It is said that there are over 30,000 surviving works of art that were created by victims of the Holocaust. It’s estimated that this is just the tip of the artistic iceberg. So much work either didn’t survive, was destroyed or perhaps were hidden so well that they are still waiting to be found.
It seems ironic that the Nazi’s loved art so much they even had a museum in Auschwitz.
Some artists in the concentration camps used their work to barter with the guards for extra rations by drawing portraits, or musicians hoped a performance might improve their chances of survival for a short time, but for most writing, drawing or making music was something they had to do; even in the darkest times their creativity reinforced their humanity and gave them purpose…some light in the darkness. *
Let me say straight away I am in no way drawing a comparison between what happened during the Holocaust and what has happened to creatives over the last year as the world shut down due to the Coronavirus… but what I have learnt is that the creative human spirit is unquenchable.
It was back in early April last year that I got a phone call from an old friend named Phil Baggaley asking how I was and telling me about a new project he was working on. I first met Phil when I was asked to record backing vocals on one of his first recordings in the early 1980’s. Some years later Phil started writing projects that combined speech and music, not exactly musicals, more like radio programmes where the story and the songs worked together to take you on a journey. One of the projects ‘City of Gold’ became a surprise hit in the USA and its songs of heaven have been played at some of the biggest memorial services in the USA.
Since then I’ve sung on various projects he has written including one about the First World War, and one about Grace Darling, the Girl who became a national heroine in 1838 for her part rescuing survivors of a shipwreck.
I think back in April last year we were all still coming to terms with the enormity of the disaster that had come upon us. I think we all thought the inconvenience would last a month or so and we would soon be back to normal. Like most other performers I had all of my work postponed. My tour was hastily arranged for later in the summer. Little did we know that postponed would soon become cancelled.
But from lockdown artists soon found new ways to create. There were new podcasts and homemade TV shows springing up all over the internet. Books and poems were written and new works of art drawing on our worldwide shared experience moved many to tears.
Phil’s phone call was about his new project named ‘Broken Instruments’. He had been inspired by a book called ’Violins of Hope’ by James Grymes.
As Phil told me ‘Broken Instruments tells the moving stories of Jewish musicians and their instruments before, during and after the second world war. The narrator is a violin restorer Ari Vander, who has a collection of violins for repair in his workshop. All violins have names, each one has a story. These are very powerful stories of triumph in extreme adversity, the rebuilding of a hopeless situation into something beautiful and strong metaphors throughout.’
I knew it was an important story to tell but also I was struck by the task Phil had taken on. As well as working with scriptwriter Bill Varnum and director Dan Ellis, he also had to co-ordinate writing and recording all of the music with lead female singer Kelsey Shaw and musicians all over the country all self-isolating. Also, he didn’t want to compromise, he wanted it to be on a cinematic scale.
Some of the musicians were used to working from home. These days it’s not unusual to get asked to contribute to a project on the other side of the world and never leave your bedroom. But other contributors were new with little experience of working in a studio where all of the technical issues let alone how to set up a new mike at home and record into a laptop.
Bit by bit the project started to grow and as others contributed it really took on a life of its own. One of the key musicians is a lad called Mark Edwards, a wonderful keyboard player and arranger with an amazing jazz pedigree. He started with synthesizers and samples but soon found he needed to bring in a real string player to make it human. I think he recorded the violins in his kitchen.
One of the things that really annoys me is when news readers don’t pronounce Welsh place names correctly. The ‘Ll’ can be a problem I know but there’s no excuse for calling Tonypandy Tony-Pandy. So, when I read some of the words I was expected to sing I knew I need help.
MECHAYEH, A NEW DAY DAWNS
PINTELE, MY FRIEND
YASHER KOYESH COME WHAT MAY
MY BROTHERS MECHAYEH.
Thank goodness for the help of Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts, one of the first women in Europe to be ordained as a Rabbi. Going in my favour was that the guttural sounds were very similar to some Welsh words. On my first attempt the jury came back saying I had gone a little over the top…Me? Over the top? Really???
The plan was to get the first recording out to mark World Holocaust Memorial Day, January 2021 and against all the odds of working in bedrooms and sheds the deadline was met. Sometimes projects have an unexpected resonance that captures a moment and the word spreads. On Wednesday I was lying in my bed listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 knowing that I should get up but struggling as I listened to the rain against my window. In a half dazed state, I thought to myself. I know that music. Then I thought that bloke on the radio sounds just like Phil Baggaley. And it was.
Tomorrow Phil and I will be chatting about ‘Broken Instruments with Roy Noble on BBC Radio Wales and playing more music from the project. I think we all felt an enormous responsibility to getting the project right. Although our darkness of the past year is a mere shadow compared to what the Holocaust victims and survivors went through I think we all understood their creative spirit and I think that inspiration helped bring the project to fruition.
*My thanks to Monica Bohm-Duchen and her lecture Art of the Holocaust; Creativity in Extremis