Joseph Roberts: I’m excited about your next offerings on November 30 and December 1 at Christ Church Cathedral: The Magic of Seven. Tell us about it.
Ann Mortifee: It turns out it’s my 70th birthday; it’s a shocker to realize you’ve almost reached 70. As you know, I was married to Paul Horn and he used to say to me before he passed, “You’ll see. Your seventies are going to be the most powerful decade of your life.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s great. I’ll go for that.”
So I’ve taken this year to take on projects that were really meaningful to me. So The Magic of Seven is for me to celebrate, rather than resist, being 70 or hide it, but to really celebrate what that means. I’ve gone back over the last adventure of my life and there’s certain songs that really captured important phases. I’ve got some new songs in the concert but mainly I just wanted to track my life journey in some way, starting in Africa.
I was brought up on a sugar cane farm in Zululand and spent the early years of my life on the good soil of Africa. It’s had a tremendous, tremendous resonance in my life. I’ve written two musicals and lots of songs about it and really felt I owed a debt on behalf of my family and my race. In fact, the last time I was in Common Ground [March 2006] was when I did When the Rains Come.
JR: How did your family get from South Africa to Vancouver? Where in Canada did you first land?
AM: We landed in Montreal, but we came across by train. Dad had been the representative for Zululand, which was a little group of farmers in General Smuts’ cabinet during the time they were voting about the Union and Nationalist parties. When the Nationalist Party, who believe in separate and apart, and absolutely take the vote away and change everything, won, dad said, “This is the end of South Africa for me. I’ve got four girls. I’ve gotta get out.”
But my dad couldn’t get any money out. So he had a good friend who took over the farm and he basically took a few trips to look at Canada, England and New Zealand – his three choices. He felt Canada was the best choice, that it was healthy and so forth. I’m glad he did. It was never spoken of, but I think he took money out of the country whenever he could, sort of sewn into his pockets, so we’d at least have something to live on when we arrived.
JR: What sparked your interest in music?
AM: It was amazing, really, when I look back. Strange things happened along the way. One was when I was at Point Grey. My history teacher said I wouldn’t have to do this final paper if I would act in a theatre piece he wanted to do for Remembrance Day. The other thing was they had talent shows so three friends and I decided we would do the Charleston, and it won all the prizes. That was the first time I was on television, doing the Charleston if you can believe it. The next year, we went and did the hula and I loved the hula. I just loved it.
Four of us got together and started a little harmony group with popular songs of the day like Twenty-six miles across the sea. And we sang it at school dances. People heard about us and we sang at other school dances, but it never entered my mind I could do it as a living. Never. Then I was working at a summer camp on work crew and one of the gals was doing evening entertainment with kids and another gal whom I shared a room with. One of them got sick and Evia said to me, “Would you come and help me?” And I said, “Oh God.” But I did. And I was hooked. I loved it.
When she came back to Vancouver, she gave me her old guitar. It was like a world opened up. I started writing songs and then was asked to work here, there and the other. I never thought I wanted to be a singer. I just liked singing and people started asking me to come and do it.
The girls I went to school with said they’d each give me a dollar if I would go to the hootenanny. That was $42 so I said okay. I can remember stepping on the stage and having this feeling like I really belonged there. It was just a feeling of comfort and happiness. I loved singing. And Josh White Sr., a blues singer from the south, was there [at the Bunkhouse] to start the the following Monday. And he saw me and said, “I want her to open my show.” I opened a show the next week, much to my parents chagrin.
I remember going down one afternoon to pick up my guitar and Les [Stork, owner of the Bunkhouse] said, “Oh, are you going to the audition?” And I said, “What’s an audition?” And he said, “You just get up and sing and if they like you, you get a job. They’re looking for a girl singer for a show.” So I said okay. He said, “I’m going to drive you. You have to come with me. I want you to do this.”
He drove me down and I got the job, which was for George Ryga’s play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. That totally changed my life.
JR: Please give us the context.
AM: It was the story of a Native American girl being torn apart because she exists somewhere between two cultures, the white culture and the Native American culture. It was so profound. Chief Dan George was in it. It was the first Canadian play that had really addressed what had happened, and what was happening, and it took the country by storm. It was a fabulous thing. I was 17.
And this chap, Willie Dunn – I think he was ill – kept not showing up for rehearsals. George Ryga would say, “Dear, here are the lyrics, just make something up.” Well, I’d never written a song in my life so I said, “How do I do that?” “Just make up a melody to it.” That was how I became a composer. I never would’ve thought, “Oh, I think I’ll write songs.” It wouldn’t have entered my mind.
That became the baseline for everything I wanted to do. Rita Joe went to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to open it. And I was seen by the producer of a show that was coming in and he actually created another part for me to come in and play as a singer. That show, Love and Maple Syrup, was a huge success and it went on to New York. I was seen by agents there and was being auditioned for various shows and was asked to do the lead in a show called Promises, Promises that Burt Bacharach had written the music for.
I’d just come from doing Rita Joe, which was so meaningful to me, and I saw how music could alter culture. I remember very clearly working with the musical director. I hadn’t yet signed my contract and I was singing, “What do you get when you fall in love… you get enough germs to catch pneumonia, after you do he’ll never phone ya…” And I remember thinking, “What if I died singing this song?” Because I had to do eight shows a week. That was the contract.
And I thought, “I’ve just done something that was so filled with meaning and value for me.” I went to see my agent the next day and asked if there was any way I could do just six months. He said, “No, it’s a contract. They’re not going to hire somebody else and have to train them. So I said, “I just can’t do it.” I decided I wasn’t meant to be there and went back to Vancouver.
Three days later, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet called and asked me to write the music for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe as a ballet. I remember Arnold Spohr calling me, “Could you come and do this?” And I was like, “I can’t write a ballet score, I don’t know anything about it” and he asked, “Can you feel the heart of Rita Joe? Do you know how she feels?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. I love her.” And he said, “Why don’t you bring your heart to Winnipeg and we’ll see what happens.”
I ended up writing the ballet and that was an international hit and off we went to Australia and New Zealand. I feel my whole life has been a gift. My career just grew and I would go through changes and it would move me to the next phase and then I started to want to write musicals.
Now, I knew nothing about musicals. I remember going to the library and saying, “Do you have any books on writing musicals?” They said, “No, but we have a script of a musical.” I can’t remember which one it was. I thought, “Okay, you put the title there, then you explain what’s going on on the stage and you write what the character says.” Fine. And off I went. That’s when I did Reflections on Crooked Walking.
We really have to feed our souls. I’ve talked to many artists who somewhere along the line made a choice to do something to get ahead. They get known for that and they’re stuck. It was a conscious choice but it wasn’t like I said, “I want to do something meaningful.” It wasn’t like I thought about it. It was just who I was. It just didn’t sit right with me. I guess it was because I came from Africa and even as a girl I was aware. I mean, you couldn’t help it. We lived in the white house on the hill and I used to wonder why did they wear my hand-me-downs. Why didn’t I have hand-me-downs? How come we had toast and marmalade on the table while the Zulu people lined up to get a can of mealy corn every Thursday and some meat. I guess it was that questioning part of myself. It’s just social justice. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was. It was just feelings of discomfort that I had.
The other one that really impacted me was a feeling that I was living in a dream. I remember my earliest memory was of lying in my bed on the farm in Zululand and hearing the rooster crow and the morning sounds coming into my dream and I was thinking in what I now know was my dream, “Oh no, you’re going to fall asleep and you’re going to start dreaming and when you do you’re going to forget who you are because this has happened before.” And I’d become very agitated and I’d suddenly ‘open my eyes’ and I’d be in my bedroom on the farm and I’d go, “Oh no, oh no. I’m stuck being her again. These aren’t my hands. Who am I when I’m not dreaming that I’m Ann.” This was a recurring dream, this feeling of being someone else who was dreaming this reality.
I think that never left me either, that feeling of parallel worlds. That gave me my interest in meaning. Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we doing here? How can I know what is purposeful? If I’m here for some reason and I’m going to go back ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ was, that of course I couldn’t remember, I wanted to find out why I was here. That was always playing out as well and has been my whole life.
JR: You’re putting on an event called The Mysteries. What is that all about?
AM: I love musicals. I love that characters can sing at each other and just let all their feelings out through music. I just think it’s the best thing. And I love music as story. Nobody knew what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was on threat of death that any participant talk about what was going on there. In fact, some people think that’s why Socrates had to drink hemlock, because he divulged what was going on in the temple. I started reading everything I could about it and became totally fascinated. It led me to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the great mother and her daughter who was abducted into the underworld by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. And it was known by her father Zeus. He and Hades were brothers and they bargained over her. And I thought, “Well, that’s still going on, isn’t it?”
Demeter the mother, in losing her daughter, is thrown into this deep deep grief and loses all her power. It’s like women whose children are abducted and can never get over it. She dropped into her grief and finally ends up going into her temple reaching a place of such rage that she says to Zeus and Hades, “Until you bring my daughter back to me, you’re not getting one drop of my life force.” She pulls her power in and the whole world starts to fall apart.
No grass grows so there’s nothing to feed the sheep and the goats. Everything starts dying. One by one the gods are [saying], “You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something.” Finally, they let Persephone go, but Hades tricks her into eating four pomegranate seeds so she has to return to the underworld for four months of the year. It’s one of the rules of the underworld. I looked around me and said, “Wow, this is a prophetic story.” We’re having it right now. We’re in the middle of it. We’re stuck at the point in the myth when Demeter is saying, “I’ve had enough.” And we’re starting to see these terrible storms and food shortages and floods and fires.
The world is going into a trauma. And that was foreshadowed, prophesied, created through thought – who knows? – but every year for 2000 years this myth was told. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really important.”
A myth is a story that’s meant to transform as we transform, but once you start writing them down they stop having the capacity to change. So I said, “I’ve got to change this myth. We might be able to bring the feminine heart back into the political arena, back into the world. And maybe we can avert this environmental catastrophe.”And women need to be heard. We need equality because we each bring, as you know, something so unique and special.
JR: We need to turn off the mass deception and really hear what our inner being is telling us to do, our soul. The work that you’re doing, music gives us permission to do that. It reminds us how important it is and how good it feels to be in touch with that.
AM: The minute you get into the slipstream of your own sense of values and are unafraid to stand up for them, so much of the feeling of helplessness goes away. Love is the best way. Whenever there’s love in the room everything lightens up. I don’t know how to say it loud and clear enough, because I don’t get why we choose other things.