keenan meyer: the alchemy of living

Upon listening to Keenan Meyer’s debut offering, The Alchemy of Living, I saw an opportunity to discuss my questions about life with a musician who seemed to be concerned with them too. It is too often that the classical and jazz musicians, to mix up metaphors with a Roberta Flack lyric, “strum our pain with [their] fingers,” and so it was my hope that both Meyer and I would use our words to explore this ever-elusive alchemy of living. And he indulged me by inviting me into his home, where we talked about matters of spirit, identity and music.

 Keenan Meyer is a trained classical musician. Not a regular trained classical musician; no, he was trained by Professor Joseph Stanford, who was trained by Betsie Cluver, who was trained by Dinu Lipatti, and then Josef Dichler. He says these names casually, like it should not be an event for me to recognise them. He says, “That is the type of lineage I come from in terms of technique and articulating the philosophy of music.” And his undeniable execution and expertise in classical piano makes you understand that he means business.  When technical expertise is merged with the desire to pull from something beyond human consciousness, to communicate what that thing wants to say through the musician as a conduit: that is alchemy.

Meyer’s grandfather passed away a year before he was born, and on his own birth, his grandmother reports that people said, “here’s this man born again.” His grandfather too loved the piano so much that he forced it on all his daughters. And Meyer, coming out of a different time, would pick up the same instrument and love it. This would be understood as a gift passed down in African spirituality, and this album could not possibly be wholly understood without its exploration of Spirit.

The album, something of an odyssey, begins with Santa Theresa; a song that was inspired by his trip to Brazil. He had made some friends on Loop Street in Cape Town and after they visited him in Pretoria where he lived, they invited him to Brazil. And so he went. In Brazil, Keenan found himself spending a lot of time outside, in the water, on the mountains and in the forest, it was on that trip that he learned to meditate. He describes a moment where a friend reached out to his spirit with an invitation to go up a hill where they could see Sugarloaf, and Copacabana as the sun rose:

 “We’re watching the sunrise, and he says, ‘start being conscious of your body’. It sounds like Laban technique to me. It sounds like Alexander technique. I had been introduced to meditation under the guise of mindfulness in Music Psychology. And that was when my understanding of flow started. I only understand the sacred state of flow now. This moment taught me that the present moment is important.” His trip to Brazil offered many such moments that can only be described as the experiences that embody the healing capacity that music can carry.

Identity

A week prior to our interview, I stumbled upon James Matthews’ poetry. And this confrontation on the contested idea of what black identity really is had stuck with me:

“I scorn the arrows of marginalization showered upon

my being

of the blacker-than-thou

arrogance displayed by the

neo-racists

proudly, I accept my beginning born of

mixed parentage

I am a reflection of the colours of the

rainbow nation”

It was one conversation I was interested in exploring with Meyer, to see what could come out of it, as he had stated in an interview that he rejects the term “coloured”. I joke that, all the coloured people I know who are black are poets and musicians. “Or Biko blacks!” he responds with laughter. When Steve Biko defined black as, “those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations,” the message stuck. Indeed, it has been viewed as a mobilizing tool against Apartheid in South Africa. But today, the concept does not quite stick as easily.

“Coloured is derogatory in the UK. In the states, it’s derogatory,” Meyer says, “So why is it still okay here when we know that the founding fathers are of that heritage?”

But the trickiness of this political form of blackness is that the construct of race in South Africa was a successful project. The black and coloured identities are so individually solidified that black does not quite fully work as a blanket identifier. And Meyer knows this too, as he muses:

“My people, I call you to order as well to say that you are very complicit in the idea that you are above your black counterparts by virtue of policies and legislations such as Tricameral Parliament. For me, it is important to bring that discussion because the antiblack stance is our community is there. And you can’t juggle with the complexity of your identity because your identity might carry black ancestry. You can’t honour that because you think anything in proximity to whiteness is superior.”

For his growth, Meyer found he had to put some distance between himself and some of the antiblack influences of the community that surrounded him. For three years, he read decolonial literature to find the language for what he was feeling inside. And he came back and decided that Creole was a more sensible marker than, Coloured, “Because I think it encompasses the multiplicity of my identity and [considers] the real aftereffect of colonial subjugation.”

Komani (feat Tshepo Tsotetsi) is the honoring of this multiplicity of his identity, a tribute to his maternal home in the Eastern Cape, that was colonially known as Queenstown. He discloses that his maternal family that grew up that side speaks isiXhosa as well. He, however, does not. He grew up in Johannesburg. But it becomes clear in his the chords that he honours these roots, and how they have shaped him as the child who would visit this home.

“Abdullah Ibrahim also didn’t want to be called Coloured,” Meyer says. He honours Abdullah Ibrahim with his rendition of The Mountain and his original composition, Ikigai (which considers and is inspired by Ibrahim’s spirituality), a song whose harmonic thread is audibly made possible by reference to The Mountain.

The Alchemy of Living

When I hear the word “alchemy,” I think of this poem Warsan Shire wrote for Beyonce’s Lemonade:

“Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.”

Naturally, Meyer is using the term ‘alchemy’ to mean something beyond the ancient practice of creating gold. For him, he was interested in alchemy as what was happening to him in his identity, his sexuality and its fluidity, and he was making sense of the best way he could honour African spirituality. His decision to end this project with a song entitled Eloi, awakens the cynic in me. How does this person go through this journey with self in songs such as Healing and Peace of Mind, only to close it off with reference to the crucifixion of Christ as told on Matthew 27:45-46:

45 Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

It feels to me like a return to desolation. And a strange place to end this project; with the ominous sounds of a bell rung as though the king of the Roman Empire has died in a period film. But it is not as dark for him. “I think more than anything,” Meyer explains, “it is a submission, because he submitted his spirit. And now, he’s seated at the right hand of God.” Indeed, Christ did surrender on Matthew 27:

50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.”

“In the music, I end with 10 notes, and I go to a B. The nine notes are the ninth hour when he cries out, and the 10th is death, which is the polar of living.” Like any good alchemist, Keenan Meyer has learned the inevitability of surrender. Making sense of his own life’s pain, he says, “It was as if I was put in a crucible. And I needed everything to be brought to its base in form, for me to make sense of that.”

But his journey also created another identity crisis within him. This is how he describes the thoughts and questions that came to him when he visited the Slave Lodge in Cape Town a few years back:

“I realised that some slaves just accepted Christianity for the sake of being free. So, what does that mean? That means erasure of culture and ways of being. What does this mean for me? Do I know if my ancestors accepted this? Which parts of myself am I lying to my spirit about? I’m yet to find out.”

Coming from a generation where so many who think like him have rejected Christianity and all its motifs and symbols, I wonder how he reads the Bible now. “I’m looking past the words of this book now,” he explains with reassurance, “I’m seeking Source.” It is not the kind of spiritualism that preaches mysticism, or simply love and light. No, to Meyer, the journey into the darkness is imperative to the pursuit of Source; and we must understand it when we open the portals to seek it: “When you open that communication channel, be sure that you can stand with what is gonna be shown to you.” And then he says, “can you handle that?” three times in three different tones.

“There were moments when I didn’t realise that I was being separated,” Keenan Meyer reflects on his life’s journey, “And it’s overwhelming.I wasn’t just in that space, it was because there was this other type of communication that wanted to happen, or development or death of self that was conflicting with every other level. Seeking has led me here. Everything in this home is intentional.” He is speaking to the crystals, the many pot plants (that are somehow all still alive), his beautiful pets, the Bible on the table, and the herbs that I spot.

Maybe that is the alchemy of living, to be stripped to your barest form, and to yield to the transformation so that you may emerge with intention.

The Alchemy of Living is available on all streaming platforms.