Kaia’s first ten years

Last night was Kaia’s 10th Anniversary Concert Party and it was a total blast. Complete love-fest. And while we had a few minor flubs here and there that you get in every live performance, it was the best show we’ve done yet.

I grew up surrounded by fabulous musicians. I don’t know what was in the water in Highland, Indiana, but my brothers’ jazz bands and my sisters’ marching bands were top-notch. And then my class of singers and actors was the most densely packed with talent that the Region had seen for years.

I learned music as a communal experience. My mother co-directed my grade school choir alongside Mrs Elliott. Both of them demanded excellence in execution and stagecraft, while making the process of singing a true joy. As I got older I became part of a core group of performers who were in choirs and theatre in every permutation imaginable.

Our fearless leader was Miss G, Pam Guenzler (later Pam DeBoer). She was fun. Whenever I think of her, I see her behind a piano with all of us gathered around, everybody laughing their asses off. She was all about excellence, but she didn’t get there by flogging people. She made the perfection of craft a joyful experience. We wanted to be better. And we were. And we loved each other and had each other’s backs. Singing with that cadre was opening your mouth and having 25 of your closest allies entwining their souls with yours. Reaching out to the audience to create that magic bond of trust and then cultivating it through the course of the show until the only thing they could do was give us standing O after standing O. It was glorious.

I was accepted into IU’s school of music the year it was rated number one in the country. I was hungry to get in and take my craft to a whole new level, and surround myself with like-minded people who loved to create art. Instead I found politics, petty-mindedness, and outright back-stabbing. It was devastating. Combined with a mental breakdown, I completely lost touch with my voice and stopped singing entirely for five years. I was a lost soul.

Cut to 1992 in England. I’m walking down a country lane in Somerset when I turn around and see an enormous white horse carved into the chalky hillside. I decide to climb the hill and stand in the center of the horse. I start on my way, with fields of cows on my left and fields of wheat on my right. There’s not a car or person in sight and the sky is a vast blue bowl above my head with those quick clouds flying through that are so much a part of that blessed island’s patterns. As I walk, I begin to sing.

I sing every song I can think of, from opera to show tunes to Tin Pan Alley to jazz (it’s a really long walk), but I especially sing folk tunes. Songs handed down orally for hundreds of years, songs discovered or written in the 1960s. I focus in on English tunes and I am one with the earth and sky. As I walk towards the white horse, I am completely suffused with joy. And I realize, “I sing because I sing. I sing because it’s who I am. I sing in celebration of Her.” The Goddess is all around me, is in me, is me, and her expression through me is song. I reclaim my voice.

Sometime after that I was at a festival at Lothlorien, a nature sanctuary south of town with a largely Pagan make-up, and I met Angela Berzins. I don’t remember what we were there for or how we were introduced but I do remember being across the bonfire from her and wailing away on something we were improvising. And our voices joined in this double helix and rose in gold above the flames. I had found a musical soulmate. I reveled in it but didn’t follow it up at the time.

Around this time I heard Vida for the first time. It was at Cultureshock in Dunn Meadow and as the first sounds came out of their mouths I just wept. I wanted to be that. It was like seeing your heart beating right in front of you and being unable to put it in your chest and make it a part of you. This was a phenomenal time in the Bloomington music scene, with Vida and Monkey Puzzle and Yuba Singers and Upstart being the a cappella groups that were turning my head. I wanted it. I wanted it all.

I was still gunshy because of the music school but I joined the Bloomington Feminist Chorus, which was then directed by Janice Bagwell. It was a non-audition choir for woman-born women singing music by, for, and about women. Slowly I began to trust other singers and after a while rediscovered my love of arranging and composing, yet another thing the music school had beaten out of me. Within five years I was Janice’s second. While not technically proficient, the choir had a lot of heart and was doing politically important work.

Sometime in the late ’90s I was able to join a chorus debuting Kay Gardner’s Ooroboros, an oratorio in eight movements celebrating the stages of women’s lives. It was a huge non-auditioned chorus learning complex music in the space of a couple weeks leading up to the debut at the National Women’s Music Festival. And in the final week, we met inside the music school, the first time I’d been back. And I found my wounds could heal under the direction of the legendary Cathy Roma from Cincinnati in the company of this incredible group of women.

The staging of Ouroboros was a high point in my life. There was a full orchestra, soloists from ages 9-65, our huge chorus, and about a million stagehands. And we were all women. Looking out onto a sea of 2000 women in the audience. Because it was being recorded, they asked that there be no applause during the performance. So instead the audience shimmered at the end of each movement with the most heartfelt expression of applause I’ve ever seen using American Sign Language. It was a milestone in my musical development.

But I was waiting. Since that night around the bonfire with Angela, I knew I wanted what I’d grown up with. But I didn’t know how to get it. I left the Feminist Chorus because I wanted to do more technically challenging work. But I didn’t have anyone to do it with.

Which brings me back to Angela. We’d kept in touch, going out periodically (I remember our both being blown away by Lucia di Lammermoor at the MAC). I invited her over to my house one Friday and we pored over the volumes of folk music I’d collected, delighting in some and laughing our asses off at others (Scotland’s Burning comes to mind). We were tentative, not sure what we were doing. We decided to reach out to others.

That led us to Pam, who led us to who led us to who led us to! Soon we had a motley collection of singers of some talent who got together on Fridays and just sang for two hours. We called it Friday Sing. Jane Goodman was a regular participant. Anyone could bring anything for us to sing, and we learned primarily by ear. We were women and men singing spirituals and Miranda Sex Garden. It was really fun. But over time I found myself harking back to Vida and to my Life Before and I found I was still hungry. After a while attendance became sporadic and I was bringing most of the music to the table. The rest were content to coast. I was looking for a more collaborative environment, where everyone was equally invested in development of art while still having fun. So it petered out. And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Where the hell was the next incarnation of Vida?? Didn’t they know I was ready to heed the call and audition??

I am not a patient person. I am driven. And after all that waiting I decided, using many four-letter words, that I would just stop waiting, bite the bullet, and start the group myself. What “the group” was I didn’t know, beyond that I wanted to do a wide variety of musical styles and I wanted it to be a group having fun in search of creative excellence.

I held auditions in September of 2004. I had about 25 people show up, only four of them men, so that immediately meant the group was going to be all women. And to my delight, both Angela and Jane showed up. Angela just opened her mouth and I said, “She’s in.” Jane came in wearing a flowing patterned skirt and sang free as a bird, totally embodied, seemingly perfectly in love with life and its expression through music. I’d never seen her like this in Friday Sing and I fell in love.

I carefully rated all the singers on a scale from 1-5 (spot the Capricorn) and soon had a line-up of 13 singers. Only one of them didn’t have the wherewithal to make it to the first rehearsal, so by default we started as a group of 12 women aged from late teens to mid-forties. I had ambitious dreams of repertoire and improv, but to my frustration I found I had no idea how to do what Miss G had done. I started singing professionally and training in earnest at age 11, so I had a long history of absorbed knowledge. Here I was with this group of women who were all talented singers but who had wildly differing levels of experience. I didn’t know what to do.

I simplified the music more and more, finally settling on basic rounds to get us going. I sprinkled in some pieces from the Feminist Chorus where I could, but it was pretty basic stuff. We did do some nice improvs but most of our time was just spent finding our feet.

We had some changes in lineup and Amy Jackson (she who unerringly can sing in the exact center of a pitch) joined us the following year. She could probably tell you every iteration of Kaia and every song we sang. To me, most of it is a blur, unfortunately. Unless you count the drug dealer who mercifully quit before we had to kick her out and the gun-toting maniac who had us in fear for our lives! Ah, good times, good times. 🙂

I’ve auditioned over 70 people for Kaia in 10 years and we’ve had 22 Kaiasistahs, all with something unique to offer. Slowly, slowly, oh so slowly we got better over time and the bar got raised higher and higher with every audition. We learned to bypass the teenagers in favor of people in settled careers. After some disastrous forays into improv at concerts in places like Soma we decided that suckage was not for us. My arrangements got more complex, we started drawing on a wider variety of music as more experienced musicians joined the group (and seriously, the explosion of YouTube made exposure to world music a gift from the Gods), and we added more and more percussion to the mix when we suckered Lara Weaver (of previously mentioned Upstart and Yuba Singers fame) into joining us. We offered her cash to pinch-hit for us in a crisis and then bewitched her with our awesomeness so she had to stay with us.

I remember when Jenny Gibson came in to audition and by the third note out of her mouth I was writing down, “MUST HAVE HER.” At first she was quiet and demure with us until she figured we were safe, and then she unleashed her insanely dynamic and demonic hilarious personality on us.

We were at 8 for a long time, a perfect number, when one of our singers left. For the last several years we’d really struggled finding anyone to audition. The ones who did audition just weren’t the right fit. So when Tristra left to spend more time with family we went into overtime, bribing people to come in and sing. Jane badgered Licia Weber mercilessly and I worked her on the sidelines until she finally caved in and sang for me. Lovely folk voice, lots of experience, and by the Gods she can hit a low G. And out of the blue I get a nice email from this woman who wants to know if we ever audition people. Do we? Get over here! Sarah Mosier has a great blendy voice with the ability to solo well, which is the magic combination we look for in a Kaiasistah.

Jane and I listened to their auditions and agreed that while neither of them sounded like Tristra, they both would add invaluably to the Kaia sound. But could we be nine?? Jane and I plotted how we could sell the group on the idea. But after the group audition it took very little convincing. Everyone was in love with the augmented sound. So two more sistahs were added to the pack.

Leslie left about six months later to pursue other endeavors so we were at eight again! Eight is big enough that we can do complex eight-part arrangements like Pata Pata and Rise in Love and small enough that we can feel like a tight vocal ensemble and not an unwieldy choir. And this is the best Kaia yet.

While the early days of Kaia saw me doing all of the arranging and composing, over the years I am glad to say that Lara and Angela have contributed phenomenal creative energies in that direction. Instead of me just inflicting pieces on the group, there are now three of us who pre-screen pieces before running them by all the sistahs who decide whether to add them to the repertoire. We do extensive research, work with native speakers, connect old music with contemporary events, work tirelessly on the crescendo at the end of Las Amarillas, and eat chocolate at almost every rehearsal.

Amy always calls me the Fearless Leader but I consider myself the Anxious Facilitator. I have learned that I am no Miss G. I can be a product leader or a process leader, but not both at the same time. In order to meet our ambitious collective goals, I am a product leader in Kaia. Rehearsals are very tightly run and organized in order to make the best use of our limited time. Fortunately, everyone else is easygoing and fun, so they all balance out my intensity nicely. We are constantly moving, always going forward, always getting better, always honing our craft. And it’s FUN. Not just because Jenny wisecracks through rehearsals but because we know we’re doing kick-ass work together. We can hear it. We can feel it. And when we take the stage, we enter into a love-bond with the audience and just rise, rise, rise.

Last night the sistahs said they wouldn’t be here without me. But they don’t understand that I wouldn’t be here without them. I organize rehearsals but they’re the ones who let me. 🙂 And I was trained as a vocalist, not as a teacher. So in the many cases where I find myself tongue-tied while trying to explain what I hear in my head and how I think we might get there, there’s always someone in the group who has a breakthrough idea that takes us to the next level, beyond what I’d imagined. And while I get bogged down in timing intros and obsessing over set list order, they’re busy pulling this incredibly dynamic and engaging performance out of their souls and just giving, giving, giving. They make it happen.

It didn’t come about the way I thought it would, but I have realized my dream of a collaborative team of inspired artists in search of creative excellence while having fun. During last night’s show we could barely wait for intermission to be over because we just wanted to get down there and give more, more! I mean, come on, the crowd was going wild blowing party favor horns! How much cooler can it get??

Kaia sings world music from the raucous to the sublime. We go beyond the a cappella groups I loved in the ’90s to the widest range of musical expression I’ve ever heard. Lee Williams, the founder of the Lotus World Music Festival, the man who has heard just about every band under the sun, has said that he’s never heard anyone else do what we do. We sing in 26 languages in a dizzying array of styles. We push boundaries but we always take the audience with us. In the early days we made hard-copy programs for the audience but we stopped after one of my friends said, “Yeah, after a while I just put my program down and surrendered.” The words in the program weren’t informing her experience—they were getting in the way of the experience.

Because every song we sing has a 5-minute backstory and translation, our intros have to be pretty spare in order to keep the sets manageable. And we’re singing in languages you’ve never heard of, like Mahoi! We use our bodies and our expressions to communicate the songs’ meanings. I knew we were succeeding after our 2014 Lotus performance. I was stopped on the street by a young man who was enthusing about Lu Lops, a pretty intense song about political struggle that’s written in the language Occitan, which only a few thousand people speak. “I could see everyone in cages, and then how their village was smashed, and then they were rising up and calling everyone to freedom! And then they were back in the cages.” My jaw was on the ground. He’d just described the three verses and coda of Lu Lops though he’d never heard the language. He understood it because our expression moves beyond words.

We have great hopes for the next few years, including a new CD (I have been collecting prospective pieces for months, just waiting for the opportune moment to spring them on the prescreening team) and perhaps most exciting, doing some regional touring. Our schedules are insane and for a long time we had mothers of small children in the group so they couldn’t stray far from home. But now the kids are old enough that it’s conceivable Mom can be away for a day. So we’re spreading our wings and looking to perform maybe every other month somewhere in a 100-mile radius. Nothing too taxing, but a nice start to moving beyond who and where we’ve been. We will still perform in Bloomington, but if touring takes off, it will be less than in years past.

Totally shifting gears here: When Lee Williams told me we were in for the 2014 Lotus Festival I just sat in my car and cried. Here was this thing, this idea that I’d had so many years ago, and it had taken wings and become something I wanted but in its own sweet way, and it was coming alive. I knew there would be someone in our audience, someone we would never know, whose life would be changed by our performance. And I felt so graced by this gift in my life that is Kaia, that we are creating art that transforms.

I will never have children. It appears increasingly unlikely that I will ever get married. So I will never have those milestones of baby shower, birth, first word, going to kindergarten, eighth grade graduation, high school graduation, first car, going off to college, empty nest syndrome, graduation from college, first real job, marriage, grandchildren, rinse and repeat. I won’t have many milestones in my life. My last big one was when I bought my first house 8 years ago.

Last night was a milestone. Ten years of creation, celebrated with Bloomington’s best. I was fortunate enough to share it with the people I love best in all the world: my mom and dad, my sister and best friend Paula, and her outstanding daughters Rebecca and Elena. They sat right in front so I could watch them throughout most of the show. Mom gets good karma for telling me that, in watching me, she couldn’t believe I was 47 years old. “You looked 25!” See why I love my mother??

The night was bittersweet in that it’s the last time my parents will see me in live performance. They are both in their 80s and need assistance to get around and simply aren’t capable of travel anymore. They knew this was going to be a last shot so they made the arduous journey down from Chicago.

My parents have been my audience since I was five years old. My earliest memories of singing with others is of seeing my mother conducting me. And now, over 40 years later, the journey is coming to an end. Today, they came to my house for the last time and met my kitty, who they will never play with again. They talked to my goddessdaughters last night but they will not see them grow older. A page has turned and my heart aches. I feel the faint warnings, the stirrings of the story of their deaths and how that final separation will devastate me. My blessed consolation is that we gave a kick-ass show last night which sent them over the moon and they can be proud of what they’ve helped manifest. They have a wonderful memory they can carry with them for what remains of their lives. And I have the memory of my dad setting back in the chair with a big smile on his face as he reveled in our harmonies and the look on my mom’s face as she realized we really were going to sing Bill Grogan’s Goat, a song she used to belt out to us as we were growing up.

One thing I wished we’d done last night after we got off the stage was just to gather all the Kaiasistahs in a tight circle and look into each other’s eyes and joyfully acknowledge our achievement and our love for each other. We are so grateful to be a part of this phenomenon. It’s like this wondrous miracle every time we hear a chord come back to us through a kick-ass monitor. We really are doing this! It’s really happening! And we travel from mournful Russian to stirring original to salacious Scots in the course of 11 minutes and then we just keep going! What a joy. As I say in my morning prayer, “This day is your love-gift to me.” Kaia is my love-gift. I give it away, and it is given back to me. It is my heart made manifest, and it is the heart itself.

I can’t wait for the next ten years.

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