Senior Spotlight: Shirley Deane

Senior Spotlight: Shirley Deane
August 02
00:00 2013

Our psychology professor at NYU had asked what we wanted in life. Our class was mostly girls. This was the early 50s when lots of boys our age were stationed overseas. Most girls wanted a rich husband and a stunning home. I didn’t want a home. I knew I wouldn’t own it; a home would own me, and I wanted freedom. Not to have a ball in life, but freedom to live from the inside-out. I had two goals: to see the world, and find meaning.

You need money, classmates said. I didn’t have money, but I wouldn’t need it; I had an accordion. Not a polka-type squeeze-box — no “oompah-pahs” for me. Just a quiet, mellow, costly accordion with hand-made reeds and shifts on treble and bass labeled flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, bass and more. Microphones were installed on treble and bass sides, and on top for vocals. I played jazz like the jazz sound of Brubeck. I played classics like “Scheherazade” while narrating bits of “The Arabian Nights.” “Once upon a time, there lived a princess…” I played TV, radio, and Manhattan night clubs. If I could do it in New York, I could do it in France, Italy, Spain, the Arab world, India, the Congo.

I was no “tourist”; I wouldn’t stay at Hilton hotels nor at any hotel on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I’d check into a small hotel in the Arab quarters on the Left Bank — places that see few tourists. I’d work my way through Africa, have “jam sessions” with pygmies and Watussis in the Congo — men who beat out rhythms on djembe drums. “That’s nuts,” my parents, classmates and friends said. I didn’t listen because I wanted my heart to govern my life, not my mind or others’ minds. I wanted to live from the “inside-out.”

My first challenge was to cross the Atlantic without paying fare. I phoned shipping lines but all of them booked musicians a year in advance. One night, I was playing at Jack Dempsey’s nightclub on Broadway. While I beat out “Lullaby of Birdland,” three young blonde-haired men walked in, listened intently, and introduced themselves as Norwegian musicians on the Oslofjord, a Norwegian ship docked in New York for a week. They asked if I’d play a jam session on the ship when I finished. We jammed on board from midnight to 4 a.m., and the next morning, I signed a contract to perform on the cruise to Scandinavia. I insisted the contract should read, “One way only.”

I disembarked in Oslo and began my world journey. Forty-two years would pass before I returned to America. I played through Europe and Africa, performing for the U.S. Army and Air Force in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Ethiopia. I performed on radio & in concerts in Norway, on TV in Stockholm & Vienna, in nightclubs in South Africa and the Belgian Congo. I bought a Land Rover in the U.K. in 1961, and became the first woman to drive alone from London to Kathmandu. In Pakistan, I met a man… (Why did I keep making the same mistakes?)

At a Himalayan ashram in India, I studied yoga and meditation, experiencing for the first time, dimensions beyond body and mind, and finding the meaning I had sought. For a year, I managed a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal, then returned to South Africa “to do my bit” during apartheid’s worst years. Though I’m white, I got insulted to see a book entitled, Who’s Who in South Africa without one black face in it, and I decided to write South Africa’s first Who’s Who of Black South Africans. That took four years during which I almost lost my life through the apartheid government’s harassment, but Oxford University Press published my book in 1978.

In 2000, I returned to America and embarked on a memoir that took eight years to complete. Press53 in Winston-Salem published it in December, 2010. My editor entitled it An Unreasonable Woman because of a remark George Bernard Shaw had made: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I’ve been told that I have abundant chutzpah, but it doesn’t take chutzpah to live from the inside-out. It takes unshakeable belief in oneself, and deep respect for the yearning in one’s heart.


Author, Shirley Deane (whose nickname is Dalia!)



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