(re)calling, graphite and gesso, 15" x 6"
This past weekend I heard a radio program that touched me very deeply. The segment was about a Ukrainian songcatcher who records the stories women tell her through song. Some of the songs can be very old or the singers may tell their own personal stories into song weaving in metaphor, myth, and magic to relate the depth of their feelings. The periods of singing could last for hours and hours. Over time some of the spirits that dwell within the culture were sung about, one kind were the domovi house spirits, and another being the Rusalka, the spirits of women who died unjustly or very young, perhaps, unmarried women, women who died in childbirth or drowned. They are sort of nature spirits which can be benevolent or malicious, and one week a year women conduct rituals to appease the rusalki and to avoid natural disasters. Part of the week includes visiting the graves of family members and singing songs to them giving news of the present and and reminiscing about the past. Each woman in the procession has her own melody so the sound becomes a crowd of individual stories some filled with the poignant new grief of recent loss, or occasionally with the bitter words of a widow married to a long dead abusive husband.
As the Ukraine modernizes and the new generation turns to the radio for it's music, this practice is swiftly disappearing. It doesn't help that some of the some of the women interviewed were survivors of Chernobyl, a place that had a history rich with stories of rusulka and as a result these women are unable to perform the rusalki rituals in the place of their ancestors. The loss of a place once again marks the beginning of a loss of the culture.
Mariana the songcatcher also mentions that in the Ukraine the best singers are witches or fortunetellers. The word for witch meaning "the one who knows" how to heal and protect. She tells how at the age of nineteen when she traveled about listening to the songs of women, and one woman sang about Mariana, capturing her essence in song.
I am deeply interested the the ideas of women's personal stories told through song, and then mixed with ideas about reading one's essence, magic, and spirits, I am giddy. This tradition has such resonance for me as I used to sing in the woods that I explored as a child, sometimes my own heartaches, sometimes in nonsensical words, and then it has a connection to the work I've been making all along but especially to the drawings I made after my mom died. The drawing at the top is one of a series of bird drawings I began after my mom died. They all sing telling the stories I couldn't find the words for.
The program is about an hour long, but I highly recommend you to listen to it at thestory.org. The research led to a group based in San Francisco Kitka to make a CD based on these musical traditions. You can listen to two songs here. I am still absorbing the information, researching Russian folk spirits and trying to figure out what it means to me today.