Under the influence of Welsh, Yiddish and Indian music

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Musician, singer and teacher Prashanto writes about her creative musical journey from childhood to today.

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Although I had piano lessons from age 7-16 and am grateful for them, the single most important influence on my musical development was my Father’s songs; beautiful haunting Welsh folk songs and ballads sung to me and my youngest brother, Sim, as we fell asleep, almost every night from very young to about 10 years old. Our Dad, Howard, would come home from teaching in evening classes and lie on the floor between our beds and sing, for at least half an hour, often longer. First the song in its original form and Welsh language and then he would start to improvise on the notes and take the song into imaginative realms of sound and melody that always touched my soul. We both actually stayed awake to listen because it was too wonderful to miss any. Howard told me later in life that he found this a very good way to relax after working with a lot of people, and because Sim (later called Tushir) and I continued to ask him to sing to us, this went on for so many years.

Thanks to this, I have always sung, and always been an improviser. I love many instruments (and play them in a simple way) but the primary instrument, most expressive of my heart and soul is always the voice.

At 16 (and 14) Sim and I began to teach ourselves the guitar and to write songs together – then ensued some nice busking times spent in the streets and squares of Avignon and Amsterdam.

My passion for improvisation led me to Drama in 6th Form and Uni (BA Drama Exeter University) where I was lucky to connect with the work of very inspiring movement theatre exponents; Grotowski, Peter Brook, Bertolt Brecht – always bringing music, song and story-telling into our performances. I continued my explorations into very free expressive movement and voice, rhythm and music in wonderful groups, such as Essential Theatre, Spinning Tales, Limen Drummers, and my own teaching / facilitating. I still practise a free form of movement in nature to this day.

I have also written many songs for children and have been teaching singing and music in Montessori schools for nearly 30 years. In 1998 I self-published a book and recording of original material, titled ‘Naturesongs’, with the intention to encourage parents and teachers to sing more to and with their children.

During the early 2000s, my creative and emotional journey took me into an exploration of my maternal Jewish roots, which I did mainly through learning and performing Yiddish songs and supporting my Mother Esther (later Avedan) to write (and illustrate with amazing paintings) a memoir/diary of her childhood in Nazi Germany in the form of a beautiful book called, ‘Sunday’s Child’. Her book launch with readings and songs was one of the proudest days of my life and a profound healing for both of us. And the richness and emotional depth of those Yiddish songs has stayed with me…

From initially being part of a Yiddish choir, I moved on into a very friendly choir, the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel Choir in Hampstead, London, which has given me, over the last ten years, a great grounding in classical music singing and technique. This choir also gives me and my lovely supportive partner Khoji an opportunity to perform together as a duo, often with theatrical and comedic songs – I realise how much I also adore to make people laugh!

It was before all this, back in 1998, after a strange attack of tinnitus forced me to let go of the drumming and DJing work I was enjoying, that I found myself in a place where I had to go into silence, and frequently, solitude. 15 years before this, Osho had given me the name ‘Prashanto’, meaning ‘Deep Silence’. Finally, I began to experience what this is! During this time, I could not listen to (let alone play or sing) any music without it hurting acutely in my ears.

At this point, up in the Pembrokeshire mountains in a stone cottage, my friend Felix Padel suddenly began to teach me some ragas from the most ancient North Indian Dhrupad tradition. It was the only sound / music I could bear! Coming out of silence, every note tenderly formed from deep inside, given space to grow and be improvised with… I was back with my father.

And the sound of the tambura, the gentle vibration of the four strings droning in perfect harmony, was a balm to all my senses.

Since then I have practised alone almost every morning of my life on these beautiful embodied raga scales / musical modes that carry so much profound meaning, mood, expression and connection with Nature; the nature within us, our human nature, and the nature without us… And for 20 years Felix has been learning from the great Gurus of Dhrupad, Ritwik Sanyal and Wasifuddin Dagar in Varanasi and Delhi, returning to London and teaching the ragas to me!

Within the first year of learning raga from Felix, I began to share and teach the ragas myself in my workshops and individual voice sessions with people, recognising their healing power as well as their exquisite musicality. Gradually this developed into a regular weekly raga group that has now been going for at least 18 years and ‘has a mind of its own’. I have stayed with the same structure all these years – basically taking the group on a long meditative and often playful journey into the chosen raga, then taking this into individual and, finally, group improvisation. It is always a different and unique experience for each of us. All these years of improvising both in the groups and in my solitary practice have had a profound influence on me.

In September 2016 after teaching raga in Corfu for six weeks, there arose through me a great flurry of songs… they continued to dance through me all that winter and spring and summer 2017 until I had a cycle of 24 songs. I experienced that the ragas were alchemically blending inside me with my Celtic and Jewish roots and everything that had influenced my life, and that the lyrics were flowing out like Welsh mountain streams. It was a joy to then ‘set’ the songs by slowly giving each syllable of my lyrics a note from the raga they had flowed out of.

Then came a process of singing these set notes over and over with the words until the melody began to emerge… quite a mysterious and exciting process for me, unlike any previous experience of song-writing.

I have chosen 10 of these songs for my album, ‘Prayer to the Wild‘, just published in March 2019. It is a celebration of Nature and is my own personal expression of my love for Mother Earth and my gratitude for being connected to nature as a human being.

susanannjones.hearnow.com


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‘Prayer to the Wild’ – review by Chinmaya

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