Episode 42: Music and The Sacred with Jennifer Berezan

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In this interview we get to know Jennifer Berezan, a singer/songwriter of folk and devotional, meditative chant music. She ventures into her inspiration for making music and how it functions as a sacred art of healing. She passionately describes how it facilitates connection with the divine as well as how it’s a form of ritual that holds community together. We learn of her journey growing up in a great awakening period, as well as her travels around the world into eclectic cultures with musical traditions that have been lost to us in the western culture. Jennifer talks about her latest album, which is full of musical praise that invites us to open our hearts to the love of the earth. She leaves us wanting to tap into our own musical creativity.


J: Hello and welcome to A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews. My name is J and I’m your guest host for today filling in for Harmony Niles. We’re here today with Jennifer Berezan. She’s a singer/songwriter, an activist and she’s also a professor in the women’s spirituality department at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.

J: Jennifer’s been involved in the women’s spirituality movement for several decades, and she’s also has an eclectic range of musical interests and musical recordings, so her latest album is called The End of Desire. She also has another album called Praises for the World, which is, as she describes it, is a lot of people singing in a lot of different languages and it’s sort of like devotional pieces.

J: So we’re here with Jennifer today, welcome. So I’m going to start with just your background in music and also your interest in music. Here at One Taste we have an interesting connection, and what I’m most interested in is how you see music as bringing people together and just where your, where your interest in it stems from.

Jennifer Berezan: I’ve been a singer/songwriter for many years. I was influenced by the great songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up, and so I, like many young girls, learned to play the guitar and wanted to be Joni Mitchell when I grew up, but was interested in a number of eclectic things at the same time as I got older and had a strong interest in music and in politics and then a developing interest in kind of new spiritualities. And so, developed first of all in my career a singer/songwriter and also performing a lot within the political kind of, the progressive political context for lots of, lots of different causes over the years, writing songs and performing at many events like that. But then I developed a real interest in trying to get a sense of or reclaim music for us in the west. I’ve been really interested in musical traditions that in some ways have been lost to many of us in western culture, especially, you had asked about connection, you know, this, the function of music as habitual and as something that holds a community together and expresses the life of a community and the kind of life journey of individuals within that community, the more almost I guess you’d call sacred aspects of music, and that’s historically, in all cultures art and music has been a great way that people connect to each other in community, hold community together and also connect to the, to the divine really.

J: And how do you, how do you see that happening? Like what is it that music brings out in people? And especially, what is it that, you’re talking about how music was more traditionally used to connect communities, is there anything that’s been lost in that, in that tradition?

Jennifer Berezan: Yeah, I mean I think, you know, that in our culture, that when we separated music from sort of the sacred expressions of life, which are, it’s not something separate from everyday life, but where we, where we separated it out from ritual and from ceremony, we ended up with music as entertainment, we ended up with the singers and the entertainers and then the people who consume that, you know, so…Music is a huge industry as we know, and there’s this great yearning and longing in people and memory in people to come back I think to reclaiming music as a way of really, you know, using it as ritual, using it, there are people who come together, the drum circles for example are a great example of that. People all over, there’s drum circles everywhere you turn now in the west, and there’s this reclaiming of drumming traditions as a way of coming together and having ecstatic experiences, having altered state experiences, creating great healing. I mean, music has traditionally been used very much for practices of healing in community. People chant and they drum and they dance for days in some cultures as ways of creating physical healing, but also keeping a community strong and connected and having a lot of fun together too.

 J: So then this is really the connection with spirituality.

Jennifer Berezan: Yeah, and the spirituality with a big S, I guess, you know, very inclusive term. I don’t mean it in kind of a very small or religious way, but in a way that expresses the cultural and the deepest life of people and gives people meaning.

J: So I’m curious about your own journey in terms of music. As I can gather you were, you started off more as a folk singer and then you’ve moved more into the meditative chanting realm, and I’m wondering how that evolved for you.

Jennifer Berezan: Yeah I’ve, I sort of wear both hats still. I’m a performer, and I perform in lots of different kind of constant venues and when I do that I’m kind of, I guess I’m a folk singer, but playing different kinds of styles, playing acoustic music, sometimes solo and sometimes with a band. And then I also do music that is more, I created these albums that are long playing pieces that go on for an hour long, where there’s just one piece for the whole album, and the piece just kind of moves and changes, and there’s lots of different people singing on these pieces and there’s all kinds of world music aspects to it, various cultures coming together and a lot of atmospheric sounds and there are pieces that are used by people for all kinds of things, especially, I hear from people who use this music for, when babies are born and I get lots of emails from people saying, “Oh, I, my daughter was born to your album Returning”, and also for people dying, so this whole cycle of life, that this connectedness of birth and death and regeneration and birth and death and…And so the music has, really it’s been fabulous for me to see that it’s, had that impact and it’s used in that way because I really created these new kinds of pieces with the desire that they could be used in some way, for people in their everyday life to express these deeper experiences that we all have, to be a companion.

J: I imagine that in order for people to feel these deeper experiences that you’re talking about, you had to feel them first yourself, and so I’m wondering where the inspiration came from inside of you.

Jennifer Berezan: Yeah, that’s a good question. Definitely I, all the music that I write has come somehow just through inspiration of some kind I guess and from my own experience, and I’ve, I guess it depends on which album we’re talking about, but there are specific stories that kind of go along with them. I traveled to, did a lot of traveling to the Agean part of the world, the Mediterranean and was visiting a lot of sites that were connected to ancient cultures, and especially time periods that are quite widely known as more Agelitarian pre-patriarchal time period in human history, the nihilithic period and I traveled to the country of Malta and been very, very interested in this time period as a kind of way of feeling inspired about what is possible for us as human beings, ways that we’ve lived before that we can be, that we can learn from.

J: And where did the interest come from?

Jennifer Berezan: Well I think that when I was young there was just a kind of a knowing that this isn’t the way it all has to be. You know, I think it’s too far, a lot of us in these times, there’s this kind of deep intuitive feeling that we have been limited in the ways that we see what is possible for us as humans. It’s only very recent that we’ve lived with so, in very sort of limited structured societies that we live in, like we live in today. I mean, the vast history of humans was, you know, prior to the Bronze age people lived quite peacefully, sometimes for thousands of years in community together, and I was, I think when I was young I somehow knew that there were other ways of being.

J: And I want to ask, where do you think this sense of knowing came from inside of you? Like was it just in seeing the world around you or was it some part of your imagination, or where do you think that came from?

Jennifer Berezan: I think I, you know, I grew up in a time where I was living in a cultural context and I was growing up in a, kind of a more rural small town, smaller town, it’s kind of a setting, I was living in Canada, but there was this great awakening happening in North America in the 1960’s and it was a time of great change and great sense of possibility as we know here in San Francisco, and I think that that’s part of it, when I look at the, you know, the time that I was raised in. I don’t think that’s the only thing, I have lots of friends who grew up a lot later than that and have similar feelings about things. So it’s hard to know, but it does seem like there’s been a kind of a spontaneous emerging even in our imaginations somehow, you know. I meet people sometimes who are doing amazing pieces of art for example. They’re like seeing symbols and images from the cultures that I’ve visited from early time periods that they never even visited. They have dreams about these things, and it’s like there’s these kinds of realities just kind of bleeding through me in the collective unconscious. I don’t, I’m not really sure. But definitely always, I always felt a connection to justice, to a belief in justice, a belief in transformation. I was raised in a pretty progressive Catholic upbringing, and we went to a pretty, I went to a pretty liberal school, and there was a great sense of the importance of working for change and I believed that it was possible, and I think I was taught that from my teachers and probably from my parents as well to some degree.

J: We’re going to take a break now. This is A Taste of Sex. I’m J. We’ll be right back after this short break.

J: This is A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews. We’re here with Jennifer Berezan. Jennifer I want to ask you about your album Praises for the World and just have you describe for our listeners the concept behind it.

Jennifer Berezan: I was thinking a lot about the kind of dualistic split that exists in our culture and in other cultures too that kind of leads to fundamentalism that says that, you know, everything in the spirit realms, that separates spirit from the body and, this is probably interesting to listeners to this program, that somehow, you know, negates the body and negates everything associated with the body, and this has been I think, come to us through many different fields of thought, certainly religious ones as well as psychology and different, throughout times through the more traditional teachings, that, and certainly in fundamentalist traditions there’s often this idea that we’re living on this earth as just a kind of interim stout, sometimes you find this even in parts of the new age, and that we’re just basically waiting to get out of here. So it doesn’t really matter what we do here, that it’s all about the other world, it’s all about, you know, the divine is separate material, there’s sacred is separated out from the earth.

J: So it’s almost like you can leave you body because it doesn’t matter.

Jennifer Berezan: You can leave your body and you can destroy the planet, and there’s actually, there’re theologies that totally support that, where people will actually say, “This planet doesn’t matter, was given to us to use up and the real thing is waiting for us later”, and so there’s this splitting off from, and even a kind of wore on and a kind of turning on too, but I think people, and when we personalize that we turn against our own feelings, our own bodies and our sexuality and all of that becomes split off from who we truly are and split off from our sense of the sacred, those things get split, I think we have a really big problem.

J: So there’s this big disconnection…

Jennifer Berezan: Yeah.

J: is what you’re saying.

Jennifer Berezan: Exactly, and this album really is, there’s a beautiful quote by Alice Walker that I love where she says, “Anything we love can be saved”, and so it’s this invitation to really feel our love for this place, for this beautiful world that we live in and to value it and to, you know, just experience our devotion to it like a mother bear protecting her child, you know, really being willing to open our hearts to how, to being in love with the world, and from that place working to save it. And so Praises for the World is a whole musical piece about that really that invites people to come forth and sing their love for the world, and the album features many wonderful people, Alice Walker recites a poem on it and Patty Cathcart from the group Tuck and Patty sings beautifully, and there are singers singing in various languages, Spanish and Portuguese and all kinds of improvisational singing with this, just this focus on opening our hearts to our love for the earth and singing it, and it’s, and so people are using it a lot to kind of help them I think in this time. I hear from people that say that it’s a very, it’s kind of a strengthening and healing thing, the tool that they’re using, especially in the times of, such precarious times that we’re in.
J: So your hope for the album was to spread this message of healing, is that…?

Jennifer Berezan: I guess. I mean really, it was just the, in the beginning when I make an album I just want to create, I feel this desire to create, you know, and I don’t necessarily have this grand idea of what it might do, I just want to create this, I want to give voice to this feeling that I have personally and I love collaborating and so inviting all these other fabulous musicians and singers to come together to voice this, ‘cause I feel that for me it’s important. It’s really also my own journey of trying to stay open to this place of loving the world and still being willing to feel the great joy and gratitude that’s, I think that’s probably the biggest, this sense of, you know, wonderful Joanna Macy talks about gratitude being so central in these times that we need to experience gratitude in terms of the works that we’re doing to strengthen us and keep us connected to how fortunate we are really to live in this beautiful place, this time.

J: Well I find it interesting that you say that because my experience of music is that I do feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude when I’m, you know, inspired by music or when I’m somehow sucked into it and it becomes a part of me, that’s always something that comes up inside of me, and I mean, I wonder if you just do it intuitively or just like, or if it’s actually, you know, something that’s thought out, that’s pre-planned.

Jennifer Berezan: I don’t think it was, it’s thought out in kind of a mental way, but it comes from a kind of an experiential knowing I guess. I think gratitude is a great balm, great healer for all kinds of suffering, gets us out of our ego ways of relating to suffering and it, it’s, practicing gratitude is I think a really, a great way of expanding our experience of our life and our connection to the world, and it helps take us out of the small ways that we can get caught in despair and victimization and many other things that’s full of negative things that can, you know, just cause us more suffering. Gratitude can lift us out of that and open us to see what’s there and let it in and feeds us, so, think it’s a great, it’s a path in itself learning gratitude.

J: What’s your latest project?

Jennifer Berezan: Well, the last couple years we’ve been performing Praises for the World live and we do it in an audience of 1,300 people with just a whole group of singers and dancers and we have aerial dancers suspended from the ceiling and poets and activists and we’ve had, you know, Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler who created The Vagina Monologues and the actress Olympia Dukakis and all kinds of great people come and be part of these wonderful performances and, so while I’m working on those it’s hard to be doing anything else. I, in the middle of that I put out a film of the performances, so there’s a DVD, and then my newest album End of Desire was recorded. But right now we’re working on taking the Praises for the World concert into the Rocky Mountains of Canada, so that’s something that we’re working on and…

J: Back to your home time?

Jennifer Berezan: Back to my home land, yeah.

J: Yeah, right. Well thank you very much for being with us today. You can find Jennifer’s music on her website which is edgeofwonder.com. I’m J. I’m here at One Taste. Our website is www.onetaste.us and you can check us out and the lectures and workshops and other offerings that we have here, including lectures such as Jennifer Berezan which will happen tonight. Tune in next week. Thanks.