, as the author Jody Rosen says “Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambiance of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits.”

In a lot of ways what was lost in that fire was the essence, the soul of some of these historic recordings. Something that we can never get back again. As the article quotes Adam Block former head of Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm, “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

What If? Imagined Pasts

And now a shift, to another part of the puzzle, a minor, perhaps unimportant, piece. Something that lies say, in the middle of a sea of blue. But it speaks of what we lose when memory fades, and drifts away. While the movie Yesterday is not a piece of dramatic art, it is a conversation starter about the role music plays in our society. If we lost the Beatles in the blink of an eye, what would the world look like? Thinking back to my American popular music course in college, the Beatles were just one element in a vast counter-culture revolution, but I wonder if we, like the main character in this fairly straightforward movie, would always feel that something vital was missing?

The Band's Visit at the Kennedy Center
The Band’s Visit at the Kennedy Center. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

It is here, perhaps that I could snap in another piece, coming from The Band’s Visit, a musical about an Egyptian military band that ends up in the wrong town in Israel.  As audience members. we watch as the visitors and residents find moments of affinity in this unexpected clash of cultures. In one case, Dina and the band leader Tewfiq are in a cafeteria trying to engage with one another. They find it as Dina touches upon Arabic movies that used to play across the television and radio. Specifically ones which stared Omar Sharif and Umm Kulthum. The song evokes more than mere nostalgia, but an aching sense of connection, of a world that has disappeared, become ever fleeting in this small town.

Dark and thrilling
Strange and sweet
Cleopatra and the handsome thief
And they floated in on a jasmine wind
Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif
And they floated in on a jasmine wind
Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif

While both Yesterday and The Band’s Visit talk about the connection of culture and loss in their own way, the both consider the ramifications of that loss. An unmooring of self. A grasping for identity that has long since dissipated.

The Layers of the Last Black Man of San Francisco.

It is that essential element of human connection that links this last puzzle piece to the rest. I speak of the film The Last Black Man of San Francisco.

This movie, which I cannot do justice to in any description I put forth, is about Jimmie Fails (based on his life) who returns to his childhood home, a gorgeous Victorian in the Fillmore district in San Francisco. The home, now owned by a white couple, is in need of constant repair, and Jimmie returns time and time again to take care of this old house which holds a host of memories for him. When the couple is pushed out of the home Jimmie moves back in (it is important to note here, without a legal claim of ownership) with his friend Montgomery. (Read the New York Times review if you can).

I walked out of this movie stunned. It isn’t just that this film centered around a man’s connection to his own house, but rather that it layered his imagined memory that this was a home built by his grandfather (who didn’t want to take property from the Japanese American’s whose property was being stolen during World War II), with the inherent role this home played in his sense of self, and self-worth. A stark contrast from the room he shared with Montgomery and his blind father in the lower-income neighborhood of Bayview-Hunter’s Point. In this film we get a history of two versions of San Francisco, including the essential belief Jimmie has that this is what gives his life meaning. And as the movie turns it addresses what happens when that sense of connection and history is severed (along with the underlying narrative of what displacement does to a community as it loses its cultural heritage).

Then there is Montgomery — whose head in the clouds, notebook scribbling plot reminded me a lot of this puzzle I am trying to piece together here. At the end Montgomery pulls those writings together into a play – a story about the recent loss of a friend to violence, as a means to break Jimmie free. It is a moment of quiet power in a movie that is quietly filled with powerful moments.

The last piece now in place, what is the picture before us?

At one point in her novel, Susan Orlean writes that “taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

In The Last Black Man in San Francisco (and perhaps to a lesser extent Yesterday and The Band’s Visit) we are presented with the results of this possibility. We can catch a glimpse of what happens to a community, or an individual even when essential connections to culture and heritage are lost.

R.E.M._-_Out_of_Time

In a different sense, what was lost at the Los Angeles Central Library can never be retrieved again, and the enormity of the UMG loss is hard to calculate — an enormous list that includes Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. Cab Calloway, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Tom Petty, R.E.M, Mary J. Blige, and the Roots—also includes (as Jimmy Rosen writes) “masters for largely forgotten artists that were stored in the vault: tens of thousands of gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word records that may now exist only as written entries in discographies.”

It is unsettling. Grasping this loss, this displacement of a segment of our past that we can never get again. In an interview for Deadline Joe Talbot (the director on The Last Black Man in San Francisco) asks “What is the city, if the people that make it great can’t be there anymore?”

Perhaps in the end this presents us with a complete picture that is melancholy in nature, but one we need to continue confronting with every passing day.  Because this is, essentially, an essay marking loss. Losses we are prepared for, but also losses that come from disaster and social change. Loss that is hard to hold in our hands and understand. Something that disconnects us from our memories, our tethers to place. Our connection to home. And while each of these stories—a book, a film, or a piece of theatre—varies in it’s importance they remind us that while loss is an inextricable part of being human (and is sometimes caused by human nature) it is at times beyond our present comprehension.

But we have to try, and wherever possible, work to prevent that loss with all that we have.

One thought on “On Cultural Heritage & Loss

  1. Wonderful essay, Priya. I, too, was moved by The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but have not been able to write about it in any meaningful way. Thanks for bringing so many elements together. DJB

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