Wounded healer

In the year 2000 I finished my work as a lecturer of the International School for Human Voice, lead by Ida Kelarová. Ida then proposed that I write a book on her work and life. I rejected. I did not want to be hung up by something which I had already considered to be the past for me. Today I feel sorry – as if I had failed to fulfill a duty. A duty not toward Ida or myself – some things simply should be done. Although we do not have to know why or for whom. So – may this article be a late and very modest pay off of a debtor. At the same time it represents a viewpoint of someone, who was lucky enough to get to know Ida Kelarová on both the working and personal level and today can look at things from greater distance.

A singer, arranger, teacher, choir master, organizer, one of the leading personalities in music, a Roma activist – this could be the enumeration of her activities. This list would make quite a incongruous picture, if we were not aware, what connects all these activities together.

Ida Kelarová is a phenomenon. With her we can not and must not separate the professional from the personal. Her method of work with the voice is sometimes regarded dangerous and incomprehensible. Not only laymen keep asking, what is this woman after, when she asks the participants of her workshops to confess in front of the others their traumatising experiences with the mother, provokes them not to be afraid and express their maximal anger. And not only that. She covers their eyes for two days with a scarf, forbids them to speak and when these adult, mature people cry just like small children, she considers this to be a success. And what does all this have to do with singing?

A crash-course of Ida’s philosophy

Even today we do not really know who we are. We are simply afraid, stuck in our fears and worries. We are afraid of the fact, that we are afraid. We are afraid of such feelings as sadness and pain. We are afraid of anger. We are afraid to be satisfied and we are afraid of love, afraid to love and be loved. We have come so far that we have become victims to our system. Being a victim means feeling sorry for ourselves as well as feeling weak.

Ida’s work is based on a fundamental belief, that everybody can sing. A person who is not able to intone, is a person, who in his childhood trusted those who told him he has no musical ear. This, put in a simplified way, is the reason why it is necessary to search deeper for the causes of a closed voice. Voice is just an indicator of what takes place inside the person at given moment.

She works the way she lives and vice versa. She herself does not hide the traumatising relationship with her mother, but she shares this experience in her work. She proudly avows her Roma roots on her father’s side.

She treats her co-workers and participants of her workshops naturally as part of a large Roma family, for which she likes to care and does so with love. Of course that this kind of a family is based on principles, which can seem “incomprehensible” to “gadžo” (white) people. However, they are part of ancient knowledge of our ancestors, part of which Ida herself feels to be.

She does not set boundaries between professional and personal values. Neither does she sort basic human emotions (joy, sadness, fear, love, pain, anger) into good ones and bad ones. The important thing is how does one approach these emotions (what attitude does he/she adopt toward himself, toward what takes place inside him/her). Whether he/she only pushes his/her pain deeper inside (“because it is not proper to feel pain”), or whether he/she is able to go through it and transform it into a creative act.

She points out how the man of today is disconnected from his feelings, how nowadays we are not able to suffer and experience pain.

In the emotions she finds the expression of human strength, not of weakness. Therefore for her, the word “emotion” often means a synonym for the word “strength”.

Despite the fact that the way she works with voice sometimes borders on therapy, dramatic art and someone may even consider it a spiritual exercise, it is not based on any theses from books or teachings of any master. Because Ida gained no knowledge from books, she resists everything academic and in an almost Buddhist fashion refuses to receive knowledge in any other way than through one’s own and direct experiencing, especially on the emotional level. The only resource of what she does is her own reflection of her life.

Mum and Dad

Neither the changes of her career, nor the twists and turns of her life suggest that she would be the type of person wanting to sing since she was babe in arms. She has had no singing lessons, she did not go through any education or training in this branch. She studied cello at the Conservatory and then she worked in the theater “Husa na Provázku”. She didn’t do this so much out of love for the theater, but rather because of at that time very independent, vagrant lifestyle the theater provided. With the voice capacity, granted to her by God, and musical ear – she would sit at “dissident’s parties” at the piano and sing. People want to sing the way she does. In a few years she will start to teach them. A decision, based on her momentary situation in life rather than on long-lasting and tenacious climb toward a dreamt-up ambition. This woman does not consider a major turning point in her career encounter with some important music producer or composer, but the death of her father.

When my father died, I could not cry, but I sang. And I have sung since then. He always used to tell me: Open your throat, open your heart, don’t be scared of anything and sing.

Ida was born to Ludmila and Koloman Bitto in 1956 in Bruntál. A daughter of a teacher in nursery school and a double-bass player. She considers her parents to be the greatest teachers and sources of inspiration in her life. In them she recognizes two opposite ways of dealing with one’s own power (emotion).

Mother. According to Ida an energetic and domineering person. Without any inhibitions she used to fully express her attitudes and thus she “killed all those around her”. In childhood she missed the expressions of her mother’s love, she missed her hugs and understanding. This she found with her father. Until now she is in conflict with her mother as regard the Roma origin of her father. (Ida’s mother denies that her husband was of Roma origin).

Father. Sensitive and introverted father “stifled” emotions inside himself and thus “was killing himself”. He lead Ida to music.

As simply as this and as extremely as this she viewed the two ways she did not want to take in life. But where to find the third one, the “right one, her own” way? How to deal with the fire of one’s own emotions in such a way, so as not to burn oneself and others, and at the same time not to burn out? She found the answer for this question in her work. We could say that she discovered herself through her work..

Ida’s way of opening and discovering human voice is not motivated by attempts to achieve technical perfection. It is not an effort to sing more beautifully, more strongly or better. Singing and feeling the song is only a pretext for searching for that voice in a human being, which no one else will ever hear. The voice, leading us back to our own emotions. It is primarily there where Ida finds the fundamental source of life and human creativity. We can call the voice intuition, we can give it some other name. The important thing is, that everybody finds out for himself.

Joj mamo

To sing means to hear a voice which no one else can hear. Listening means to hear a voice the singer does not hear.

For many, Joj mamo is the hymn among the songs in Ida’s repertoire. Most of us can probably recall it as a worn-out gypsy song. In her rendering, ignoring original rhythmic arrangement, the song becomes an expression of great longing for motherly hug, a desperate cry for love and faith. In the voice of an adult woman we can hear the tenacious pain of a child. It is a cry, projected into the tones of a simple melody. The listener is no longer interested in the original framework of the melody, he is drawn in the center by personal confession of another human being. As if she was saving her life with this song, as if she wasn’t able to sing it till the end. Death and passion, beating heart, show their presence in this song.

Any song, in her rendering, becomes a dramatic situation in the most exalted sense of the word. In the sad ones she usually alternates expressions of suffocating tension and inner conflict with liberating, to full depth sung tones of the chorus, which can have almost a therapeutic effect on the listener. What can we compare this to? In our culture, such, in good sense of the word, theatrical and eccentric display is probably most likely to resemble a flamenco singer, because of the very risky way of dealing with the voice and the emotional investment. The expressiveness of stylization exceeds the boundaries of conventional singer expression esthetics not only in case of this song.

Her singing often evokes a plea, a cry, a surrender, longing. Her voice opens up in space like fire.

This singing does not want to be pleasant, maybe therefore it is so desperately alive. It represents constant transformation of personal pain. I heard not only this song in her rendering number of times and it always felt as fresh as a flower. Ida, singing “Joj mamo” for the thousandth time works similarly as an actor, embodying identical situation in reruns. The tones and the melody are the same – it is the same bed, but the river running in it is different and new each time. The river of transformed emotion here and now. Thus she heals herself and in this way she can heal also others, who listen to her.

The urgency of her statement is probably closely connected with the fact that she gives only that which she herself went through and experienced.

The International School for Human Voice

Similarly, in the course of her workshops, she shares with the participants only those issues, which are personally connected to her life experience. The fundamental issue is the painful relationship with her mother. It is at the same time a universal issue, just like her assumption, that every person carries within some traumatizing experiences with his mother, that he’d rather not remember. During the workshop, a participant is invited to share such experience with the others. He/she is invited to talk about it and make it public in front of everybody with the help of the song Joj, mamo. The others answer by singing the chorus of this song, and thus support him/her, give him/her back the energy of their voices. Direct emotional participation of all at the point of “coming out” of one of them takes place via singing voices in a song. This creates a strong atmosphere of mutual sharing and there is no space for self – pity. The voice has to sing the tones in full power and through them communicate with the others – no hiding in the corner. Personal secret is published, tabu of publicly honoring the mother is broken, a totally new social situation is created, a new connection between the individual and the community. A strong emotional consonance and harmony, supported by common singing of the same song, is created.

This is the basis of one of Ida’s utopian attempts to create the model of a different world, a world, where individual feelings are shared and appreciated by the others without analysis and rejection. A true expressed emotion is considered to be the purest and only reality. It represents unraveling of the richness and intensity of life, it is the flowing life itself. What makes the value of pain less than the value of love? What’s wrong with sadness? We all have a mother and this basic relationship – the umbilical cord – is marked with joy as well as with wound.

The singing person feels that he doesn’t have to hide. He is accepted in what he feels, as naturally as the power of the song is accepted. The missing motherly embrace is exchanged for the embrace of the song which is sung. The workshop participant therefore goes through a similar transformation process, that Ida went through in her life. Open wound flows out into a song, which heals it.

For many participants one hour of this kind of work turns the imprinted model of what is considered right upside down several times. It is not a case of mass hysteria. What we are witnessing here is momentary channeling of the energy of emotions into the form of a song, which certainly can be regarded a creative act. In this atmosphere the participant of course does not stop to perceive that he sings. However, this kind of singing is very different from the conventional ideas of what it means to sing – here the person gives out himself via the song and discovers himself through it at the same time.

Grotowski, at the last stage of his research in Pondere, concentrated his work on archaic songs of the Afro-Caribbean area, in cooperation with Thomas Richards at the Action project. He notes at the epilogue to the film, in which the “Downstairs Action” is recorded, that it is not necessary to try and understand the ancient lyrics of the songs, which the actors sing in this project. The songs themselves, without understanding their lyrics, represent a language we all understand spontaneously. We could say that in the old songs this reformer “discovered” for the theater an important channel of direct communication, without having to decipher any meanings. I got to know Ida at the time when she intentionally refused to present to her workshop participants the lyrics of the songs and publish their content. As if she also had a similar need to free the person from speculations and reasoning, which we nowadays so often use to find our ways in today’s reality. And the same longing for purity, authenticity and genuineness of emotional expression. That is also connected to the ability to listen to and follow one’s inner voice. However, this is often done at variance with what is expected and wanted of us in today’s world.

Darkness and silence

The workshops of the International School for Human Voice under the leadership of Ida Kelarová are the place where people get back to spontaneous perception and communication via emotion.

It is expressed most essentially in the situation, when the participants wear a blind over their eyes for 48 hours and at the same time they do not speak. This way they go through the usual plan of work, starting with the morning walk, through breathing exercises, physical training, work with the voice and singing. This way they eat, this way they go to bed. What happens, when a man does not use the most easily accessible forms of communication? What is left for one, when he is in darkness? The touch of another person, singing voice, the smell of food, rhythm, cord, emotion. And concentration on what goes on inside him. And how does he perceive himself and others when he opens his eyes again?

Such an experiment requires demanding organization and non-stop caring for each individual participant. If the person should concentrate during the entire workshop mainly on what he/she feels, it is necessary to adapt the environment accordingly. The lecturer of this kind of workshop has to be constantly interested in what goes on inside the person, not only during his/her singing performance. The responsibility is great and requires from the lecturer to be a good psychologist, highly intelligent and constantly “on the guard”.

As regard this, Ida takes good care of every detail. From eating to daily planning, everything has to take place in sensitive atmosphere. The participants find out what is going to happen only very shortly before the particular action takes place. This is intentional. Thus they go through each new experience unprejudiced and vulnerable, so to speak. A person becomes more fragile, gradually he/she throws away the armor, ceases to defend against the emotions – whether it be his/her own or those of another. What happens inside him/her is most sensitively recorded by his/her voice, the changes of it.

This non-traditional method would rather be predestined for laboratory work, done behind closed doors. It is a paradox that those workshops are open for everyone, regardless of age or experience. The basis conviction of Ida Kelarová is, that everybody can sing and in “each of us there is great power and singing from the heart releases it” (I.K.).

For her these are not just words. She realizes this conviction through her everyday life and work.

The words of the teacher

When she talks about her work, she uses words of strong symbolic value, therefore they may seem profane to many of us. But she trusts in what she says, almost with the devotion and seriousness of a child.

To give an example: when I was (at the age of 18) as a participant at her workshop, I had to sing the song “Loli ruža”. The tones of the chorus seemed so high for my bass baritone that I protested and said I had no chance to sing that. To my objection Ida replied: “Open yourself upwards”. A mysterious and a too general instruction? To the contrary. That “upwards” meant at that time my larynx as well as the required tone. I felt a great flow of a river of sadness, which wanted to free itself through singing out of my body. What was preventing it from flowing was my brain – today I’d say a bad psychological habit – an unconscious conviction of probably every person that if he does not get the right tone, he will make fool out of himself. It was necessary to take a risk, not to think, to surrender. The intensity and penetration with which the “soooskeeee” came out of me surprised me and everybody else as well. I sang the high tone directly, without preparation, without any technique. In fact, it was vice versa. The tone sang me.

I am sure there exists a natural and inborn talent to teach – to pass on experience, to challenge others to grow. It’s certainly not enough to be well-read and to outwit others. I personally think that even strong personal charisma is not enough, where sincere ability to give would be missing.

In the presence of Ida Kelarová, the way I remember her (sitting behind the piano), silent concentration and trust are present. I am convinced that her mere presence opens up the voice and moves other people forward. There is no need to explain anything.

Searching – a true story

All extatic experience, decisive for the mission of a to-be shaman, involve traditional schemes of an initiation ritual: suffering, death and resurrection. From this point of view every illness, as the expression of a calling, fulfills the task of initiation. Therefore the suffering it causes is similar to initiation torture, to mental isolation of “the chosen ill person” and represents a counterpart of the ritual isolation of initiation rituals; the immediate proximity of death, which the ill person gets to know (agony, unconsciousness, etc.) resembles symbolic death undergone in the course of most initiation rituals.
M. Eliade, Shamanism And the Oldest Techniques of Ecstasy

In order for a person to find himself, he has to be lost first. In order for him seek his home, he has to lose it first.

Ida, in her life search, according to her own description, has always felt that something is missing. She searched for it. One way of searching was to try and find the gypsy roots of her father. One can ask why is it so important for her? This searching had almost looked as a detective story series, as well as the reactions of her mother to all this. Before the concert in Akropolis concert hall, where Ida “baptised” her new CD with her band “Romano Rat”, somebody from the television gave her a letter, which her mother had sent to the director of the Czech Television. In this letter her mother writes that “the alleged gypsy origin of her husband, Koloman Bitto, represents only part of artistic image of her daughter as a singer and is not based in truth (I observed Ida’s reaction then – she breathed in deeply and went on stage to sing – Joj, mamo).

The steadfastness in searching for her roots and her own way made her a warrior, who can always stand up for her convictions. However, it is a warrior which is being wounded at the most sensitive spots, when her own mother opposes the search for identity.

The effort to escape from deep sadness of the relationship with her mother could be one of the reasons why Ida had emigrated to Wales in 1982. There, at the seashore, she realized, that she lost all she had loved and what she was used to back home in Czechoslovakia, that she does not love her husband, that she does not want to live at this place, but the way back is impossible. Sort of a small and symbolic death, after which years of sadness, crying and suffering followed, before she became a teacher of great heart and influence, with which she has touched thousands of people of different nationalities. The shamans would consider this part of initiation, when it is necessary to go through death, so that a person overcomes everything profane inside himself.

To go through death, through suffering and not to become hardened, probably requires great art of living. The art to learn from one’s own life, to remain a child still willing to learn..

If we go back in time to the wounded girl – Ida, we can see, how the emotional thrashing from her mother and the unexpressed pain later in life pointed Ida at the attempt to create her own, better world, for herself and the others.

Her unique workshops are a practical result of her naive effort to change the world we live in. An attempt to realize her own utopia, to follow the child within, not to give up her childhood dream. It would be great if more people had such naivity and steadfastness.

Maybe the world of naive people would be much more inspiring than the world of people who become cynical or have given up their faith.

Viliam Dočolomanský