Brother. The first time someone outside my family called me “brother” – well, that was a memorable moment. Some 25 years ago, while I studied political sciences in Munich, I had picked up a stranded student from Nigeria, well dressed in a suit, not knowing anybody in Germany, not speaking a word of German and naively hoping to begin his engineering studies within a few weeks. Or was it me who was naive? Anyway, my sense of solidarity compelled me to help him out with a warm meal, that he insisted to pay back, with directions as where to find the university, the dining hall and the Studentenwerk. And I tried to find some Nigerian expats who could guide him through the first weeks in Germany.
German bureaucracy lived up to its reputation that day, but after two hours of arguing, the lady at the registration desk at the university gave us a couple of phone numbers. Off we went to the next phone booth and a few phone calls later, we rode the U-Bahn to the east of Munich. We rang the bell of an apartment flat, a Nigerian man in jogging trousers opened the door. First he mustered first the Nigerian, muttered something in a language I did not understand, then he walked up to me, took me in his arms and shouted “My brother!”
A piece like a meditation
Sincere? Ironic? I was beginning to have doubts. But the man asked us to come in, served coffee, we talked a little about how my protegee made it to Munich and what the next steps would be. Then I left. Brother. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, however I came to think about it when I recently listened to Arvo Pärt’s fabulous piece “Fratres”, a work that can be performed by different instrumental constellations. The label ECM has recorded a performance by Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett and a second one by the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
In both version, the piece invites to meditation. Brother – the brother-in-arms, the ominious Big Brother and the murderers adhering to a perversion of Islam and pretending to be brethren. Since the Middle Ages, monks refer to eachother as friars, which means nothing else than brothers, and first-generation Communists referred to eachother as brothers before they adopted the more formal title of comrades. And then there is the familiar greeting among African men imported with slavery into the United States becoming “Bro” in rap songs. Brotherhood suggests intimacy, an intimacy that I am not looking for. I am not too fond of the company of men. Too much ego, too much testosterone.
Of sounds and silence
The Latin “Fratres” has a more detached connotation. A group of men joining to pray silently, to mediate, to contemplate God – that is the image that Pärt music is conjuring in my mind. They do not necessarily interact, but as individuals they share a common spirituality. Pärt’s composition exists in over a dozen versions, composed between 1977 and 1991. “The highest virtue of music, for me, lies outside of its mere sound”, Pärt once explained. “The particular timbre of an instrument is part of the music, but it is not the most important element. If it were, I would be surrendering to the essence of the music. Music must exist of itself – two, three notes – the essence must be there, independent of the instruments.”
Two, three notes, surrounded by a vast space of silence, that’s the essence of “Fratres”. Two, three men or women, surrounded by an indifferent, silent mass of Europeans, that is the reality for many refugees. I met the Nigerian a couple of times after our first encounter. The last time I saw him he told me over a cup of coffee that he had been kicked out of students hostel run by the church and that he lived in the U-Bahn. My brother?
© Charles Thibo