the beautiful human gumbo

So I got back my DNA kit results, and guess what, everybody! I’m a mutt!

I mean, I always knew I was a mutt. I always knew the paternal half of my DNA was southern Italian, the maternal half EnglishScottishGermanFrench (and as my mother always added, “Thank God for the French”). Except I’m not really. Not entirely. Nothing so tidy as half anything.

I am, as it turns out, exactly 76 percent of what I thought I was,  the unsurprising bits breaking down into 36 percent Southern Italian, 29 percent Western European, 7 percent Scottish-Welsh-Irish and 4 percent British. But my variegated ethnic muddle also includes another 24 percent of unanticipated factors: 6 percent Middle Eastern, 6 percent Iberian peninsula, 5 percent European Jewish, 4 percent South Asian and traces from the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and North Africa.

To which I say: HOW COOL IS THIS? Almost a quarter of me is previously unadvertised genetic material!

In truth, family lore already suggested some Jewish blood on the Biancolli side, so that didn’t surprise me — although I wonder about the DNA markers for “European Jewish.” What does that mean, exactly? Ashkenazic? And I’m fascinated by the Middle Eastern and South Asian components, which amount to a whole 10 percent of my genetic makeup. Not too shocking, given Southern Italy’s location at a giant crossroads and humanity’s tendency to schlep goods and people back and forth across bodies of water, pausing to make babies along the way.

I’ve only just started scratching the surface of these results. But already, noodling around the “DNA Matches” on, I found relatives in Argentina. Argentina! Confirming yet more family lore on the Biancolli side! I hesitate to dive too deeply into specifics, which A) aren’t quite verified and B) are so convoluted I might lose consciousness trying to explain them, but C) involve great-grandparents who emigrated from Italy to Uruguay in the 19th century and D) also involve a great-grandfather who later bolted for Argentina.

Even minus the tangled South American subplot,  I’m faced with a genealogical narrative of stunning mystery, complexity and depth. How on earth am I going to unpack it all? My Middle Eastern heritage — what does that mean? My South Asian chunk — am I part Indian? Pakistani? And the Iberian business — could that be on my mother’s side? If so, to borrow one of her favorite turns of phrase, the news would have tickled her pink. In her heart of hearts she was Mediterranean.  She longed to hail from a land of sun. Not for nothing did she marry my father.

But for all the glorious genetic complications in these results, the takeaway is a simple one. We’re connected. We’re related to parts of the world and pieces of history that we might not comprehend, but the connectedness alone is revelatory. Look at me. Not half Italian, as I’d always believed, but a little more than a third. The rest, it seems, is a beautifully confused gumbo of ingredients I may never understand.

So whatever you think you are, you probably aren’t. Not quite. You’re more. More of a rainbow. More representative of homo sapiens sapiens and its unconquerable itinerant spirit. More of a wanderer, an immigrant, a child of multiracial forebears. More connected with every other person on this planet. More a member of the refugee human race and less a member of any so-called race we use to classify, to separate, to oppress.

More beautiful. More mixed. More true. More mutt.

i got music, part v: music = sex

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

PART V: music = sex

When it came to her violin, Mama made one request. “Promise me you’ll play it when I’m gone,” she’d said. “That’s all I ask. It needs to be played to stay alive.” I promised, but I thought: I’ll never play it like you did, Mama. My mother was a concert violinist. The instrument was her other voice. She spoke with it, beautifully and profoundly, in a language I could never master.

After losing my childhood family in the early 90s, I felt at first that they had taken their music with them: Daddy’s Tin Pan Alley, Mama’s Bach, Lucy’s Brahms at the piano. I was wrong. They gave me the music I hold within, my love for it, my need for it, the way I wake in the night and then rise the next day thinking of it. It fills my whole self. In a sense, the music inside me is my family, a way to carry them with me. Whatever music comes from within, expressed with my hands and my voice, is an utterance of love and gratitude for all they gave me.

And yet, as a kid, I didn’t get it. My mother and sister seemed otherworldly, chasing musical perfection with a fixedness that awed and baffled me. I couldn’t comprehend practicing four hours a day; if someone had suggested I give it a try, I might have responded HA HA HA WHY DON’T I PUSH BOULDERS AROUND FOUR HOURS A DAY TOO. As much as I loved music, I’d never understood this dogged pursuit, and I never felt compelled to undertake it myself. Musicians always struck me as more than a little nutball in their assiduity and devotion. What happens to these people? What drugs are they on? How does this idée fixe take hold, and why is it eating their brains?


Then it ate mine.

On a walk after class one day at Django in June, I found myself thinking about sex. Yes, sex. Sex and music, those twin bastards, both of them insistent to the point of bossy. Certain activities command our undivided attention, shoving out room for anything and anyone else. Sex is one such pushy tyrant. Music is another.

Making music requires such intense concentration on so many different actions and details, firing off so many pistons in so many parts of the brain, that there isn’t enough real estate left for anything else. Like sex, music consumes the moment. Like sex, it’s a rapture. But unlike sex, it’s a sustained moment, a tantric rapture defined not by one decisive climax but by a long, rhythmic, lunging tango among enraptured people. It doesn’t matter who they are or what sort of music they’re playing: “Minor Swing,” a Dylan tune, Beethoven. They’re in a mutual state of bliss.

Being inside the music means being surrounded by something greater than myself, being a part of it. It’s not a glimpse into another world; it’s a communion with it. To play the second violin part on Dvořák’s “American” quartet or a sneaky harmony on “Swing Gitan” means conversing with your fellow musicians and the music itself. It means burrowing into something unspoken but true, ideal but unrealized, something that aims for the acme but still brings joy when it inevitably misses. We are human and flawed. The music is beyond us, residing in an unattainable plane. But still, we grasp for it — and in the grasping, we find our own kind of heaven.

Anything that takes me out of my noisy head is a gift. Anything that introduces me to new people in new places – that’s a gift, too. The beauty of music lies in its non-verbal conviction that we can mean something to each other, that we can rely on each other, that we can do so without ever uttering a word. However many wrong notes I hit, I can matter to someone else. They can matter to me, lifting me, prodding me, answering me and inspiring me to better. But the mattering doesn’t require us to talk.

It only requires us to play, and to listen.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION