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Travelling Light Through Life

Sophie SolomonFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2014

Imagine a knock on the door in the middle of the night. A departure. An unknown destination.  If you had brief minutes to pack a bag, what would you choose? What conjures the very essence of who you are, where you’ve been and where you are going in your life?  Questions faced by so many Jews at so many times in our story.  This is a speech about the benefits of travelling light through life, free from expectations or preconceptions.

I am a violinist and composer, and Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute. A founder member of klezmer fusionists Oi Va Voi, I released my own solo recordings with Decca (featuring Ralph Fiennes, KT Tunstall and Richard Hawley) and have performed as a soloist with artists as diverse as Rufus Wainwright, Paul Weller and the London Symphony Orchestra. I compose for film, TV and theatre, most recently for Our Class at the National Theatre and Off the Endz at the Royal Court.  Through my work at the Jewish Music Institute, I am committed to invigorating the Jewish music scene through educational projects, by supporting upcoming and established artists and commissioning new works that approach Jewish music in unusual and inspiring ways.

Violin played –
If I only knew where you’re taking me maybe I would know who I am meant to be.
If I only knew where you are taking me would I be afraid?
If I had a time to pick a bag, say goodbye and not look back,
If I’d picked out those precious things that I hold close as the night draws in, would I be afraid?

Lazarus, a song I wrote about a knock on the door in the middle of the night, a departure, an unknown destination, no time to pack. Imagine that knock, if you did have brief minute to pack a bag, what would you choose? What conjures up the very essence of who you are? Where you’ve been and where you are going with your life? Questions faced by Jews in so many places and at so many times in our story. I’m a musician, a travelling player. For many years I have crossed the globe with a violin on my shoulder. Packing, albeit under very different circumstances, has been a fact of my life, until very recently that is, when small children encouraged me to stay closer to home. My life was one of double decker sleeper buses, travelling from country to country for weeks on end, playing in different countries every night, from Rome to Budapest, Oslo to Barcelona and everywhere in between. Bright lights, late nights and heavy drinking and setting off in the middle of the night after a show, only to awake in a new city with new possibilities. The tour bus has its moments but let’s face it it’s not much bigger than double decker bus with bunk beds, and that’s not a whole lot of room for 10 musicians and crew. When you’ve spent a few days on board a bus you soon realise that the un-kemped rock style look makes perfect sense. On one particular tour we were joined by a new guy, unlike the rest of us Mike, the stand in keyboard player, didn’t know about the cramped conditions, unlike the rest of us Mike didn’t know to pack light. He arrived at our first meeting point with the most enormous wheelie suitcase and of course it was too big to fit on the bus, it had to be hoisted into the luggage hold with the stage lights and amplifiers. Every time Mikey wanted to change his clothes or brushing his teeth it had to be extracted from the bowels of the bus. Needless to say this it became a bit of a joke as he was seen dragging the suitcase from bus to dressing room and back again wishing he had left most of its contents at home.

Being something of a veteran, I on the other hand had packed so ridiculously light, often had to pick up much needed items en route. Hadn’t seen a washing machine for days, had to stop at h&m to collect knickers and obviously some rather idiosyncratic souvenirs into the bargain. So why you might say am I talking about suitcases and packing, this isn’t a speech about how to defeat Ryanair’s outrageous baggage tariffs. No I’m getting at something a little deeper here, at the idea that in life we shouldn’t travel heavy, weighed down by expectation or emotions with the metaphoric enormous suitcase that Mikey had to carry around with him on tour. No what I am saying is that instead by travelling light we remain flexible and are able to pick up what we need on the way, to respond to challenges and circumstances and to the potential for change, to be open to new routes in life. As the Italian anti-fascist poet, Cesare Pervase wrote ‘if you wish to travel far and fast, travel light take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears’. This has personal meaning but also meaning for the Jewish people, we are a wandering people, a people ever moving on. Ours is a story of arrivals and departures, we cannot be too constrained by expectation or by the past and yet culturation shouldn’t mean turning your back from where you came from either. It’s a frame of mind that suggests a careful balancing act; respect tradition yes, but don’t get so caught up in the past that you forget to be yourself. Embody the truth, of where you find yourself now, your journey is as much about where you are now as it is about where you came from. The balance of the two is the healthiest thing. Horace Kallen, the American Jewish Philosopher who coined the term cultural pluralism, explained it thus, ‘Jews survival in exile depends on their self-consciousness and their brilliant flexibility to adapt to their circumstances’, in short we Jews have become masters at maintaining a core culture while absorbing what’s around us and it’s something that we have always done think food, think latkes and gefilte fish for example and, languages Yiddish and Ladino and even holidays – last year American Jews celebrated Thankgivvakah when Chanukah and Thanksgiving fell on the same day. In the Shtetl klezmer musicians travelled light by playing portable instruments like violins and flutes and small hammered dulcimers that they could carry with them from village to village and they made a living by absorbing the repertoire of Polish and Romanian tunes so they could play at weddings of non-Jews too, and so polkas and Romanian doiners entered into the Jewish repertoire. My personal cultural vocation is just that, it’s about being true to all aspects of myself, my Ashkenazi self, my Russophile self, my Hackney self and my English boarding school self. With my first band Oy Va Voy we followed in the wake of Talvern Singh and Mercury winner Nitan Sawney, the young British Asians who combined the Banghra heritage of their routes with the British electronic music that they grew up with. Oy Va Voy made magpie music, songs that brought together all elements of our identity, we were young British, Jewish Londoners, break beat lovers with a deep rooted commitment to playing Jewish music in all its authenticity. I spent hour on hour of research listening to wax cylinder recordings of shtetl violinists learning their intricate ornaments by ear, we travelled to Klez camp in America to study first hand with the masters of the Klezmer revival movement. This wasn’t about facsimile reproduction of authentic music, interesting as that may be but it didn’t feel relevant to the now, it didn’t feel relevant to us. We were passionate about making a sound that felt right for our own time and that reached out beyond the shteltl that connected with audiences of all faiths and all backgrounds and so we wrote songs about gypsy, about Rudinsky’s room in the heart of Brick Lane with klezmer clarinet and violin wailing over programmed beats and lyrics rapped by Earl Zinger this is Jewish music in the truest sense or, as Frank London, of the Klezmatics put it, if a klezmer band plays the Lambarda it’s still klezmer. Flexibility and freedom are beautiful things, that’s why the Jewish people has proved time and again an ability to start over and thrive. We must walk with our ears open to the world around us, absorb the Technicolor reality of our society free from preconceptions. I believe Antoine de Saint-Exupery had it right when he said ‘he who would travel happily must travel light’.

So back to the packing . When we think of the Jewish people we are drawn to images of travel from Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea laden with their goods and the final exodus from Anatevka, stoic residents with possessions piled high on carts, Torah scrolls resting on the Rabbis shoulders, to piles of suitcases on display in Auschwitz. As part of my work as Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute, I recently commissioned composer Jocelyn Pook and director Emma Bernard along with video artist Dragon Alexich to create a new multimedia piece Drawing Life, that tells the story of the Jews deported to Terezin this piece is based on I never saw another butterfly the collection of poems that was written by the child inmates of the camp. Drawing Life is interesting because it brings us back to what Jewish music is to me, it’s about deeply Jewish content, the poems and drawings of Jewish children suffering under the Nazis, very few of whom survived, interpreted by a non Jewish contemporary classical composer performance piece that combines oral testimony with video projection that bring together Nazi propaganda footage, found photographs and survivor interviews this is rich layering technique, which is extremely powerful and evocative bringing to life the experience of 70 years ago but also the thread of meaning for all of us in our lives today. In our research when creating the piece, we were fascinated to read that each person deported to Terezin was allowed to bring 50 kilos of luggage for their new life in the model ghetto but what did they choose? We created a song, whose lyrics, was made up entirely of the things that people packed to take with them to Terezin from the practical to the outright flamboyant and romantic, this list included things like Mess Tin, Matches, Torch, Towel, Canteen, Candles, Butter Caramels, Crackers, Cooking Fat then Full Length Evening Dress, Poems of Rimbaud (and Verlaine) Goethe’s Faust, Opera scores; The Bartered Bride, Brundibar, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Flute! Clarinet, Cello, Needle and Thread.
Song –(lyrics above list)

So as your travel through life remember as the American Author Ursula Le Guin put it ‘It’s good to have an end to journey towards but it’s the journey that matters the most in the end’. And I would simply suggest that the journey is not only more present, but richer if we travel light.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License