Over the last ten days in the village of Santu Lussurgiu (Sardigna), horse-related activities have ramped up. Teenage boys, men and children as young as four and five are seen, riding horses through the narrowest of village streets, to the grocery store, to the bar, and back home again. At least twice a day, a group of 2-3 young men on tall, muscular horses (Anglo-Arab-Sardinian, to be exact) pass right below my balcony on via Nuoro. I’ve always been told that the village deeply loves their horses, but I’ve never seen or felt it in quite this way. Yesterday, I found out why.
At 6:55 last night, I was asked by the owners of the local market where I shop if I was going to “l’Ardia.” Not knowing what that was, I said I didn’t know, and they told me, “go over there, to Piazza San Pietro. If you leave now, you can still catch it in time.” So I did, and at 7 pm I arrived at Piazza San Pietro to find a crowd of people crunched in the corner of the piazza, and laurel branches placed around the perimeter of the entire piazza.
A loud firecracker sounds to signal the festivities, and the next thing I know, a stampede of twenty five horses come racing through the piazza, within feet of the crowd. The horses are ornately decorated, each with a gold star on its chest, and riders are dressed up, too. Social status through dress is also clearly delineated, and the three men at the front of the line (the “Priors” of the procession) are each wearing suits with their riding breeches. The air is now filled with the scent of laurel leaves and smoke.
They line up, in a single file line against the wall of myrtle branches and adjacent to the church of San Pietro. Since this is part of the village festival known as “Festa del Sacre Cuore” (Festival of the Sacred Heart) and part of the annual liturgical calendar, the Catholic priest blesses the men, throwing holy water on the horses from a dropper as he walks by each of them, says a prayer for everyone, and another firecracker is lit as the horses roll their eyes and become antsy. Then, just like that, they take off running, coming through the narrow piazza three more times before returning home to their stables on the perimeter of the village.
An hour later, I hear an accordion playing, loudly and fully, from somewhere in the village. I walk downstairs to explore where it’s coming from, and the sound stops. It starts again, but this time it’s in earnest, playing multi-metered Sardinian dances, one faster than the next. Each time I enter a piazza, it gets louder, and each time I enter a narrow street, it becomes quieter. I’m confused, and can’t seem to source the sound. Then, I look up at the white Jesus statue at the rim of the volcano, which sits at the complete top of the village. There, far away, I spot a small speck: it’s the accordion player, leaning against the statue, with the entire acoustic bowl of the village to amplify the sound of the instrument. Surrounding him, I see swaying bodies, and realize that a dance, and possibly a “festa,” are taking place up there, replete with “balli sardi” (Sardinian traditional dances). I fall asleep to the vibrant sound of accordion music, streaming through my wooden window shutters.
The next day is the final procession, signaling the end of the Festa. We walk, mostly women, singing and reciting parts of the liturgy in Latin (“Christo, abbia pietá di me”), with a statue of Christ carried on a stretcher at the front, from the Piazza di San Pietro, and circle the entire village, returning an hour later to the same Piazza, where the saint is returned to its resting place by the altar until next year’s renewal ceremony. More firecrackers are lit in the center of the piazza, and everyone heads home to prepare their dinner, attend to children and family, or take their evening walk around the village.
Each time I return to Italy, I am struck, on the one hand, by how chaotic much of daily life can feel, especially when it comes to city driving, and, on the other hand, the keen sense of ritual and mindfulness that exists around food. This contrasts so sharply with how I’ve been raised as a North American, where food is often wedged in between fixed time commitments and planned activities. In southern Italy in particular, even daily activities are generally specified not so much around fixed clock time, but around their relationship to a mealtime, and nowhere in southern Italy is this sense of ritual more distinct than around the daily noontime meal known as “pranzo.”
Yesterday, we drove to the village of San Paolo Albanese, a community tucked in the “instep” of southern Italy’s boot in the region known as Basilicata, surrounded by the largest national park in Italy, Il Parco Nazionale di Pollino. This is the smallest village in the region (population 328), and it was founded in 1534 as a village of ethnic Albanians who fled here following the incursion of the Ottoman Empire in Albania and Greece. Village residents speak both Italian and Albanian: the version of Albanian they speak is called Arbëresh, and is essentially a sixteenth century version of Albanian, crystallized in time, transmitted orally for almost five centuries in this village. After visiting a hat shop and a museum, we were escorted to the kitchen of Nicoletta Sas for pranzo.
We were served southern Italian staples such as fresh pecorino cheese, prosciutto, and large chunks of tender semolina bread for the “aperitivo,” grilled salted eggplant under olive oil and garlic for our side (“contorni”), and a red house wine in a decanter to wash it down. But our main dish, a “pepperonata” with red and green peppers, sweet Italian sausage, garlic and onion and then coated in egg yolk, and the skinned, salted zucchini in spaghetti-like strands that we had for a side dish were, according to our chef Nicoletta, “puro Albanese” (pure Albanian). In fact, after our appetizer and side dishes, there was so much food, we “skipped” both the first course (pasta) and second course (meat), and jumped straight to desert (fresh apricots) and coffee.
After the meal, Nicoletta’s song offered us a house made “grappa” (a type of distilled wine or vernaccia) on the house, and we shared stories. Tall, slender, with pale skin and jet black hair, he is also, it turns out, a politician, a lawyer, and a former coordinator of study abroad programs for students at Italian universities traveling to Albania, Turkey, and surrounding countries. After twenty years in Rome, he decided to return to live in San Paolo, now commuting twice a week back and forth to Rome to work, a drive of some 4 ½ hours, each way. As he described this choice: “In Rome, you’re just a number. In San Paolo, you’re a person.”
We then switched to discussing food, and the significance of not just eating as a mechanical function of caloric intake, but of really eating. “Once a day,” he said, “we eat.” Once a day, he went on to explain, the onlything we are expected to do is eat, in ritualized fashion, and in community with others. It relaxes you, it’s the fixed point in your day, and everything else is arranged around that fixed point, symbolically and logistically. Returning to the topic of his decision to move back to San Paolo and begin the commuting live between country and city, he ended by saying three times, with a heightened expression of tenderness and joy on his face: “E qui, c’é la mamma chi cuoca” (and anyway, here, there’s the mother that cooks for you.)
Thank you to: Nicoletta Sas, the comune of San Paolo Albanese, and the restaurant, “Il Giardino delle Rose,” for their hospitality and for permission to share these photographs.
What does it mean to write songs in community? What does it mean to offer a three-day long songwriting intensive in a rural, census-designated place on the Navajo Nation? What does it mean to do this across a tremendous age-span (ages 8-45), camping together on an open mesa with no running water when reservation winds exceed 50 miles per hour, your tent poles snap, your tent rips, and two cows are in heat in the corral adjacent to where your morning writing sessions take place? What does it mean when songwriters from across the United States and the Navajo Nation gather to collaboratively write songs about a specific place, and then the individuals that have grown up in that place hear those songs, and laugh, giggle, and tear up in response to songs being offered and written only hours before?
I think it means learning to accommodate, for participants and facilitators, across a vast range of ages, abilities, life experiences, food preferences, social classes, and modus operandi learned in sometimes vastly different ways and places. It means embracing the extremes on both ends of creative process that arise in settings where there is virtually no buffer between our songs and ourselves; it means incorporating the sound of the rusty hinge you heard flapping all night the night before, or the baby goat bleating in the sheep corral, or the sound of the post hole digger as you dig a hole to erect the cedar posts for a shade house (cha’a’oh), or the two bulls having a territorial dispute over a two-day period by your fenceline, directly into your songs as a means of channeling these experiences and connecting with others through both the beauty and the challenge of this place known as To Sikání (Carson Mesa), Navajo Nation. It means offering morning yoga workshops tailored to a wide range of body abilities, clothing styles and comfort levels in a hooghan with sun streaming in through an east facing door as we practice, and explaining we can all keep our faith intact and still sing along to a Hindi chant with a south Indian (Carnatic) Sruti box as our pedal point, because singing in community fosters connection, evinces joy and stimulates endorphins after a rough night’s sleep and prepares our bodies and minds for another day of intercultural cowriting. And it means, for songwriting facilitators, using a trauma-informed approach, in which self-care and choice are practiced, first and foremost.
It also means showing thanks for our hospitality through assisting your site host in erecting new cedar posts for a brand-new shade house as part of yearly maintenance on a working Diné ranch, and writing a song later that afternoon that documents the high points of that experience, including the discovery of a horse’s hip-bone in one of the holes you’ve dug. And it means trying to find a balance between offering fresh, vegetarian and slow-food meals and delicious, fat-and carb-rich options such as Navajo tacos and egg, cheese and sausage casserole, because food is associated with comfort and a sense of cultural identity and home, and because comfort and solace is paramount in an environment where you are away from home and you feel as if you are battling the elements (and sometimes yourself) almost every second of the day.
It means being open to new experiences and the new experiences of others, such as having an eight-year-old from the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation join us in our first group co-write, ever (“The Distant Sounds of Morning”; recording forthcoming), see him go from being a yoga- and songwriting skeptic on day 1 to singing lines from songs just written, and being disappointed when yoga isn’t offered on the final day of the workshop. And it means seeing him light up each time he hears his mom sing her freshly written, soulful and original songs in for community members and songwriters, each evening.
As the workshop cofacilitator, it also means carrying songs with you, from year to year, as a form of community memory, and being prepared when a community member requests a recording of a specific song written by two songwriters such as “Marks in the Sand” (Ryan Lee & Lars Simonsen, copyright 2017), heard once in live performance at the final concert one year before, and locating that song so they can listen to it on their way to work in the mornings.
do*If songwriting is a form of storytelling that fosters intercultural communication and the ability to feel heard, songs also offer a powerful documentation of that exchange, however brief. A three minute song contains an entire world: the worlds shared in the songs written on Carson Mesa are place-specific, embedded in the harsh beauty and startling expansiveness of this landscape, and seek to accommodate the differences participants bring to a given co-write, using these differences as fodder for tightly-crafted, culturally-informed and place-inflected songs that, by definition, could be written nowhere else in quite the same way. Ahéhee,’ t’áá anoltso.
Songs from the Rez is grateful to the late Andrew Bia family, and members of the greater Many Farms community, and the Arizona Humanities Council for their support.
*Any views expressed expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent those
of the National Endowment for the Humanities.*
One of the things that fascinates me most about the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu, Sardinia (Italy) is how sounds and images of Americanness circulate. From Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn posters in all the local bars, to a layered strawberry pastry sold in those bars called “l’Americana,” to performances by Sardinian musicians of “Cotton Eyed Joe” on the village piazza on Saturday night, strategic threads of “l’America,” mostly from times past, are everywhere. There is even a phrase in the village, “America zichi” [American wealth] which refers to the ability of Sardinians who emigrated to “l’America” (both north and south) who were able to stop eating orzo—a less nutritious grain—and begin eating the coveted and more life-sustaining wheat grown in America.
Then, two weeks ago, I released a video with a young accordion player from Santu Lussurgiu of a song we wrote with his relative Giuseppe Scano, “Il Paese dei Brividi” (The Place that Gives You Goosebumps”) as an homage to the beauty and sense of welcome that I and so many other outsiders experience upon entering it for the first time. Crucially, however, the song is written from their perspective, emphasizing the things they hope might first be noticed and appreciated in the village, thus giving me key insights into how they themselves see the village of their birth. In the song, I sing and play rhythm guitar, and the accordion player Matteo Scano plays a blues-inflected harmonica introduction and then lets loose with beautiful, cascading harmonica “fills” and solos throughout the rest of the song. The song itself was inspired by two Sardinian melodies, one a Sardinian ballad called “passu torrau” recalled in the chorus, and the other from the Catholic liturgy sung in Sardo, “Deus ti Salvet Maria”, which we then modified, ran with, and made our own.
For the video, Matteo suggested we film it in what he saw as the most iconic and representative places in the village, including in the businesses and “laboratories” where they make traditional cheese, a paper-thin bread called “carta di musica” (trans. “music paper,” similar to Piki bread), a well-known distillery, under historic stone arches used as bandit hideouts, and at the spring-fed drinking fountains spread throughout the village.
And so, equipped with a video camera, a microphone stand, and the assistance of our videographer, we set out across the cobblestone streets of Santu Lussurgiu (Santu Lussurzu in Sardo), humidity rising every second, to play our song live in each location for all who happened to walk by and listen. Then, under a giant stone arch, “L’Arco della Marmora,” we met Franzisco, retired sheepherder and cantu a cuncordu singer, who listened to our performance, clapped effusively at the end, then turned me and said, “Dai, facciamo un’Americanata”/Let’s do a song in the American style!” Game, but confused about what that might mean, I said ok, and he suggested we do a song in the key of “Re” (A major). And then, in a plaintive voice, he started singing “Oh Susanna” in Italian! I then sung him the version I know in English (“Oh Susanna/Don’t You Cry for Me/’Cus I’m Gone to Louisiana with a Banjo on My Knee”). He then turned to Matteo, and asked if they could try a portion of a “Ballo Sardo” (Sardinian ballad in the style of the village), and off they went again, Franzisco this time singing in a much fuller, more nasalized singing style complete with ornamentations, Matteo accompanying him on the accordion. It was a moment of complete time capsule, as we stood by this historic arch use to fend off marauders, Franzisco singing, Matteo playing accordion, the sound bouncing off stone walls in the narrow alley.
And this, from my beginner’s perch, is how Americanness circulates in one small Sardinian “paese,” where one expressive form leads to another which leads to another, and song becomes a cascade of stories, and connections, and memories. Where a Sardinian-inflected song written by two Sardinians and an American inspires an “Americanata,” in this case the song “Oh Susanna,” which leads to a “ballo sardo” in the key of Re, sung by Franzisco and accompanied by Matteo. And so the Americanata-the American song--leads us back to the Sardinian song, Sardinian roots, sung in the Sardinian language (in this case, Lussorzesu).
Thus, our song about “Un’Americana In Paese” becomes a micro-ethnography in one small Sardinian village of how Sardi negotiate American presences in their worlds, how they see outsiders and self/other, and the things they see and value in American culture and in their own. This, in turn, also gives insight into how Giuseppe and Matteo also see their own village, i.e. the things that to them “make” the place and that others, on coming in, should see first or understand. This, I am given new ethnographic eyes into this place I am coming to love.
Perhaps, in the end, “Il Paese dei Brividi” as a genre of music is what Italian journalist Cinzia Meroni in an article she wrote for the newspaper L’Unione Sarda, terms “Country Sardo-Americana” (Sardinian American country), a genre that fuses, blends, and ultimately reinforces what it means to be Sardo and from the village of Santu Lussurzu.
Thank you to: Matteo Scano for songwriting, videography, sound engineering, the idea to make the video, and overall for being such a joy to write a song with; to cowriter Giuseppe Scano, to Michela Scano for videography and photography, to Giampaolo Mura and the Distillery of Carlo Pische for permission to include footage of them in the video and in this blog. Thank you also to Giacomo Spanu, Franceso Deriu, Marco Lutzu and the children Emanuele, Antonio and Gabriele for permission to include the playing in the streets of Santu Lussurgiu.
Back from a month in Sardegna and the magical land that is the village of Santu Lussurgiu, I am thinking this morning about voice, and about how my own voice becomes an instrument of knowing, both of the musico-cultural context around me and also of myself and how I unconsciously shift performance styles from one context to another. In Sardegna, voice—and how people hear voice—becomes a beautiful entry point into how Americanness is heard, how “country” and the wild west is heard; through this usage of my own voice in performance settings, I am able to learn about how Sardi, in the end, view their own music and their own voices.
Last summer, while performing a solo show at a music venue called Abetone in Sassari (on the northern part of the island), a well-known jazz musician came up and told me that I remind him of Joan Baez, a performer who toured extensively in Italy. This is a comment I have fielded repeatedly in Sardegna, and which fascinates me, as I never really listened to Joan Baez and so don’t feel influenced by her in the least. And it’s also very specific. When I pushed him to explain a bit more, he described how, even when I’m singing Guccini’s famous “Il Vecchio e Il Bambino” in Italian, I modulate my voice and manipulate the chest/head voice transitional space in an “American” way that reminds him of Baez, especially in the head range. When I queried whether this was influenced by an American-inflected diction when singing in Italian, he insisted that it wasn’t about pronunciation, it’s about singing style. So, to this musician, even when I’m singing in Italian, I sound iconically American.
More recently, on my recent trip back to Sassari to play a show a few weeks ago, I had lunch with dear friends, who speak excellent British English in addition to Italian (and also some Sardo). As a result, when we meet, we typically code switch back and forth between English and Italian, as needed and to fit the topic of the conversation, our knowledge of vocabulary in different languages, etc. It’s a wonderful and fluid thing, this ability to switch back and forth with close friends. In the middle of one of these switches, my friend Nike stops me and says, “You sound completely different when you’re speaking in English and when you speak Italian.” I was flummoxed. She went on to describe how my pitch, intonation and body language seem to shift as I traverse the zones between these two languages, one Germanic and one Romantic. As I think about this now, however, it begins to make sense. As is true for so many who travel, we inhabit different identities when we speak—and are inhabited by—different languages. And we are able to express different parts of ourselves. I recall the second night I was in Sardegna, on my very first trip there three years ago, when I dreamt in Italian, and realized that I had important musical and psychological work to do in this place, on this soil and on this sheepherding island, so far away from Navajo Nation and yet with so many uncanny resonances. Language, and the possibility of language, opens us up to other, sometimes freer, selves, giving us permission to grow and stretch, vocally and psychologically, in ways we might not feel were possible without the expressive vehicle languages give us.
And yet, despite these shifts in expressive resources, there is something in us that remains grounded and constant, a pure expression of self, regardless of the language in which we sing. In a final solo performance in the southern city of Cágliari at Covo Art Café, a Canadian expat, musician and Cágliaritano (resident of Cágliari) came up to me after the show and told me he loved all the languages I had sung in (in this case Italian, Sardo, Norwegian, Navajo, English) and particularly how my singing style had changed as I sung an original folk song in Norwegian. But after this, he told me: “During the show, I asked myself: do these people [Italian speakers/listeners] understand what she is saying, even though she is singing in English”? Then, when you started singing in Italian, and then Norwegian, I realized they did! Because there was a through-line, something consistent about your stage presence, your persona, your being as your performed, that was coming through in each language you performed in.” So, languages are vehicles for different expressions of self—expressed both in the words we use to sing our song, but also the range, intonation and singing styles we use to express ourselves in each of these languages—but they are unified and cohere through the singular body we inhabit and the sense of self that we share with others, in any language.
After twenty years of living on the Navajo Nation, I allowed myself to leave and explore other communities in which to do ethnographic research, and ended up, half way around the world, on a matriarchal island of sheepherders, horse-lovers, artists and craftspeople, also colonized by the Spaniards, who also eat mutton as a specialty food, and also excel in jewelry making using turquoise and red corral as central foci. How is this possible? I think we gravitate toward similar thematics, but also toward certain environments—in my case, rural, family-centered, face-to-face, with complex language politics and strong, feisty women—perhaps because these are things that resonate—and have always resonated—with me, personally. These are the places where my soul feels at ease, and where I feel broad, expansive, and able to express, perhaps, a more fully formed, well-rounded, earthy and joyous portion of myself, in community with others. Ahéhee’, Mille Grazie, Navajo Nation and Sardegna, for giving me those parts of myself.
Nestled in the tiny village of Santu Lussurzu (Santu Lussurgiu in Italian), Sardegna, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I am finding I am super tired, each day, as I forget how much language learning/listening/conversing in a new language takes out of you. It’s as if, by 9 pm, my language brain shuts off, and not only can I no longer absorb new vocabulary, I can’t really summon my own words in any form (perhaps a surprise to you because you think I am super verbal!). So, I put myself to bed early, ca. 10, and then lie in bed for at least two hours, because the entire village is up on both sides of the house until midnight.
Last night, the pizzeria on the corner had some very talkative customers, especially after they’d drunk their Ichnussa beer (a Sardinian brewery—light, fresh, and super good; costs EU 1.60 in the store for a six pack!). They began playing some four-part style singing, “cantu a cuncordu,” on their sound system and projecting it into the street on the side of the house where the bedroom is. Then, as I walked into the kitchen to relocate to the couch where there was more circulation and less noise, I heard another version of “cantu a cuncordu,” but this time, it was live and coming from the bar! 11.30 at night, and a group of twenty-something boys are singing, spontaneously, in this style, as the radio at the bar is turned off so everyone can listen. So, I was surrounded by polyphonic singing—both recorded and “real”—on both sides! It was pretty magical; if I had felt better, I would have put some clothes on and rallied down to the bar for a drink and to hear them. Life is so social here, and sometimes I feel like I’m up the challenge of making conversation and being engaged at all levels—personal, research, in Italian, in Sardo, ecc.—and sometimes I feel I’m not.
How to describe how crazy this community is for sound, and for music, and for this style of singing, here? When the man who sells you fresh produce at the fleamarket is also the “tenore” in a cantu a cuncordu group that performed in Spain last year,and while he plays you one of their videos from youtube the middle-aged woman purchasing lettuce starts humming the melody of the song along with the Youtube video; when you go to a pizzeria run by the “pizzaiolu” (pizza artisan) and they are playing polyphonic music as you drink your working-class beer (for Burqueños: think the equivalent of a Marble or Sidetrack Brewing); when pre-teens and young men spontaneously break into ornate, four-part a cappella singing over beers on a Thursday night, singing fully and loud enough for the entire village to hear and without a single reproach shouted out, there is a certain integration of sound and daily life, or art with daily life, that really moves me.
Art, then, becomes the domain of everybody, not just those who perform it or read music or make it. It also belongs to those who listen, those who support their kids in performing, those who sing along with recordings, and those who play it on their sound system for tourists to hear. And it is the same for knives and knifemaking, and ironworking and ferriers, and cheesemaking (specifically of cassizolu, an amazing cow’s milk cheese that comes from here), and the distilling of S’abbardente (a distilled grape liquor flavored with wild fennel and drunk as a digestivo), and other crafts specifically associated with and respected in this village because they are things that come from here. So, knifemaking, and ironwork, and cheesemaking, and distilling spirits, and sound and songs, are all part of the cultural patrimony of this place, or the terroir of Santu Lussurgiu, each equally precious, treasured, guarded, and cautiously shared with outsiders.
And then, out of the blue, and perhaps inspired by the constant sun and incredible soundscape that emanate from my window on the second floor of Casa Santa Maria, this song about sun, my recent, fleeting and beautiful week in Finland came, fully formed like a little gift, last week as I sat here on the terrazza. I am calling these songs the “Casa Santa Maria sessions”—all written on the patio overlooking Via Nuoro 1, the town square, the market, and the flow of everyday life. It is dedicated to the amazing, lion-hearted yet no-nonsense Finnish Red Cross worker and Philosophy graduate student who we had the honor of collaborating with in Turku when we were in Finland, Rosa Rantanen. You are welcome to listen to it, here (demo recording on an old iphone 5).
“Soak up the Sun”
Kristina Jacobsen, copyright 2018
It’s “kiitos” this, and “kiitos” that
Sea buckthorn, elderflower
Midsummer night, maximize
Lean into it when you realize
a Finnish summer is short and sweet
I’m gonna squeeze
Every last drop of summer
Out of this place
Gonna stay up ‘til the crease of dawn
and then some
Gonna rise two hours later and soak up the sun
‘Cus who knows when we’ll have a golden moment
like this again?
We tell the tourists it’s always this way
But Scandinavia’s cold and gray
But in the heart of winter
We need to hold onto something
So we summon that day
It was warm and sweet
We need to believe this can be
To return there if only in our minds
(So we can)
Every last drop of summer
Out of this place
Gonna stay up ‘til the crease of dawn
and then some
Gonna rise two hours later and soak up the sun
‘Cus who knows when we’ll have a golden moment like this again?
It’s the sweetest denial I know F
Lazy and long, slow lattes on the canal
Seagulls flying all around
(So that’s why) we’re gonna squeeze
Every last drop of summer
Out of this place
Gonna stay up ‘til the crease of dawn
and then some
Gonna rise two hours later and soak up the sun
‘Cus who knows when we’ll have a golden moment like this again?
‘Cus who knows when we’ll have a golden moment like this again?
Every last drop of summer….
~Special thanks to: Giuseppe Scano and B&B Casa Santa Maria; Naomi Sunderland for inspiration for the words “long, slow lattes” in this song, and the Commune of Santu Lussurgiu and mayor Diego Loi for their warmth and hospitality.
All photos taken by Kristina Jacobsen, copyright 2018.
Leaving Turku, Finland, with a full heart. Such intense memories of this week co-facilitating songwriting, community-building and intercultural dialogue in Turku, Finland. Sponsored by the University of Helsinki and facilitated through the Finnish Red Cross, three facilitators, a lead organizer and myself worked for four days with seven participants from Angola, Iran/Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela and Finland, each with their own story of how they arrived in Turku, each with their own musical and poetic skills which, when combined with the skillsets of other songwriters in the group, created exquisite, vulnerable and completely unique songs reflective of their life experiences until this point.
There are so many stories that stick with me, each poignant and powerful. Fouad, a saz (double-coursed string instrument) player and anaesthetic nurse from the Kurdish portion of Syria now training to become a bus driver, writing and recording a song called “Connection” with a classically trained violinist from Caracas, Venezuela, Vanessa; they ways in which they accommodated one another as one played in an Arabic maqam (kurd and hijaz) on a saz and the other in an equally tempered scale on a classical violin, as they sought to literally connect and write a “bridge” in their song to span the diversity of their musical styles between the verse and the chorus. How Fouad, on the fourth day of the workshop, began to share his experiences growing up in Arab-dominated Syria, where he was disallowed from speaking his mother tongue in school or even in public places, and where even his own Kurdish city of Kobanî was renamed with an Arabic name (Ayn al-Arab) and how, for him, refusing to identify as Muslim since moving to Finland has become his own form of self-decolonization.
And yet, the level of connection Fouad developed with other Arabic speakers in this group, including three Iraqi musicians, was profound. At one point, Raad, an ‘oud (lute) player and former Economics Professor, was searching for an ‘oud to play and write songs on, as he had sold his own ‘oud once his life in limbo began after two family members in Iraq were killed. And so, on day 3, Fouad turns up with an ‘oud in his hand, borrowed from a friend, and by day’s end Raad has purchased this ‘oud and restrung it (he is left-handed), allowing him and his beautiful wife Nora, a biologist and singer, to make the sweetest music all day I’ve ever heard, on the day after his seven-hour long immigration interview which will tell him if he is to become a permanent resident of Finland, or no.
Songs and places are also linked in other ways. On this final day, as we all take our turns in the recording studio to record the four songs that have been written that week, I speak with Ahmed, a poet, journalist and translator from Mosul, Iraq, who comments on the sweet strangeness of hearing Raad and Nora’s Iraqi folk song from the 1950s being performed here in an ecumenical center in Turku, Finland. “They’re beautiful, but they don’t belong here. They are of that place [Iraq], but not this one.” He goes on to say that, when he hears Iraqi music in Finland, he immediately sees palm trees and everything else that, to him, is Mosul and Iraq before 2003 and the beginning of the war. But he also has to practice self-care, he tells me, and so, if he’s not able to go to that place emotionally, sometimes he needs to not be in earshot of certain songs; he has to listen selectively, and strategically, because place and songs can also be linked to trauma, and one needs to be able to choose to visit these emotional spaces. So for this cowritten song, he writes a song describing his spirit as a seagull no longer sutured to place, where he’s able to travel beyond geopolitical borders and the smallness of sectarian violence and where he insists on keeping a broader view. “You touch me like the wind/wiping away my trace on the sand/My spirit travels with the seagulls.”
As I prepare to make my way from the land of the Northern Lights to a very different musical culture and climate on the Italian island of Sardinia, I am humbled by the work that songs—and telling our stories through songs—can do in building a sense of connectivity, community, and allowing people to speak their truest truths. As cofacilitator Naomi Sunderland put it, “songs have jobs,” and this, I think, is one of them.
Initiator/Lead Organizer: Klisala Harrison (University of Helsinki)
Cofacilitator: Naomi Sunderland (Griffith University)
Cofacilitator: Kristina Jacobsen (University of New Mexico)
Local Arranger: Rosa Rantanen (Finnish Red Cross)
In-Kind Venue Facilitator: Jussi-Pekka Paija (Yränän kohtaamispaikka)
Funder: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts (Musicology), Guest Researcher Program
In-kind sponsors: Finnish Red Cross, Åbo Rock Academy, Yränän kohtaamispaikka (Turku, Finland), Academy of Finland, Griffith University School of Human Services & Social Work, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre at Griffith University, Aabo Rock Academy, Yränän Kohtaamispaikka.
25-28 June 2018, Turku, Finland
After an intensive first time leading this songwriting retreat on Navajo Nation in 2017, my cofacilitator and I shared a lot of fear that there would be no way to replicate the level of depth and sharing that happened in the inaugural year of this retreat. How could we recreate the sense of safety, sharing and exquisite songs that had been written and shared (40 in total) in that first year, and how could we as facilitators bring the same degree of freshness and energy to a second year of cowrites with a brand-new group? And we were right: there was no way to replicate that. Rather, the second year’s group of participants (a brand-new group of ten songwriters with one returnee), from Navajo Nation, Denmark, Indiana, Colorado, New Mexico, California and beyond, brought their own unique voices, perspectives, vulnerabilities and desires, and went even deeper in their writing and level of engagement with this place known as Carson Mesa, or Tó Sikání in Navajo, Many Farms, Navajo Nation, than we could have anticipated or hoped for. Not the same, or better, but completely, and inalterably, different. To witness this was, indeed, a little slice of magic. It’s also about creating space and laying a platform for intercultural and intergenerational dialogue.
This year, for the first time, we had two high school participants, both from the central part of Navajo Nation. The level of hunger, engagement and truth put forth in the cowrites of these two young people, both of whom had never written a song before this retreat, became role models and beacons for the rest of the group of adult songwriters, ranging in age from twenty-two to fifty-five, teaching us to speak (or rearticulate) our own truths. The songs that emerged from these cowrites are exquisite: vulnerable and place-specific, they are windows into what it means to be a young person from a rural place speaking truth to power and laying plans for college, careers, navigating family relations and newfound senses of self.
Songwriter and Berklee College of Music professor Pat Pattison says “don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.” From a songwriting perspective, I take this to mean to not let the details get in the way of the emotional authenticity of the story you are trying to convey in the song you write. But there’s another way to interpret this quote, which is to not let that fact that you’ve never written a song keep you from writing one anyway, and keep you from speaking your truth, loud, clear, and sung in your own newly found voice, when you do it. This is what these students offered to each of us, and role modeled in a most profound way.
As I write this on the Monday morning after the retreat, I remain humbled, deeply grateful, and experiencing the intense withdrawal symptoms one has after leaving a deeply connected group of humanity like the one created on Carson Mesa in this past week. It is one of the most profoundly connective and deeply humanizing experiences I know, and it reminds me as both songwriter and anthropologist why I write songs to begin with: to connect deeply with a small sliver of humanity, to open up broader avenues for intercultural and intergenerational understanding and communication, to heal and speak my own truth, and to break the isolation of my own daily routine by reminding myself there is, indeed, something bigger. And, to this end, we will not only hold a third retreat next May on Carson Mesa again (May 24-31 2019), but also one in Sardinia, Italy, in May of 2020. Ahéhee’, t’áá ano[tso, and e ci aggiorniamo, li!
Learning to “Twang”: Diphthongs, Social Class and the Politics of Country Music Performance Practice
In my teaching job at the University of New Mexico, I cofacilitate the UNM Honky Tonk Ensemble, an ensemble focusing on country music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s with an emphasis on teaching students to learn to play in a band and master the subtler nuances of the style. The ensemble is a mix of UNM students and community members, and is loosely modeled on the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Honky Tonk Ensemble, a group I was a part of when I lived in Chicago in the early 2000s. Recently we brought a vocal coach in to work with the ensemble on country music singing style and the finer art of learning how to perform “cry breaks” and “twang” (diphthongization).
Professionally, for me, this was a true moment of arrival: sitting in an academic music department classroom in the basement of the College of Fine Arts, surrounded by chalkboards with music staves and fluorescent lights, and watching UNM students and community members struggle—and triumph—as they dove into this musical style which, for so many, is completely “foreign” to their sociomusical worlds, I recall thinking: “Is this really my job?” This experience was further heightened by the fact that this teacher, one of our classical voice teachers in the department, is an incredibly gentle, intuitive, and yet highly effective teacher who makes students feel safe enough that they essentially put their voice (and, in essence, their selves) in her hands.
But this masterclass was also a moment of arrival for me in thinking about how to diphthongization in singing and speaking (“twang”), the identities we take on when learning to make these sounds, especially if it’s a speech genre that’s not part of our regional dialectal inflection, and how we learn to code-switch between and across genres not only of speech but of music genre, too. As I watched a member of the ensemble, an instrumentalist new to singing, not only singing in public for one of the first times but bravely and playfully experimenting with “twang”—nasalizing and diphthongizing our vowels so they go from one syllable to two, as in “Viet-nay-um”—and “cry”—emulating a crying sound simulating the upwelling of emotion when singing, often alternating between head and chest registers--on Johnny Paycheck’s song, “A11” (his pronunciation of A11 was so spot on it gave me chills), I myself began to probe how to best teach working-class forms of verbal art in and through performance without calcifying, essentializing or reducing the intricacy, context, and multi-racial history of this ostensibly white, southern-identified genre of music. Moreover, having the ability to fail in a safe space and having the freedom to experiment with falsetto, yodel (rapid chest/head voice alternations), splitting the vowel nucleus with a pulse to simulate literal crying, the “ravaged” voice (pharyngealization) and thus learning to employ some of the affective, expressive devices for which masterful country singing is so well known, also seemed to be a crucial part of this experience.
One of the concerns—and legitimately so—that comes up for many students in the ensemble is that, on-stage or off, they’ll be perceived by their peers and audience members as “slumming it” or taking on a downwardly mobile identity which, in reality, doesn’t’ represent their actual lifestyles. In other words, they were concerned that their performances would be read as mockeries of—rather than homage to—the genre of honky tonk music. This is, of course, also a tried and true part of the politics of authenticity in country music, where those who are perceived to not live the lifestyle they sing about run the risk of being charged with being a “hat act” (Garth Brooks is one such example). In the band, we encourage students to think of the use of twang, and cry breaks, and the “ravaged voice” as a form of regionally and culturally specific performance practice. Thus, students are performing a regional and class-based identity when they are performing these songs.
In this sense, it is similar to what we learn to do as classical musicians from a very young age if immersed in this world—for example, dressing in concert black, not spontaneously speaking while you’re onstage, performing a song note for note and not clapping between movements—where the key difference is that in art music these are behaviors we’ve naturalized so entirely we no longer see them as being “foreign” or “not ours,” despite the separation of centuries from a composer’s time to ours and the composer’s identities as primarily white-identified, European men. By contrast, performing a “country” identity feels much further afield for many members of the ensemble. I would argue that this stems from another crucial distinction between the genres: aspiring to sing opera, for example, now rings of a certain upward mobility, while aspiring to sing honky tonk is an overt form, for many folks not identifying as working-class or working-poor, as downwardly mobile.
What this perspective fails to take into account, however, is our own ability to codeswitch not only linguistically, but musically: we know how to code-switch between differing musical and linguistic worlds and do so all the time, although it’s often not consciously articulated as such. It’s also where having the participation of community members in the ensemble who hail from west Virginia, Texas and beyond and who grew up playing this music, and where having the ability to perform our songs in off-campus honky tonks to audiences who know and love this music, are essential antidotes to the tendency to exoticize genres we don’t yet know or aren’t yet culturally comfortable with. Once students see that the songs they’re playing are known and loved by their bandmates and dancers and listeners—in other words, that they’re meaningful to them and thus have a prior social context—the dynamic of the group self-corrects and shifts quite quickly.
This inherent ability to code-switch—and others’ frequent assumption that we are only “one genre” capable—really hit home for me in a slightly different context, when I recently met a musician who plays primarily heavy metal, and who had first “met” me through listening to my recorded music rather than in live performance or in person. When we first began to speak, he admitted to me that he was (pleasantly) surprised that I didn’t speak with a “deep southern drawl,” as his fear, in listening to my music, was that I would speak/sound “like a redneck.” The initial shock and umbrage at his choice of wording notwithstanding and the fact that in addition to country I record and perform in Navajo, Norwegian and Italian and have a PhD from Duke, this comment really forced me to think about the identity I perform when singing/recording country music and the ways in which I wear different identities in the different spheres in which I operate (as professor, country musician, ethnomusicologist, cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, rural-identified New Englander, daughter of a southern mother/military BRAT, rancher, lapsteel player/singer in Navajo country western bands). Am I misleading people by “twanging” some of my vowels when I sing country-inflected songs if I don’t necessarily speak this way? Am I pretending to be something I’m not? Are my own performances being mistakenly read as mockeries rather than homages to a genre of music I study, play, write and love? On the flip side, am I stylistically boxing my own self in by identifying as a country artist, so that the self-identified country music “haters” (there are many) who listen to me then dismiss my music altogether? Finally, the metal musicians’ response also reminded me of an anonymous comment I once received in a student evaluation, in which the student said that I was using the contraction “y’all” (and sometimes even “all y’all”, a carryover from my Hillsborough, North Carolina days!) too often in the classroom and that this language use seemed unprofessional and made me seem “uneducated” to them; in other words, it was “unprofessorial.” Again, I was not only shocked but also genuinely intrigued by this comment, and promptly brought it back, the next semester, into the classroom as further fodder for our class unit on region, sociophonetics, dialect and perceptions of social class. Why, in this case, was it not ok for me to express my own regional identity in the more formal space of the classroom, and what about my language use in this setting made my student uncomfortable?
So: to twang or not to twang? As I like to tell my students, this is, indeed, the question. To do it mindfully, and conscious of the socioeconomic weight that it bears, and knowledgeable about the contextual the code you’re drawing from is, certainly, essential. And to learn to do so in an environment free from judgment where one can experiment, and fail, and gain a full appreciation for the labor and the craft that is fine country singing, alongside folks who already love the genre and have spent their lives studying it, is equally essential. For me, as a singing ethnographer, these two tools—a sense of safety and knowledge of the contextual codes we’re cuing—are an essential starting point to bridging the gaps of race, social class and urban/rural divides that so strongly divide us as U.S. citizens, right now.
I am up here in Louisville, Colorado, at Maple Court Studios, recording an EP of six cowrites with singer, songwriter and recording artist, Meredith Wilder. This is a home recording studio, created specifically for this session, as we decided we wanted to record, engineer and produce it ourselves, and reached out to our engineer friend, Drake Hardin, to do the mastering. Going into the process, we decided we wanted to produce an album that was as close to our live sound as possible; we also wanted a vocal sound that sounded relatively “live” and unprocessed, and that we wanted to record all of our own leads for the album. Thus far, this means that Meredith and I are recording lead and rhythm guitar parts, often with two different rhythm guitars in the same song to create more complex picking/strumming patterns and musical textures beneath the voice, I am recording leads for two songs on my Oahu lapsteel guitar, and she and I are sharing the vocal leads and harmonies. Both of us are playing and recording on Eastman guitars (Meredith’s is a parlor size and mine is an OM), purchased at Guitar Vista in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My own reasons for wanting to try this approach are multiple, but stem in part from having worked with male engineers in the past and sometimes finding their approach very “mansplainy,” an experience which ultimately marginalized my own participation in the recording process. Once the engineer brought other male lead musicians into the studio, this dynamic became amplified, where the studio began to feel more like a boys club than a place where I really belonged, even though we were recording my original songs for my album! Additionally, these are skillsets—recording, mic technique, mixing—that we both really wanted to learn, so this felt like a great motivator to put these goals into practice. Our hope is that, by sharing some of the inside details of this experience, folks wanting to replicate all or part of the process will have some of the tools to do so with the thoughts and reflections offered, below.
Plunging into doing this ourselves has been a whole new world. The first three hours we spent trying to find a recorded sound for the acoustic guitar and vocals we really liked. Mic-wise, we are using two mic’ing devices: a Neumann TLM 103 condenser mic (amazing sound!) for the acoustic guitar, borrowed from a friend, and an MXL-V67 for the vocals—also a condenser mic. Both are also cardioid mics.
After sending some demo. tracks to our friend, Jeremy Barnes, for feeback, we backed the condenser mic off the guitar—recording it close made it sound muddy and covered—and got much closer to the vocal mic to the point that I can now smell the plastic from the pop filter when I sing, i.e. ca. 2” from the mic. This drastically changed the vocal sound in particular; it went from sounding far away and like it was being sung in another room to direct, warm and intimate.
We have a variety of limits/parameters for this session that we hope, in the end, will also be strengths which give the album focus and distinction. First, we are recording on Meredith’s computer using Ableton Live 9 Lite, a recording software program which Meredith has recorded with before, allows us a maximum of eight tracks per song. Second, when and where possible, we’re trying to do “live takes” for entire songs, that is, we are trying to not splice/mix and match takes so that we have a continuous take. Third, we only have two inputs, so we can record a maximum of two tracks at one time. Fourth, the recording interface we’re using has only one headphone jack, which means only one of us can record in the studio at a time and eliminates the ability to sing/record lead vocal tracks/harmonies at the same time in the same space.
The actual studio was Meredith’s closet, with sound-proofing/baffling created with a combination of egg-crate secured with 2x4s and mattresses, blankets and shawls over boxes, etc. One of us was in the studio at a time, and one of us was on the controls and playing the role of engineer at all times, and we alternated in these roles back and forth.
To create a sense of focus, purpose and ritual, we did a couple things that ended up feeling effective for us. Some may seem more intuitive than others, but here they are:
Things We’d Do Differently
In the future, we’d really like to be able to record together in the studio, wherever we create it, which means we need an interface with two headphone inputs rather than one. We think that using inner ear buds would also be more useful than headphones that cover our entire ears. We would also need two vocal mics—ideally the same type—so that we could achieve an equally high quality and internally consistent sound for both voices.
One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is that the studio is more a frame of mind than a designated physical place that you pay to record in. This is, of course, also true for ethnography and the “field,” where the field—how closely and critically we pay attention to the conversations, interactions, smells, tastes, experiences that circle around us—is a frame of mind rather than a bounded place where we go to do “research.” The field and the studio are equally about attention, intention, present-mindedness and paying attention on purpose to what’s in our field of vision and hearing for a specific purpose. In the case of fieldwork, we pay attention in order to document and later write about these experiences in a way that humanizes our subjects and the communities we’ve interacted with. In the case of recording, we pay exquisite attention to sound—sound quality, vocal presence, warmth, overtones, flubs, energy exuded, intangibles like mood, affect and emotion conveyed—in order to capture what we feel is the most fully alive version of the song we’ve crafted in order to connect with a broader listening audience.
So, in the end, it felt like this studio experience was every bit as focused and present—if not more so—than the time I spent recording previous albums, where I paid for professional studio time and recorded in a designated space called a studio. Because Meredith and I have written and played together now for a number of years, we were also able to be brutally honest with each other during the recording process, for example telling each other if something we recorded was flat or sharp, or if we thought we had a better “take” in us than the one we’d just done. Although there was certainly extra time spent learning about mic placement and how to use Ableton, it felt like this was offset by the focus, energy and intent we brought each other, and by the empowerment of knowing we’d done it all ourselves. The next steps now are mixing and mastering, and then sending it off for reproduction to be ready in time for our release show, to be held on March 30th in Albuquerque. I’ll try to keep you all appraised on the next leg of our journey!
Cultural Anthropologist, Singer-Songwriter and multilingual speaker Kristina Jacobsen blogs on the boundaries and connections between songwriting, ethnography and the songwriting life.
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