Monday, December 10, 2012

Sacred Songs of World Traditions
Jyoshna La Trobe
By: Kyla Mackenzie

"People sing what they can't say, so through the music you can get a really good idea of aspects of that culture that they can’t speak about' - Jyoshna La Trobe  

Jyoshna La Trobe's serenity on the phone belies a fascinatingly full and busy career jam-packed with traveling, tours, interdisciplinary education projects, conferences, documentary-making, and completing a doctorate in music. 

Fittingly for an ethnomusicologist and specialist in World Music, as it is known, Jyoshna is seemingly a citizen of the world.  She was born in England, spent her childhood in Australia, has lived in London, the U.S.A, New Zealand, India, and has journeyed around the globe extensively whilst researching and collaborating with local musicians.  This singer/song writer has her own long catalogue of albums of often poignant and entrancing songs (see: for tracks and glowing reviews). 

Recently returned to her beloved home at Bethells Beach, on Auckland's West Coast, she continues to explore related strands of her speciality and passion by teaching and performing as well as taking up the role of music director for an upcoming Kiwi film by Athina Tsoulis. 

This impressively qualified teacher tells us more about her upcoming Summer School workshop, Sacred Songs of World Traditions and her interesting career. 

Kirtan at Fortaleza
Jyoshna, your workshop Sacred Songs of World Traditions takes place over 3 days in January.  What cultural traditions will you be looking at? 

Well, over the course of those 3 days we will view a range of interesting film archives and then get down to singing – some of the songs are sourced from indigenous music traced along the gypsy trail between India and Spain, for example.  We'll explore the rich, historical connections between those two cultures.  Then we will journey down to the South Pacific and look at traditions here. 

How would you characterise 'Sacred Songs'?

Music that has a soul fulfilling purpose....Some music gives you a sense of safety and security; it can create a soulful and beautiful haven.  Sacred songs, which are my focus, convey a human need to be sheltered in something greater and more universal than one’s self...and in that way they bring you home to yourself.

I tend to focus on the more sacred music....but there will be 'social' or folk music included in this workshop.  Some folk songs are very deep and very poignant...They're in every tradition and over time they evolve with each generation and are enriched by successive singers.

Who are the sorts of people who would gain the most out of your course?

People who have a passion for music that is not generally commercial. People who like to explore music from a non-conventional perspective.

I also find this kind of research and practice sometimes inspires people to research music from their own background.

I myself discovered my gypsy heritage after I had established an interest in those musical traditions along the 'gypsy' trail from India to Spain.

I found out my great grandmother was a Spanish gypsy who had been marooned off the coast of Spain; she was the only survivor of a ship wreck and was rescued by a sea captain from the family La Trobe.  She consequently married his son, hence the connection.

You've been away from New Zealand for quite some time, how has that been?

Yes, before coming back I was touring Brazil singing and collaborating with local musicians.  It was a wonderful time.  I had spent 10 years primarily in London but also the States and India.  London had become tough after living there for five year, and a bit of a concrete bunker, so I was really happy to travel again and explore…Living again in Bethells is a welcome relief, being surrounded by nature.

Sing for joy!
You have an enormous amount of experience as an ethno-musicologist, what do you find striking similar about the all singing traditions you have encountered?

People sing what they can't say, so through the music you can get a really good idea of aspects of that culture that they can’t speak about.  Even from within the culture, different gendered stories emerge – womens' music can be so different... singing about husbands, about the's so interesting.

I remember returning to Auckland University to do my Masters degree around 2004.  Richard Moyle (an amazing ethnomusicologist) played us some Aboriginal music and gave us the translation, so I was able to gather a new perspective in that way.  

Have you been impressed by the strength of performance traditions – are they endangered?

My PhD was on the praise music (kirtan) of a particular region in India. It was a potent performance tradition indeed and I also spent two and a half years in Spain.  Flamenco is a great example of a living tradition which is very alive and well with young composers adding lyrics to an already very rich music tradition.

How have previous workshops and other event participants around the world responded to you?

In terms of collaborating with local musicians, if you're really sincere, passionate and interested...they respond in the same way.  There's an easy rapport...I can see them respond, wanting to openly share their music.... and wanting their cultural tradition to be understood. 

In terms of teaching, I gave workshops and performance in Brazil, the USA, Sweden, and the U.K where it was just a joyful experience encouraging them to sing, and to harmonise if they felt like it.  They also learned about the history and meanings of the songs which adds another whole dimension of understanding...

Did you know instinctively as a child that you would follow a path less travelled?

Yes, when I was 2 years old!  The epiphany was when I heard the piano playing... I was struck with a love of music.  I become involved with music subsequently but not in a focused way.  When I was 17, I met a spiritual teacher and all of a sudden I had a reason to compose music, to be active and not apathetic...I started to write more... Meditation is part of this process; it’s nurturing so that I can be receptive and respond to life in a creative way.

And what, ultimately, do you want people to gain from your new workshop Sacred Songs of World Traditions?

This coming workshop is not geared towards performance.  It's geared towards gaining knowledge and enjoyment.

But I also have another quiet hope; I'm hoping there will be singers who will join us for the upcoming Sacred Music Festival, of which we now have 10 participants but would love more, so I am looking to recruit....!

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