Troubadours, Muse, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris
It wasn’t as if I woke up one day and decided ‘I’m going to be a troubadour’. I don’t think I even knew what a troubadour was….perhaps it was someone juggling colored balls, wearing funny pointed green shoes and hanging out in various castles. No, it happened as a conspiracy I think: Between my better, more conscious self and some people around me who saw some hidden potential lurking just beneath the surface.
I had always loved music. My first memory of playing was on my favorite, brightly colored plastic clarinet…perhaps I was three years old. By the age of five, I became enchanted with the family piano and thought my father was a grand maestro…he probably knew four songs and played them for me over and over again. My favorite part of the piano though, was lifting up the top of the upright and strumming the long, harp like strings. Over the years, my father attempted to teach me to play it the ‘normal’ way, but I lacked the discipline to practice.
Harpist Tomb Ramses III, Thebes
In the 1970’s, I had a particular ‘do good’ kind of friend who had a bit of money and loved going around and helping people realize their dreams. Sitting with Steven one day, I offhandedly mentioned a dream I had the night before, in which I was given a small golden harp. I had never imagined playing a harp before. At that time, I had an old Martin guitar and sang folks songs….but only for my own enjoyment…I was unbelievably shy and would only play if I didn’t think anyone was listening!
Within a year, Steven had located a lovely folk harp in San Francisco, bought two airline tickets, one for the harp, and flew it down to where I was living near San Diego. In those days, we didn’t lock our doors…so he just walked in, placed it in my living room and quietly left, like a phantom in the night. I just sat there and gazed dumbstruck at the harp’s graceful form. My imagination could see wispy angels hovering over it. That was the beginning in 1974.
In 1981, I was visiting the beautiful coastal town of Puerta Vallarta in Mexico with my boyfriend. After dinner one evening, we were heading back to our hotel with some people we had just met at the restaurant and who were staying at the same place. In the taxi, I sat next to a quiet man and we began to chat…I asked him what he did….he very humbly mentioned he was the president of Capital Records. Oh my, here is a definite sign I thought. Destiny was right beside me in a packed Mexican taxi. Just before leaving for the trip, I had been contemplating doing a first recording of my original compositions for harp and voice.
One of the other new acquaintances riding with us spoke up and said, ‘Don’t you play the harp?’ I said ‘Yes, and I’m thinking of doing a recording soon’. I thought for sure the Capital Records mogul from Los Angeles might be my ticket to success, but it was actually his friend from rural Indiana who drawled, “Well, if you have your music recorded, I have a music magazine that I publish twice a year. The deadline for advertising is next week and it comes out in a month. I replied that I had a few songs that I could record. She said, “Can you get something together that fast?” I confidently said “Sure”, not having any idea what was involved in producing an album! (The Capital Records guy must have thought, ‘Poor thing, she has no idea what she is agreeing to.’)
Shadow harper at Xochicalco Pyramid, photo Oweena C. Fogarty
Within a week I had an ad for a non-existent recording, and within thirty days, I had a completed product. One of my science buff friends on that same trip to Mexico had recommended recording at a high elevation, as he said the sound had a clearer quality. I have no idea if that is true, but I followed his suggestion and found a recording studio right next to the San Francisco Peaks….one of the highest, clearest points in the American Southwest. Of course, I ended up getting snowed in at the recording studio for several days during a big snow and ice storm in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Arizona snow, photo A. Williams
With my finished product, I had absolutely no idea if anyone would have an interest in my style of music. The compositions and lyrics were about love, beauty and angels coming to show us the way out of the mess we had created in the world. I had grown up with Vietnam, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and we all dreamed of a better life and a world free of war.
I decided to take a demo into a local bookstore - the owner thanked me and I left. Apparently after she listened to it, she sent it to Music Design, one of the big music distributors in Milwaukee. Shortly after, I received a large order from them and a letter asking for an exclusive contract for them to produce the music in Europe. And that is how the music began to make its way into the world, with a little help from many friends!
The harper meets Stonehenge, photo Nancy Safford
The tradition of being a bard says that you don’t stay in one place with your music….you travel wherever the request or need takes you. My troubadour journey began to quicken at a chance meeting in 1987 at a local print shop in Arizona. (Perhaps I should mention that the word conspire literally means ‘to breathe together’…it was as if everything I did, every person I met was part of a grand plan, like puzzle pieces in an image, unknown until it’s pieced together).
The woman standing next to me was picking up her completed brochures for a fantastic looking pilgrimage to sacred places in England and Scotland. I was holding my brand new music brochure with an image of a lovely small bards harp on the front. My new friend immediately had an inspiration. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have the harp music as we visit the stone circles and King Arthur’s castle?” I replied that yes, that it would be amazing. We exchanged brochures and went our ways.
Within days the auspicious phone call came, “How would you like to bring your harp and play for my group in Britain? You would have all your expenses covered, a 14 day journey to dozens of ancient sites, islands, cathedrals and castles.” I said yes.
A few days later, I received a frantic call from an overwhelmed musician friend who needed me to help him with two different tours. He had taken on more than he could handle. The first trip was to Machu Picchu, coming up in just two weeks! A group of spiritual representatives from twelve countries were gathering in the Andes for a ceremony. Each would bring a message of peace or healing for the world from their culture and a small gift from their land to be buried with their prayers in the sacred mountain. All I needed to do was drive up to the Hopi Mesas and pick up a ninety year old grandmother and fly with her to Lima. Oh, and of course, bring my harp….they were filming the whole event and needed more music. Okey dokey, count me in.
Nubian harper, Aswan Egypt, photo A. Williams
Ani at Saquara, photo Ranjita Ryan
The second tour my friend was organizing was a few months away and was another all expenses paid trip to Egypt and yes, would I bring that small sized travel harp and play in the temples for the tourists. Right, I could get used to this sort of life, floating down the Nile and playing my harp. But it meant being on the road for about four months, with plenty of time between each tour to explore the countries and ancient sites. Since I had never traveled internationally, alone and with only the small income of a beginning troubadour, it was a bit daunting. But I said yes. The whole tour produced another two albums of original music, one of which was recorded live in the pyramids of Giza.
During one recording session, I had paid the guard at the entrance to the third pyramid of Menkaure and went in with a candle, my harp and two supportive friends. Once I was inside and had the portable recording unit set up and the candle lit, the guard turned out the lights and we had thirty minutes of uninterrupted time in the pyramid. When we emerged into the bright sunshine, I was stunned to see about forty US Army soldiers that had been waiting to get inside for a visit….they were on maneuvers nearby. I thought, “How symbolic….the Army is waiting patiently for the goddesses to complete their prayers and temple music. There is yet hope.”
All of those experiences were long ago, but they seeded a pattern for a life as a troubadour. As with the tradition of ancient bards of the Celts and Druids and the troubadours of medieval Europe, the music is not always needed in romantic castles and temple settings. The sites visited and where I played became as varied as life itself. I played several times for men in a high security prison in Mexico, where we were all in tears at the end of our singing together. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, touching me more deeply than the temples of Peru and Egypt. One year I played for a children’s hospice center in Poland for terminally ill youth. I sang at their bedsides like a mother singing to her baby. The love and gratitude in their big eyes will always be with me.
In the 1990’s I had an office in Mexico City, where I was teaching sound therapy and doing concerts in the region. There I met a woman who was working with gangs and street violence. She had the idea that I should join her one day on one of her regular rounds to check on “her guys”. She asked me to bring a small harp along in case there was an opportunity to play for them. I said okay.
‘Song of the Jaguar’ album cover 1989, acrylic by Mazatl Galindo
At one time Mexico City was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In a mile high valley, surrounded with snow covered mountains, it was called Tenochtitlan. This thriving center included a series of extensive floating gardens filled with exotic flowers….glorious stone pyramids and spiral shaped temples…until Cortez’s conquest and armies of destruction arrived from Spain in the 16th century.
The area my friend and I visited is on the east side of Mexico City, where once stood an Aztec temple dedicated to music, art and poetry. Today it is the area dedicated to dumping the trash from a city of more than twenty million inhabitants. There is no sign of the temple or the beauty which flourished there. Instead, one is confronted with trash, crime, and an overcrowded series of slums and shacks, where people fight to survive.
We arrived at one of these shacks and a few of the local gang members had gathered to receive us. We all felt a bit uncomfortable, especially the bad ass guys when they saw a blond chick carrying a little harp….a bit too stereotypically angelic. We all sat in a circle and began to talk in Spanish…that helped to break the ice a bit. Then I saw some 5-gallon empty paint buckets lying around. Turned upside down, they make an almost decent drum sound. I started with some rhythms, hoping to bridge our cultural gaps, rather than invading their domain with angelic harps. It worked. Pretty soon we were all chanting and drumming some traditional Aztec songs and eventually brought the harp into the makeshift band.
When I returned months later, the gang members had created their own band and had started a soup kitchen to feed the homeless. My promoter in Mexico was inspired to produce a very successful benefit concert in the city, which raised sufficient funds for these same ex-gang members to start a recycling company, which helped transform some of the garbage problems in their barrio. In the words of Nezahualcoyotl, one of the 14th century poets from the temples of art which once stood in that same place:
Oh friends let us rejoice
Let us embrace one another.
We walk the flowering earth,
We walk the flowering earth.
No one here can do away
With the flowers and the songs,
They shall endure forever
In the House of the Giver of Life.
Original colored drawing, unknown artist, private collection of A. Williams
Public mural in Tepoztlan, Mexico made of corn and seeds, photo A. Williams
For several years I participated in an experimental project with dolphins and young children with various disabilities. The project manager was trying different types of music and they were using both my harp music and also the therapeutic recordings which I had created. The Songaia Sound Medicine series is relaxing music using specific rhythms and tones which create alpha and theta brain states. We had this tested at the University of Washington and the deeper brain states were equated with states of deep meditation and healing.
Ani singing with dolphin friend, Centro Delphino Therapia, Mexico City
It was extraordinary to witness the power of sound to instantly reduce stress and increase motor skills in children with limited mobility; to enhance speech and communication skills in autistic children, and generally promote the ability to focus and respond. With the combination of the high frequency sound emissions from the dolphins, the healing music and just being in the water with these amazing creatures, there were marked improvements in the children.
One day after a session with the dolphins and children, I wandered around the large park surrounding the dolphin pools. The park included a small zoo and was dedicated to children with disabilities. I walked up to a large enclosure, in which an elephant was cruelly chained to a post with only a short lead. I asked a custodian why and he told me that the elephant was sick and had been thrashing about…they didn’t want him hurting himself.
I approached the fence and began to sing for the elephant. He became calm and began to sway in perfect rhythm with the chant. At the end of the song, he reached out with his trunk through the fence to me, making contact and perhaps to say thank you. How I wish we would all be singing….to nature, to the children, for our families. This is something that was always done throughout time. Music was not something for a few to perform but a way of life, something that everyone did. And we were much healthier and happier for it. The Africans have a saying, “If you can walk, you can dance—If you can talk, you can sing.”
As I was finishing my session with the elephant, a young Mexican boy walked up to me and said in Spanish, “If you can sing to the elephant, why don’t you come over to the small horses. They would like a song too.” So we walked over to the small ponies and sang to them…as we did, a small group of disabled children gathered around and we ended up with quite a crowd. Thank you to that insightful boy.
I am reminded of a woman in one of my sound workshops in Portland, Oregon years ago. She had just returned from Africa, where she had studied with a Zulu medicine man. She said that when people came to him for healing, he didn’t ask them what their symptoms were, like most doctors. He simply asked them “When did you stop singing?”
Several years ago a young couple living in Los Angeles scheduled an appointment for Voice Spectrum Analysis. This is a system of analyzing the voice to find patterns and tones for healing and wholeness. The couple arrived with their five year old son Tyler, who had been diagnosed as autistic. He was extremely hyperactive and although it was difficult, I was able to record sufficient tones in his voice for the analysis. Tyler was extremely agitated and was not able to form normal intelligible words.
I sat down at the harp and began to play an improvised piece of music for him. He immediately began to slow down his running around and gradually came over to the harp. He stood at the opposite side of the instrument and as I kept playing, he began to pick out notes that evolved into a perfect duet. He had never played an instrument, and yet he made perfect musical sense. It was quite a beautiful piece and when I looked up, his mother was crying.
When we finished playing, he kissed me on the cheek and said “harp”, the first comprehendible word that Tyler had uttered all day. After the session, Tyler began listening to the Songaia CD containing the frequencies that were stressed in his voice and he was able to relax and sleep and his verbal skills increased. His parents bought him a small stringed instrument and he began to play music. He is now able to communicate and has shown a natural gift and ability to compose music.
Songaia Sound Color-Tone Wheel ©1995 Ani Williams
My own journey began as a reluctant, shy, reclusive closet musician, lacking any confidence in who I was. The one thing that I think I did have though, was the ability to say yes to life…to opportunities and to walk through doors, even if they were not open all the way. It takes courage to step out with one’s art, to be true to our beliefs and I am still learning about what that means. Doubt is something that plagues us all, but too much is deadly to the creative dream.
"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." Margaret Atwood
At one time, I thought it was necessary to become perfect at what I was doing before sharing it with anyone. But if that were the case, I would never have shared anything. Now I wouldn’t consider being perfect at anything. I think that perfection is in simply being authentic, being true to our hearts and following our own dream, not someone else’s idea of what that is.
I hope these stories will encourage any troubadour, young or old who carries a song or a dream for a world of beauty, to make that dream a reality. Even if our song is sung for a tree in a lonely forest, or a crying child on the street, that is enough, and our art has made a difference.
My granddaughter Pantera in studio recording the song ‘Maria Guadalupe’ for ‘Magdalene’s Gift’ CD 2003
Ani Williams is a harpist, singer-songwriter, author and sound therapist. In 1994 she founded Songaia Sound Medicine, promoting healing through music. Her articles have been published in books, magazines, and can be found on her website at www.aniwilliams.com. In addition to producing numerous music recordings, she leads pilgrimages to the ancient Troubadour sites in Europe. She lives in Southern France and Arizona.