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.

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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.