Our Emirates flight EK 96, was scheduled to depart from Rome at 22:05. Our last stop would be Dubai, for a short visit to the investment courts of Dubai’s International Finance Centre.
We were now being driven to the airport. Only 30 minutes ago, we had been contemplating the Sistine Chapel in absolute awe. Michelangelo’s artistic genius plastered on magnificent frescoes. As we stood there, in deep wonder, we heard the sad news that Notre Dame of Paris was on fire.
Notre Dame is special; its construction lasted almost 200 years, from 1163 to 1345. It is considered a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture.
On the bus, Mishael and Maleehah were deeply engaged in a captivating argument. They were asking each other why such old buildings, arts and culture were important. After all, we live in a functional world, and our tallest and most fashionable buildings are no longer churches, temples of mosques. Nowadays, banks, sports stadiums and financial centres are the new churches, the drivers of life and entertainment.
Maleehah sighed and continued, perhaps we have lost part of our humanity, our sense of eternity. Human beings have the power of looking at things from an eternal perspective, removed from the here and now. We can think of future generations, impact them and mould them… Today we have the power of changing tomorrow, for the better or for the worse.
When the world focused all its energies on maximising profits and pleasure, banks became the most important buildings and stadiums the new Sunday temples. We stopped thinking like humans, and the person became an economic unit, useful only when productive. The old and the disable became disposable, euthanasia is becoming the norm, and little by little we judge people, institutions and governments only from a functional and financial point of view.
Old historical buildings, art, and music, Mishael added, remind us of our identity, who we are and why. They knit together different generations and give a sense of continuity to humanity. Mishael went on to explain how important Notre Dame was, not only for Christians, but also for the modern world, religious or not.
It is by no chance, Mishael and Maleehah concluded, great generations come to naught when their cultural heritage is lost, when their art, architecture and identity is tampered with.
They were joined by others, and here we had five or so young East African students, Christian and Muslims, engaged in an amazing analysis of culture, history and identity.
I told them about César Muñoz, who is an impressive music teacher. In his programme, ‘La Carta Musical’, César explained how Notre Dame of Paris impacted the development of modern Western music. In fact, if it was not for what happened in Notre Dame 800 years ago, it is probable that neither Beethoven nor the Beatles nor Beyoncé would have made music as they did.
Around 600 A.D., church music was the common music. Monks would sing together in unison, without accompaniment, without following a strict and harmonious rhythm.
César explains that sometime later, children were added to choirs. They sung at a higher pitch, which in musical terms was coined as octaves. The more octaves a singer can master the better he or she is. For example, Mariah Carey, mastered five octaves.
Some say that she ‘‘would introduce her band by singing at the same pitch as their instruments’’. Experts say that she was only beaten by Axl Rose, the singer of Guns N' Roses, who could sing just a few semitones under 6 octaves.
Later, in the 9th century, the organum appeared in France. It was a Medieval form of plainsong sung with at least one voice “added to create harmony, usually a perfect fifth or fourth”. The Notre Dame organum was “the most elaborate style of organum.”
Soon after, the singing in fifths came into play, with singers singing the same music but at different notes.
New developments happened around the year 1,000, when composers decided to leave a note stuck while the rest continued. The singer who stuck to that note was called ‘tenor’.
César Muñoz explains that all these developments were on the table, when humanity was only waiting for the right person and the right place that would give the great leap forward and change music forever. This came about with the first polyphonic compositions soon after the year 1,160. The person was Leonin, and the place was the Cathedral of Notre Dame, still in construction.
Notre Dame established the first polyphonic school. This revolution made music sound as it had never been heard before by anyone. César says that another musician, Perotin, later improved this work and composed, also at Notre Dame, a polyphonic version of a traditional church song, the “Viderunt Omnes”.
Finally, Gillaume de Machaut (died in 1377), created the great Medieval opus, the first mass attributed to one composer, “the Mass of Notre Dame”. César Muñoz explains that the Cathedral of Notre Dame, apart from being a unique architectural, historical and religious icon, was also the cradle of the fundamental principles harmony of Western music as we know it today.
As the Cathedral burnt down, we all concluded that a part of our humanity and history had been destroyed. Mishael and Maleehah’s had learnt in The Hague, Rome and Dubai that buildings, art, monuments and music bind generations and give a unique identity to each culture.
Our Emirates plane took off; Rome was now behind us. A few hours later, we found ourselves in an incredibly clean and modern city, with pearl gleaming gardens and roads which used to be a desert a few years ago. It was an unusually cold morning in Dubai, as we walked from our hotel to the courts, in the Financial Centre.
Nyakinyua broke the news to us, €600 million (Sh67.6 billion) had been fundraised in record time to reconstruct Notre Dame. She was happy, but the thought crossed my mind and I challenged them: Couldn’t that money be put to better use by feeding hungry children in the Central African Republic or Mozambique? In Syria? In Venezuela?
The answer was a resounding no. We had been with the executive director of the World Food Programme, Governor David Beasley, the day before. He had explained that he fundraises $24 million (Sh2.4 billion) a day to feed people in conflict areas. He spent one hour with us, so he jokingly said with a cheeky smile, “give me all you have, for you cost me $1 million ($100 million).”
It was clear to all, that the world not only needs food, which is certainly essential, but humanity is really improved by that intergenerational identity and culture, which give us identity, and pushes us to solidarity. This makes us truly human; people who aspire to higher and greater things.
Today’s inequalities are the product of our dehumanisation, a process where wealth accumulation seems the number one priority. Those old buildings, Mishael concluded, remind us that this is not the case. There are more important things that bind us together and should be the starting point to correct what man has corrupted.
The trip was over, but new ideas were still boiling inside every head. Hopefully, just like Notre Dame, these new horizons and aspirations will pass from generation to generation in our beautiful East Africa.
Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]