My life is a strange paradox. On the one hand, I am gloriously, happily busy, doing things that I love, but, on the other hand, my laziness and disorganization have reached record heights. Ideas for new posts are scribbled on bits of paper that vanish without a trace. What seemed like a brilliant idea while drifting off into dreamland feels tame and lame in the harsh light of day. An overflowing pile of unwashed clothes beckons, demanding action, as does an empty pantry. There is family to tend to, friends to catch up with. Spring - beguiling and fickle, garbed in bright, sun-splashed colors one day, in damp, sullen gray the next - is knocking at my window, urging me outdoors.
All this means that I have nothing new to share with you right now. But I am not above taking the easy way out. Digging through my hard drive, I found parts of my Croatia travelogue that I have not posted here. A gentle dusting off of virtual cobwebs, a little smoothing out of rough edges, a touch of spit and polish, and voila hey presto! A new-old (or old-new) post!
Our final week in Groznjan is spent getting our songs ready for the Classicabaret concert. Each of us gets plenty of time alone with Jose, our pianist, to practice our songs, and he is an excellent accompanist and teacher. I’m singing a short piece, The Cabin, by Paul Bowles (the same person who wrote The Sheltering Sky; I had no idea he wrote music as well). It’s a richly atmospheric piece, the mood alternating between spooky and sunny, a happy, all’s-well-with-the-world cheeriness sliding suddenly into ominously impending doom.
The others have picked and are learning their songs, and the concert is to be roughly divided into three sections. There is old music, which includes Bach, Handel and Brahms. My favorite is “L’Empio, Sleale, Indegno”, an aria from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto that is absolutely stunning. There is a middle section of a few English songs, which mine falls into, and then items from American musical theater. Olinda was keen on performing, so Jane has allowed him to do a traditional Brazilian piece, which, truth be told, does not sound much different from any of the other stuff he “sings” but is nevertheless fun and sure to get the audience involved.
We also practice vigorously for the street theater performance. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this. There is a lot of hard work and preparation that goes on, and it helps that we’re doing this in a place like Groznjan, which is tailor-made for such a creation. But there are also many unknown elements, surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, and a large improvisatory aspect as well, all of which make every street theater performance unique, even if the pieces performed are exactly the same each time.
Robert and Kasia are the main force behind this show, and they are amazing. They are from Poland, and have driven 18 hours, nonstop, from a place near Warsaw, down to Krakow and then south-westwards through Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and finally into Croatia and Groznjan. They are both tall and slim and are an instantly likable couple. There are very few people in this world with whom I connect instantly, at a level that transcends language, culture, politics, nationality, all those multiple walls we erect around ourselves that separate the “they” and the “them” from ourselves. We were introduced, smiles were exchanged, and an instant bond was forged, just like that, just from those smiles and the wordless language of their eyes.
Robert and Kasia
They are stilt walkers and puppet and street theater professionals. This keeps them busy in the summer months, when they travel all over Europe, to as far as the northern reaches of Finland where the sun glows overhead practically around the clock. During the cold, dark winter months, work is hard to come by and life quietens down. This is a difficult period for them but they get by, working at a local puppet theatre company, and teaching theater, juggling, costume-making and acting to schoolchildren. They are filled with an abundance of warmth, generosity of spirit, humor, imagination and creativity, and are incredibly hard-working and dedicated to what they do.
They listen intently to what we tell them we have done so far, our diverse jumble of the Carnatic songs, the Song of the Ass, the Native American songs, the Swahili songs, the dances, the legend of the lunar eclipse, all the other odds and ends we had been working on without any cohesive plan in mind about how and where to incorporate them into our program. They have to concentrate hard on what we are telling them – they are not particularly fluent in English, and often struggle to express themselves, particularly Robert. Yet, within a few minutes of mulling over what they have been told, they come up with a lovely concept, a street theater show that entertains and educates, that provokes thought and laughter, that includes elements from around the world while also incorporating local lore and of course, the incomparable streets, the charming nooks and corners, the delightful little piazzas and magical places, of Groznjan.
Practice is hard, but loads of fun. Olinda is to play the role of an Ass, which he does with typical gusto, making loud, braying noises that would put most real life asses to shame, and that make us dissolve into helpless laughter and giggles. It is impossible to keep a straight face while singing, and Olinda is told to not take his role quite so seriously, that a hint of the asinine is adequate. But he is not one to do things in half-measures, and the absurd display continues, unabated.
Animated, foot-tapping songs follow soulful, melodic ones. There are songs from around the world: Spain, Kenya, South Africa, Croatia, Italy, USA, and of course, India.
The kids have thoroughly enjoyed their Carnatic music lessons, and the fruits of our efforts are there for everyone to listen to and relish. The simple, yet sweetly captivating melodies of Varavina and Sri Gananatha have given them an idea of the beauty of Carnatic music and its infinite possibilities. Everyone in the group is hugely gifted musically (as well as in other areas) and I know that their appreciation of this music goes beyond a simple liking of the melodies. They were wowed when I explained to them the complexities of the talam and ragam classifications and schemes, and the thousands of permutations and combinations that make this system of music so staggeringly intricate and sophisticated. They love the Sarali Varisaigals, simple beginners lessons, so easy in the beginning, but methodically and swiftly gaining in complexity, with the more advanced ones positively byzantine in their structures. They were dazzled by the mathematical combinations that go into the talam cycles, and the prodigious possibilities for innovation, the rock-solid framework upon which musical castles and palaces could be built, intricately ornamented, soaring sky high. All this, from just a few basic lessons, but through this small window, they have had a glimpse of a vast and majestic universe: Carnatic music. That this was accomplished is a tribute to the music, and to the students. For me, this has been the most satisfying aspect of my stay here.
Living here, mingling with artists and musicians and dancers, seeing the paths they take, the lives they lead, the ambitions they have, so different from the “traditional” financial, corporate and academic people who are the ones I meet most in New York, leads me to think a lot about how we live, the often irreconcilable choices we make between doing what we love and what we are expected to do, what earns money and keeps the family in comfort. This is perhaps not really an issue for those whose talent burns bright, whose abilities illuminate clearly and unambiguously the road they should travel down. But for the rest of us, torn as we are between confronting the limitations of our not-quite-brilliant abilities, the expectations of our families, the brutal realities of the economics of living and the often soul-numbing dreariness of the alternatives, it is not so easy.
So it is all the more that I admire every one in this program, for each has chosen, or is thinking about choosing, a path which by no means has an assured pot of gold at the end, no steady, structured climb up a corporate ladder (which of course comes with its own pitfalls) or into an academic ivory tower. Yet, these are the people who bring beauty and color to our lives. May what artists bring to this world never be minimized or scorned. Admire and respect them, love them even, for they turn a world of black and white into brilliant technicolor.