How old I was the first time I heard the sound of whales singing I can’t say, but I knew from my initial childhood exposure to their haunting melodies that they had something to do with me, communicated messages that resonated within my soul, and that one day I would join them in song. That day has come, and as dreaming and manifestation flow together, I find myself in the process of fulfilling what will undoubtedly prove to be one of my life’s main missions: co-creating music with these messengers of the sea as part of my contribution to the healing of the waters and the beings of Earth. Adding my voice and translations to the siren’s songs sounding the alarm on the need to protect, respect and reverse the damage being done to the world’s oceans and other bodies of water is something I am utterly compelled to do at this moment. I have sung on many stages in many countries, but right now there is no place from which I would rather project my voice out to the universe than the ocean itself, in concert with humpback whales.
There isn’t much talk about the African American animal whisperers of the world, but I have always been one, and I feel certain that this distinction will draw attention to this undertaking in ways that place the conversation about water, climate change and environmental justice issues on the tongues of a much broader population than might ordinarily be drawn to watch a documentary about or listen to recordings of whales. Whale Whispering is an intuitive, interpretive, artistic foray into what I consider to be the original Blues. My intention is to bring forth original music that incorporates lyrics, melodies and harmonies inspired by and performed in conjunction with the whales during their seasonal sojourns in the waters of Bahia. I also aim to establish initial musical connections with the whales by presenting songs to them that represent my roots and musical identity: Spirituals, orisha songs, and yes, the Blues.
The songs that are gestating as this project evolves speak to what I understand to be the whales’ lamentation of the pollution and desecration of the oceans in particular and the environment in general. Within their wails, bellows and shrieks I hear more than mating calls and identifying riffs; I hear an urgent request for humanity as a whole to shift its relationship to the natural resources shared by all species. In my ears the whales’ songs are a clarion call for people to take the collective and individual steps necessary to alter the current trajectory of increasing climactic upheaval to one that allows for a sustainable, cooperative interchange between humans and the rest of nature.
In the same way that I was called to Bahia almost three decades ago to immerse myself in the African-rooted ancestral spiritual system known as Candomblé, I am currently compelled to meet the whales in the warm waters of this ecologically lush, historically rich, culturally vibrant and undeniably mystical place. As one of the centers of African retentions in the Western hemisphere, Bahia owes its unique and powerful cultural imprint to the countless Africans who came to its shores in chains. Carried within the DNA of the humpback whales who frequent this region is the ancestral memory of bearing witness to the Middle Passage and the arrival of enslaved Africans coinciding with the colonization of indigenous lands. I glean from the whales’ songs echoes of the mournful moans that thousands of slaving vessels carried across the waves and into the depths of the Bay of All Saints. The creation of music designed to heal this ancestral trauma that reverberates in the blood and bones of African Diasporic peoples is another integral aspect of this project. As I hear them, these songs are the whales’ testament to their observation of humans’ disregard not only for the environment, but also for human life itself.
I am a child of Yemonja. In Candomblé, she is the maternal, nurturing, wise and generous orisha (deity) whose domain is the life-giving ocean. Her children are (as numerous as) the fish in the sea. For me, answering this call to connect with the whales is not simply acting on artistic inspiration, it is a sacred duty. With Whale Whispering I seek to co-create and share songs that acknowledge the myriad levels of harm inflicted while expressing the indomitable resilience that is at the heart of Bahia’s culture, and infuse them with a projection of optimism for the healthy, balanced, abundant future that we collectively have the power to realize.
Whale Whispering will result in (at least) three creative outcomes, all of which will be used to raise awareness about environmental degradation and related justice issues and to promote environmentally sustainable practices by individuals, organizations and corporations:
1) An album-length collection of songs based on and inspired by whale vocalizations and live improvisation with whales at sea.
2) A concert at sea during which the original compositions are performed, ideally in the presence and with the participation of humpback whales. Audience members will be invited to witness this performance from boats and possibly through live-streaming.
3) A film documenting the progression of the project from start to finish, including the concert at sea. This film will incorporate elements of the history and culture of Bahia, including Candomblé songs and rituals, to contextualize the exchange with the whales and the messages brought forth through the music.
Expenses for Whale Whispering include but are not limited to:
-All costs for two residencies in Bahia for the artist (January-February 2019 and August-September 2019), including roundtrip airfare, room and board and additional living expenses
-Consultant/service fees for mariners, whale experts, Candomblé elders, collaborating musicians
-Video and audio documentation, editing, etc.
-Purchase of special technical equipment to project my voice to the whales underwater and to make the whales’ songs audible across distance to attending audience during the concert at sea.
-Fees for scuba diving lessons
The January-February stay will be spent studying the recordings of local humpback whale songs over the past seven years to become familiar with and draw inspiration from their voicings and to gain a sense of the shifts in the songs over a period of time. I will work on the compositions and offer occasional sharings of the work-in-progress at the Instituto da Baleia Jubarte. I will also learn scuba diving during this stay, so that I will be able to descend when the whales are present and singing in order to experience the notoriously powerful and awe-inspiring resonance of their voices from within the water.
In August the whales will have returned to Bahia and the seasonal rains will (hopefully) have begun to subside, and I will spend as much time as possible on the open sea, listening to, communing with, singing to and improvising with them to shape the music that will be performed at the culminating concert, which will take place sometime in mid-September.
This project is being initiated and will be produced with the technical support of Instituto da Baleia Jubarte (Humpback Whale Institute) and Projeto Tamar (a sea turtle reserve) in Praia do Forte, Bahia. I would like to express my infinite gratitude to Guy Marcovaldi of Projeto Tamar and Enrico Marcovaldi of Instituto Baleia Jubarte and the staff of both organizations for their support of this vision, to Deirdre C. Smith for initiating and helping to promote this fundraising campaign, and to everyone who has contributed and will contribute to the project in various ways. It is my strong desire to direct a portion of whatever proceeds may result from the creative outcomes of Whale Whispering toward the creation of paid internships for African-descended youths of the Praia do Forte region at the aforementioned organizations.
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