Songs of Solstice 1
Acoustic duo "Solterre" has released their first album of traditional Solstice and Christmas music from the 12th to 18th centuries with new arrangements based on Persian and Hindustani rhythms and East Indian influenced vocals. The result is a unique "world music" style interpretation of many well-known Christmas songs. Bridging ecstatic musical traditions from East and West with the traditional songs of birth and joy associated with the Paegan/Christian Winter Solstice, "Solterre" is a musical and vocal collaboration of mandolyn player and vocalist Felicity Gerwing, and percussionist and vocalist Marco Zonka, with featured woodwind player Randy Mead. In the spirit of exuberant joy and exaltation common to all love songs of the spirit, Solterre brings new vibrancy and verve to these fine songs of yore, affirming and celebrating the common thread of yearning, shared by all peoples, for love and light, on the longest and darkest of nights. A brief history of " Winter Solstice" Astronomically, the winter solstice is the point at which the northern hemisphere of the earth, leaning away from the sun and therefore cooling with less light from the sun (creating winter) begins to "wobble" back toward the sun, creating also at that point the shortest day and longest night. "Solstice" literally means 'sun is still.' As one of the most ancient and universal rituals of celebration on earth dating back to Egyptian, Babylonian and Sumerian times, the Winter Solstice -the darkness in which new light is born-- has been observed by cultures and civilizations all over the world. As one civilization followed another, stories associated with old myths about this time of rebirth and 'transformation' were woven into the fabric of new stories and new myths, and preexisting themes and images were retained and embellished. The Celebrations of Solstice and it's 'festivals of light' are historically among the most multicultural of traditions, paralleling and cross-pollinating one another for centuries. Always on the darkest night in a primitive place and of questionable parentage and origin, the "child of wonder", surrounded by animals and wise men, is born. From Osiris of Egypt to Attis of Rome, Apollo of the Greeks to Mithras of Persia, Deganawidah of the Huron Tribe to Jesus of Nazareth, the child of wonder, born in darkness, under the guidance of the stars and the gods, grows up to be a teacher, a leader, a healer, a god. These songs of Solstice, resonant with the compositional integrity of ancient Britton and Celtic maestros, are given new verve by arrangements in Persian rhythms with impetuous Eastern European phrasing on Romanian Mandolin. In a North Indian vocal style known as 'tarana' a chorusing of voices common to these songs of celebration give new spirit and passion to the native elegance and grandeur of these musical gems from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Musicians: Marco Zonka (Chicago) began studying tabla in 1977 with the late Ustad Allah Rakha at the Indian Cultural Arts Ashram in San Francisco . He continued studies of Indian vocal and instrumental music with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of music in San Rafael, and with resident tabla maestros Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudury. Marco plays and performs numerous finger-drumming styles, including tabla, tar, bendir, dhumbek and udu drums. Marco tours the Pacific Northwest every summer as the tabla player for Pandit Shivnath Mishra and Deobrat Mishra, sitar masters from Varanasi, India . Felicity Gerwing (Kootenays) is from a large family of musicians, singers, choir directors and teachers of music, with a well established tradition of celebrating sacred songs of European origin. She studied music at David Thompson Fine Arts University and Capilano College, and tours the Pacific Northwest every summer playing tamboura with sitar maestros from Varanasi, India - Pandit Shivnath Mishra and his son Deobrat Mishra. REVIEWS First, I have to admire the ambition of a musical group that will name it's album Songs of Solstice: Volume One. Right out of the blocks, Solterre (Felicity Gerwing, Marco Zonka, Randy Mead) anticipates a long line of holiday music progeny. Given the fine execution and unusual presentation of this seasonal offering, I'm on board to hear more. So what is so different about Volume One? Let me count the ways. The 40-minute album features just seven tracks, so the listener enjoys fully developed (on average, almost 6 minutes each) renditions of well-known traditional carols and ancient hymns. In addition, the focus is on East Indian music styles, with the tabla joining the mandolin and clarinet, but that is not the big story. Solterre includes fascinating vocals, blending Gerwing's and Zonka's voices in exotic layers of sound. Most significantly, Zonka occasionally uses 'tarana,' a North Indian (Hindustani) classical vocal technique used to celebrate, repeating syllables as controlled 'yips.' The vocals have an earthy, almost other-worldy quality. Finally, the album's artistry has a whimsical and unpredictable edge, throwing in the accordion, for example. I enjoyed Songs of Solstice, which is nicely crafted and offbeat. Marrying European and American Christmas traditions with Eastern cultures, Solterre presents the unexpected in a pleasing, multicultural format. Cool! --Carol Swanson (Reviewed in 2007) Island Tides, Dec 14 2006 CD & Book Reviews ~ Trysh Ashby-Rolls Salish Sea Concert Fall-out Chicago-born percussionist Marco Zonka says he's used to snow and cold. Raging wind, blinding rain and freezing temperatures are nothing new to him. Which is just as well since he's hibernating on Gabriola Island this winter. Nor is he waiting till he sees his shadow February 2 to exit his cave; he's hard at work composing, arranging and producing a new CD and preparing to take a group to the Academy of Indian Classical Music in Varanasi next February. Participants will study traditional Varanasi gharana music taught by master sitarists and vocalists Pandit Shivnath Mishra and son Deobrat Mishra. Readers may remember the Mishras playing the Strait of Georgia in July (see Island Tides, July 13, 2006) with Zonka on tabla and Gabriola's Felicity Gerwing on tamboura. On Gabriola, Zonka and Gerwing have joined forces with guest wind player Randy Mead on a CD they call Solterre, a compilation of solstice and Christian winter music. Gerwing had the idea for a new interpretation of Christmas music long before she met Zonka. When Gerwing discovered he'd studied classical Indian and Persian music, it seemed a natural collaboration. And as Zonka puts it, 'There's a hunger for something fresh in the repertoire. Christmas has all sorts of emotional landmines. It needs some approach from a different tradition that puts it into a different dimension.' And solstice, of course, embraces multi-ethnic traditions. 'It's the longest, darkest night of winter, yet it also celebrates the return of the light,' Zonka says. Together Marco and Felicity have adapted tirana, a singing style from Northern India that uses drum language, layering it with traditional Celtic and Persian music; adding in some Indian gharana and they have the recipe for a glorious melodic cocktail. Gerwing plays Romanian octave mandolin; Zonka on tabla and Persian tar. In case you wonder what a tar is, it's like an Irish drum, played finger style as in ancient Pagan times when drummers were women. If you're absolutely fed up with seasonal muzak, crank up the CD player, pour a glass of egg-nog and sing along with these accomplished musicians and vocalists.