The Song of a Warrior: A story about songwriting and family

“Come Sing With Us”
by Alka, Rahul, Kato, Louie, and Roslyn
(lyrics listed below)



Gus was the first to greet me when I walked into the Guptas’ home.  A bouncy little pup with white fur, Gus insisted on being pet before I could meet the rest of the household.  Rahul and his wife, Kato, both high school educators, welcomed and introduced me to their eight-month-old Louie and Rahul’s mother, Alka.

Summer ordinarily is a relaxed season for Rahul and Kato while school is out, but this summer has had a different energy. My visit was arranged by Unity Hospice, and I arrived with one of its case workers, Stephanie Lubin, to work with Alka and the family on a musical project as part of an end-of-life care plan.  Alka, sitting on the couch quietly and friendly and draped in the warm light of the big front window, has terminal cancer and is living here, with her son’s family, as her care needs grow.

Rahul chattered to Stephanie; there was a lot on his mind.  Along with the new baby and managing his mother’s health care, their apartment situation was no longer working and they needed to move.  Rahul talked through the process with Stephanie, thinking out loud about whether it’s time to buy a house.

Eventually the conversation paused, and Stephanie introduced me to the Guptas.  The family knew I was coming to do a musical project (and, if they had forgotten, were quickly reminded when I clumsily unloaded a guitar and viola case from my back), but were unclear on the details.

I took out my viola and played Bach’s Prelude to the G Major cello suite.  We then began discussing the project.


The Civic Orchestra allows its members to apply for independent project grants.  Last season, I put together a chamber music tour of CTA Red Line stations to promote the orchestra and bring music to people in an unexpected public space.  This year, I was influenced by the Civic Fellows’ songwriting projects with Purpose Over Pain and IYCC, creating a personal experience rather than a public one.  I found a community partner in Unity Hospice, and through them, Stephanie connected me with Alka and her family.

As a hobby, I taught myself guitar and have been writing songs since I was 13 years old.  I have collaborated with bands and solo artists as a side musician or co-writer, and I’ve done some small solo recording projects to put on YouTube or SoundCloud, but songwriting was always very separate from my main pursuits in classical music – until the Civic Fellows’ collaborative songwriting projects brought the two together.

I played the family one of my songs and described how we could proceed with the project.  I encouraged them to think of what they might want to explore in the song, be it memories, hopes, struggles, or even just phrases that have been sticking with them.  I left the Guptas with instructions to think of their favourite songs or artists. By doing this, we have a starting point for what kind of genre we would use for the song.

When I returned a week later, we shaped the song.  The family had many suggestions of favourite artists: mostly folk-influenced (they later described this as “campfire songs”).  Alka mentioned a favourite Bollywood love song – Jab Koi Baat, “Feel the Romance” – I noted its singable melody, the gentle percussion, violin lines, and syncopated feel in the accompaniment.  We slowly discussed the content of the song.  Alka had a favourite mantra: the Gayatri Mantra, a Hindu mantra praising god and unity with the universe.  She allowed me to record her singing the mantra, and I immediately knew that tune would be central to our song.

Alka went on to talk about her favourite Hindu figure, Durga, a protective warrior mother goddess, who rides a tiger and fights evil.  Alka described how visitors to Durga’s temple must have a clean soul or legend says they will get stuck in the cave’s entrance.

The discussions grew deeper and the family began to reflect on the closeness they had experienced since Louie’s birth and Alka’s diagnosis.  This contrasted with some distance the family had felt as Rahul and his sister grew up and began their independent, adult lives.

As we wrapped up the conversation, I asked if there were any ideas or words that they felt absolutely must be included in the song.  Alka immediately thought of her grandbaby Louie, whom she had nicknamed Krishna, and asked if he could be a part of the song.

a photo of Alka and Louie
Alka and Louie, summer 2019

I began to have a mental outline for the song:

  1. describing Alka as Durga
  2. describing Louie as Krishna
  3. calming Gayatri mantra as a chorus.

I transcribed the recording of Alka’s mantra as closely as I could and set it to chords, then drew a rhythm for the verse from the Bollywood song.  From there, I generated lyrics from quotes and topics we’d discussed, creating a portrait of the family’s rediscovered closeness within the context of these personal moments and memories.

I presented a draft of the song a week later, singing and playing guitar.  With the family’s approval, I left to make arrangements and commit the song to a recording.


I caught a flight later that day to take a vacation and visit my parents.  I worked on their computer in the evenings to notate an arrangement for my colleagues.  I listened to the Bollywood recording, trying to find a balance between the style of that song and the more low-key folk influences that Rahul and Kato suggested.  The day after I landed back in Chicago, I met with the musicians to record.

The musicians consisted of Civic Orchestra string players Carmen Abelson, Hannah Christiansen, and Joe Bauer as well as our drummer, Allen Pierre, whom I met while working on a different Civic Fellows’ group project. I knew I could trust Allen to bring to life the percussion in my song (since I have no experience notating drum parts, I needed someone who would be comfortable with only a lead sheet and a good set of ears).  For vocals, I contacted Meagan McNeal, one of Chicago’s vocal treasures who previously lent her skills to Civic’s Purpose Over Pain collaboration.

The recording session was remarkably calm – Meagan brought her three-month-old baby and alternately held him or set him down to sleep in the stroller next to her while she sang (this felt incredibly appropriate for a song honouring love and family).  The musicians read through and helped to nudge the arrangement in the right place, so we finished well before the scheduled time.  Civic Fellow Robin Schulze ran the recording gear to capture the performance.

I arranged to meet the Guptas to share the recording with them. When that day came, Kato sent me a message, apologizing that Alka was in pain that day and they wouldn’t be able to meet.  I sent them an email with the recording so they could hear it and we scheduled another meeting to discuss the song.

Our final visit, nearly two months after we first met, began with a different tone than the first.  As I entered the Guptas’ new home (with Gus running to greet me amongst the scattered moving boxes), Stephanie was sitting with Rahul and Kato discussing the next steps of Alka’s care.  It was one of those hushed conversations, that punctuates family life during trying times.  The previous day had been a bad one.

The group moved to the living room to sit with Alka.  Calm and sweet as usual, she was managing better today.  We listened to the recording of the song.

“I love how it’s upbeat but sweet and soothing.  It’s hopeful,” Kato began.

“It was hard to imagine that someone can do such a good job.  I have no words,” said Alka.

“I’m always blown away by musicians,” added Rahul.  “It’s really cool that everybody adds their own special twist, and Meagan had the skill to add her vocal inflections.”

We reflected on the process of writing the song together.

“You don’t know what is going to get brought up.  It’s a courageous process,” Stephanie observed.

Rahul continued, “It’s therapeutic, reflecting on good things, bad things, struggles.  How often do you get to sit down and reflect on those things with the people involved?  It’s been a difficult summer, all ‘go, go, go.’  We haven’t had a lot of chances to sit down and talk about this stuff.”

“[This song] was a good way to process everything,” Kato agreed.

Stephanie observed that the “songwriting process is a way of celebrating milestones.  It’s a way to mark time.  It’s like a ritual to mark experiences in time, to recognize what brought you to that moment.  Songwriting is a way to reflect and ground you in those moments.”

Alka admitted that, hearing the song for the first time, “I cried a lot.”

Kato has already emailed the song to her parents, and Alka has shared it with friends.  Kato, not a musician herself, has musicians in her family and is hoping her father will learn it on piano so that it can stay a part of the family.  They asked for a hard copy of the score that they could frame and hang in their new home as a keepsake.

When asked if he would recommend a songwriting project to others, Rahul responded, “Yes.  One-hundred percent.  This is a form of service, of therapy.  There are many different ways you can bring happiness to people in times of stress.  Reflecting, not just individually, but as a group – it wasn’t something we had growing up.”

“The way that you captured what we discussed – you put it together so poetically.  You go to an artist and you give them ideas; you have no idea what to expect,” Kato continued, “It was very special.”

“There is a Yiddish word, bashert, that means it was meant to be,” Stephanie explained.  “At Unity, when we heard about this project, I came up with Alka – no one else came forward.  I feel like this experience was bashert.”

As I reflect on the project and prepare to share the summary on this blog, I realize that this is my last Fellowship project.  I have enjoyed three seasons with Civic, and as this project extended past the official end of the season and into the summer, it gave me a chance to enjoy the inventive and people-focused work of the Fellowship for a few borrowed weeks.  To have worked on this project with Unity Hospice and the Gupta family – and to have been part of three years of transformative work with the Civic Orchestra – has indeed been bashert.

I am preparing a hard copy of the song for the family to hang on their wall, and I keep my own mementos of Civic projects framed and displayed proudly in my apartment.  As I work on learning and honing piles of orchestral excerpts for auditions, it is valuable to be reminded that music comes in many shapes and has many applications.  It can ring out to thousands in a hall, or it can draw together a family in a living room.

Come Sing With Us

Durga, you’re our warrior mom,
Loving, fighting, looking after us all.
We love you,
Come sit with us.

Durga loves us just as we are,
The years apart, undone in your open arms.
We love you,
Come sing with us.

Om Bhur Bhuvah Swaha,
Om Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi,
Dhiyo Yo Nah Pracho Dayateh

Krishna, Krishna, with your smile so warm,
Drew us closer from the day you were born.
We love you,
Come sing with us,
We love you.

We’re such very different people,
But love you give I’ll give back too.
For far too long, we were caught, but now we’re free.
The past can cloud your heart,
But love can heal a family.

Om Bhur Bhuvah Swaha,
Om Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi,
Dhiyo Yo Nah Pracho Dayateh

Durga
We love you
Come sing with us

Performers

Meagan McNeal vocals
Carmen Abelson violin
Hannah Christiansen violin
Joe Bauer bass
Roslyn Green guitar
Allen Pierre drums
Robin Schulze recording engineer


By Civic Orchestra Fellowship alumna Roslyn Green

TOP IMAGE: Durga, identified as Adi Parashakti, is a principal and popular form of Hindu Goddess and served as an inspiration during the songwriting process. Free usage from f-covers.com, 2016.

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