From the Byron Beaches to the Frozen Baltic
Our journey to Russia began in March of 1997 at the North Coast Festival of Women in Mullumbimby. The keynote speaker was Tatyana Mamonova the founder of the Russian Feminist Movement. Exiled in 1979 from the Former Soviet Union for publishing a feminist magazine she founded Women and Earth, an organisation dedicated to maintaining East/West links and embracing the feminine spirit for the benefit of all humanity and the planet.
After our performance Tatyana invited us to Russia to perform at the 1997 Women and Earth conference. She told us "The women of Russia need to hear you." We said "yes" and so began our mammoth fundraising effort to get 8 women 3 small children and one husband/engineer/musician to the edge of the frozen Baltic sea.
The following months were hectic and passionate as our friends and families joined us in our quest. We toured from Southern Queensland to Sydney and West of the Blue Mountains. The response everywhere was overwhelming and sponsors from the local community and afar afield as Melbourne generously gave of their time money and energy.
"Before we knew it December was upon us" recalls group member, Gyan "and we were at London airport laden with prams, instruments and suitcases filled with homeopathics, thermal underwear (kindly donated by sponsors "Thermofleece"), and warm warm clothes. We were told that temperatures in Helsinki and Russia could get to 30 degrees below zero. As we could only imagine how cold this would be we hoped the brewing English winter would prepare us a little for the days ahead."
We stayed in the picturesque Cotswolds for three days, rehearsing and resting. On the last day we took up the invitation of our new friend and Feng Shui master, Anu, to sing and tone at a nearby sacred site, a powerful spot called Wittenham Clumps where the Michael and Mary ley lines cross. It was a specific invitation for us to focus the feminine healing energy of our toning to help bring back balance to this ley line. The English countryside has such a rich silence and serenity and we were deeply grateful for the opportunity to sing in this powerful place.
On 4th December, joined now by Rita, grandmother to Avalon, the youngest child, we embarked upon the next stage of our journey, to Helsinki.
"Finland could not have put on a better display for a group of Aussies, several of whom had never seen snow before" says Jacinta "The snow clad Christmas fir trees sparkled like a precious jewels below us as we flew into Helsinki and like enchanted children we oohed and aahed over the magical winter wonderland. It was crisp, exhilarating and freezing cold. We were greeted by Tosha and Virppi, our Finnish tour managers, who with warmth and efficiency shuttled us off to the homes of our various hosts. We performed that night to an enthusiastic audience at "Fat Mama's" a popular night spot in Helsinki."
The final leg of the journey to St.Petersburg was accomplished by train. At this point we were joined by the SWAN film crew from Sydney. With cameras rolling we chugged through the snow covered countryside, singing songs, discussing exchange rates and wondering what Russia had in store.
"I found myself very affected and saddened by the heaviness I felt in Russia." recalls Chrissy. "It was a drab grey city that greeted us, the snow gave the buildings an eerie otherworldly quality, beautiful and hopeless at the same time. St. Petersburg in winter is a city of sharp contrasts, women swathed in beautiful furs and old beggar women with frozen fingers asking for food. It seemed like a land left behind and deep in my belly I understood what it felt like to be behind the 'iron curtain'. "
The warmth and emotion of the greeting from our Russian hosts, however, was enough to cheer the saddest heart. Deep teary eyes, warm sweet kisses and big bear hugs, a beautiful welcome for a bunch of wild looking, travel weary women from a distant land.
We were billeted to different families. One group with an orthodox middle class family in an old high rise apartment block. There were streets and streets of such blocks, grey and uninspiring. The apartment was very small but cosy and the family fed us with rich vegetarian bean soups and gave us warm comfy beds in their parlour. The mother of the family, Helena, was deeply religious and took great delight in showing us her book of saints and religious stories. She spoke very little English but through the use of imagination and exaggerated mime we managed to communicate.
A second group stayed in the home of a single mother and her child for a couple of days but had to be rehoused in the hotel where the conference was because the mother could no longer afford to put them up. A misunderstanding in which the woman had thought she would be paid for the housing gave us an insight into a sad but not unusual situation. Our hostess had previously held a very important position. She was well educated and had lived very well. With the recent changes in Russia she had lost her employment and could find no work. Her clothing was expensive and her cupboards were empty. We wondered how many more of these people who looked so affluent in their elegant furs were, in truth, poverty stricken.
The final group lived with a family of bohemians. They were passionate and artistic, although very poor and fed us on infinite varieties of potato and tomato dishes washed down with copious vodka.
The Hotel Pribaltiskya where the confernce was held stood at the edge of the frozen Baltic Sea. It is a sight that will be firmly etched into our memories. April summed it up beautifully when she wrote, "a walk on the Baltic sea at sunset, open air, bliss, the magenta sky magically reflected on the ice and the snow covered beach. I surrender to this land."
Russia demanded surrender. Most of us have travelled extensively yet we felt insecure in this land, it was such an unknown quantity. One of the major difficulties was communication. Not many people could speak English and whilst the Russian people were generous, passionate and fun loving in their homes, outside they were unapproachable and seemed deeply suspicious, a symptom we felt of their need to survive the tyrannical communist regime. Catching transport was very precarious. Taxi's are not obvious in Russia, anybody can pick you up, and speaking no Russian we had to rely heavily on our instincts and refuse the services of unsavoury characters reeking of vodka.
"The beginning of the conference was a tense time for us." recalls Veet Diti. " The mixing desk we needed was locked in a room on the second floor and the only person who could help Ross could speak no English. After much persuasive talking and a session of political Vodka drinking late into the night he discovered that money was the essential key to unlocking the door. It wasn't until two hours before we were due to go on that we finally had everything we needed"
So at 10 am on the 8th of December the fruits of our labours were realised. The Voices Of Gaia from Byron Shire, Australia opened the 1997 Women On Earth Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.
We started the proceedings with an invocation of love and peace and sang a popular Australian chant, Earth am I, Water am I, Fire and Air and Spirit am I. We accompanied this with simple gestures that we had choreographed on the plane. By the end of the conference this simple chant had become like an anthem and wherever we sang people would mirror the movements. It was beautiful to see people who could speak no English joining us in these movements, such a simple form of communication that reached out to everyone.
The focus of the conference was mainly the Environment and women's social issues. It was impressive to see women from all over the world gathered to help each other find solutions. It was an honour to be a part of this process. The people of the conference loved our songs and our presence and cherished our easy sense of self and freedom. Everywhere we went in the conference we were greeted with smiles and hugs, people were so curious about Australia and loved seeing our huge "To Russia With Love" poster filled with greetings from friends in Byron and photographs of our beautiful home.
After one of our performances we were approached by a woman who introduced herself as the Executive Director of a series of local schools. She was eager to buy our recordings so that she could teach our songs to the children in her care. She also invited us to perform at her schools if ever we returned to St. Petersburg. This was just one of many enthusiastic responses to our message.
It was all over in what seemed to be a flash. After one final night of song and dance in which East met West in a magical musical medley, we once again boarded the train for Helsinki.
"As I left I felt so grateful for the wonderful opportunity to meet and feel the hearts of these people" said Jacinta "Although our cultures were so different, underneath I found our hosts very similar to me in their ideals and the things that inspired them. It was sad to be leaving my new found sisters and brothers."
Arriving back in Helsinki felt like coming home as we returned to more familiar faces. As Kinto observed "Mum the snow here is clean." Tosha had arranged another gig for us as well as two workshops.
"The trip was an inspiration for us" concluded Laura-Doe. "We were delighted to see how well our unique combination of ritual and song was received by women from all over the world. It is certainly true that songs and sound can heal and uplift across any barriers of language and culture."
The Voices of Gaia - Music for, by and about Women