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The Citizen

Songs from Cambridge

By John DiGiovanni, Culture Writer, MPP ‘12

“Son, I reckon it’s a song you need.” Late Sunday in Harvard Square, illuminated by street lights but beyond that all dark, this thin voice rises up from behind, a welcome interruption to an unsettling life-contemplating meditation. I wheel around to find a weathered musician, guitar in hand. Before I can speak, he smiles knowingly and begins to play a song – perhaps one of his own. With each note, each disarming word, the stubborn reservations hiding in the shadows of my imagination – fears of living in a new place, embarking on another chapter – these things fade. In their place, inspiration. For an education, for a vibrant city, for service, all captured along the front lines of an unexpected song. When it is over, I dig into my pocket for some thanks, but the musician stops me. “Not for me,” he murmurs, already moving on towards another group of revelers. “For something more.”

The city of Cambridge has energy. It offers a mix of art, intellect, and innovation, and music is at the core of its distinct culture. Music to welcome, calm, and excite. There are songs that twist up dirty stairwells from basement bars and spill out raw and purposefully onto Massachusetts Avenue. There are sandled singers inspiring ideas that roam the lawns of Harvard Square, and there are violinists slowing footsteps near T-stops. During my first month in Cambridge, I have been overwhelmed by the eclectic music that fills the veins of this place and continues to define my experiences.

From my first day of orientation, when my class ambassadors rushed in singing Beyonce and dancing terribly but unabashedly, the importance of music – in its charming irreverence as much as its insight – has been apparent at HKS. Before I knew it, my new classmates and I were being escorted by bagpipe through Harvard Yard and conducting daytime (and largely sober, surprisingly) dance-offs to French electronic music while boat-touring the Charles. Our introduction to a new school and a new city threatened to be nerve-wracking, uncomfortable. Instead, our MPA class seemed to click almost immediately thanks to the adaptive and music-laden culture of this community.

Last weekend, a large group of MPAs drove out to Cape Cod for some east coast R&R. The trip was refreshing, full of beaches, tennis, and sporadic political conversations. Yet, my strongest memory is born of music, as explained in my closing journal entry from that weekend:

Deep into the night, this group plays music. Anchored by an Australian guitar player and man-made cardboard percussion, new singers are everywhere around this room. Of different countries, backgrounds, beliefs – but there is no compromise in this orchestration. Only Yes, held up by voices that collide around childhood songs that we recreate. Here is a way, here is some music of ours. Within this harmony, we grow to understand each other’s devotion to this institution. To service. Not for ourselves. Not for me. For something more.