One of the beautiful voices of our CEZNJA:BORN LONGING quartet, writer and performer KARMA MAYET JOHNSON shares her thoughts on the project.

Find out more about Karma at

A few of my Reflections on Ceznja…

I have several new Croation Aunties in Astoria; one of them made me promise after our performance together at the Kitchen to return to church and sing again. For me, it started on the G train–to the 7 to the N, on a gorgeous summer Sunday. In the church basement cafeteria we sang Happy Birthday to Mirjam, and tasted the layered cake prepared by a friend.

Stories of taking refuge on an island, or on the sea, or in song, abounded in the lyrics we learned. A people of water, I felt I could hear the Croation islanders’ relationship to the swish in their consonant-laden tongue, as I focused on letting melody help me elide syllables. Translating lines of Croatian poetry into English led me to access what I recall of my own legacies of water.

To watch and participate as Abena and Kristina directed this multifaceted collaboration was inspiring and instructive; each offered a deeply grounded sense of how community is created. And it actually happened. I was fortified and lifted by the contribution of each writer/storyteller/remember-

er/audience member/artist, and felt my gifts were received by the collective as well–as well working a definition of community as any I’ve heard.

I was reminded that the perspectives of African American artists on the history of migrations (forced and voluntary) to this hemisphere are a crucial ingredient to any discussion of what it means to become American. I learned of the Croats’ history of being subsumed in their homeland by a succession of tribal wars, conquering empires and wayward republics.

And I ate lots of cake and cookies. And met a number of amazing artists. And feel renewed in the clarity and number of purposes served by historically based art: making metaphor to document the unspeakable, making documentary work to detail the unbelievable… Thank you Cezjna project.

-Karma Mayet Johnson


Share a moment with educator, writer, theater director, artist and mother Kate Quarfordt as she reflects on her experiences with CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia):


Here are a couple of memories I take with me:

 * Hanging out with Dara, Elana and Karma in the upstairs office at The Kitchen and watching the form of the piece evolve right before our eyes as Abena and Kristina hashed through ideas while physically rearranging cardboard box tops labeled with working titles and descriptions of each segment. What a great reminder of the fluid, organic nature of creative collaboration!
* Singing with the feisty, graceful, luminous Miriam in the back room at the Rudar Club in Queens with Abena, Elana, Dara, Zeljka and Kristina–all of them feisty, graceful and luminous in their own right!–and feeling immense gratitude for the privilege of getting to make music with such a powerful group of women. I was so moved by the range of ages, cultures and experiences represented at that table… and yet, how easy our interactions felt! Amazing.
* Realizing that for each of the main Croatian participants–Miriam, Nori, Marcella, and Ivica–there is no separation between art and life… and that calling yourself an artist is in no way a prerequisite for making art. Miriam “has ideas” and misses her island, and she writes poems. Nori crosses the ocean on a tiny boat and writes a book… AND paints! Marcella tells her story and recites poetry with the soul of a born performer, in three languages no less. And then there’s Ivica, whose lyrics have been hitting me out of nowhere and making me cry while I’m standing at the sink doing dishes these last few days. I mention all of this because, as a working mother of two, I sometimes struggle and worry about how to “be” an artist. What I’ve learned, witnessing these incredible folks–is that this mental struggle is really pretty pointless when you remember that on any given day you can simply choose to open your mouth and sing… or write a poem… or make a painting… or compose a song about a child’s story. Makes the phrase “creative life” feel kind of redundant. 🙂
* Sitting next to Ivica’s daughter during the second half of the performance. Out of the corner of my eye I could see tears sliding down her cheeks as she watched her brother translating. I was flooded with adrenaline at that moment, wanting to make sure I got the words and the notes right. As a non-Croatian I felt in some ways like an outsider, afraid I might dishonor the music by not embodying its message the way a Croatian singer would be able to; yet at the very same time, I felt completely welcomed and trusted. Out of the tension of that paradox, a simple but startling thought occurred to me: the idea that–while our stories and family histories may be very different–we are all, by virtue of our humanness, “born longing”–yearning for something deep and true inside ourselves that so often feels obscured, cut off from us, just barely out of our reach. I decided then to sing from that place of longing in me, and once I felt connected to that, all my anxiety about getting the words right dissolved and I sang with my whole heart.
With gratitude,


Over the next few days, we will be featuring the reflections of our participants. Today we feature collaborator Caits Meissner as she shares her experience with CEZNJA:BORN LONGING.


ImageI. Rehearsal 

Water. It is the thread that runs through the show that Sarah and I have the honor to be apart of, our collaboration of poem and dance. Water- a passage to a new land. Water- sustenance. Water- a place to cool the skin and renew. Water- what makes the thought of a long ago island so pungent in memory. Miriam, the eighty year old woman whom we based our piece on, sits next to me in rehearsal. I have just read my poem illustrating all of the stories she so generously poured into us at her kitchen table in Astoria two weeks ago.

Sarah rocks back and forth in dance, water. Sarah waves her body, water.

Miriam puts her hands over her face when she is overcome. She jokes to break the tension. I hand her my poem and she folds it up small and places it to her lips. She sings along to all the songs she grew up with on her tiny island. Water. “You people,” she says, “are really something.” Is that good or bad, I ask? “Good,” she days definitively, and then admires my ring. I tell her my birthday was yesterday. Her husband’s was the day before mine, her father’s today. This small realization brings me a tiny thrill of pleasure. The flame of connection.

II. Opening Night

The night of the show I look at Miriam when I say, “stir the polenta,” I am performing to the audience, but I am performing, mostly, for her. I speak maybe too quickly for each word to be grasped, but I see her light up at her stories translated, the recognition of herself in these young New York women. Connection. I know water is not the only thing we drink. When she reads her poem after ours, there is a different kind of emotion that arrives to the surface- sustenance. There is life. Life earned from living. 

Water. Home. Family. Leaving. Heartache. Water. Connection. This show was an experience in humanity, in the magic of being alive with a beating heart and a  ticking brain, with a bodies that will all fade, taking our stories with them. This experience with Miriam, a deep reminder that our stories are all the same stories, they just appear in different colors. 



A Beautiful Success


Our presentation on Thursday was a huge success! The theater was filled to capacity. (Unfortunately, we even had to turn people away.) It was a beautiful collaboration between our participants and our audience. Special thanks to Hettie Barnhill, Elana Bell, Zelka Blaksic (aka Gita Blak), Marcella Bonich, Miriam Busanich, Sarah Dahnke, Ivica Gasparic, Karma Mayet Johnson, Adam Matta, Syreeta McFadden, Caits Meissner, Lynne Procope, Kate Quarfordt, Allison Schlegel, Margaret Zgombic, Nori Boni Zorovich for sharing their incredible stories and collaborations with our audience!

We’d also like to thank One Big City/CEC Artslink and The Kitchen for hosting our collaboration.

Stayed tune for more events here in the New York area and beyond.

CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia) is part of One Big City, a series of collaborative residencies and events produced by CEC ArtsLink in partnership with leading cultural venues to engage New York City’s diaspora communities through international arts initiatives.  One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Join Us! July 5th, 7pm @ The Kitchen!








(tales and songs from croatia)

A multimedia oral history project by Abena Koomson (US) and Kristina Leko (Croatia)



Thursday July 5th at 7:00 pm

512 West 19th Street, NYC
Free event followed by a reception


Čežnja: Born Longing features members of the Croatian community from Astoria, Queens and throughout New York City, as well as a diverse assembly of New York-based artists. These artists react and interpret stories and songs contributed by the members of the Croatian community. More information about the show and the artists here

One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund
and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Circle: Now It’s Your Turn

We began this week in the age- old Sunday morning tradition of going to church.

Not just any church. We attended the Croatian service at the Most Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church in Astoria. It was a simple and beautiful ceremony. Done entirely in Croatian, even the non- speaking among us get the point: Be grateful for your blessings, your community and your very life. It’s a worthy meditation as we step into the second week of the project.

In the middle of service, one of our participants from the Croatian community, Mirjam, is asked to stand. She had turned 80 just as few days before! When those of us who don’t speak Croatian ask her what was said about her in the service, she playfully remarks, “They say the chicken is too old…too old even for the soup!”

We make an announcement inviting people to join us after service in the cafeteria for a Song Circle. The basic idea is that it’s an opportunity to exchange songs. We arrive in the cafeteria where Mirjam’s friends have organized a little celebration with a cake so good and sweet, your eyes roll back to your brain to say “Thank you for gettin’ me in on this!”  After a few spirited conversations with and about Mirjam, we gather to sing. One of the church members shares a beautiful melody after claiming that he’s “not a singer.” Unfortunately he cannot stay for the rest of our event. Don’t worry he says. You’re gonna be here all day. Everybody has a song.

And he’s not kidding. Once it starts, it’s hard to put the breaks on. One person starts a verse and we’re surrounded by melodies, harmonies, and of course some unintentional counterpoint as we witness what happens when people from different islands navigate the peculiarities of “how they do it over there.” We keep having to convince our Croatian participants to give us the words again and again so that we can sing along. Then in the spirit of exchange, we share two songs with them:“Light in the Soul” and “Precious Memories.”

When we return to the Croatian songs, the moment comes when all of us are singing at the top of our lungs, Croatian and Non-Croatian. We sing in improvised harmonies and thrust our voices around the circle. It’s a song that says:

All birds are leaving the mountain

and landing by the sea.

Only one was left behind,

the one that sang to us.

The one that sang to us

about an unfulfilled love.

Now we must part

and live in solitude.

One of the women singing begins to cry. This is a song that was virtually forbidden to sing at a time when many Croatians were leaving communist Yugoslavia. Later, between tears, she says, “Ceznja: Born Longing. This is the point. You hit it right.”

CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia) is part of One Big City, a series of collaborative residencies and events produced by CEC ArtsLink in partnership with leading cultural venues to engage New York City’s diaspora communities through international arts initiatives.  One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Landscaping our Memories: Beautiful Croatia

The week speeds by. We have our first meeting with Mirjam, one of the Croatian women Kristina befriended on previous trips to New York. She shows us age old photos of her island of Ilovik. She reads us poems she has written commemorating the island, its precious church, and the cemetery. She sings a song that was written by a group of young immigrants who wanted to remember the beautiful things they had left. Mirjam cannot let us leave without ensuring that we’ve been fed. She makes us chicken and vegetables. There is plenty of bread, and she winks and smiles broadly while shuttling between the dining table and the kitchen of her small and lovely apartment. She sends us off with the apple cake she’s made this morning and we head down to The Kitchen to meet with several of the artists who will be participating.


We meet in The Kitchen’s theater. In a rich and lively discussion, each participant speaks about their background, interest in the project and past artistic ventures. We toss around ideas for developing the structure of our culminating presentation. And of course we have a bit of Miriam’s apple cake.

Throughout the week we continue to meet with members of the Croatian community and our artist participants. Every story we hear is connected to longing. Connected to the beauty of the island. Connected to the physical and emotional landscape that was left and that remains.

We close the week by attending an event at the Croatian community center on 41st street in Manhattan. We enter a full swing celebration of Statehood Day, a Croatian holiday commemorating the 20th anniversary of Croatia’s Declaration of Independence from Yugoslavia. The hall is festively decorated in red and white. Folk dancing, Klapa singing, spirited speeches and blessings come together with spirited conversations and a hearty buffet. Several of Ivica’s songs from the Children’s Festival are also performed and many familiar faces from the picnic in Croatian Land are here. We eat, drink, mingle and search for a few Ganga singers to join us at our event. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia)  is part of One Big City, a series of collaborative residencies and events produced by CEC ArtsLink in partnership with leading cultural venues to engage New York City’s diaspora communities through international arts initiatives.  One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

The Door Opens: First Days of the Project

DAY 1: After months of skyping and email exchanges, we finally meet in Queens by the Croatian Church of the Most Precious Blood in Astoria. After a brief conversation with Mirjam, one of our participants, we head out to Croatian Land, a beautiful area of approximately 40 acres in New Jersey where food and festivities happen throughout the summer. On this particular Sunday the community is gathering to enjoy family time, beautiful weather, eat Bar B Q and of course, watch the soccer, ehem, football game. After a delicious meal of fresh roasted meats and homemade desserts, we convince a group of men to perform a few traditional ganga songs. Their voices are piercing, veins are bulging, chins are raised, eyes are closed, hands outstretched and ears cupped for fine tuning. Everything about this exercise in sound is as athletic as the game on the mobile screen just a few feet away. All afternoon people exchange stories and memories. We wonder how to capture these moments…

DAY 2: Big meeting with staff members from CEC ArtsLink and The Kitchen. We tour the space, talk about our ideas and schedule a meeting with the participating artists who will be interpreting the stories we gather. We are struck by so much good fortune…as it turns out, one of the collaborators also works at The Kitchen and can help coordinate the meeting! Beyond that, they’ve given us office space! In this crowded big city, we have a home of our own. We order lunch from ‘wichcraft and settle into discussing the nuts and bolts of the project. Of course, the conversation is a work in progress. We pull ideas between us like a tug of war rope, each being drawn in by the other’s perspective. An excellent workout.

But the impetus of the project really begins to take shape when we travel to Astoria to meet with Ivica, a Croatian composer. Ivica writes modern folk songs based on the histories of people in the community. That, in and of itself, is an important artistic work. But more amazingly, he writes them to be sung by the children of these families. Through his compositions, he places the oral history of the family in the mouths of the children, and describes sentiments that resonate strongly with the generation that emigrated here from Croatia. The songs are performed in the Croatian community and at music festivals.  This is a powerful chronicle of the people.

While the Croatian Football team struggled against Spain, Ivica shares his compositions. as we listen, his daughter translates lyrics whose haunting words of longing play in stark contrast to upbeat modern melodies. Ivica steps in and out of the room intermittently as we listen. Suddenly he declares that dinner is ready and invites us to the table with his daughter, his son-in-law and his two beautiful granddaughters.

Around the table we share stories of leaving and loving home. We weave these stories through our frustrations with political and religious institutions. We celebrate language and cultural connection. Meanwhile, his granddaughters play gleefully around us, having abandoned the dinner table in favor of entertaining one another. What stories, what music, what connections will they discover as they grow?




CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia)  is part of One Big City, a series of collaborative residencies and events produced by CEC ArtsLink in partnership with leading cultural venues to engage New York City’s diaspora communities through international arts initiatives.  One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.