Travels with Bruce Cockburn: Into the Soul of this World of Wonders

By Cathleen Falsani 4-24-2009

There's roads and there's roads
And they call, can't you hear it?
Roads of the earth
And roads of the spirit . . .

- Bruce Cockburn's "Child of the Wind"

Mali. Mozambique. Central America. The Himalayas. Kosovo.

I've never been to any of these exotic locales, but I feel as if I have because of the more than 30 years of music made by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.

He is, in a very real way, a citizen of the world. Apart from being one of the most accomplished and innovative contemporary guitar masters, Cockburn is a consummate storyteller, and for as long as I can remember, his musical stories have taken this kid from the suburbs to the far reaches of our world of wonders.

I last caught up with Cockburn 18 months ago in Bozeman, Montana, when he was at the tail end of a lengthy tour. Not long after, the singer left for a long holiday, first to Argentina (where he planned to learn Spanish and how to tango) and then to Nepal.

More than 20 years ago, Cockburn traveled to Nepal on a fact-finding mission with the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, an international development organization that helps communities in the developing world create ecologically sustainable agricultural projects among the desperately poor. Cockburn has been involved with USC Canada's work since 1970, the year I was born.

In late November 2007, Cockburn, now in his 60s, returned with the USC Canada team to see what progress has been made in the generation since he'd first visited Nepal, a longtime monarchy that is now the world's youngest republic, snuggled in the Himalayas between China, Tibet, and India.

This time, Cockburn took a film crew on a two-week journey where he traveled far beyond thriving Katmandu to the remote, largely Buddhist Humla district to visit some of the organic farming and micro-investment programs begun with the committee's help.

The result is a beautiful and moving documentary film called "Return to Nepal," which was released late last year. (Click here to watch clips or order a DVD.)

Nepal is one of those magical places of my imagination that conjures images of flapping Buddhist prayer flags, smiling women and children swathed in colorful layers of wool, silk and cotton; prayer bells ringing in the background as herds of sheep wend their way through the foothills of the Himalayas.

But Nepal has not been as peaceful as my imagination would have it be. Throughout my lifetime it has been rocked by political and military turmoil, unrest that I first learned about as a teenager, in the lyrics of Cockburn's music. In "Return to Nepal," which Cockburn narrates, the hardships of Nepal aren't ignored, but they never eclipse the beauty of the spirit of the Nepalese people and their mystical land.

"Step off the tourist path, and you find a different land altogether. It is to this hidden Nepal that I am traveling," Cockburn says. On his 1987 journey he "discovered a country that is beautiful, complex and desperately poor. Wherever we went, I was moved by the Nepalese resilience and by their efforts to improve their lives. So now the winds have blown me back here to see how things have changed."

The film opens with a close-up of Cockburn's hands strumming his guitar. His music -- some familiar tunes from his 22 albums, such as my favorite, "Child of the Wind," and new tunes he wrote as he journeyed through his return trip to Nepal that he calls "Humla Meditations."

Cockburn's music, informed by his travels as well as his deep spirituality, has shaped my sense of the world. His words continue to inspire my wonder and wanderlust.

There's something heartening about watching images of this gray-headed troubadour tromping up skinny mountain paths or sitting blissfully in the shop of a Nepalese musician with a brass singing bowl on his head -- just listening.

As we get older, some of us grow jaded and turn inward. But not Cockburn. His curiosity and sense of connection with the world around him -- even on the other side of the globe -- seem only to have intensified over the years.

How Cockburn takes what he has seen, heard, and experienced and turns it into ageless music -- music of the heart really -- is a blessing that will live on long after his travels are over.

Last month, Cockburn released a double album of live, acoustic music called "Slice O Life" and it is just that: sound pictures painted by a master observer, in love with the beauty and the grief of our global village.

If you've ever had the chance to see Cockburn play live, you know what a transcendent experience that can be. If you've never heard him play live, "Slice O Life" is the next best thing.

As I listened to the double album, I felt as if I was a traveling companion walking with the great Canadian bard, from his backyard in Ontario to the killing fields of Central America, to the bush of Africa, the sacred mountains of Nepal and beyond.

In these uncertain times, it's easy to get caught up in the troubles in our own backyards. Cockburn's music and storytelling are a welcome escape and powerful reminders of our place in this world -- and the next.

. . . The best roads of all
Are the ones that aren't certain
One of those is where you'll find me
Till they drop the big curtain.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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