Communitas

Tom Maxwell
12 min readAug 7, 2020

A Musical Case for the Genius of Community

“Jumping Jive” by Norman Lewis, 1942

Think of your favorite music scene. Was it the punk wonderland of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s? Or maybe Seattle’s grunge of the 90s? It could be the jazz, blues, and swing that came out of Harlem in the 1930s. As soon as you have a scene in mind, you’ve probably already thought of two or three of your favorite musicians who emerged from it.

We tend to think of scenes as defined by the extraordinary artists they produced. I think it’s the other way around. “There are often places in the world,” composer and producer Brian Eno once said, “where it’s suddenly quite easy to do something quite brilliant.” I believe this is true — even self-evident — and answering the resulting question “Why?” will lead to a rethinking of the nature of individual talent and communal creativity. Are we just fortunate that highly creative people tend to bunch up in certain locales at certain points in history, or is there something else going on? I think that there is: these famous scenes, and so many more, constitute a kind of social and creative ecosystem.

Indeed, this kind of community is like a garden. There are the beautiful flowers, of course, which command most people’s attention — but in order for those flowers to grow there must also be fertile soil, pollinators, earthworms, and the right amounts of rain, shade, and sun. By the same token, a successful creative community must not only have its stars, but also its own climate of mutual support, including venues of expression and inspiration, lesser known but no less important artistic collaborators, social connectors, affordability, collective identity, permeable social boundaries, and friendly competition.

I call this ecosystem a “communitas.” The word is a Latin noun, “referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community.” In cultural anthropology, communitas is used to describe a group of people experiencing “liminality” together. Liminality, according to anthropologist Julia Gluesing, “can refer to the state of inbetweenness, or to the phase in a change process where one has given up old ways of seeing and behaving but has not yet replaced them with new ones. It is a time of possibility.” So, to me, communitas is a useful word to describe the soul of a community in the process of reinventing…

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Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.