Reaching out and reaching in
Reaching out and reaching inPublished 08/27/2014
Music is a universal language. It draws you in, and as the composers and rockstars know, it can draw you out. It is a safety zone for emotion and a safe haven to express yourself, to feel an emotion, to protest, to say or relate to something meaningful; and most often, music offers a place to be filled with joy, passion and love. Both Mari Earl and Gina Salá know this deeply, and will sing from their hearts at Forefront’s second annual fall event on Sept. 30.
Mari Earl has been a professional musician for a long time, a self-proclaimed folksinger from the ‘60s. She discovered music as a young girl and taught herself to play guitar at age 11. She felt that when she played music she “could take what was inside and manifest it into something that was [her] expression.” It was also during those early adolescent years that she became an aunt: her sister had a son named Kurt Cobain who later became the lyricist and lead vocalist for the rock band Nirvana. She gave him his first guitar to hold and encouraged his singing and playing. They listened to her uncle’s 45s together and had a special connection. A little later she joined a band, played in bars and lived a musician’s life. But when Kurt died by suicide, 20 years ago, she knew she had to do something more—in her words, “to help stop young people from following in his footsteps.”
It was then she developed her talk, “Life—it’s worth it.” In order to introduce her message she went back to what she knew—music. She wrote a song to convey her sense of coming out of a very dark place and then feeling the joy and freedom to spread your wings. Her talk is about healthy choices and consequences with the goal of getting middle and high schoolers to stop and think before acting, and to understand that whatever bad happens, there can be a positive change. She discusses reaching out, being honest, and not just putting on a smile; and she emphasizes that coping in healthy ways is an important teachable skill.
Mari’s own healing has taken a long time. She believes her relationship with God, her friends and family, honesty and a lot of grace have gotten her through the last 20 years. And while one never really gets over the death of a loved one, a public loss brings up many complications for healing. Fans have written her binders full of letters confiding a sense of feeling lost without Kurt and his music; a few have even expressed suicide ideation. Some journalists and music writers have refuted the facts, and are continually searching for sensational pieces of information and invading her family’s privacy. It is amazing that she takes it with such grace: “I know that is their job,” but still the hurt shows in her face.
The stigma around suicide is so strong that it makes it hard for people to accept that Kurt had been depressed for a long time and that ultimately he made the choice not to live. Yet, everyone wishes that Kurt was still around, and Mari bears that in mind as she answers letters to fans. Sometimes she even looks on their Facebook pages and smiles as she sees their lives being lived. As she says, she is an eternal optimist, she has hope for the future. If Kurt’s legacy is that people can learn to make better choices and start speaking more openly, he would be proud of that.
Gina Salá is a world traveler, collector of all types of music, composer, vocalist, music director, sound healer and teacher. She has performed at the United Nations, for Disney, was the principal singer in Cirque du Soleil’s “O,” just to name a few performances. She has always been interested in what connects people, and in our shared humanity and that which connects us beyond our apparent differences which she affirms through music. But she did not set out to be a world class vocalist, rather she thought she would pursue medicine or international relations, anthropology or writing. And in fact, through her research and travels she has combined all four disciplines.
The attraction to health and music seems to have derived from her musical roots in sacred music (growing up chanting in a Hindu ashram, and singing with family in church) as well as a profound need. As a child suffering from acute asthma, Gina would often sing out in nature by herself to open and strengthen her lungs, to release emotions, and to pray. In her teenage year, although to her peers she was seen as and nicknamed “Sunshine,” inwardly she was depressed and overwhelmed with her life, even contemplating suicide. Shortly after this, she was in a terrible car accident which could have easily killed her and her close friend. But by grace or luck, they both survived. Around that time, she was chosen to go on an exchange to Japan, and then to college, widening her sense of what was possible. Those experiences helped change the course of her emotions, and her life.
After graduating from college Gina traveled around the world collecting songs: healing songs, shamanic songs, religious songs, chants, anything that seemed to have meaning to the individuals she met. She noticed that all cultures use music to celebrate and to grieve, for spiritual connection and to release emotions, to empower and to heal, to mark transitions and to unite. Her vast collection of songs has become instrumental in her work with youth and adults of all ages helping them to feel empowered, whole and hopeful.
She speaks of having a large repertoire because different songs touch people differently. For instance, in her work with some immigrant children, she met a Bajuni mother (from Somalia) in Seattle who was feeling depressed and disconnected because she was trying to assimilate in America but was missing an important holiday back in her homeland. Though she didn't know the festival, Gina understood the the need to have someone understand or connect when you’re far from home, So Gina asked her to teach her a song from that holiday. The woman brightened noticeably as she spoke of it, and opened to Gina while sharing about the beauty of the holiday in which people sing and celebrate on a beach while one by one others walk out for private time “wailing or singing out their prayers and feelings” on a sandbar in the sea. That shared connection brought them deeply close together for that space in time (and found its way into one of her songs).
Another time Gina went to sing at a local hospital around Christmas time. She heard a man wailing in another room and asked if she could visit with him. Right away she noticed he was East Indian, had recently had his leg amputated and he spoke no English. She asked “Hindu or Muslim”, knowing she had a song for either. When he said “Hindu”, she sang him a soothing ancient Hindu chant that she guessed he would know. Suddenly he stopped wailing, and gazed at her, his body relaxed as she took his hand and sang him to sleep. Without speaking the language, and in so much pain, he was exhausted, but in the music, he felt a connection and an understanding that allowed him to rest so he could begin to recover. It was a moment that brought tears to both their eyes.
These are just two of many experience that Gina has to demonstrate the unifying, healing power of music. She experiences it every day in her work with individuals helping them find and appreciate their voices (she says, “everyone can sing”), in healing sessions (which affects the nervous system, breath, emotions and thought patterns) and in her uplifting concerts and chanting evenings. And she still guides people on several tours internationally, with music as a focal point. As Gina told me, “Music helps us feel our connection beyond cultural borders and the barriers we put up inside.”— By Lisa Wahbe