Between Storms

Composed on the flights between Bulgaria and Aotearoa/NZ, my first ever bi-lingual (English/Bulgarian) tune – a musing on meetings, between cultures and generations, between souls and skins, and on the instrument of language.  (Recorded spontaneously during a midnight storm, in a little hut, on a hill, somewhere in the South Pacific.)

How it came to be?

Kilometers above the clouds, in a great bird of steel, packed neatly in rows, with hundreds of other souls, it is easy to blur the sense of belonging – in terms of location, climate and fragrance that is – but we cannot escape our histories and our imaginings. The question of cultural identity begs for detail – these traditions, so rich, have been forged through repetition, through an age old distill, whereby exotic influence meets the ferment of isolation. We need the cross-pollination for energy, but we need the hermetic aspect for quality. Each in their own time? Is it a process we can guide?

In Bulgaria I have witnessed a divide between those who reject the said Folklore Music as a pure product of the communist era, as a distortion and appropriation of village song for the representation of the party, as a practice now stuck in time and no longer of any use to the Bulgaria that must catch up for lost (iron curtain) time… And then there are the others.  Others, who rejoice in the vibrant, profound, nuanced and unparalleled prowess of the rhythms, the ornaments and the unique arrangements.  Others, who delight in the lush colors and sacred patterns, through which they breathe the mojo of their ancestors.  Others, who vow to guide a spirited, thriving art-form into a healthy future.

I came here because of it. This Folklore. And the most improbable spirits gather to it from all around the world, like moths to a light. Some of the most bewitching singers I have met in Bulgaria exude a devotion to spread this musical richness globally, naturally, and preferably, person to person. When they come to understand the work I am doing, they generally tell me they are thrilled that I am helping to share their culture. I do, however, fear my own ignorance and feel a duty to honor the quality of the work by continually seeking to deepen my understanding and my own practice. Ironically, it is through sharing it that parts of it get integrated or understood – through performing it with my vocal trio ACAPOLLiNATiONS, through teaching aspects of it in my World of Voice Workshops in NZ, and through composing and recording original works inspired by it, as I am doing for my upcoming album.

Some Westerners, blown away by the power of the traditional Bulgarian song (which has undeniably been forged through generations of passionate, war fraught, tough mountain people), and intrigued by the timbre and spirit that it solicits in my voice, have encouraged me to record some… to be able share it further than in my live gigs… I feel awkward about this. It doesn’t belong to me. But perhaps I belong to it.  And so my whole perspective on cultural belonging begins to shift – as I feel words coming out first in Bulgarian (followed by the curious need to translate them back into English!), as I effortlessly shake my head to agree, as I hear new song ideas in 7 or 11 or 13, and as I write my first lyrics in this new ancient tongue… smalls steps on a long loving road.

The Bulgarians colleagues I have played my new tunes to, relate to them,  tap along and feel reflected, yet are taken elsewhere. The feedback has been luminous.  But the road is treacherous. Do we protect, preserve, guard the authentic forms? Do we share, morph, re-interpret and speak through them, with our own accent? Or is there a way to make a savvy, sacred blend of both schools?

An accent. We all have. But we only hear it when we’ve been away, when we meet another, different. And this is the beauty of our motion – to reach out to each other and be changed for it, but simultaneously to dig deep and slow and to pay our dues to the ancestors – for without their breath, we are nothing, and without our song, they are gone.

On so, on that great steel bird, between Bulgaria to Aotearoa, I watched ‘El Olivo’, the beautiful story of a 2000 year old olive tree and the wound that its sale creates in a Spanish family, and their soul journey to try to bring it home.  All these musings interwove, and I heard something, kilometers above the clouds…

BETWEEN STORMS

I let you in, just enough to feel the breath between us
I let you in, just enough to be known
Put me to sleep between the sheets of our ice and snow
I’m willing to meet between the words where the silence grows

Two thousand years, just enough to feel the breath between us
Two thousand years, just enough to be known
Put me to sleep between the roots and the earth around
I’m willing to meet upon the leaves where the light is found

дай ми да спя
между теб и снега
дай ми да летя
в ръцете ти, да видя

че, луничките ти са звезди
на бели равни ливади
на чаршафа …

там се срещат сънищата ни
и между тях се движи душата
на зората …

Listen to BETWEEN STORMS and other musings: www.soundcloud.com/tui-mamaki

winter-lights-square

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ARRIVAL

26/9/14

The distinct sensation of being a jellyfish – carried by the currents, tumbled by the waves, exhibiting a generally transparent personality, with not a word to say. I have become an ambivalent witness of the lights passing through me and frequently quiver with salty emotion.  My dear partner returned to Aotearoa/NZ yesterday. This singular year begins…

7/10/14

Stepping out from my school, each turn is a cobbled cross-country exercise. Large, irregular and ancient stones carry high-heeled women, walking as if they were crossing a river ford (romance is augmented when there is a man’s arm to hold onto…) Aside from this riveting spectacle, the narrow streets, misty today, lead into gardens, churches, galleries, houses for music and their courtyards, where roses hang their heads, heavy with rain, where words emerge triumphantly from a child’s mouth, “o, чадър! как се казваш?” (Oh, umbrella! What’s your name?) And so, a grandfather chuckles, while the milk-bearing mother cat streaks across the way, furtively seizing her moment…

Plovdiv AmphitheaterFilip-Kutev-EnsembleThe roman amphitheater, onto which the academy opens, is home to grand performances, two of which I have been lucky enough to catch. The famous Trakia and Filip Kutev Ensembles spread their brilliant wares even though it rained. My favorite acappella quartet, Eva Quartet, will sing in a music-house at end of the month. Classical music is also in high regard and I am learning to sort my outings by preference as the West European classics ‘à la Bulgare’ have markedly less spine-chilling watts for me, than the gripping arrangements of local polyphony.

With Plovdiv vying for some “cultural capital of the year” European title in 2019, council money is lavished on swish ruin illuminations, stars beneath our feet, and plenty of concerts / presentations, in what seems to be an extra long warm up, while just a street or two back, large old houses are in ruin and graffiti reigns…

My-VistaFacadeNevertheless, praise to the muted sound of the main pedestrian street at night – how calm a city can be with the sweet absence of cars! I’ve only been in one since I am here. The intercity buses are brilliant.

I am renting a room in a house built at the beginning of last century. Sharing no language with my landlady, I discovered after some time that I was not flatting with a fiery artist, but with her nifty mother. With the pension being but 200lev per month (not enough to live on) pennies are pinched: cold-water dishes and shower water heated just enough for one at a time, menus consisting mostly of potatoes, beans and tomatoes, as they are in season. Cigarettes are cheap, so those don’t count. I’m keeping up with a little more than spuds myself, and feasting on olives, goats cheese, dark bread, walnuts, honey…

The floorboards are pretty wild to say the least, some windows don’t open and each door has its own voice. The bathroom and kitchen are like caves that you climb into, built hugging the shape of the mountain. Because yes, the charm is that I am at the foot of one of Plovdiv’s 5 hills, each rising abruptly out of the pure plain.

West-from-SahatThese rockin’ bumps are home to roman ruins, minarets from the Ottoman time turned bell-tower, humongous soviet style statues left over from socialist times, clusters of satellite dishes, prolific graffiti on rock, kissing youth, pre-teens having their first cider out of school on a Tuesday, dogs walking their masters, the occasional lost soul – monologuing, and many scratchy bushes and trees that I don’t know the name of…

I made my first geranium cuttings and, lo and behold, despite it being autumn, they are budding on my windowsill.  I practice yoga facing the south window (where the warmth is!) and have already lost count of the yellow leaves falling. They are swept away, daily, by the Roma sweepers… Yes, all the sweeper women, with their brush brooms, are darker eyed, darker skinned, and have experienced the weather… I have been shocked by more than one vehement comment on the subject of this unofficial ethnic hierarchy.

My anticipated health sacrifice – to spend a year in a place where they smoke madly indoors, in search of music – is null and void.  Three years ago the Bulgarian people passed the no-smoking-indoors law, which is a total blessing, considering that they are 2nd in the world (smokers per capita) just after Greece and just before Serbia… one can sense the Philip Morris mantel sweeping steadily across the landscape.

10/10/14

There has been more than one administrative riddle and it has taken a good two weeks to understand my timetable and attend the right classes as the right time! The road was not paved – so to speak, and the phenomenal ability humans have to misunderstand each other in normal life, was visibly augmented by our language/cultural barriers. But school is beautiful – see one of the back doors and the steps of the singer’s building below…

School-DoorSingers-BuildingNow with a whole 8 afternoons of language class under my belt, I forage into conversation and just try to keep “спокоино” (calm) when it goes over my head – which is usually by the 2nd or 3rd sentence. There are some angels undercover here, who take the time to smile into my eyes, listen patiently and find words in their broken English to help.

The all female Folklore Choir makes a sound you wouldn’t believe. This, being the main attraction for me, ironically, was the class I wasn’t given information about for two weeks. I could hear them down the corridors but didn’t dare barge in, mid-rehearsal. All is well that ends (or continues) well. I got my dose of shivers today and have a pile of scores to catch up on, with the double task of learning text that doesn’t mean anything to me… yet! I am a sponge, I am sponge, I am sponge…  Here is a short sample of their rehearsal today in Plovdiv. Those of you who know me will understand why I am in pure bliss at the notion of soaking in this for a year.

Otherwise, the dear Prof. Dora Hristova welcomes me into her vocal ensembles on Thursdays – singing in trio to quintet formation. Such a blessing to study intimately with this experienced woman, the conductor of the LMVB (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) choir itself! She is bright, generous and inclusive.

The third strand of my study, individual Folklore singing, has opened up its share of tasks with 5 songs already – lavishly ornamented, of various odd-meters, I am encouraged to maintain a particularly clear and forward vowel resonance, and to use short percussive consonants – which is extra funny when there are 4 of them in a row! The 7 distinct regions of Folklore song in Bulgaria will be revealed to me as we go. For now I have 3 tunes from Trakia and 2 from Rodopi on the boiler…