Let the Music Move You

Friday, 31 August, 2018

There is a strong connection between music and coffee and we couldn’t think of a better person to explore it than the legendary Lemuel Butler. Part 1 of 4 deals with how Lem used music to compliment his competition set at WBC and why he chose the specific tracks!

The beauty of music is that it is a universal language. Some would argue against this, but let me give you an example of what I mean. Take any composition from Frederic Chopin or from the John Coltrane Quartet (one of my favourite jazz quartets) and give the sheet music to an American musician, a French musician, a South African musician and a Japanese musician who only speak their native tongue and they will be able to play the sheet music as if they were written by someone in their country. It only requires one language to read music and it doesn’t require any language to embrace the emotion music creates. Music has the power to evoke feelings found at the core of the human experience. Crossing cultures, social and economic boundaries which otherwise hinder human connection, music reaches into the human evolutionary past connecting us.

Coffee, very much like music, creates a bridge between people. What drew me to the barista competition was that same human connection I found in the coffee shop. People from all walks of life; socioeconomic diversities, ethnic diversities and cultural diversities in one space enjoying each other’s company and conversation over a cup of coffee. I witnessed that same connection of people from all over the world when I volunteered at the 2011 World Barista Competition in Bogota, it was electrifying. I had competed before, but never been a part of something where I could see the bigger picture of how coffee works.

Let’s put music and coffee together in a competition format. What do we create? I can only speak for myself, but what I create in my presentation is an experience; a journey into my life experiences with people and coffee. Think about how music can evoke emotion, for example in a movie or documentary score. The music is integral at building suspense and adding tone to the images you’re absorbing.  I begin with an introduction that connects me with my guests (the judges). The introduction varies from competition to competition, but what I look for is how I felt during months of practice and what message or thesis I want to defend with a 15 minute presentation using coffee beverages; roasting information and the tireless dedication to farming all help in the music selection. Once a connection with my guests is established in the introduction, they can now trust me to take them on an incredible 15 minute taste, olfactory and auditory journey where I can share coffee, but more than “just” coffee; a sensory symphony. Music allows me to start and create an emotional ride of upbeat tempos and downtempo melodies where I tie in the farmer’s emotions through her dedication to her life’s work; the roaster’s dedication to his craft and my guests past experiences with coffee I may not even know. The conclusion of my presentation is always my favourite way of bringing it all together and when I call time not only do I feel wonderful but my guests have enjoyed the journey where time stood still just long enough to bridge a connection between farmer, roaster, barista and guest. As a competition barista, I select a final track that is suitable for the culmination of all the orchestrated emotions in the presentation; the farmer’s hard work, the message, the music, the coffee. I’ll use my 2016 WBC Track List as an example.

1. Ancestros - Los Dioses Hablan

2. Jamie xx - The Rest is Noise

3. De La Soul - Pain

4. Cecile Kayirebwa - Urumbaby'ingwe

For me it has always been the first and last track on the playlist that are the most important in the presentation. The songs in the middle were always a fun bridge between the two.

The first track on my set list for the 2016 WBC was a song entitled Los Dioses Hablan from a local band in Huila, Colombia called Ancestros. I was on an origin trip with a number of barista champions sponsored by Cafe Imports in 2015. The trip was a true inspiration. After one of many a full days of farm visits we had dinner together in Huila. The 6 piece band Ancestros set up and began playing. The tunes were incredible; an added soundtrack to an unforgettable journey with incredible people who would inspire me to compete again. After dinner, I chatted with the band as best I could with my horrible Spanish and purchased their CD. I wasn't able to listen to the CD until after I returned stateside and when I did the music transported me back to the emotions from the experience in Colombia. I continued to listen to the CD during preparation for the 2016 United States Barista Competition and later after winning I listened to Ancestros during my trip to Panama to cup through 35 lots of Jose Gallardo's coffee to find what I wanted to use in the 2016 World Barista Championship. The first track, Los Dioses Hablan creates an emotional bridge to a magical place and time in Panama where I rediscovered what draws me to certain coffees; unforgettable acidity from delicate coffee varieties and sweetness from elevation. Sitting at 1900 meters above sea level on Jose Gallardo's farm Finca Nuguo watching clouds slowly drift into the valley from the Pacific is a moment I can only relive through the song Los Dioses Hablan. I used that track in my intro to help me connect with my guest judges forming a bridge of trust between us to help move us into a new experience with coffee something similar to that personal discovery I had in Panama.

Track 2 was from Jamie XX called The Rest is Noise. I love how this track keeps me in a wonderful mood. The title was appropriate too, because the rest of our surroundings at the competition just melted away as "just noise" allowing the important part of my presentation, the coffee experience to be enjoyed to background of uplifting music. The hand clapping in the song always fills me with positive energy allowing me and my guests to drop all walls of inhibitions and enjoy the ride.

I positioned De La Soul third on the playlist because it is a party song with an upbeat tempo. The name of the song is Pain and the artists describe how pain makes it/us better. I've always had a philosophy of "that which does not kills us, motivates us". Preparing for months to be judged by some of the best palates in the world can be painfully stressful, but critically motivating. Pain by De La Soul is a reminder of that and within the presentation it adds good vibes to what could be a boring section of the presentation. I will always have a rhythm to my presentations that follow a musical pattern of up tempo, down tempo, up tempo, down tempo or some variation similar to keep the presentation moving and judges engaged.

I concluded with Cecile Kayirebwa's Urumbaby'ingwe because her voice is filled with years of emotion that created a canvas where I could paint my conclusion; the final signature beverage the  journey back from the experience, back across that bridge safe and sound and filled with something new. It was my first and possibly my last time on the world stage and I wanted to leave the judges with something to remember; a reconnection to coffee through my presentation.

Stay connected my friends. 

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