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.