Coordination and Production:
Sara Serpa & Jen Shyu
Editor for Summer Solstice 2021 Cohort:
Photo by Mariana Meraz Collective hug: Past and present M³ Cohort members embrace at Gala M³ 2022.
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Nancy & Joe Walker, mediaThe foundation, New Music USA, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, South Arts, CRS (Center for Remembering and Sharing), Christopher Pelham, Arlene and Larry Dunn, Emily Bookwalter, Francesca Tanksley, and all of our individual donors and supporters.
Contributors: Summer Solstice 2021 Cohort
Song Yi Jeon
Eli Maliwan AKA Saxreligious
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Matrescence , Layale Chaker
- Thank You Black Amerikuh!: How Jazz Provided Me with a Pathway Back to Myself, Thandi Ntuli
- Mom, Song Yi Jeon
- Recollections of a Great Mentor: Honoring Inda Saxby Howland with Memories and Gratitude (1907-1984), Diane Monroe
- Semiotic of Sound, Barbara Togander
- Beyond the Lies: Unpacking Some of the Harmful Untruths From My Performing Arts Education, Rebeka Heller
- The One Who Said, ‘I Thirst’, Francesca Tanksley
- “sadboi jams”: Songs That Made Me Cry in 2021, Ria Modak
- Inner Voice, Milena Casado
- My Journey in Gender and Its Intersection with Race and Music, Eli Maliwan aka Saxreligious
- Why Did I Choose Music?, Rani Jambak
June of 2022 was a special month for M³. We presented our first in-person festival in New York City, which featured 19 women and non-binary musicians from our first two cohorts as band leaders, along with the 12 musicians who comprised our 4th cohort, with screenings of their six world premieres of music-video duo commissions. For the first time since its inception, several cohorts gathered in the same room to experience live music together. The visibility, the possibility, the energy, the joy, the amazement, and the diverse audiences reassured us of the power of music as a way to communicate, share, and listen.
At our Closing Night Gala, we awarded M³’s first Lifetime Achievement Award to Shanta Nurullah, a brilliant sitar and mbira player and storyteller based in Chicago who has been creating music since the 1960’s. In her award ceremony speech, Shanta said: “Before [this], I really hadn’t gotten any recognition as a musician. That’s 50 years of doing this work….After a while, when nobody’s calling you, and your peers are not acknowledging you, you come to think, ‘It must be because I’m not good enough. It must be because I didn’t do the work, or I didn’t practice enough.’”
Her speech resonated with so many of us who have had this persistent feeling despite any achievement and success. There is still much more work to do, and this anthology is proof of that. The contributions for this anthology come from all corners of the world: South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia, Spain, Lebanon, Argentina and the US. From motherhood, grief, joy, the myths of musical education, pursuing a musical career against all odds, to racism or transphobia, all of these essays and poems force us to reflect on how we can and must move forward.
We extend deep gratitude to Naomi Extra as our Development Editor, who worked very closely with each artist in refining their writings and nurturing their voices through writing workshops and one-on-one meetings.
This third volume of M³’s Anthology of Writings arrives a little late because we are still mainly a team of two artists + one (Laura Krider, our amazing administrative associate and anthology’s proofreader, who has been providing crucial support to all of our operations). We are so proud to continue this publication, as we truly believe it provides another kind of far-reaching support for those reading around the world. We believe these writings normalize conversations that are oftentimes only whispered amongst ourselves and might keep someone who feels marginalized from giving up. As Shanta Nurullah said later in her Lifetime Achievement Award speech, “This is why M³ is so important. This is why you have to keep on doing this thing, and you have to keep on breaking down doors and creating situations for yourself and other women. Just don’t give up.”
From the editors,
Jen & Sara
2. Matrescence by Layale Chaker
October 27, 2021
8 months and 2 days old
Tonight will be just like every other night.
You’ll start to rub your eyes
bury your head in my chest, I’ll hold you
tighter, latch you and caress
your cheeks and hair as you drift
off sip after sip. And I’ll tell you, again, holding
your little toes in my hand: I remember exactly
where those two little feet used to kick,
When you were on the other side.
I’ll notice, again, that that little foot
occupies more space in my palm
than it used to just a few weeks ago.
It will bittersweetly sting, again.
That same sensation
Of your littleness slipping
through my fingers while I wasn’t looking.
Perhaps I didn’t pay enough attention.
Where did time go? I was right here, all along.
Basking in that comforting
It won’t matter whether I rushed
home from a concert that night
Just in time to tuck you in
Or that I’ll reluctantly put you down
a little sooner tonight
As I attempt to crawl behind my piano,
my laptop, my scores, my violin,
my piled-up to-do lists.
Ever since you, and this,
I have so much more to say
Yet so much less time.
So I’ll try again,
but I’ll also probably give in to exhaustion
And crawl in my bed for a couple hours,
“Isn’t that everything: A beginning, middle and end. Life.
To trust the world and the gods and this man beside you
To bring this tender soft skinned being
Into this savagery and destruction, this hell on earth?
Isn’t that a woman’s first and strongest act of resistance?
The loudest political action in this whole goddamn world?
To make life?”
– Lisa Schelsinger, Iphigenia Point Blank
April 30th, 2021
2 months and 5 days old
Moments after the end of that labor
that lasted a night, a day and another night
I remember promising myself:
“I will never forget any of this.
commit never to forget any of this.”
But it’s already all a blur – the pain,
the waves, up and down
And the thoughts. The dark ones, the ugly, raw ones,
the ecstatic ones
They kept pouring uncontrollably
for weeks. I kept a journal,
But for some reason I cannot decipher my own writing.
And you, you won’t remember any of it.
Not the first seconds,
not the first minutes,
not the first years.
Here is the tragedy of mankind.
How is it that we do not remember
the beginning, why is it inevitably robbed from us?
Where would we be, if we could hold on
to that memory
of being birthed by our mothers,
of being born?
Maybe we would be less capable of so much harm
towards ourselves and one another.
If only we could remember the beginning.
February 25th, 2022
1 year old
It’s been a steep curve. Unlearning some parts of me, some that I liked more than I thought, some that were there beyond my awareness. Learning, growing, realising – how to perceive my new role, and how I am perceived in it. With this growth came spurts of anger and frustration. Mourning all the unexpected losses, and trying to shield us, you and I, from it all.
As mothers, our wells only get deeper every day. The lives we bare in turn cultivate in us storytellers full of awe, love and wonder. We live to testify of creation itself. So why are our voices tamed? Why are we pressured to divide, separate and hide the most intertwined and complex parts of our being?
It has taken me time and a strange sense of confidence to accept the merging of the many layers in my life. My many moments of doubt are sometimes, thankfully, comforted just at the right moment by the conviction that the artist in me deserves to know and delight in those layers, to tap into one of existence’s greatest mysteries, and live to tell.
In a world deafened by the relentless cadence of modern-day capitalism, motherhood is the courage to embrace one of life’s most immeasurable adventures under the scrutiny of apathetic eyes. But we still live to testify of creation itself.
And tonight, as we crawl into our beds at the end of yet another exhausting day, we’ll have so much more to say, in spite of so much less time.
3. Thank You Black Amerikuh!: How Jazz Provided Me with a Pathway Back to Myself by Thandi Ntuli
“The urban African-American lifestyle has never ceased to influence African urban life. African-American music has always played a major role in the lives of Africans all over the continent; especially in South Africa.” Hugh Masekela in Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela
Dear Black Amerikuh,
I’ve tried to write you a song with this title for a while now, but every time I try, words fail. So, I thought to write you this letter instead. A letter that expresses my love and deep appreciation for what is you and your struggle.
My name is Thandi Ntuli and I am a Black, Zulu (under Nguni grouping), South African woman. I play piano, compose, write songs, and sing. I was born and raised in Soshanguve, a township north of Tshwane (previously known as Pretoria) in South Africa. A township in our context refers to an underdeveloped, urban, living area developed during the period of and leading up to apartheid, as a place earmarked for “non-whites”. In some townships, there is further segregation according to one’s culture. The name Soshanguve itself is a sort of backronym that is made up of the words Sotho, Shangani, Nguni, Venda; the main combination of cultural backgrounds of the people in the area. Because I went to private schools throughout my life, I’m seen as privileged in some spaces but from my personal experience, underprivileged in others. These are the boxes (as implied by society) that I’m told I fit into. The defining parameters of all the things “I am.” I always felt that there was more to me than these labels and that finding this “more” would be key to my sense of freedom. I see myself as someone who uses jazz as a tool for seeking.
I came to jazz in 2006 through a serendipitous meeting with pianist Francis Ovie, whom I met in the UK while living there with my older sister during my gap year. Francis, who is originally from Nigeria, was the accompanist for a student gospel choir at Coventry University in England. My sister was part of the choir and because I had taken this gap year to try to figure out where I wanted to study in the coming year, I took every opportunity to surround myself with music. I would often tag along when she went to rehearse with the choir.
On one occasion, while everyone was socializing and saying goodbyes after rehearsal, I silently listened in my corner as Francis played what I thought was a beautiful composition. My 18-year-old self summoned up the courage to ask what song he was playing. It was upon discovering that he was in fact “just improvising” that my interest in jazz and improvisation was sparked. While we were speaking, he mentioned that in order to learn how to improvise, I should consider studying jazz. At this point, all I had known was that I wanted to study music so I could learn to write my own songs. And now, what appeared to be a path to that goal was the music I’d only ever associated with my father’s music collection and our next-door neighbor’s blaring old school Kenwood speakers back home. That music was jazz.
Soon thereafter in 2007, I returned to South Africa and began my studies at the University of Cape Town. My “audition” was not an audition per se. It was instead a lot of groveling and begging on my part to the Head of Department (HOD) for Jazz Piano to give me a shot at studying jazz despite not having prior practical knowledge of how to play it, and having been accepted to study classical music. I was admitted through an essay in which I analyzed the music of unnamed artists from a CD that was burned for me by the HOD. I have no idea what I wrote in that essay that convinced him to let me switch courses except that maybe jazz was lodged somewhere deeply in my subconscious, or (more likely), that my being a musician had been sealed by fate long before I considered this path.
I later learned that the unnamed artists whose music was on that audition CD were Thelonious Monk (one of the pioneers of bebop and a pianist I grew to appreciate for his incredibly unique expression), Bheki Mseleku (who later became one of the South African jazz pianists to have a profound influence on me) and Bud Powell (another of the pioneers of bebop who had a great influence on many of the modern jazz pianists I was later influenced by).
This period was a bit of a frantic haze– an exciting information gathering period. With the weight and pressure of passing exams and being surrounded by peers who were mostly already oriented into the culture of improvised music, I was provided with a social as well as practical incentive to speed up my learning. The music library became one of my favorite hangout spots where, in my spare time, I played catchup by listening to copious amounts of new music and watching documentaries. I made sure I had something to contribute when I was around my peers. It was also in line with the advice I’d been given by my first year piano teacher, the late Andre Petersen, on how to best learn how to improvise. Transcribe, listen, play!
I felt myself most drawn to jazz from the hard bop era through to the modal era of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This appreciation was revealed through my affinity to bands such as Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. This band, amongst many other things, put me onto tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and his timeless compositions as well as Lee Morgan’s trumpet. To this day, I am still so deeply moved by Morgan’s rendition of I Remember Clifford, another one of Golson’s beautiful compositions.
I discovered Wayne Shorter when I purchased my first jazz CD (with my own money) Speak No Evil, a classic album which introduced me to the wonderful world of Shorter’s compositions. I only bought that CD because I saw Herbie Hancock’s name on the sleeve, and boy am I glad I did! To this day, Wayne Shorter is one of my favorite composers. His dedication to staying playful and imaginative, even after all these years making music, is something I aspire to myself. In so many ways, he represents what freedom can look like just by the way he thinks about things. In a New York Times interview from 2018, Shorter said: “I think that music opens portals and doorways into unknown sectors that it takes courage to leap into. I always think that there’s a potential that we all have, and we can emerge, rise up to this potential, when necessary. We have to be fearless, courageous, and draw upon wisdom that we think we don’t have.” I am learning that this fearlessness and courage is a practice that starts from within.
This ritual of discovery– finding an artist, listening, transcribing what I liked and playing– was exhilarating. Checking out the music of the supporting artists, listening, transcribing what I liked, and playing. Repeat! Sharing my findings with peers, getting better, getting ideas to write my own songs, jamming in the practice rooms, receiving positive feedback about my compositions from friends. It was such a thrill!
Then there was John Coltrane. I loved Coltrane’s tone first and foremost. Usually, I’m pulled in by a composition, but Coltrane was an artist whose tone moved me from the get go. I was blown away by how he reimagined the song My Favorite Things (off the 1961 album of the same title) which was originally a show tune from the 1959 film The Sound of Music. Coltrane’s take on this tune, one that I had primarily known from my childhood, awakened my inner arranger. It was when I discovered Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an album considered by many as his magnum opus, that something really shifted deep inside me. This album ignited a curiosity about the consciousness behind the music. I began to understand where this music was coming from, why it affected me the way it did, and not just limit my relationship to the music to trying to play it. It inspired such a deep recognition in me that I believe was rooted in the fact that Coltrane used his music to seek as well as transcend the limitations of his physical being.
As I recognized the spiritual dimensions of him, I started to see this in other musicians as well. I started noticing song titles like McCoy Tyner’s Man from Tanganyika which reminded me of the powerful connection between African Americans and Africa. I was also put on to McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose influence is so prevalent in many modern South African jazz piano players. There were also band names (like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi) that the artistic explorations of these artists were not merely musical but also deeply spiritual. Many musicians I really grew to love were in fact seekers, seeking spiritually but also delving into influences from various cultures around the world.
I became aware of the fact that jazz was not just “good music,” it had major cultural and historical significance. This music, rooted in the blues, was born out of the sorrows, frustrations, and struggle of Africans who were taken from their homes and removed from their families, spirituality, culture and heritage through slavery. It is a music that evolved through incredible creativity and gives room for expressing the frustrations of the continued oppressive environment that they were faced with. It holds the information of lineage and gives room for transcending the limitations of identity. Most of all, it is music of great resilience, displays the beauty and power of the human spirit, and has blessed the world with so much upliftment and joy.
Studying jazz has helped me confront these challenges with my sense of displacement and lost identity. In South Africa, the history of white colonial land dispossession and its effects on the migration of black people, have played a major role on the psyche of our nation. One of the major legislations in our recent history was the imposing of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This was a legislation that limited the property rights of Africans and, in the words of Sol Plaatje, would result in the native South African finding themself as “not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
For many Black South Africans, particularly those who grew up in urban spaces, not having a family home, ikhaya, and therefore a relationship to the land, brings many challenges to one’s perception of self. From the physical and mental to the spiritual aspects of one’s being. Land and nature informs so much of how we see ourselves, how we create, how we organize communities, what we value, and how we view the world. This is very evident in our clan names, surnames, language and idiomatic expressions. (My surname, Ntuli, means dust, and carries a history of how we came to be known that way.) I was never fully conscious of this until I began interacting with different people, places and spaces within my ‘kasi’ (how we refer to townships), outside of my ‘kasi’, and around the country. The questions of who I was outside of the boxes society had provided was made more apparent by meeting people who seemed to have a better sense of who they were and had a deeper sense of knowing their own family history and heritage.
Writing music and improvisation requires a constant interrogation of the self and an understanding of the archetypes that inform a part of one’s “language” musically. In addition to all I had learned from jazz in America, I saw many examples of South African artists who were seeking in the context of our environment. Be it Abdullah Ibrahim’s incorporation of Cape Goema and Malay influenced sounds, Zim Ngqawana incorporation of traditional Xhosa music and Moses Molelekwa’s infusion of various African rhythms and genres in his playing. Jazz, for me, became the place where all of this unexplored heritage could find a home.
Black Amerikuh, with arms wide open, you have given me the space to negotiate the meaning of my own experiences, the space to infuse the language of my own personal struggles with identity, and most of all to know that these struggles are more common than we are led to believe. Through jazz, you have bestowed upon me both the refusal to forget and the defiant spirit of joy and resilience.
Meeting you has been a most profound confrontation. I’m in awe of the worlds that have unfurled before me since heeding The Call to pursue a deeper knowledge of you. Worlds far broader reaching or expansive than notes on a page, melodies, lyric, harmonies or rhythm change. An inner world. Reaching, imagining, conceiving.
Thank you, Black Amerikuh!
4. Mom by Song Yi Jeon
I still see the image of you
in the living room looking
outside of the window,
watching the cats playing together,
watching the smoke
come out of the neighbor’s chimney.
I look at the living room now,
you’re not there anymore.
I still see the image of you
walking to the kitchen,
where I used to follow you
to help you get some water, or make tea.
But now I don’t see you walking to the kitchen.
Whenever I look at the TV,
I still see you there
watching a soccer game
or a nature documentary.
I’m not so familiar with this silence.
I still feel the touch of your hair.
That soft, dark brown hair I used to dry
so that you didn’t get cold,
it only took one or two minutes to dry.
You didn’t like your hair much
but I loved touching it.
I still see you sitting on the hospital bed.
My time is stuck on that day.
I still have the feeling in my hand
when I held your hand,
but I can’t find your hand anywhere.
On that day I tried to make your fingers warm
so that you didn’t get too cold,
but I couldn’t make your entire body warm.
There are so many memories of you
that I almost see you, but I don’t see you with my eyes.
I still feel you but I cannot find you anymore.
What is the meaning of existence,
What is the memory and what is the existence.
I feel like I see you, my memories trick me.
It feels weird that I still feel your hand.
I miss you so madly.
This confusion will settle at some point
and the sadness might fade in its density,
but I want to keep the touch of your hand forever
and hope it turns into the joy of you being with us forever.
I love you.
Be peaceful wherever you are,
with no pain, no fear, just happiness.
5. Recollections of a Great Mentor: Honoring Inda Saxby Howland with Memories and Gratitude (1907-1984) by Diane Monroe
In late September of 1984, I was in a state of transition. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music orientation committee had just welcomed me both as a first-timer faculty member and Assistant Professor of Violin. Having hardly gotten settled into my new job and dwellings that week, I anticipated placing a call to Ms. Howland to say hello. Inda S. Howland was a most beloved and devoted musical mentor who had held the academic position of Professor of Eurythmics and Music Theory at the conservatory for 44 years until her retirement in 1974. I’d heard that Ms. Howland still resided in the Oberlin area, and my thoughts of her were so present since my arrival on campus. How happy and excited I was at the prospect of seeing and speaking with her again. I wanted to thank her for literally changing my musical life! My mind overflowed with coveted memories of a most life-affirming musical journey with this genius mentor while I was studying violin at Oberlin as a freshman and sophomore student in the early 70s.
As I continued to get acclimated at Oberlin, I was confronted with flurries of new information and people. Even though Ms. Howland was on my mind, a few days passed without getting in touch. Then, while on my way to the Conservatory of Music, I just happened to hear someone rather casually say that a memorial service for the legendary Inda Howland had been held at Fairchild Chapel on campus. I remember the date clearly; it was Wednesday, September 23, 1984. I was devastated. The most profoundly influential teacher of my entire musical life had just passed on. I had not only missed a chance to see her again, but also the opportunity to mourn her passing and to share in grief with others. To not have been able to, at the very least, memorialize and pay honor to the extraordinary life of Inda Howland was something I just could not wrap my head around. These sudden emotional realizations were not at all easy to bear, and the ironic twist that Ms. Howland’s service had been held on the same day and nearly at the same time of my being welcomed to the Oberlin faculty made the news even worse.
What could I do now? I searched and searched for faculty and students who had perhaps attended the service, to connect with them to learn more about the hows and whys of her passing. During the coming weeks of settling in, I finally found the right people to speak with—some faculty and friends who knew and loved her, and those who had information to share, some of which I had not known before. I was glad to at least have a semblance of closure at that time.
You may be wondering, who was Inda Howland and what made her so special? In order to shed some light on this, I must take you back to my time as an undergraduate student majoring in violin at Oberlin in 1971. While attempting to fill out my course roster as a brand new freshman, I heard from other students about an “incredible Eurythmics class” that everyone was taking as a secondary subject. So, I asked someone, “What’s Eurythmics?” An older student explained that Eurythmics is the study of music and movement. I learned that the study is wide-ranging, and its methods and contexts are largely developed differently from musician to musician. Eurythmics can include anything from deep listening, dancing and rhythm-ing to music, improvisation on ones major instrument/voice/ piano, integrating and embodying rhythm, to instrumental/vocal and performing.
I was immediately drawn to the idea of a rhythm and movement focus for my studies, and was frankly surprised to learn that this method was offered within a classical world that seemed to mostly avoid the rhythm/movement aspect of music as a practice, particularly in traditional string training, and especially at that time in history. I’d also heard that Ms. Howland happened to have studied with the highly esteemed creator of Eurythmics, Emile Jaques Dalcroze. So then I thought, “How could I lose?” and from that point I became utterly obsessed with joining her class.
During freshman orientation week I, shockingly, got up enough nerve to find Ms. Howland’s office and actually knocked on her door. To my pleasant surprise, she opened the door right away, then smiled and said “Hello! Please come in!” As it turned out, her Eurythmics classes were already completely full. I must’ve looked particularly sad though, because she offered me a space to audit her Aural Skills class which was routinely reserved for upperclassmen.
Ms. Howland’s studio was located on the second floor of the conservatory and was set as a medium-sized gymnasium facing a sweet piece of land in the middle of the college called Tappan Square. We sat on the wooden floor as we watched her move across it in time with the music in her faded moccasins. While listening to works from Bach to Ravel and beyond, she danced, illustrating the music. Her movements demonstrated the energy of each note, each phrase which she felt so intensely. Her arms pushed and pulled, stopped and started, her fists were poised at times, and she’d make her famous swishing and guttural, grunting noises with her mouth (all so new and fun to hear!) all the while showing us the underlying rhythm of the whole composition.
When her dancing was done, she would then turn to us, one at a time, and invite each to play our own instruments. Eventually, she’d even invited me (the freshman auditor!) to actually play in class for her to coach. I was thrilled. While I played, Ms. Howland was gentle, but relentless about wanting me to broaden my expressive range, often gesturing for new colors and textures of sound. And, if the “main goal of arrival” was not reached in a musical line, meaning she’d missed hearing the overall arch from beginning to end of a phrase or an entire work, then I’d have to head back to the drawing board until she thought I’d successfully reached that goal. She worked us hard, but we as students would eventually hear what she heard and work tirelessly on our instruments, each striving to reach our main goals of arrival every chance that came our way. Ms. Howland would often say that it didn’t matter how slow a “slow movement” was played, tempo-wise. We learned that it is possible to actually control the speed of the beginning, middle and end of each note, and connecting each of those notes together with energy and velocity in mind and practice positively affects change in expression and communication with an audience. She’d routinely illustrate by playing on our arms as if they were piano keyboards, using the tactile touch of her fingertips to have us feel the movement of each note upon our skin. She would also draw lines, shapes, and curly swishes on the blackboard as well as playing phrases on the piano. All these wonderfully natural, inventive skills and tools from Ms. Howland’s magical palette helped us to listen more deeply and often taught us the elusive hidden meanings behind each composition.
To me, Ms. Howland seemed to have the ability to physically demonstrate the inner workings of the extraordinary teachings and performances of legendary musical artists everywhere. Artists such as cellist Pablo Casals, drummer Max Roach, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, pianist Bud Powell, pianist Martha Argerich, sitarist Ravi Shankar, operatic soprano Leontyne Price, and countless other musical geniuses of the world have all seemed to tap into that special source which defines vibration/sound/rhythm/movement as one thing; a continuous flow of energy, altogether. Ms. Howland had a remarkable ability to communicate how this flow of energy works, and to mold it into a phenomenal musical practice within her Eurythmics and Aural Skills curricula.
I always think of Ms. Howland every time I pick up my violin to play or listen to any music, for that matter. Her gems of wisdom are forever helping me to better shape each phrase and to capture that special meaning in any composition, no matter what the musical tradition. While giving a violin lesson, or coaching an ensemble, Ms. Howland’s words still come alive to me and speak volumes. The power of her musical authenticity and creative spirit seems to kick in each time, to help the students reach even higher toward their musical goals. Ms. Howland’s invaluable teachings remain among the most powerful tools of my musical practice. She has helped me to focus on the music with intent, and to play at my best, even in times of doubt and discouragement.
Dearest Ms. Howland, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for a deeper, more complete and profound journey into music-making. I am so grateful to you for this extraordinary gift, and it has taught me that music is life itself. May your musical legacy live on, and never be forgotten.
6. Semiotic of Sound by Barbara Togander
About the 3rd M³ Map
This graphic/drawing is a map of all 12 musicians participating in the 3rd M³ cohort. It is made on a world map where each dot shows the city where each participant lives and is from.
Each line links the duos:
Milena Casado, Spain/Boston, US + Layale Chaker, New York, US/Lebanon
Rebekah Heller, NYC, US + Diane Monroe, Philadelphia, US
Rani Jambak, Sumatra, Indonesia + Sheila Maurice-Grey, London, UK
Song Yi Jeon, Basel, Switzerland + Eli Maliwan, California, US
Ria Modak, Cambridge, US/Mumbai, India + Barbara Togander, Buenos Aires, Argentina/Stockholm, Sweden
Thandi Ntuli, South Africa + Francesca Tanksley, Boston, US
7. Beyond the Lies: Unpacking Some of the Harmful Untruths From My Performing Arts Education, Rebekah Heller
Like many folks, the pandemic offered me some time for deep reflection, a career change, and a shift in my relationship to my art and the many ways I earn a living from it. In late 2020, I moved on from my full time job as Co-Artistic Director at International Contemporary Ensemble where I had worked as both a bassoonist and administrator for the last decade. I vowed to leave more room in my day-to-day life for unstructured creative time, spontaneity, and for re-balancing my epic and unsustainable level of busyness. I committed more deeply to my position at The Mannes School of Music in the College of Performing Arts at The New School. There, and through my work at Ensemble Evolution (International Contemporary Ensemble’s summer program), I met students who challenged me to unpack the biggest lies my own conservatory education fed me. Lies from which I’m still recovering. Lies I strive to keep from infecting and affecting the inner lives of my students.
I want to share some of these lies with you here, couched in my messy and winding path to now. Learning not only to live with, but to love my complicated journey, is part of healing from these lies. Most of the lies I’ll talk about are based in fear. And don’t get me wrong, fear is not objectively bad. Fear can propel us through uncomfortable yet transformational experiences. Fear can be the juice that powers the most thrilling performances. I actively run towards that kind of fear in my decision-making these days. But, there is a darker side of fear–fear of playing a wrong note, fear of looking stupid, fear of being judged (for your sound or your writing or your interpretation, etc). This kind of fear has been used as a motivating factor in performing arts education and training for far too long.
Lie #1: Hyperspecialization is the only way to achieve success.
After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the early 2000s, I continued my studies through a graduate fellowship at UT Austin. During this time, I was never completely sure of what my next move would be. The options posed to me were: get a job in an orchestra or get my PhD and hopefully land a teaching job. I honestly didn’t even consider any alternatives. It felt crystal clear to me that anything that deviated from these choices would mean, to others, that I wasn’t serious about becoming a professional musician. This felt so true but the real fear, if I’m being honest, was that people would think I wasn’t good enough to get a job.
Neither option (more school so I could pursue full-time teaching or an orchestra job) seemed especially appealing to me at the time, but I forged ahead practicing orchestra excerpts until I was numb in the face and throwing myself at every audition that opened up. Directly from grad school at UT, I landed in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for one year, and then the New World Symphony for three years, both prestigious orchestral training programs. During these four years I took a total of 27 auditions, shed countless tears, and spent more dollars than I had on travel, hotels, etc. In 2008, I finally landed a job as Principal Bassoonist in the Jacksonville Symphony. While I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity it provided as well as the amazing colleagues and friends I made there, honestly, I hated it. Having no agency over what music I played or which artists I played with, and no opportunities to speak of to play chamber music or be a soloist, drove me nuts. I wanted to love my job, to feel proud of each show, to feel engaged in some deep exploration of those storied tunes with my colleagues. I wanted to feel things. I was an artist, after all. But instead I felt discouraged and penned in. I also felt duped. Is this really what I’d spent the last ten years of my young life trying to achieve?
The real opportunity for me in that job was a chance to put to bed a dream that was never really mine to begin with. More so, I could leave behind some of the fear I had internalized around what kind of performance careers were sustainable and which would be celebrated. Even though I was a crappy audition-taker (all nerves and bad fear), and unsure I even wanted the jobs I was throwing myself at, I felt deeply proud that I had finally “won” a job (that’s honestly the language that’s used). I felt vindicated. I felt that in the eyes of my mentors and peers, this win would be perceived as a verification of my talent, a gold stamp on my artistic passport that read: “I’m good enough to get a job!”
I should note before I go any further that this is not an orchestra slam piece. Many artists I know find much creative and artistic fulfillment in their orchestra jobs. But it’s time for us as a field, more broadly, to make room for those who wish to thrive outside this narrow path. And that brings me to a problem I see many young folks grappling with, much as I did. It’s the question of who we celebrate as a field. Which artists do we hold up as successful? Whose careers do we applaud, thereby value-signaling to younger artists what they should aspire to do with their careers to be noticed, appreciated, compensated, celebrated?
Many artists I’ve mentored have wrestled with the seemingly ubiquitous dichotomy between achieving success, in their eyes and the eyes of their peers, and having a satisfying and diverse career that speaks to their inner artistic needs and desires. That often includes an untidy collection of jobs, gigs, hobbies, work, and more; not easy to contextualize into a neat sub-header like “Principal Bassoonist,” or “Conservatory Professor.”
Choosing to leave Jacksonville in 2009 after just one season, I made the financially risky decision to move to NYC to play with International Contemporary Ensemble; a group I had loved and followed since its founding after many of us were at Oberlin together. It hadn’t seemed practical to join this brave group of artists earlier on, perhaps because of the lack of existing celebrated artists in that space (a new music bassoonist? In the US? Dream on).
But, releasing the idea that an orchestra job was the only option available freed my imagination and freed me from my fear of the unknown. Being unhappy in a relatively stable job in Jacksonville seemed like a much bigger gamble, and in the long run much less sustainable than hustling to make ends meet to play with a group that inspired me, so off I went to New York City. I bartended and waited tables to help make rent, both of which appealed to me more than hustling at the Madison Square Park holiday markets or being bored to tears tending empty jewelry pop-ups at Henri Bendel (RIP) for $10/hr.
It was hard to release my inner judgment and shame around having to work outside the music business to make rent. In my mind, I’d taken a step down on the ladder of success, going from a Principal Bassoon position to waiting on entitled tourists in the Meatpacking District. And many of my colleagues were confused about my decision as well. Still, it was the easiest choice I ever made. Not only was I at long last in a real city (sorry, Jacksonville), but I was finally exploring the music I wanted to be making with phenomenal artists I admired in a vibrant and risk-taking atmosphere. It was, in a word, thrilling.
Lie #2: Practicing is everything.
From within the expansive community of the Ensemble, I was able to start exploring solo commissions and push my playing in ways I couldn’t have imagined possible. The group’s relationship with longtime mentor Pauline Oliveros taught me how to listen, to really listen, and fed a quiet confidence in my abilities as an improviser.
With each overseas tour, every time I stumbled onstage jetlagged within an inch of my life to perform one of the hardest pieces ever written for me or for my instrument, I became a little less precious about my relationship to performing, and a little more honest. I realized that I was at my best when my life was full of joy and rich experiences outside of my art. I felt that my most engaged performances were conversations with the audience. On an energetic level, the more I opened myself up to life’s rich experiences outside of my musical bubble, the more I was able to communicate the fire inside each of the pieces I performed.
Lie #3: Performers are excellent interpreters, not generative artists.
For years, when folks outside the so-called classical music space would ask me if I also wrote music, I had a whole speech prepared to gently explain what a ridiculous question I thought that was. “Well, composers go to school to study that, and it’s a really separate thing,” I would say. And all of that was lies! This was the voice of fear fed to me directly from my conservatory education. I’m not saying composition degrees aren’t awesome — they totally can be. However, I also don’t think you need to go to school for composition to begin writing music, the same way I don’t think you need to go to conservatory to be an incredible performer. In what other genres of music are performers not also expected to write their own music?
Years before I was able to identify as a creator, I encouraged my students to do so. Screw the borders, screw degrees, screw the rules, I’d say. You make your rules. You define your art. You create what you feel compelled to create. A bassoon, a piano, or a guitar is just a tool. The music comes from you. But, it was hardest to follow my own advice. Now, finally, after first welcoming the fear, then pushing through it, I’m writing music for myself. I’m writing music for others. And I’m allowing that to shape both how I view both my art-making and the future of my career.
I still think a lot about my own ‘what ifs’ though. What if I had been able to tap into and listen to my inner self sooner? What if I had been able to leave behind the fear of the unknown and leap into what felt vibrant and alive to me sooner? What if I’d had mentors that were able to expand my mind earlier on? What if I’d seen the careers of multi-faceted and thrilling artists who also waited tables or had an office job be celebrated by their peers and the industry alike? How much sooner would I have been able to step onto my path?
This is why I teach. I’m thrilled to be at The New School, an institution that is hell-bent on changing the status quo in performing arts education. This is why I still mentor and coach the fellows of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the New World Symphony, working with young artists on the precipice of their careers, encouraging them to be honest through the fear about their deepest artistic needs, desires and gifts.
All of this is why I strive to show the ugly stuff, the scary stuff, the unpolished stuff, the work-in-progress stuff that is my personal artistic practice, as well as the flashy, the finished, the high-production value content. Because highlighting the vulnerability in our struggles not only helps us grow, it lights the path for those who come in our wake. It announces, you can do this too and you don’t have to be perfect to do so.
8. The One Who Said, ‘I Thirst’ by Francesca Tanksley
Your yearning pulled at me
all summer long.
The inner center of my chest felt continually sore
like the discomfort a tight little rosebud might feel
as its fleshy petals slowly split away
unfurl and stretch back
at the warm, sweet, relentless coaxing of the sun.
I said, please don’t give up on me
I’m not yet ready
I need answers to certain questions.
Then the day arrived
when I thought: what am I waiting for?
I said, yes.
Something began to happen.
While I was standing in my living room
still aware of my everyday surroundings
a different dimension
a reality, that in moments past
had appeared only fleetingly
like the quick shimmer of a shy fish,
now arose within me
and bent over me.
What felt like the tenderest and surest of hands
ushered me into Your peaceful, chaste
immense yet infinitely trustworthy
i cried like a baby
On that day, the person i’d thought myself to be
was kindly evicted
and You moved in.
You pitched Your vast tent
in the miniscule sphere of my heart.
On that day,
i was brought home.
9. “sadboi jams”: Songs That Made Me Cry in 2021 by Ria Modak
It’s 9:00 AM and I’m crying on the Q train, shouldering the weight of my first real heartbreak on the way to a rehearsal. Mehdi Hassan, the “Emperor of Ghazal,” is crooning in my ear: Beqarari si beqarari hai, din bhi bhari hai raat bhari hai. A particularly miserable sniffle draws the glance of a concerned commuter. This restlessness is like no other– the day feels heavy, the night too. I rub my hand, a fisted ball, across my eyes, angry that I’ve committed the cardinal sin of crying on public transportation.
As Hassan continues to sing “Beqarari Si Beqarari Hai,” he interrupts himself to explain in mellifluous Urdu how he came to compose the song. After hearing the poem — originally written by Tabish Dehlvi — a little girl asked him innocently, “What notes will you use to capture the feeling of beqarari?” That bitter restlessness, that anxious gnawing of unrequited love, undercut by the curious, self-destructive pleasure that comes from the act of yearning: beqarari means all this and much more.
Urdu is like this, stubborn and unyielding, so committed to its own romanticism that it becomes impossible to translate.
Hassan laughs, recounting his many failed attempts to answer the girl’s question. In the end, he settles on a tritone, demonstrating the uneasy valence of the interval to his audience. Usually, I’d be unimpressed by this decision (a tritone to invoke feelings of discomfort? How obvious, how trite!). Yet in Hassan’s voice, the melody emerges, an undulating ghost cracked with pain, and I weep.
2021 was not a particularly kind year, not to the world and not to me. The pandemic raged on unabated, further sacrificing lives at the bloody altar of capitalism; climate change swallowed up cities and ignited fires; democracy crumbled in many of my homes, with Biden making hollow promise after hollow promise while marching us to our deaths in the United States and Modi inciting genocide against Muslims and Dalits in India.
Also excruciating: a beloved uncle passed away thousands of miles from me; I began to come to terms with my own trauma; and, of course, my heart was broken to pieces. There were many moments of joy and levity to be sure, brought on for example, by the long-awaited end of Zoom University and the return of live music, but these were always tempered by a profound heaviness.
Through it all, though, I took solace in the one thing that never failed to bring me some respite: my meticulously curated playlist of utter despondence, “sadboi jams.”
According to Urban Dictionary, the definitive source of all useful knowledge in the world, a sadboi is “one who is often upset by things in the world.” Though the term has been weaponized by seemingly emotionally-attuned men who use their feelings to exploit, gaslight, and manipulate others (especially women), I’ve chosen to appropriate it to suit my own needs. “sadboi jams” is all about ruminating on and marinating in the many dimensions of ennui that unfold in our hearts.
Unsurprisingly, Mehdi Hassan features quite prominently on the playlist.
Another dominating force within “sadboi jams” consists of Bollywood songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, tunes my parents would play on long car rides — literal nostalgia trips, as I would often call them, poking fun at their reminiscing — singing along (sometimes a half-step flat) to Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar. These songs, which include schmaltzy, overplayed classics like “Din Dhal Jaye Haye” from the 1965 film Guide but also more obscure gems like “Ghabra Ke Jo Ham” from the pioneering 1949 Hindi-language horror film Mahal, evoke a unique flavor of sadness.
Though, on the whole, I am partial to the gentle baritones of the major male playback singers of the time, my favorite old Bollywood song on “sadboi jams” is “Kabhi Tanhaiyon Mein” from the 1961 film Hamari Yaad Aayegi, sung by the inimitable (and, in my opinion, criminally underrated) vocalist Mubarak Begum. Against a lilting backdrop of flute and sitar, she warns her lover, offering a prophecy: Kabhi tanhaiyon mein hamari yaad aayegi. In your loneliness, you will be reminded of me.
But for me, the song has never been about the travails of romantic love, but rather about the loneliness that arises from alienation– cultural, spiritual and otherwise. When I listen to these old songs, and in particular to Mubarak Begum, I feel a deep longing for a time and place that is alien to me, one that instead belongs to my parents. Rafi, Kumar, Begum, and their contemporaries transport me to an India that I have never experienced, one colored sepia by my own sentimentality. In your loneliness, you will be reminded of an imagined homeland.
My fellow first-generation friends and I have affectionately labeled this dramatic pining as “diasporic angst.” We indulge it often — though we remain wary of the dangers of self-exoticization — temporarily appropriating our parents’ clothes and seeking out our kin, those who speak our mother tongue; what, after all, could be sweeter than the sound of our own language in a land that denies us our voice?
Yet, for all my love of Hindi and Urdu — or perhaps because of it — sometimes I need to find refuge in languages I am less familiar with. When a language and its cadences are strangers to us, we understand it as a form of music, a mode of communicating wholly separate from the intricate rules of grammar or the nuanced meanings of words. Language becomes nothing more than another sound.
When the time comes to satisfy this craving, I turn to music I’ve inherited from friendships or discovered in dilapidated record stores: the sorrowful bellowing of Mexican ranchera superstar Vicente Fernández; the other-worldly wailing of Tunisian oudist and singer Dhafer Youssef; the quiet interiority of Antônio Carlos Jobim. These musics, continents removed from the traditions I know well, allow me access to my emotions through a side door.
To be clear, the purpose of “sadboi jams” is not solely to wallow pathetically in my own beqarari, though I admit this is a crucial element of the playlist. Rather, it is designed to normalize sadness in a hyper-capitalist moral economy which forces happiness down our throats at a time when the world feels (and is) downright apocalyptic. Hassan, Begum, and the rest allow me to examine my feelings without needing to overcome or transcend them. And for that small kindness, I’m happy to pay in the currency of tears.
10. Inner Voice by Milena Casado
Unexpected encounter. Trapped
in my mind, incandescent body.
Your illusion, my pressure.
Loss of direction.
It tries to guide you, to control you.
An art robot.
Opinions, a thousand
reasons to flee, to succumb.
Overwhelmed by adversity. Anxiety.
Hey; and what is that thing they call happiness?
Cornered, wandering walker.
I felt out of place–
my body, my skin, my hair.
trying to go unnoticed.
WHO am I?
who AM I?!
who am I!
Feelings that surround me, feelings
that help me to believe, to dream.
Joy, my grandmother;
who showed me the way
to find the harmony that we all have inside.
11. My Journey in Gender and Its Intersection with Race and Music by Eli Maliwan aka Saxreligious
“Why?” is not a valid question when someone changes their name.
“Why?” is not a valid question when someone is transitioning.
“Why?” is not a valid question when someone identifies as queer regardless of how they previously identified.
It’s hard enough to accept yourself when you are different. Asking “Why?” is challenging their decision to be themselves and reveals that you were undeserving of this sensitive and personal information. If someone tells you they would like to be called a different name or pronouns, and/or that they are transitioning, and/or they are queer the correct response is to LOVE THEM and party like it’s 1999.
In July 2016, I stared at the computer screen and the words I had drafted for a Facebook post. I had talked to friends who were close to me about transitioning, but it wasn’t widely known yet. The idea of transitioning gender had terrified me because of how other people might react. I had been getting so many questions from friends and family and so little support. I was scared to post about it but felt it necessary—it would be easier to tell more people at once on social media.
It hurt my feelings to be asked “Why?” The question felt disrespectful. Like I owed an explanation. It felt like a declaration that the people asking me “why” prioritized their own view of what my gender was above treating me like a human and believing that I felt this way. I had been editing and rewriting the text for hours. I finally pressed “post.” I realized how much time I had lost feeling paralyzed by my fear. The more conversations I had, the more I realized that friends and family were concerned about what my transition meant to them or what it meant about them. Male friends who once were attracted to me as a woman, asked me if they were gay now. To them, my new identity strangely disturbed and confronted their identity. I had never considered that it had anything to do with anyone else besides me. I assumed the only change others had to make was remembering my new name and pronouns. It was a tempting fantasy to relocate and start all over to avoid judgment, harassment, and violence, but I also felt like that shouldn’t be necessary.
It is a common misconception that all trans people were born in the wrong bodies and wish they could have been born a different gender. Of course, all people are different and it is absolutely valid to have that experience, as I do not speak for all trans people but feel blessed to have lived so much life in different identities and physical states. This unique experience has informed and confirmed ideas I have had as an intersectional feminist. I was born, socialized, and identified as female for 30 years before transitioning. Once I changed my name, my pronouns, and my body, I felt as if other people (with the intention of being respectful) assumed my past life was dead to me, but I feel like my life has been a developing and continuing story of the same person.
I am not embarrassed to have transitioned. I have no intention of erasing a huge part of my life. In fact, I feel like a superhero getting to experience multiple identities and see more clearly that gender roles are chosen and performed regardless of hormones and physical forms.
I am still processing traumas due to sexist discrimination, harassment, and assault, and feel that those experiences will always be a part of me. Therefore, it is complicated and hurtful when I am unwelcome in conversations about sexism or women as if I no longer need or deserve healing because I am now a man.
In 2018, the night before my bottom surgery, my mom called me. I was at my home in Oakland, and she was going to drive me to the hospital at 5 a.m. the next day. I answered, thinking she had a question about the million details we’d gone over. Instead, I was met by tears. “I feel like I am grieving the loss of my daughter—I feel like my daughter has died,” she told me. It hadn’t occurred to me that my gender transition would affect my mother so intensely. “I’m still me, Mom. I’m right here,” I told her. I felt sorry and mad at the same time. Why do I need to hear this right now? I’m scared too, I thought.
I had three decades of feeling like my gender presentation didn’t fit, feeling like I was broken and contemplating suicide, while she only had two years of her own journey since I told her I was transitioning. I had purposefully kept it from her when I first started taking testosterone because she did not support my exploring queerness many years earlier and I was still hurt. I thought we had cleared it up by now. I was sure about my decision, and I was beyond excited to finally have bottom surgery the next day. My mom’s call made me think about what my gender meant to her.
What did being a mother who had a daughter mean to her? Why did it matter? Wasn’t I the same person? Wasn’t it clear how much happier I was?
We’d had a difficult conversation when I first started transitioning. We had been through multiple suicide attempts of mine. I asked her if she’d rather have a dead daughter or a happy living son. Now I was wondering, Is it possible that she would have a dead child even if I were thriving in my new identity? I was shocked! I felt sad for her. I felt like it was my fault I couldn’t just be normal. I also felt hurt as if someone was saying, “I miss the version of you that was miserable.” It was so complex. And now, I had to try and sleep before a huge life-changing surgery. It became clear to me that having a daughter was a part of my mother’s identity, and with my transition, she was losing a part of herself.
A challenging aspect of my transition is that I don’t always “pass” and that how I personally identify is separate from how strangers identify me. I don’t always know how new people in my life perceive me. Even today I am confidently addressed as “Ma’am” in public. Multiple times I’ve disclosed that I am trans, and it was mistaken to mean that I identify as a trans woman. Some people are obviously unsure, use they/them pronouns, or label me as non-binary without asking how I identify. Sometimes my gender presentation is related to how my sexual orientation is perceived.
Because my gender is inconsistently perceived, using the public restroom can be scary. Before having bottom surgery, I had to use the stall to pee. If it was unavailable, I felt embarrassed and exposed waiting for it, imagining that other people could tell why I couldn’t use the urinal. I didn’t want to speak and be outed by my voice before it had dropped from taking Testosterone. After having bottom surgery in 2018, I thought using the men’s room would never make me nervous again. I finally had the functioning body part that allowed me to use the urinal.
The first time I used the urinal was at a rest stop. I walked in completely on autopilot and went for the stalls. One after another was locked. After trying six doors I thought, There’s no way all of these are full! I looked under the doors, and they were all empty but somehow locked. I felt a little panicked but then remembered, “Oh right! I just took four months to recover from a surgery that may solve this exact dilemma!” After using the urinal I walked out beaming with joy. I had wanted to do that for so long that it felt like a momentous life event! A group of men in all camo print clothing were talking nearby and I overheard, “That was hilarious—did you see that super confused gay guy in the bathroom?” They were laughing and making fun of someone. I looked down and realized I was wearing a rainbow unicorn shirt, and as I looked up and made eye contact with one of the guys, they all stopped talking. I thought, Oh, I’m the gay guy they are talking about. Awesome! They think I’m a guy! Oh shit, I think I have to leave! The balloon of joy instantly deflated as I realized that these strangers may be unsafe.
Even though my male privilege is contextual depending on how strangers gender me, the experience of being read as male is starkly different from how I was treated before as a female-presenting person. As an Asian American, the intersection of gender and race has also been illuminated. As an Asian woman I was constantly dealing with male sexual attention and was labeled as “exotic.” I often felt uncomfortable and unsafe in public and felt like I stood out in male-dominated spaces.
When I started presenting as masculine, my relationship with men changed drastically. Greetings changed from hugs to handshakes. I no longer caught men staring at my chest or other parts of my body. I no longer received unwanted touches, and I was listened to and believed as if my words had more validity. As an Asian man, I am no longer overly sexualized and am in fact emasculated by stereotypes. Asian men are not necessarily prized sexual partners in our heteronormative culture. My height was average for a woman, but now I am a short man which has its connotations about sexual organs and general strength. The fact that I still surprise strangers with my musical ability shows me that regardless of my gender presentation, Asians are not expected to be brilliant jazz musicians.
I have realized that gender stereotypes played a huge role in my instrument choice, genre choice, and playing style. As a young female musician I was encouraged to sing, play piano, flute, or clarinet but not saxophone, brass, drums, or larger instruments. I was encouraged to play softly and beautifully but not boldly or passionately. Either I received wildly exaggerated compliments “Amazing! The best ever!” as if the bar was so low that it was a surprise that I was able to even lift my instrument, let alone make a sound; or I was complimented with the non-compliment, “You sound good for a girl.” There was no in between like, “You sound good,” which I noticed men saying to each other. This discrepancy showed me I was not expected to be as talented as my male peers. I could never accurately tell what my playing level was or how it compared to others, and I rebelliously became obsessed with challenging gender assumptions.
In my middle school jazz band, to prove my size was not a deterrent, I played baritone saxophone. In high school, to prove I had enough air and embouchure strength, I played loudly and aggressively, using metal mouthpieces with large tip openings and hard reeds. To show I was fearless, I volunteered to solo on every song. In college, so as not to be associated with a more sensitive saxophone tone, I went out of my way to transcribe John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins over Stan Getz or Paul Desmond. In some ways this benefitted me and challenged stereotypes, but in other ways it hurt me. I still wonder if I was developing a sound that represented me personally or if my playing was a product of rebelling against the discrimination I faced.
Today I explore my experiences in my art and am passionate about uplifting other marginalized artists because of the damage I have seen from normalizing the straight white male experience. Privilege is invisible to those who have it, so imagining an identity that you haven’t lived in versus having lived experience is very different. Cisgender people can imagine being transgender and men can imagine what it’s like to be a woman, but actually experiencing the power imbalance from one identity to another is extremely humbling and powerful. There are far more gender identities than what I’ve experienced. We don’t know what we don’t know; therefore, it is important to believe each other and listen. Thank you for listening.
12. Why Did I Choose Music? by Rani Jambak
I. Finding Self
Ibu kita Kartini
Putri Indonesia, harum namanya
Wahai ibu kita Kartini, putri yang mulia
Sungguh besar, cita-citanya
“Our mother, Kartini
The true woman
Indonesian woman, whose name is fragrant
O our mother, Kartini
The glorious woman
Her dreams are so big
“Ibu Kita Kartini” is one of the Indonesian national anthems that I used to sing in kindergarten. I still remember riding in my dad’s car, wearing the black leather boots my mother bought me, and singing the anthem over and over again because it was the only song I remembered from school. Sometimes Dad sang along or warned me to hold on while I stood on the seat, singing freely. To this day, because Dad loves music and collects amplifiers and speakers, we still listen to music through quality speakers everyday at home. My mom also loves to sing 80’s hits from singers like Diana Nasution, Nia Daniaty, Elly Kasim, Jamal Mirdad, and others. Although my family is very musical, the one thing that they discouraged me from pursuing was music.
It is very common in Indonesia, especially in my generation, that children must obey their parents. In my family, aunties and uncles have a big influence on decisions and they agreed with my parents. For my parents, music could be a hobby but not my professional career. It was very frustrating because I wanted to study music as an undergraduate, but they disagreed. They forced me to choose another major that I was completely blind to. Parents always say, “I know better than you.” I questioned this. Throughout a person’s long journey, with a completely different perspective, environment, and experience, it is sometimes still hard to decide what one wants. How can other people know better than us? The only person who can really understand me is myself.
After three failed university entrance exams and many family discussions, one of my aunts finally said that studying music and education was the right choice because music teachers were rare in Indonesia. She added there were job opportunities for music teachers, and my parents would not have to worry about my future. At that time, I did not really care about her talk of job opportunities, as long as I could study music. Meanwhile, it was my parents’ great hope and belief that I would be fine if I became a teacher.
During my first year of university in 2010, I met many friends from Toba and Karo, two ethnic groups from North Sumatra Province. I often listened to them speak in their native tongues. They seemed very close to each other, almost like family, because of their ethnic clan ties. This made me reflect on my own clan, my own ethnicity, my own history.
My ethnicity, Minangkabau, a matrilineal society, is from West Sumatra and I am the third generation living in North Sumatra. Long ago, when my grandma was still very young, she and her siblings had to walk across the jungle, due the war in 1958 (the rebellion of the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia) and finally settled in Langsa, North Sumatra. Then she moved to Medan and married my grandpa who had also migrated from Padang Panjang (West Sumatra) when he was 13 years old. Although my grandpa is from Koto, my grandma’s clan is from Jambak, so my mom and I are Jambak. My dad’s clan is Chaniago from the coastal area of West Sumatra, Pariaman. This was all I knew about Minangkabau and my history.
In 2013 there was a Sumatra Arts and Cultural Festival in Medan. I attended a music and dance performance from West Sumatra, and afterwards I met Mak Kari, the head of the group and a cultural practitioner and dancer from Minangkabau. I told him I really wanted to know more about my history. He shared with me many stories and local wisdom of “Alam Minangkabau” (“Nature of Minangkabau”), about nature from the micro (physic) to the macro (spiritual) levels. I got very curious and asked for more references. He was happy to meet me, a young lady who grew up in Rantau who wanted to learn about history and identity. Listening to his stories and learning about the philosophy of Minangkabau made my longing to travel “home” to Swarnadwipa (“Gold Island”) Minangkabau grow bigger than ever. I really wanted to go to my homeland, but I was not allowed — my parents never let me travel far from Medan at that time.
II. My Musical Journey As My Spiritual Journey
I finally got to go to Minangkabau in 2017. I traveled with my family during the Eid al-Fitr holiday while studying for my Masters degree in Australia. I was already 25 years old, but my parents still had difficulty letting me explore other places by myself. It had even taken two years to convince my parents to let me study in Australia.
After my graduation overseas in Australia, I returned to Medan to focus on my music career. My parents never accepted it as a real job–they expected me to work in a big company with a high salary. For them, to be a musician is to be poor and they were confused why I would choose a life of struggle. When I returned to Medan in 2018 after my studies in Australia, I focused on my music career. Unfortunately, my parents never accepted it as a “real” job. I became depressed from the pressure they put on me to quit music as a career, feeling isolated and sad. Music had allowed me to get a full scholarship, so what was wrong? Why did I have to leave music after spending so many years learning and investing my time, energy, and money?
For two years, we did not fully communicate well. I often avoided sensitive topics and was not really open to them about my struggles. It’s really important to Indonesian kids to make their parents proud. I never told them about my sadness and even stopped surprising them with news of my musical achievements. The situation worsened as they kept saying that I should find proper work, to make them proud so that they could tell people about my job.
Before graduation, I thought about the difficulties I would face upon my return to Indonesia and the adaptation to a new environment, especially with my social and work life. Among the things I thought about was how to strategize and market my musical work because I am an independent solo artist. I never imagined I would have to face rejection from my own inner circle, my family. Realizing I did not have their support was a cruel reality. I felt like everything I did was wrong.
Every night, I asked myself, “What is happiness? I am happy doing music and exploring myself through music. But why aren’t my parents happy? Why do they disapprove of my life in music, but still proudly tell people I studied in Australia? Why should I quit music and feel sad, just to do whatever makes them proud? Whose life should I live for? What is the difference between happiness and ego?” The question of happiness stuck in my mind for several months.
I kept making music, but I struggled alone as an emerging solo artist. Money was very tight and it grew worse because of Covid. I lost many gigs and earned no income. I had to go back to my parents’ house and sadly couldn’t help much with our living expenses. I sold my gold ring just for food. I applied for a grant from the government for artists affected by Covid. Despite the situation, I resisted. I released two music collaborations and created one music environmental campaign in 2020.
For the first time in my life, I was accepted to several programs such as the Virtual Partner Residency from Goethe-Institut; OneBeat Virtual from Found Sound Nation and U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; Mutual Mentorship for Musicians; “∀ Flλ ≡nters. ∥mmense βreath of ⊥he ∫ea:Residency,” an Indonesia-Taiwan Program; and Artist-in-Residence program from the British Council and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I was thrilled to work on new music which, furthermore, helped so much financially.
I remember how excited I was to tell my parents about all this, but their reaction was disappointing. For them, it was not good enough and not really helping my life. At this moment, I finally understood that the meaning of happiness is not the same to everyone. My happiness is not the same as my parents’ and vice versa. I cannot force my views on other people and should appreciate every little achievement, living my life to the fullest. I should be happy with myself so that I can spread positivity to my surroundings. I want to make my parents proud of my music, but I cannot force them to like it.
During this period, a friend asked a simple question: “What makes you so sure about your music?” I was silent for a moment. “I don’t know. I never thought about this.” I focused on what brought me here, what choices I made, and what drove me to make music. My memories’ collage suddenly became clear, of all of my struggles when I chose this path right at the moment before I went to university.
Music was never about making money. It was more about how I could make enough money to continue producing my music. I just followed my intuition, what I love, and what makes me happy: music can lead me to learn new things and value life.
In my musical practice, the themes of environment and culture have been my main concerns, specifically when I started a solo career. Once at the Melbourne Museum, I read a story about the Gundtjimara people and their way of sustainable lifestyle. The story ended with the following phrase, “You never take more than you need.” This thought made me reflect on my own life. How can people from the previous era know better about practicing sustainable living compared to us, modern humans, with the fastest information technology? Why did I never think about consumption? Most contemporary societies live with greed and just care about money.
Inspired by this experience, I started the #formynature project in 2018, a music environmental campaign where I collaborate with NGOs and artists of different backgrounds. Every year I learn many new things from this project. Understanding how humans are connected to nature is something magical. We are nature itself. One of Minangkabau’s proverbs says, “Alam takambang jadi guru” (“Nature is our teacher”). It has a deep meaning, describing how nature organically teaches us everything. Nature gives us signs; nature is the place for us to heal. For me, “Back to nature” means that we should remember how nature is the core source of our basic life. Through music, I can spread this idea and hopefully make many people aware of this basic need.
Through the years, I became interested in recording sounds and understanding soundscapes. In 2020, I traveled throughout West Sumatra to understand Minangkabau through recording sounds from social activities, traditional music, culture, urban life, nature, and other activities. I also interviewed cultural practitioners and artists. These interviews gave me more understanding of nature and spirituality. After exploring Minangkabau, I had the opportunity to visit other places to record sounds. These additional interviews gave me insight on nature, cultural diversity, and spirituality throughout Nusantara (Indonesia).
Tradition is created from human creativity and its environment. All concepts of spirituality align in one understanding that there is a single power that is greater than anything else. Nature, human beings, ancestors, and supernatural beings are unified in this universe and respect for each other is very crucial in contrast to how modern-day humans often put themselves first. But we are all interconnected. Our ancestors gave us a message, and we should continue their efforts to maintain balance in this world. Through this journey, I have concluded that we, humans living in this era, are the Future Ancestors. Every human has their/her/his own passion that leads to a specific role in this life. It is important to prepare the messages we want to leave for the future. We must remember to take care of nature, spirituality, and to respect ancestors through learning our history.
The projects #formynature and #futureancestor have transformed my musical journey into a spiritual journey. Beginning with my curiosity about my own history, awareness of nature, then exploration of soundscapes, my journey of “finding self” guided me to a deep meaning of life. I thank the music that brought me to this magical adventure.
III. My Safe Place
Covid struck our community with a big dose of shock and disbelief, but I eventually survived 2020. After a long journey of “finding myself” and struggling alone to live without the support of my parents, 2021 was a big turning point in my music career, bringing many surprises. For several years I did music out of passion and dedication. Because of all the recognition and opportunities I received in 2021, I felt that I had moved to the next stage, which allowed me to make music consistently.
My residency with Mutual Mentorship for Musicians was one valuable memory, giving me the most caring and supportive environment I had lacked for such a long time. The musicians involved always had ears to listen and big arms to hug, although we were only connected through virtual worlds. Inspiring stories and perspectives enriched me with the musicians’ colorful musical lives. Listening to the other cohort members and reflecting on this magical journey, I got the confirmation that I never chose music for reasons like fame or money. Music was chosen for me, for my life. It was moving how we all shared our struggles, happiness, ideas and emotions in music and how music makes us alive!
In July 2021, my parents finally told me they wanted to try and understand what I do with music. They made an effort not to be worried, since I am responsible for what I choose. They see me as financially stable, and seem to understand that my job is different from those who work for a company. I felt that this change made our connection warmer and I could finally make them know how sad I felt for those years when they didn’t support me. Being open with each other made me understand that my parents’ worry is actually their love language because they have struggled to save money for my sister’s and my education and lives.
As 2021 was ending, I met a man who is also a Minangkabau composer. We shared many musical stories and music life in common. I admired his works and how he treated me with his heart. After I broke up with my boyfriend of seven years, it was hard to imagine I would ever find a man who could really understand what I do in music.
During my five weeks of traveling to performances, workshops, and discussions in West Sumatra and Pekanbaru, I could feel this man’s kind and genuine support, and fell in love with how he saw me as an artist and woman. I did not need to wait any longer and he agreed to meet my parents and marry me. On March 19, 2022, the first day of our Mutual Mentorship for Musicians Festival, I married the man who also loves music. Again, I believe that music is chosen for me. My journey with Mutual Mentorship for Musicians has ended, but my music and new role as a wife continue. I feel so grateful and blessed. Every path that I chose leading to this magic-musical journey is real, and I hope I always get a chance to spread positivity as a message for the future.