Over the last year it's been pertinent to me how much I need to allow space to celebrate and to grieve in my life. To mourn and rejoice, the small silent things as well as the big wonderful or tragic events. So I've been allowing space for it and I feel that it's allowed a flow in my life even if some feelings return a bit more than I expected, they do change eventually if I really listen to them. In this way I think music has been my greatest friend as it lets me speak, sing or scream my joy and my sorrow, so generously. So much music of the world is an expression of joy or grief....certainly the music I make is often the latter, often I feel like it helps me get things figured out, expressed or even exorcised!
But most often in our society today, we tend to express our celebration's together and mourn alone silently, most of us are welcome to be seen smiling yet shy of being seen crying. But until about 50-100 years ago in highland Scotland and Ireland there was a practice known as Keening or Caoineadh where mourning was done together by singing, sounding, wailing, chanting, ranting and reciting poetry. In my recent performance of 'Remembering Brigid' I told the story of the Second battle of Maig Turid in which Brigid keens the death of her son. In the performance we performed a mini keen a very shortened simple attempt at something that is not really a performance (and infact really needs the a dead body in the room for) but we tried to do it at least with a little musical authentically. So I spent time researching this ancient practice and found a useful recording on the Tobar an Dualchais website and a variation in speaking with our very own alive archive Alan MacDonald, so this gave me a sense of the repetitive sounds and layering that we might do but still I was uncertain about the structure. I read various articles but a Masters paper written by Michelle Collins gave me the most direction detailing different stages from beginning with chanting, then going up in pitch and including words; poetry, rants, praises of the deceased, then on to a wordless section that induced tears and real letting go of grief. Serendipitously on the same evening as we performed 'Remembering Brigid' in Edinburgh Michelle Collins presented a radio program about Keening on RTE here is a link to it:
In the broadcast Michelle interviews an old priest who remembers on the Aaron Islands people doing it 40 odd years ago. He shared that subsequent to the practice stopping he noticed how much more people struggled after the death of a loved one, more frequently needing medication. I imagine such a practice was once practiced much more widely than Gaelic speaking communities in Britain and Ireland as there is evidence of similar practices around the world.
A few years ago I was listening to a Radio 3 program which traveled with a British Karnatic musician to his homeland in Northern Sri Lanka just a few years after the end of the civil war. Once there they interviewed some Tamil woman about a tradition of lullaby singing particular to the region but in so doing the woman started to keen their loved ones who had died in the recent war. I was busy cleaning whilst listening to this but when they started keening I had to stop what I was doing and weep the sound so moved me. It's not the kind of sound that is necessarily beautiful but was powerful and cathartic and very human.
I don't know how we can translate any of this into our modern times but the founder of Non-Violent Communication Marshall Rosenberg recommends a daily or even moment to moment practice of mourning or celebration. By getting in touch with our feelings and needs as they come and go, as they are met or not met. In this way giving voice to longing or satisfaction, joy or despair and letting it breath out. I wonder if he's not onto something there. But either way it's a reminder to me of how much our culture has changed and that it is the birth right of us all; to sing, to cry, to celebrate.