So... this happened. I think it’s been the absolute high note of the project so far. During the autumn last year I hired a genealogist so to trace some of my family avenues.... and I managed to find my mums two cousins, both in the uk, both as ecstatic as a party popper to hear from me. Mum has not seen them since age seven when she went into the orphanage. She is seventy five this year, that is 68 years! 68 years of air, and swallowed mouths, and whispered histories. Today they meet for the first time, both sides of the family forgotten....until an inquisitive daughter came along with a hunger for gaps and sellotape. This afternoon, for six hours I felt like I was hanging out with three little girls in wrinkly suits, all giddy and giggling. ‘Real family,’ my mama said, holding them against her like another heart.
‘My mother’s song is an old Pakistani song. It’s represented by so many layers. On one hand she grew up on the outskirts of Islamabad, in this beautiful, lush village, yet when she went back capitalism had taken over. Buildings had gone up, nature disappeared, her family had gone. She had me and my four brothers in London. We grew up on an estate with one of the highest murder rates in all of the U.K. She didn't have language or friends, just five children. My mother’s song represents trust...that I will always be there and as a single mother look after you. Sometimes I ask her do you ever want to go back? She says, “No, home isn't what it once was. It’s changed. My children are my home now.”’ - Saima Shah, Education Advisor
Yesterday Mum asked me what my mother’s song was. It really caught me by surprise. Many people have turned that question around and I have been lost for words...perhaps by the time I have written the book my answer will change. Maybe our mother’s songs will always shift and ebb. Sound different in a variety of moments, at varied points along the way.
My mother’s song is something strong and soft all at once. Something that has been through grit, yet is compassionate, and kind, and never forgets to find beauty amongst the disregarded.
Right now my mother’s song is a power ballad. Tina turner style, glittery dress, all mouth and teeth, belted out at the top of your lungs.
Back from South Africa and into the arms of Mama T. A welcome home dinner, wine and sunshine. I asked her what she thought of the journey so far. She said, ‘This is something I did when I was your age. I went to Cape Town and would look at strangers and think I wonder if any of these are my relatives. I never dreamt then I would have a daughter who would be there too. Im so excited that we can find out more about our background, our heritage. You are brave Rebecca, you have adventure running through your blood.’ - Mama Tantony
‘My mother’s song is La Copla, a Spanish folk song. It’s the song of a woman working in a small village by the sea, in an era of dictatorship. It’s a song of wanting an education for her five boys. It’s a song for her sons and the future she never had.’- Raul Garcia Crespo
‘After my dad died, when we traveled together from Zimbabwe, we would sit at the border and sing Neil Diamond. Her song though, my mother, is going back to the hymns. Her father was a preacher, my father was a minister, first a miner then a minister. When we were long distance driving, we always had a book of hymns. I would follow them in the book and she knew the words. And for kilometres we would sing them at the top our voices.’- Sue Hall
South Africa I think you caught my words. You definitely made my heart skip, my voice dance. Thank you for all the places you have filled with noise. I am ready for return, loaded with stories and back to Bristol. ❤️
My mother’s song is unaware. A secret hum that accompanied washing up, sweeping, cleaning the outside and in of our homes, of our temple bodies. It’s a rollercoaster that circles, that keeps me giddy and high, that always returns me back to her no matter how many times I plummet.
My mother’s song is a space, still left to be packed with voice. It is the heartbreak of distance and forgotten vowels, it is borrowed and found, in almost every bruised mouth it is something miraculous waiting to be heard.
Today in a vintage shop in joburg, Winnie Mandela’s granddaughter greeted me with the hugest smile. That smiled summed up the warmth of this entire continent.
SA Dreaming. Two more days left of the journey. It’s been all the feelings. My dear friend Josiane said embrace these last moments, in a blink it will be a memory. It’s funny it’s the want to create new memories that have taken me here. Back to a place never before explored.
‘“F@*k this isn’t right. I need to fix it.” That’s my mother’s song. My mother has an eye for bullshit. She has an eye for social political commentary that is so on point. That has helped me check myself. We come from a working class family that goes generations back. “F@*k this isn’t right. I need to fix it.” Is a chant for the person who is struggling. It’s for the underdog’- Benjamin Bell
Today was day one of filming for Singing My Mother’s Song. These short dance films will be accompanied with poetry and set loose in the autumn of 2018. My dear friend Jim is working the lenses and that man is some kind of magic behind a camera. Yana and Nyaniso have embodied the honouring of my grandparents in full and choreographed such intricate heartfelt movement. At one point I almost felt like I was watching my own family move. World, I can’t wait for you to see this.
Today I taught a four hour poetry session to thirty students. As usual there were tears and my little heart was torn out and blown into tiny pieces by the magnitude of words. Thank you for being endless team.
'When Brenda Fassie comes on the radio, and my mum has had a couple of wines, her alto ego comes out. We call her habibe. Habibe is such a diva. My mother grew up in Soweto, she’s Zulu. My father is Xhosa. My mother has a curiosity that speaks of joburg, my father has something nostalgic from the eastern cape.
I think my mother’s song is one of hard work. In every person who works hard I see my mother.' Nosipho Mayosi
‘I am also researching out for my mother’s story. She was a classical Indian singer. For me any song, any dance, any movement is her moving too.’ – Anusia Pillay
‘As an adult I look back on the songs my mother used to sing and they aren’t the melodies I once thought they were. Often they were war cries, activist chants, they were protest songs. It’s only in hearing them now I can find the meaning behind the language’ – Nonkululeko Vilakazi.
First full day as writer in residence at Wits University and I am gathering so much inspiration from all the immense humans around me. Everyone seems to have a story to add to my own, this orchestra standing, this shared song.
The very last note to be sung. Johannesburg. A buzzing, eclectic, bountiful city, full to the brim, with everything. Today I had my first meeting at Wits University, where I will be Writer in Residence for the next 10 days. I will be conducting research on ancestry, creatively responding, teaching workshops and previewing work from Singing My Mother's Song. The man in the cap is Ben. We have spent months speaking via Skype, it's great to connect without pixels and static between us. I will also be collaborating with the two dancers in the photo, Yana and Nyansio, to make both live and recorded dance poetry fusions. Excited is a feeling that just keeps getting bigger.
Thank you Queenstown. For your land, your thick green plains, your jiggly moutains. For your people, all huge hearts and open palms, your animals- brave and giving, for your challenges, as well as your triumphs.
Next and final page of the songbook , Johannesburg....
I am surrounded by mountain and endless land, by the clicking tongues of gods and goddesses, journeyed up here through steep mountainous roads, I am in the middle of both everything and nothing.
This was the first day of a weekend long Xhosa ancestral ritual at the family village of a good friend of mine. I don’t have the language to bring into being how this is settling in me right now. I just feel deeply honoured to have been welcomed with such depth, into such an ancient and powerful tribe.
A three day Xhosa ancestral ritual and naming ceremony. The two ceremonies happens over five days and brings together many families to help release and aid the healers in the tribe to move forward.
There will be a slaughter, traditional clothes worn and dances danced. Then this beautiful woman in the photograph will be given a name, ready to marry this beautiful man.
It is so fourtunate that this ancestral ritual has fallen in the heart of my very own journey, and I feel deeply moved to be a part of such an honouring.
This is Ceril Collin Abrams. He runs the South End Museum in Port Elizabeth, an amazing cultural archive, in which the families who were displaced because of the utterly shocking apartheid are remembered. This building holds truth, it holds grief as much as it holds celebration.
He was over the moon about my project and we spent the morning going through photographs and piercing together some of the missing dates and links.
I have been so supported and held during the past few days, even without blood I feel I have made a little family here...so many heart opening conversations and connections, so much understanding for why this personal journey needs to happen.
I asked Cecil the importance of understanding ancestry. He said,
‘It gives you roots, when we know our heritage we can move forward. An undefined person cannot place themselves in this world. We need to know the past in order to know the future.’