Songs across Walls of Separation

The Norwegian record label Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV) and its prolific leader Erik Hillestad have made it a task to compile and release collections of songs from some of the troubled corners of the world. A lot of international attention befell the 2004 album entitled Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, a collection of soothing lullabies from the countries of the Bush-administration’s much discussed “Axis of Evil.” Now KKV and Hillestad have released a new album in the same vein, another step of what Hillestad calls a journey, featuring songs from places where people are separated by walls. Songs across Walls of Separation was released on 15 September, accompanied by a 64-page booklet.

Songs Across Walls of Separation (cover)

“The booklet is an integral part of the project,” says Hillestad. “It lets people experience the music with a deeper sense of the subject matter. There are stories behind the songs, as well as the singers, and the record may be experienced on two levels: First there is a powerful emotional message in the music alone, of course, but the booklet relates the individual stories and creates a more complete picture of what the record is about and what it is that these songs and the artists want to convey. It is a way of infusing the music with authentic bits of reality, which makes the project like a documentary. I believe that in our times it is important to produce alternative kinds of information from the areas that feature so often in the news; it is vital to issue reports that address the heart and not just the mind. With this record we want to convey the individual human experience, and let people elsewhere share in the experience of the actual realities people in these areas have to live with.”

The idea behind Songs across Walls of Separation was to focus on the way individuals, families and friends are affected by political borderlines and the actual “security” walls that are built to keep peoples apart. Hillestad travelled to different parts of the world where such walls have been erected or similar un-crossable lines have been drawn by political authorities. In Palestine, Morocco, Mexico, Syria, Cyprus and Kashmir he found singers that were directly affected by the separation. He asked them to find suitable songs and to help him find a counterpart on the other side of the wall that also knew the song so that he could record the same tune on both sides of the barrier. The simple symbolism is of course that music cannot be restrained and that the songs travel over the walls of separation.

“The method itself is an essential part of the project,” says Hillestad. “Digital technology makes it possible to record on site, in people’s homes or other improvised localities, which is what makes the process and its result genuine. It was also important to find singers with character; people whose life story was directly affected by the situation, wishing to lend their voice to this project as a means of expressing in music what they otherwise are not able to share with those on the other side of the wall and – just as importantly – with the rest of the world. As for the songs themselves, I asked the singers to choose songs about their country, and perhaps about the fact that it is divided. Or it could be songs about longing, a sentiment that is of course caused by separation.”

Hillestad explains that most of the four years he spent on the project went into planning and making the maximum use of the limited resources that his small label possesses. “I thought it would take two years, but in the end I spent four,” he explains. “Since I also have a commercial company to run in Norway, I had to take many breaks from the project and with our limited budgets I had to plan everything carefully. Fortunately I was able to use many of the contacts I established during the Lullabies project, which was a forerunner to this one and very important regarding both the method and the contacts that I now have in these areas. In most cases I was able to find singers and the right kind of settings by way of my network, but sometimes I simply had to travel to the relevant area and search for the right people myself. This was especially the case in Mexico, where I literally roamed bars searching for someone right for the project.”

Hillestad’s field recordings and the documentary kind of process are the basis of the record. However, the idea is not simply to merge the takes from either side of the boundaries and walls. Based on the original recordings, a group of Norwegian musicians have created melodic structure and arrangements for the songs. The a capella recordings have then been blended with English-language interpretations of the lyrics, so that each song is an interplay between the two original voices, the new English-singing voice and two languages. In this way, the record reinterprets the original music and message and addresses a global audience.

“The Norwegian musicians that have worked with me on this record are instrumental to the whole concept,” emphasizes Hillestad. “Their knowledge and attitude, as well as their sensitivity to the stories told, is what has made it possible to interpret the songs truthfully and merge the musical elements the way we have. Knut Reiersrud has been in charge of this task, as he was on Lullabies, but this time around he delegated some of the actual composing and arranging to musicians Audun Erlien and Anders Enger.

Regarding the western singers, Hillestad was again able to make use of the contacts made during the Lullabies project, and many of the same artists contribute to Songs across Walls of Separation. The challenge was matching the different singers to the ten different tunes.

“Some artists were ready in advance and I simply let them choose which songs they wanted to do themselves,” explains Hillestad. “But when only a few songs remained unrecorded, I took the opposite approach and contacted people based on the individual song and my notion of who would be the right person to sing it. I’m glad to say that in the end this way of doing it gave us the right match between tune and voice for every track.”

The artists in question are American, western European and Scandinavian singers, such as Tom Russell, Sheila Kay Adams, Natacha Atlas, Sarah-Jane Morris, Eva Dahlgren and Morten Harket. The many nationalities reflect Hillestad’s notion that this record is important for the west and the countries that these singers represent.

“It is in America and Western Europe that we need this record the most,” says Hillestad. “We need to hear the message and experience a document from these troubled areas which addresses the heart and not the mind. But it is also our goal to reach people in the regions where I went to record. It is often almost impossible to release records in those regions; i.e., the way we are used to doing it in the rich world. In those areas it simply does not work that way. But there are of course other ways of distributing music. The most important thing is that the record finds its way into the hands of those who share the destiny that these songs describe. It does not really matter how it happens. I’m all for copyrights and protection against piracy in general, but in places where the only distribution is illegal and makeshift, I’m fine with it.”

Songs across Walls of Separation has already become more than just a record. In Norway, theatre performances based on the songs and stories have been staged in several cities and there is a lot of interest towards the issues that the record gives voice to. Hopefully, this will continue in other countries as the record is released there. As for the next step of the journey, which is how Hillestad describes his series of records from these divided and troubled areas, he is secretive. “I have plans,” he admits, “But it is too early to reveal anything. These things take time and planning, and right now we have to focus on the international release of Songs across Walls of Separation.”

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