Tanya Tagaq Sings with the Voice of Gaia

Tanya Tagaq sings with the voice of Gaia. She is an Inuit throat singer and much more with award-winning albums, including the recently released Animism. Her music isn’t sweet or pretty by mainstream musical standards. Her Gaia isn’t the tall, blonde, lithe, blossom-crowned Gaia that so often is the way Earth is depicted, but the powerful, strong, non-human Earth of blizzards, tsunamis, and earthquakes, and also the immense abundant force that has given and supported life on her skin for millions of years and is now being devastated by only one species, our own.

Tanya’s compositions are a fusion of traditional throat-singing and modern electronic music with some non-throat singing but lots of sounds – shrieks, moans, howls, and more –  that come from the depths of the human body as it reveals and represents the life force of Gaia, her animals, and her environment. Some commentators call Tanya’s music “scary,” but that only reveals how frightening it can be to truly face both the force and the love of the Earth and the truth of what is happening to the Earth.  Many others comment that Tanya’s music brings up in them profound depths of emotions and so it does.

Tanya Tagaq is 39 and an immensely gifted composer, performer, and graphic artist. She has won a number of awards in Canada for her work, including the Polaris Prize for album in the year in 2014. She is well-known for collaborations with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet. She uses her voice not only for singing, but for political activism on behalf of the Inuit people, including the murder of Inuit women and the importance of seal-hunting to Inuit culture. Here is a youtube video of some of her work.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: QUEEN OF AFRICAN MUSIC AND HUMANITARIAN, ADVOCATE, AND ACTIVIST

Beninoise singer-songwriter-humanitarian-advocate-activist Angelique Kidjo has been called by London’s Daily Telegraph “The undisputed queen of African Music.” She has won Grammy awards. She has recorded numerous albums since 1991 and her music is influenced by traditional African music, jazz, Afropop, reggae, gospel, Latin music and more. She has served as an ambassador for UNICEF for 12 years for which she has traveled to many African nations. The Batonga Foundation, which she co-founded provides and advocates for education to girls in Africa through many different means. She has campaigned for many other organizations and causes, including Oxfam and the International Federation of Human Rights’ Africa for Women’s Rights initiative, and participated in innumerable special performances and concerts. She has won a long list of awards for both her music and her humanitarian, advocacy, and activist efforts.

In 2014, she released her latest album “Eve” which she dedicated “to the women of Africa: to their resilience and their beauty.” It features stunning music made by Kidjo and an array of musicians and women’s choirs from Benin, Kenya, and Cotonou. On her website, she describes it as ” a 13-track set of melodically rich, rhythmically powerful expressions of female empowerment.”  To see and hear a track from it yourself, watch this youtube video in support of polio vaccination that Kidjo made to her song “Eve” from the album. You can read more about her at her website.

Joanne Shenandoah: A Voice for Lifegivers and an Artist You Should Know About

Joanne Shenandoah, Ph.D., is a unique American voice who will inspire and strengthen your spirit while delighting your soul. She is a composer, singer, actress, and author who has recorded numerous CDs and is a Grammy Award winner as well as the winner of over 40 music awards, including 13 Native American Music awards. She has performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall, the Parliament of World Religions and many other places globally. In 2012 she won the Atlas Award for her work with the climate movement in the US and worldwide.

Her discography includes music in a variety of styles and covering  many areas of life. Two of her CDs are my favorites, though. Matriarch is an album of Iroquois Women’s Songs issued in 1996 including traditional chants and melodies. Joanne honors a particular woman with each song, revealing how the song relates to the woman’s life and spirit.

My most favorite album of hers, though, is her most recent, titled Lifegivers. This is what she herself has to say about it:

Lifegivers is a tribute to the life cycles of women from the first beating of the heart to when her spirit leaves to walk across the stars along the Milky Way as she returns home to the Skyworld where she will be welcomed by her loved ones. Each song is meant to bring the listener to a place of celebration for every cycle of life. As I asked for these melodies to flow, I realized I was inspired by different aspects of rhythm and music from different cultures of the planet. It has been my great honor to be able to be embraced by many lifegivers of the world; new borns, young women, pregnant women, women in love, women who sing, women who teach, and women of wisdom.

Joanne’s voice on both these albums is deep, rich, and lyrical.  I hear something more, however, a power,  a strength and healing, a call to all beings to be our best selves, a vision of what it is to be a woman that is a high standard to live up to, but one worth striving for. When I listen to her music, no matter how far away from myself I may have strayed in the deluge of the day, I am drawn back to a place of grounding in my own essential being that reminds me of who I am and what is important for me to do with my life.

To learn more about Joanne Shenandoah, go to her website , where you can also hear samples of and purchase her music.

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint Whose Spirit Soared Free

The Medieval world was full of powerful queens and saints, both real and mythical. Second perhaps only to Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen reigns as the woman who, after a thousand years, still moves us most with her life and work. Thirty years ago she was still an obscure saint from Germany little known outside her home area. Once rediscovered, her mystical visions and writings, and especially her liturgical music, quickly became magnificently popular. Though steeped in the culture and Christianity of her time, her art and biography have an essential and universal spirituality and message that speak clearly and passionately to women of our own time.

A new biographical novel has just been published, Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012) that not only enlightens about the actions of Hildegard’s life, but really gives a sense of how completely women’s bodies and souls, aspirations and talents, were bound in medieval times. To me, Illuminations is the story of Hildegard’s remarkable liberation from a literal physical and spiritual entombment that also set free an almost other-worldly creativity. It is the story of the power of freedom of the spirit.

The novel begins with the literal entombment of Hildegard as a small child. She was given to the church by her family as the companion of a woman who was “enclosed,” a practice in which women and men were ritually made dead to the world and then spent the rest of their lives bricked up in tiny rooms that were, in this case, off the sanctuary of a monastery being, in the eyes of the time, made holy by their sacrifice. Finally freed years later, she became the leader of a group of nuns in the monastery, completely under the control of male clerics. She finally broke off from the monastery to form her own convent and spent the rest of her life battling the church hierarchy. As if this were not enough, she was also confined by her own body, suffering frequent debilitating illness and migraines.

Hildegard’s means of liberation was first her visions, which she had from a very early age but only began writing down in her 40s. Then her spirit was freed by her immense body of creative works, including books of her visions, theology, and medicine, stories of saints, and a voluminous correspondence (handily excerpted in Sabina Flanagan’s Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Shambhala, 1996). She also composed hours of liturgical music for the nuns in her convent to sing (I prefer the Sequentia CDs but others are also available). This freedom was won both because these brought her the fame and popular support that enabled her to prevail over her male opponents and also because of the ability of all art to rise above worldly circumstance and speak to all ages.

As beautiful as her work is, however, I find that it is its spirit of freedom that makes it so compelling. It is easy to see how the power of liberation unleashes spiritual and creative genius when we consider the oceans of works of art and literature by women in the 19th and 20th century who were finally able to speak their minds and hearts and tell their stories. So often, oppressors are celebrated and hold the power of life and death in their own time, but are forgotten or reviled by history while the songs and stories of those they held in bondage of one kind or another serve as anthems for future generations. To know the power of freedom, confine yourself to one room for even one day and then experience that joy and sense of being alive that you feel when you walk out again into the sun.

For many people in our world, past and present, freedom is not a religious value. Religion is about following a set of rules in order to stop humans from their inevitable wickedness and the belief that faithfulness requires one to exercise one’s freedom is considered to be absurd. To some, and especially those in Hildegard’s time, to think that each person must follow her or his own path, is heresy. When you consider freedom to be a religious value, however, everything changes. Valuing religious freedom means that one assumes that humans are not basically sinful but, rather, are at heart good and will do what is right if left to be themselves. Creativity that comes from each individual’s uniqueness is held in the highest regard as a spiritual act. Rather than spending time and energy protecting the power of the hierarchy, each individual is celebrated, supported and encouraged as an indispensable piece of a divine universal whole.

Hildegard of Bingen’s life is a testament to the power of holding freedom as a religious value. Her outpouring of creativity was like a spring that, once allowed a small trickle, burst through to become an ocean. Inside their own convent, the nuns under her supervision performed Hildegard’s own works, did not always wear their habits, and defied the church’s authority over them when necessary. While Hildegard would be considered conservative, in that she was always berating church officials from straying from the original tenets of behavior for religious, she was constantly challenging the authority of the church hierarchy to tell her how to believe or worship.

It is easy to find parallels to Hildegard’s struggles in the recent attempts by the Vatican to control American women religious. Certainly many things have not changed in the thousand years since Hildegard lived (though anyone listening to Sister Simone Campbell at the Democratic National Convention heard how powerful the spirits of contemporary women religious can be, especially when they are using their voices on behalf of those in need – You go, Simone!).  But, to me, the message of Hildegard’s life is not defined by those who would have confined her, but rather the power and joy she found in her own freedom and in her lifelong work to liberate other women. When you read her life and her works and listen to her music, whether you share her religious tradition or not, may your spirit take wings.

Queendom’s Still Rising: Moving the World Ahead with Music

Queendom is three women based in Oslo, Norway with backgrounds from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda whose music delights, inspires, educates, and makes a global village out of an increasingly divided world. Their amazing 2012 debut album, Still Rising, is brilliantly and perfectly named because the work of these women – which includes not only music, but writing, television, and performance – is like a vibrant, living spiral that shakes up energy and people’s lives as it moves up and around, circling the planet from Africa to Europe to North America and beyond.

To me, Still Rising, speaks of the power of our common experience as women that is made richer and   wiser when we learn about and appreciate our individual and cultural differences. Gone is a song about the loss of childhood’s precious people and moments as well as its gifts that we take with us all our lives. To see a video of the song, click here.   I grew up in Michigan, where the snowy  landscape and Midwestern American culture was far different from that of the Ugandan scenes in the video, but both the poetic lyrics of the song as well as the human interactions of a reunion in the video are perfect expressions of my own feelings and family gatherings and that of women all over the globe.  The album shines with the vibrancy of the everyday experiences of Queendom’s members, but at the same time, there is not a song on the album that does not evoke an emotion or memory from my own life.

I love the political fighting spirit of this album. Queendom is not afraid to speak clearly and bluntly about ending repression and oppression. As I listened to it for the first time driving down a peaceful, rural New England road, I was taken aback by the military language of The Battle Is Won, Soldier, and Babylon, but then I realized that my reaction was a reflection of the community where I live and the women’s spirituality aspect of feminism I’ve chosen to work in and that I’ve missed feminism’s fiery spirit.  A hallmark of Queendom’s expression of activism is humor, something else that is too scarce in my life. One song, Declaration of Dependence, is told from the point of view of a woman who has no need to worry about poverty and so focuses instead on what color she will wear that day – who among us doesn’t know people like that!   It’s too easy for all of us – especially me! – to settle into comfort zones.  Queendom is a breath of fresh air, reminding us of other ways to express ourselves and the amazing and wondrous diversity among the unity of women in the world.

Perhaps the song that expresses the joy of Queendom best for me is Home is Where the Heart Is, about finding your place in the world by where your spirit lives rather than geographical boundaries of where you were born or where your legal residence is. Still Rising is about carrying your home with you wherever you go, which both unifies us and instills pride in our individual differences. To see their video of this song, click here.

Still Rising offers a variety of styles, from quiet and tender ballads to rousing  rhythms. It will have you both teary and up and dancing. The lyrics are primarily in English. It is available on Amazon, itunes, and Spotify. To see a longer video diary of a recent trip to the Harare International Festival of Arts, click here.  To go the English version of their website, click here.

Inspiring Summer Reading: Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs

With summer rolling into the northern hemisphere, there is no better time to read Sarah Orne Jewett’s masterpiece The Country of the Pointed Firs. The novel was published in 1896 and tells the story in loving, respectful detail of life in a coastal Mainevillage at the end of the 19th century. Some of her best drawn characters are the village’s independent, steadfast, and wise women.

Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 into a New Englandfamily whose wealth meant that she was able to write when and what she pleased without having to do other work or marry to support herself. She spent her life travelling, visiting friends and writing three novels and numerous short stories. Though her work is as beautiful, insightful, and engaging as Wharton, Alcott, Hawthorne, or any of her contemporaries, she is now rarely remembered, but she deserves your attention.

 The Country of the Pointed Firs has a simple plot. A woman writer boards at the home of a woman herbalist for the summer. She visits ordinary people, hears their stories, attends her landlady’s family reunion, and then goes home. What is extraordinary about the plot is not that nothing happens, but that focusing on the daily occurrences, few but beloved possessions, and hard-won wise talk of the characters highlights the drama and intensity of what happens to ordinary people every day. When you read about the dessert table at the family reunion, you can smell the cinnamon in the apple pies, taste the grainy frosting decorating the cakes, and hear the crunch of the gingerbread reconstruction of the family homestead. You are there and you come to care as much about the success of the reunion as the characters do. The novel is not just a celebration of everyday life, but an expression of its splendor and wisdom.

I also love the women characters. This book was written before women had the vote and when women’s rights and public roles were severely restricted. Yet, most of the women in the book are single, by choice or widowhood, with none of them seeking to be otherwise. The protagonist herself makes her living by writing. Her landlady takes in boarders and grows and sells herbal remedies to the people of the village. They go to visit the landlady’s 83-year-old mother who lives alone with her reclusive son on a remote island. Among the stories the protagonist hears is that of Joanna, who lost in love and went to live as a hermit, completely self-sufficient, on another island, though still beloved by the people in the village. Each of the women thinks nothing of her independent life, cherishing her freedom and living the lot life gave her.

The magic of The Country of the Pointed Firs is that it will leave you knowing that your everyday life is sacred, that living in the moment and being content with who you are is normal and not something that needs to be achieved, and that when you live connected to the land upon which you walk, you will know who you are and find your life fulfilling and meaningful. Each of the characters in the book is a teacher in the way they live with dignity, faith that life and other people are basically good, and the belief that their everyday lives are rich and worthwhile. It is like a cold glass of ice water on an August day – refreshing, essential, pure, and a way to connect with all that is most important in our world.

BELIEVE OR EXPLODE: Patti Smith’s Banga

Almost exactly 32 years ago  I ditched my Chicago college graduation to fly halfway across the country, stay in a sleazy motel, and see the Patti Smith Group in LA. Four years before I had heard her transformational first album, Horses. Patti was, and is, a strong woman who believes in singing what she knows to be true, in everyday life as art, that life is infused with a deep and beautiful spirituality, that love and justice can save the world, and in always being absolutely true to herself. Right after college graduation, I moved to New York City, where she had lived, and found my own voice that would never have emerged if not for hers.

After 10 years or so away, Patti re-emerged in the 1990s and is now just about everywhere. Her bestselling 2010 book, Just Kids, won a National Book Award and she has another new one out titled Woolgathering. In 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. France named her a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005. A movie about her, Dream of Life, was released in 2008. She is in magazines and on talk shows everywhere. And she has just released a new album of original music, Banga.

While never formally associated with women’s spirituality, Patti is, to me, nevertheless, one of its most important women. In Patti’s language, all people, all lives, all aspects of daily life can be art and sacred. While I was most taken with her devotion to art and poetry when I was young, in fact, much of her work, sung or spoken, expresses spiritual themes, though mostly through the lens of Christianity.

Art and spirituality have always been linked, especially in spiritual worldviews that celebrate nature and the physical world, creation and creativity, and the sacredness of everyday life. From the Paleolithic cave paintings with their shamanic images to the statues, stories, dances, music, and painted images of ancient Goddess religions to modern women’s spirituality with its re-emergence of artistic expressions of inner spiritual transformations, art and spirit are two expressions of the same thing. It was an easy step from that concert in LA to women’s rituals with the same dancing and feeling of freedom and joy. In fact, I remember when I went to my first large women’s circle, watching the women dance and thinking “I’ve seen this before! Oh yes, Patti…”

Now that Patti is in her 60s, her voice is still strong and, in fact, richer for the many personal losses she has had and the depth and wisdom that they have given her art. Banga is a beautiful, transcendent, unique, poetic, faithful and important album that blends these and other threads of her life. Its themes range from Columbus’s arrival in the New World to St. Francis of Assisi, to environmental devastation, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and more. Its essence is her soul. It is less “punk” than her early work, but, to me, that is less a quieting down than an intensifying of purpose and appreciation for the wide range of human experience she is expressing. Some songs, like the title song “Banga,” are rock and roll like the old days. Others are spoken and sung poetry or quiet and melodic. It ends in children’s voices singing about “Mother Nature in the 21st century.”

If you have never heard a Patti Smith album before, it is likely to be unlike anything you have ever heard. My advice would be to think of the experience of hearing it as going into an empty room. The walls are painted white and your shadow and that of an object in the center of the room are projected onto them, moving together and blending as you approach the object. The object is unlike anything you have ever experienced so, rather than try to figure out what it is or categorize it, sit on the floor and simply be with it until it becomes a part of you. That is what hearing Banga for the first time is like. May it transform you as Patti’s music, writing, and art have transformed me. As the last line of the title song says (though I’m not quite sure what it means): Believe or explode…

 

 

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