When I was seventeen, I spent some Summer nights at a beach in the South of Brazil reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, where he poetically talked about the Earth seen from really far as "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam", showing a vision of all world cultures fitting in that tiny blue dot. The book's title was inspired by an image of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft billions of kilometers away. You can see the image and the passage that inspired me bellow.
Sagan's work in general has had a profound influence in my life. For a while I even pursued a career in the sciences, when I thought I wanted to be an astronomer. After a few years studying Physics, I discovered that my interest was more in popularization of science and its implications rather than in research itself. That lead me to a position in the communications department in the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology, where I developed projects in that area for a few years. As you can imagine, it was very hard to do the work I wanted to do within the bureaucratic machine of a federal institution, so I left that position and went to Canada to pursue a masters degree. By then I was much more interested in the relationship of art and science, and how art could be inspired by scientific themes, without being a lecture in disguise.
When I got to Toronto I found a vibrant community of musicians from all over the world, where it was common place to have people from many backgrounds exploring music from different regions together. Over the years I played with a number of different groups that would focus on music from specific cultures ( Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Sephardic, Flamenco and so on) as a side project to my main passion for photography.
Late one night I was talking to my then girlfriend and soon to become wife Iana Komarnytska about what inspired us, what we might want to do together in relationship to music, dance and art. I told her about Sagan's book, and how the Voyager spacecraft had a golden record with songs from all over the world, sent out into the depths of space.
That conversation planted a seed in my mind, and the next day I started envisioning what would become the Blue Dot Ensemble. I wanted to create a group that would explore music and dance from around the world, with roots in ancient music of the Near East, North Africa, Central Asia and the Mediterranean. The idea was to have a core set of musicians and have invited guest artists to play with us and fuse elements of different traditions.
I got great advice and encouragment early on from two great musicians in Toronto, Mark Marczyk from the Lemon Bucket Orkestra and James Freeman from the Canadian Arabic Orchestra.
Iana became the lead dancer in the group, exploring her skills in oriental bellydance, Iraqi, Kalbelya, Turkish Roma, Persian Classical and a variety of folkloric dances. We were lucky to get the fantastic musician and multi-instrumentalist Demetrios Petsalakis to join us, along with Sanaz Nakhjavani who is not only a skilled kanun player but also a researcher and scholar. We were later joined by Georgia Hathaway, a great and sensitive violin player who shared our vision of combining songs and connecting dots between traditions. Throughout the year, we had a number of performances and got a chance to collaborate with a dozen of fantastic musicians from Turkey, Iran, Palestine, Poland, Canada and Ukraine, and our repertoire and understanding of different traditions started growing.
One of the concepts I wanted to explore early on was this idea I had of 'sister songs'. Sanaz showed us a traditional Persian tune called Baroon Baroone, which had a feel very similiar, at least in my mind, to a Brazilian folk song called Asa Branca. They both had a sort of melancholy to them, and yet a hint of optimism and romance. I knew the lyrics to Asa Branca, but when Sanaz translated the Farsi verses in Baroon Baroone, I literally had chills down my spine. They were both love songs. But more than that, they were both about the relationship to the land, crops, a way of living. The Brazilian one was about a land cursed with droughts, and the Persian with floods and heavy rain. Both were also about caring for beloved ones, and I felt a connection between the two songs going deeper and deeper the more I learned about them. We decided to create an arrangement combining the two songs in a lovely medley, where Iana choreographed a dance fusing elements from both traditions.
The concept of sister songs was further explored on our latest show in March 2018. We played a song called Sari Gelin, which is present - with slight variations in language and lyrics - in Turkish, Persian, Armenian and Azerbaijani traditions. On this performance we created a mix of influences from all these cultures, including singing in both Turkish and Farsi and dance inspired by Azerbaijani, Persian and Armenian styles. You can see a video of the performance bellow, recorded at the Ismaili Centre in Toronto:
We are currently creating a show experimenting with combining Turkish, Polish and Bulgarian songs, and I want to create a version of Sari Gelin that is sung in all the languages in which it appears.
Another aspect I explored early on was a visual representation and aesthetic for the group. I have always been fascinated with astrolabes, which to me are the perfect combination of art and science in one object. An astrolabe is a navigation instrument used since antiquity to determine one's time and place in the world using positions of stars and planets. The word astrolabe means "the one that catches the heavenly bodies", and I thought it would be interesting to use it somehow as a symbol for the Blue Dot Ensemble.
I was particularly inspired by an astrolabe present in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, originally from the 1300s Spain (Historic al-Andalus). What I loved about that particular astrolabe was that the inscriptions on it bear the names of constellations in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. In the Iberian Peninsula of the fourteenth century, Muslim scientists worked together with Christian and Jewish counterparts to translate and transmit scientific knowledge to Europe.
I thought it would be interesting to reference that spirit of sharing scientific knowledge in our attempts to share art, music and dance from different corners of the planet.
Another idea I had was to incorporate my photography in the project, trying to enhance the experience of audiences that come to our shows. One of the ways we came up with was to create a series of postcards with inspirational ideas and images that people could take home, collect and explore. On the back of the cards one could find links to our website with an interactive and in-depth account of the songs and dances performed. The online part is still in the works, but the postcards have proven to be an interesting way to keep the conversation going.
With today's music business model, most bands depend heavily on the sale of merchandise to supplement their income and I wanted to do something special on that front from the beginning. Instead of having simple mugs, t-shirts and hats, I wanted our merchandise to capture the richness of the cultures we were exploring, providing meaningful and personal products to our audience.
We partnered with two Canadian design companies, Mlavi and Lavishy, and created a special curated selection of items for the Blue Dot Collection, including jewellery, wallets and pouches inspired by different world cultures featured in our music.
It is my goal to create our own designs in the future, inspired by the songs we perform, and we are researching potential design partners to make that come true in 2018. I want to include menswear as well, specially bracelets and scarfs.
I want to mention a cool - and unexpected - moment from our full-house Nowruz show at the Ismaili Centre on March 10th, 2018. The Blue Dot Ensemble got a recognition letter from the Prime Minister of Canada through MP Yasmin Ratansi for our work celebrating “the pluralistic society that defines Canada”. This happened at the one-year anniversary of our group and the same week Iana and I became permanent residents of Canada. We were all happy and humbled with this gesture, but what went through my mind were all the times people asked “why is a Brazilian guy playing Middle Eastern music”, “why are you going into Balkan songs now”, “shouldn’t you be doing things from your own country”? The reply in those instances should have been: "Well, I will keep doing my best to combine traditions, learn about new cultures and share the spectacular art, music and dance from across this pale blue dot." I just hadn't formulated it in words quite yet, though my fingers had been doing the talking with every new beat, every new song.
As I mentioned before, we are working on a show based on the idea of 'sister songs', which will probably lead to our first album recording later in 2018. I am also considering adding some new permanent members to the ensemble, having had wonderful experiences with musicians specializing in Balkan and Scandinavian traditions. Although I have been playing for a few years, the business side of a music and dance group is new to me, and I am learning about the wonderful opportunities provided by the Canadian government to create music and shows through grants and the possibilities to perform at festivals and other musical showcases. I am also working on developing products and new collectable postcards, but given all my other projects these have been developing slowly.
As I look back on this year with the Blue Dot Ensemble, I came to the realization that all my photography and music work, and all detours along the way, have been an attempt to project back the inspiration I had on those long gone Summer nights, when I was a teenager at a Brazilian beach, dreaming of stars, travels, adventures, history, enchanted by the beauty of of our planet, The Homeland of Everyone.
Finally, I want to thank you for reading about this journey. I hope you will take some time to explore the music and dance we created and follow our future projects. And if you feel like it, please share your thoughts with me. I am still learning about this music stuff, and I would love to hear from you.