“In these days of political, personal and economic disintegration, music is not a luxury, it’s a necessity; not simply because it is therapeutic, nor because it is the universal language, but because it is the persistent focus of our intelligence, aspiration and goodwill.” – Robert Shaw
Mary Cay Brass has been leading community choral singing for 23 years in the southern Vermont and western Massachusetts communities. Founded in 1991, the River Singers of Saxtons River, Vermont is a community of 90 multigenerational singers. Greenfield Harmony, a similar group of 80 some singers has met for the last 19 years in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Several years ago, through a convergence of events, Hallowell Hospice Singers was formed to serve the community with end-of-life bedside singing. Village Harmony is a wildly successful Vermont-based singing camp run by Larry Gordon and Patty Cuyler which Mary Cay has worked at since its inception in the early 90’s. After leading a Village Harmony camp to Bosnia in 2006, Zora Quartet was formed by Mary Cay and three other singers wanting to explore more deeply the village singing traditions of Bosnia and other nearby Balkan countries.
“We absolutely love the enthusiasm and joyfulness of the singers. The overall effect of a River Singers concert is that of something not just for the musical ear but for the whole body, a very palpable experience that is the ultimate connection between singers and listeners. There really is nothing else like it, especially considering the very difficult songs you sing.”
The River Singers is a multigenerational 90-voice community choir founded and led by Mary Cay Brass in the village of Saxtons River, Vermont. The choir sings lively and soulful songs from many community-based traditions around the world.
Of particular interest to Mary Cay is music from the Balkan countries of the former Yugoslavia where she spent two and a half years on a Fulbright Scholarship in ethnomusicology. Ritual songs, love songs, dance songs as well as liturgical chants from the orthodox, islamic and sephardic spiritual traditions of Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia are regular features of the River Singer repertoire.
Among the other traditions regularly heard at RS concerts are from The Republic of Georgia, various African traditions, the British Isles, France, and the American folk traditions ranging from shape note and Shaker in the northeast to gospel, bluegrass and Appalachian in the south.
The River Singers is a non-audition choir. Members come from all walks of life and musical experience. Some are professional musicians with years of choral experience while others learn primarily by ear and repitition. The River Singers welcomes all into this singing community.
The choir community has hosted visiting choirs from England, Holland, Kenya,and the Republic of Georgia as well as guest teachers from many vocal traditions – Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Bulgaria, Georgia as well as American gospel and Appalachian specialists. Sharing in other musical cultures through song creates a sense of connection and harmony within the singing community that radiates outward to the musical cultures whose songs they share.
“This choir is my church! River Singer member
“The River Singers … achieve a creative communal zenith in performance that is uncommonly enigmatic and extraordinarily invigorating. Dressed not in choir robes, but their own attire, and responding to Brass’ direction with genuine, unabashed earnestness and zeal, these folks exude elation and it’s contagious!”
The Rutland Herald. (http://rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071129/FEATURES17/711290309/1045/FEATURES17)
River Singer singer songwriter Will Danforth expressed it well in his composition “Saxtons River” dedicated to the group:
We bless this great community
We break down the walls ‘tween you and me.
On Tuesday nights we come to sing and make the lovin’ rafters ring!
For what is life but to rejoice and fill the world with joyful noise.
Audio Clips – Listen to the choir!
Every Humble Knee – Appalachia- arranged by Val Mindel
Oj Safete – Bosnia – arranged by Mary Cay Brass
Wade in the Water – from the ARC choir arranged by John Harrison
Shairebi – Republic of Georgia – arranged by Carl Linich
Oh Lord We Praise You – African American gospel – arranged by Kathy Bullock
Zora Quartet members Mary Cay Brass, Donna Francis, Annie Guion and Addie Holland formed this ensemble after a Village Harmony singing camp in Bosnia in 2006. All four members were attracted to the dynamic village style of singing characteristic of the Bosnian Serbian, Croatian and Muslim peoples. These songs have a very narrow melodic range, are polyphonic in nature, have frequent major seconds which are considered consonant in this tradition and are typically sung by a small group of same-sex singers who sing with great dynamic intensity.
Besides village songs, Zora members explore the Sephardic traditions of Bosnia as well as the urban Muslim tradition of “sevdalinka”, accompanying these songs on accordion and clarinet. Moving beyond the borders of Bosnia Zora sings songs of neighboring Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, as well, incorporating dance songs, ritual songs, wedding songs and love songs into their repertoire.
Zora returned to Bosnia for a second Village Harmony camp in 2008 collecting more exciting repertoire. They perform regularly with Greenfield Harmony Community Chorus in Greenfield, Massachusetts. They have also performed at The Golden Fest in New York City and at other venues throughout New England.
Audio Clips – Listen to the choir!
Oj Bugojno – Bosnian village song
Dobro Dosli – Bosnian village song
Pogledaj me Anadolko – Bosnian sevdalinka
Noches – Bosnian Sephardic
“How can I keep from singing” chants the well-known folk song. We sing as a way of celebrating ourselves, our transitions, our lives from lullabies at the beginning of life to songs of joy, health, love and peace throughout the span of life. Song brings us together, uniting us in harmony. Songs soothe, calm, uplift and energize.
When a person is ill they are out of harmony with their world. Singing can restore a sense of balance – physically, emotionally, spiritually. A chant repeated again and again creates a trance-like space bringing calm to the chaos of pain and fear. The language, the words, are no longer the essential point, rather, the sound, the vibrations of the voices in harmony.
In Hallowell we have found that music and song lift us up, bring peace and calm to a bedside, allow grief to flow among friends and family. We enter the mystery with our voices. It’s an act of simple, heartfelt compassion where we always feel the “angels hoverin’ round”.
You may purchase the Hallowell book and CD on the Hallowell Singers website – click on the image to purchase.
Village Harmony is a Vermont-based singing camp in existence since 1991 when Larry Gordon founded the camp and hired Mary Cay to teach music from the Balkans to teens. The camp was such a success that it has grown into multiple sessions of teen camps per summer, camps for adults and camps in many foreign countries such as England, South Africa, Ghana, Corsica, Bulgaria and the Republic of Georgia.Village Harmony camps are powerful, sometimes, life-changing experiences that draw hundreds of singers every summer together in song. Mary Cay organized and led the first Village Harmony Bosnia camps in 2006 and 2008. In 2016 and 2018 two more Village Harmony Bosnia camps took place in conjunction with the Center for Peacebuilding in Sanski Most Bosnia. Singers from the US, Canada, the and France gathered together to learn music from Bosnia’s rich village traditions, sacred repertoire from all of Bosnia’s spiritual traditions and urban muslim love songs as well as learning about the visionary work of the Center for Peacebuilding and studying the skills required for deep individual and community peace building..
As one Bosnia camper put it:
“Village Harmony camp in Bosnia was an experience that opened up my heart and mind in so many ways. Inspiring, dynamic leaders not only taught us a variety of Bosnian music, but about that music, and we had the opportunity to meet Bosnians who sang and loved the music we were learning. Bosnia is a beautiful, ancient country whose citizens continue to work on healing and reconciliation, and music is part of that healing. My Bosnian experience and learning was joyful, rich, unexpected and inspiring!”
Village Harmony in Macedonia
The first Village Harmony camp in the Republic of Macedonia was an enormous success. Twenty two singers traveled to the mountain town of Berovo near the Bulgarian border where we stayed in a beautiful hotel “Hotel Manastir” next to the ancient monastery of St. Michael the Archangel.
As our bus arrived carrying weary travelers we were greeted by a wonderful Roma brass band and warm bread. We descended from the bus to be pulled into the dance by several locals who were already dancing when we got there. It was a wonderful welcome and a portent of what was to come over the next two weeks.
My co-leader in Macedonia was Goran Alachki, a virtuoso accordion player – a “national treasure”, along with his wife Adrijana, a wonderful singer and dynamic performer of Macedonian traditional music with many CD’s to her name.
Goran had organized a series of teachers to teach us various aspects of traditional Macedonian singing. The first two days he and Adrijana taught us half a dozen songs – all well known throughout Macedonia – which we found out when we performed them and the entire audience sang along at the top of their lungs!
Next we spent two days with the young and very talented Roma musician, Bajsa Arifovska who plays just about everything: fiddle, clarinet, kaval, tupan, saxaphone, tambura, piano – and probably more. Bajsa taught us several songs from the Maleshevo region where we were located for the camp as well as a dynamic, traditional Roma song. She also gave lessons on the side to those interested in any of the many instruments that she plays.
Our next teacher was Velika (Stojkova Serafimovska Velika) an ethnomusicologist with a specialty in village ritual songs. From her we learned a wealth of information on regional styles from Aegean Macedonia (in Greece), Pirin Macedonia (in Bulgaria) and the various regions of the Republic of Macedonia. Her songs were all two part, melody with drone and either sung a cappella or accompanied by tambura.
Finally, our last teacher was Igor Krsteski, a wonderful singer, who taught us a few more songs from Macedonian urban traditions.
Adrijana Alacki, in addition to being a wonderful singer, is a gourmet cook who has just come out with a Macedonian cookbook destined to become a classic. The cookbook contains over 200 recipes with beautiful photographs of each dish and directions in both English and Macedonian. Adrijana offered a cooking class each day in which participants helped prepare 5 dishes which we then ate for lunch each day.
Goran and Adrijana’s daughter, Graciela, a recent college graduate taught folk dance every morning. Graciela is a lovely dancer, speaks great English and always has a smile on her face. She took thousands of pictures and videos – many of which she put up each day on Facebook so family and friends could keep up with our journey.
Our location for the camp was the small town of Berovo in the Maleshevo Mountains of eastern Macedonia. The climate there is perfect in the summer – warm days and cool nights. The wooded mountains are beautiful for hiking and exploring – wild flowers and fruit trees abound and you never know when you will come upon a beautiful monastery in the woods or be invited in for coffee and sweets by a local family.
For the final four days of our camp we went on tour and had homestays with local families. Our first concert was in Berovo and after having been there for 10 days, walking, exploring, visiting the market, being spontaneously invited for coffee – we felt like we knew the whole town and they all knew us. Our concert was in the town center, outside, with the audience pressing in all around us. All the kids in town were in the front singing at the top of their lungs with every song. We taught every audience the American spiritual “Oh What a Beautiful City” and had everyone singing along with us. I tried, in vain, to get them all to clap on the off beat. They can clap in 9/16 or 11/16 or 7/8 rhythm but it’s hard to feel that African American off beat! A local choir of retired people sang a few songs in the concert and we all ended with a couple of songs together. Members of this choir took us home with them for our homestays. Our homestays were amazing. Our families seemed to instantly adopt us, cooking amazing food, feeding us way too much and constantly, giving us gifts, showing us their beautiful, organic gardens, introducing us to all their relatives and friends.
We came away from this camp with a deep love for Macedonia, its people, countryside, music and traditions and especially with the entire Alacki family who generously and ethusiastically made it all happen!