Interview - Issue #13
Michaela Harrison is an international vocalist and healer whose career is rooted in relaying the elevating, transformational power of music through song. In this interview we discuss her project Whale Whispering, a musical collaboration with humpback whales; the power of sound as a healing tool; and human relationships with the ocean and Earth.
Madeleine Bazil: Could you offer a brief introduction to yourself and your work - specifically to the Whale Whispering project?
Michaela Harrison: I am a healer. I’m a singer. I’m a writer. I am an evolving, at least partially human, person… I’m exploring that whole human designation - I’m not so sure about it. Since childhood I’ve always been that person who was out in nature, communing directly with nature, and always felt very comfortable there, always spoke to animals and had animals speak back to me and the plants and the elements. I also grew up singing in a gospel choir in the Baptist church that I was raised in, in [Washington] DC, and that is a core aspect of my understanding of relationship-building through sound, and the power of sound to transform space and the beings in it. I have always been a person on a spiritual journey, understanding myself as a spiritual being and a part of an environment that is more than what the so-called five senses can perceive.
And so those things come together to put me in the place where I am now: going out to sea to sing with the whales and co-create songs with them, which is what Whale Whispering is about. The inspiration came from being continuously involved in evolving my relationship with my ancestors and understanding how I have been carrying forth legacies, of trauma, resilience and victory mentality, through my connection with them - DNA-wise, spiritually and energetically. And so this work is related to the Middle Passage (when enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas as a part of a triangular trading route between Europe, Africa and the Americas) and particularly to the ways in which people who made that crossing found the ability to live through that crossing, even if it wasn’t for the entire crossing. How did anybody survive that even for a day? Singing is one of the things that we’ve done throughout this trajectory that has gotten us through and gotten us over. And the ancestors have made it clear to me that this was no different during the Middle Passage.
When I first connected with the whales in 2017, I went on a whale-watching tour. I sang to them and they came over to the boat and they danced and it was very clear how profound the connection was and is. I sang spirituals because that’s what I was moved to sing, and I felt them connect to the meaning and the mournfulness and the lament inside of the songs that I was singing in a way that was inexplicable at the time. And when I went back and reflected on it, in meditation, I had this whole journey that came as downloads of, “Oh, this was what happened on the ships.”
They heard the whales singing and the whales heard them singing, and there was this exchange that happened. And the whale song brought comfort to the people who were on those slaving vessels. Elements of the sounds that they heard from the whales got incorporated into the songs that they brought ashore the sounds that they brought ashore, and vice versa. The whales, as they do, incorporate songs from the environment, as well as the sounds from the environment, into their songs. They incorporated and stored in their songs essential aspects of what they heard from the Africans crossing over on the ships. So part of this work is about, just on a very surface level, exploring that idea of interspecies connection and co-creation, collaboration and co-healing. And then also doing the actual co-creation in terms of the deep listening to spirits, to ancestors, and to the whales themselves to co-create songs that tap into that miracle survival power through the music, through the songs, and bringing that forth in new creative forms.
Madeleine: I’m curious to know about how you first connected with the whales and also with the ocean. On an embodied level, what did it feel like to experience that connection with the ocean and the whales?
Michaela: I have always had an association with the ocean, an ancestral connection. I had a near-drowning experience when I was 20 in North Carolina at a family reunion that ended up being a spiritual awakening in which I heard a voice speak to me as I was about to black out from taking in water and running out of air. It was a feminine voice that was very soothing. The voice told me that when I stopped fighting the water, the waves would carry me back to shore. I immediately relaxed when I heard that and that’s what saved me.
I didn’t know what it was at the time, but the following year I was in Kenya and I came across a book that explained to me what that voice was: Yemanjá, who is an orixá (deity) in the Yoruba tradition that spread from West Africa throughout the Americas, and is particularly strong in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, New Orleans and some other parts of the Caribbean. This orixá, Yemanjá, as she is manifested and interpreted in the diaspora, is the mother of the waters in general, and her jurisdiction is the ocean. She’s the nurturer, she’s the healer, she’s the protector. I understood that she was who had spoken to me and that I was her child. And that’s what drew me to Brazil: this relationship with Candomblé, which is the tradition that evolved from the Yoruba system maintained by people who came here enslaved from Yoruba land, and then reshaped and revitalised after slavery ended.
As far as the whales go, I had a CD of whale songs that was one of the first CDs that I owned. I was 12 or 13 and I would listen to the whale songs and I felt this connection with them. And I kind of stored it away. I knew at some point I was going to do something with whale song. And I had forgotten this, but when I was 17, I was at Assateague Island (in Virginia) with two friends. It was cold and there was literally nobody on the beach but us. And at one point we were cackling and dancing, and not 100 feet from shore, an orca did a spyhop and raised up and was like, “What’s making all that noise?” When folks ask, “How did it start?” I had completely forgotten my first cetacean encounter. And it was so profound. And it stuck.
When I was in my twenties, I read a book called Dolphin Dreamtime: The Art and Science of Interspecies Communication by Jim Nollman. He talks about developing communication with dolphins and [other] cetaceans through music and it’s beautiful. His work was about instrumental music and documenting the exchanges and the responses and all the magic that happened. And I was like, “Oh, I’m supposed to sing with them.” That knowing, that inspiration, that just came. But it was again a situation where I was like, “That’s not for right now.”
It came up again when I started coming here to Praia do Forte, Bahia. Initially I was artist in residence at a place called Projeto Tamar, which is a sea turtle reserve that also has a musical component. And so I started coming to perform at Projeto Tamar in 2016 and the director heard that I had this fascination with whales and wanted to sing with them. He arranged for my first whale-watching tour. I was also at the time supporting my dear friend Rebecca Mwase in her work on a theatrical piece called Vessels, about the experience of a group of women inside a slaving vessel. And in offering support with that work, there was a lot of my consciousness and focus and dreams of the Middle Passage. The combination of connecting with the whales in person and being engaged in that work around the Middle Passage brought the awareness of what this work was supposed to be about - which is also, beyond just the Middle Passage, about our relationship to water and the environment and tapping into this healing power that the whales carry and that we have the ability to engage with.
Madeleine: What you’ve said about tapping into not only this connection to historical trauma and that relationship to the ocean and to the whales but also into a broader understanding of our relationship to ecology and to oceans in general - I think that’s really interesting because they are in some ways one and the same. The implications of history are what colours the future of our relationship to the planet. I wonder if you could speak more about that sense of interconnectedness or healing or processing - or that cyclical function that it sounds like you’re finding in this work?
Michaela: All of it has layers and layers and levels and levels - as the ocean does. Part of the ancestral trauma that I’m addressing is womb sickness, which is endemic among Black women and womb carriers, particularly in the form of fibroid tumours, which I’ve been dealing with for more than 20 years. Many of the women in my family have had hysterectomies as a result of fibroids. It is an actual epidemic among Black folks. And the place where I am is the place where the whales come to give birth. They come to Bahia to reproduce and then they migrate to Antarctica to feed. This creative process with them is about rebirthing myself as someone who is able to reach into the blockage and the stored trauma, the inherited trauma, and create something new and beautiful and liberating and healing out of it. So, it’s really all about rebirth. I’ve come into this cyclical flow as I have for the past four years - made it my job to be here during whale season. And so I get to meet the new whale babies each year and journey with them as they learn how to breach and work their blowholes. There’s a continuous rebirth that is integral to the nature of this work.
Madeleine: It’s very fitting that you were called to whales specifically for this. They really do bear witness, don’t they? They have these tremendous life spans, tremendous size - they must absorb so much.
Michaela: And they tell about it. They’re down there, singing about it.
Madeleine: I’m curious to hear what co-creating with them looks like. You go out on a boat, on a whale tour, and what does the act of engagement and creating music with them look like?
Michaela: There are four or five songs that I tend to sing going out to sea. I have some songs for Yemanjá that I sing to salute her and other water spirits. I usually sing a song for the ancestors when embarking. And then there are a few songs that I use to call the whales. Then when they come… in the past, I was singing spirituals, or songs that came to me through this creative process and those would be songs with lyrics. Since last year, there’s more of an emphasis on wordless singing and spontaneous composition, co-creation, when we’re in the presence of each other. Melodies that come through, sounds that come through, that are very much informed by what’s happening in the moment, you know? So really a co-creative process.
Sometimes that is with me just being out on the boat and interacting with them while they’re in the water and not hearing their song from under the water, but hearing what they’re doing with their blowholes, which are also musical instruments and communicative tools. And sometimes it is me sitting with headphones on with the hydrophone in the water, picking up their songs coming from the water and singing into a microphone that is projecting my voice through a speaker underwater to them so that there’s a heard exchange that’s happening between us. And as of last year, which is when I was able to buy the equipment to do all this, it’s evolved so much. They know what’s happening. We’ve been doing this for four years now. They’re like, “All right, you sing things to us.” We’re having this exchange. And for the first time, I’ve had moments of call and response with them.
This year, for the first time, I can definitively identify the whales - certain whales singing back to me what I was singing to them. And that has been one of the intentions the whole time: let me just bring certain songs that are the same thing every time to see if, in the evolution of their songs, I hear something back that I have sung to them. There’s a call that I created, actually. It’s based on the siren sound, which comes from them: ascending and descending scales. I started doing it one fine day and a few whales sang it right back to me repeatedly. Same pitch, same rhythm. So exact. Over multiple days, not just a one-time thing. And in different regions; it happened here in Praia do Forte, and then when I went to Algodões in the south of Bahia, it happened there as well. There is this overwhelming sense of miracle happening and this breakthrough moment.
I think a lot about [the famous deaf-blind author, disability rights advocate and activist Helen Keller: the moment when she learned how to communicate was with the word water and feeling the water on her hand and her teacher writing out water on her hand. And that being the breakthrough moment for her, that she understood that this writing was the word for what she was experiencing. I’ve been having that moment with the whales. It’s this breakthrough in the ability to communicate in a way that feels like a real language exchange.
Madeleine: I like how you call it a language exchange, which to me indicates a symbiotic relationship of communication or learning. I don’t know if you’ve read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, but she speaks about how we communicate with non-human kin and how there is this two-way exchange that so often we just ignore, and what a gift it is to tap into that. One final question: what do you feel is the role of the artist in the Anthropocene?
Michaela: I’m not such a fan of the term Anthropocene because it’s one that still centres human people in the telling of Earth’s story, when there are so many kinds of inhabitants on the planet. Anyway, I am not a person who holds the opinion that all artists should be making work for the same reasons, because everyone’s circumstances are different. Some people living in very oppressive situations make art just to survive their day-to-day realities and not lose their minds in the conditions that they’re living in. So I don’t assume that there’s any one role for all artists with regard to the Anthropocene or anything else, other than to express what is asking to be expressed from within. I do feel that there should be regulations on that expression if it’s harmful to others/the environment, like anything else.
I think it’s more productive, for me, to talk about the potential impacts artists can have with regard to the Anthropocene. Raising awareness of the harmful effects of human people’s activities on the ecology and the capacity to adjust that impact for it to be less harmful and more healing, restorative, respectful and reciprocal is certainly the intention of my art. I think that the ability that artists have to support all beings in tapping into inspiration, elevation, openness, oneness, peace, release, strength and other healing effects is one that can be channelled to encourage greater awareness of humanity’s integrity to the rest of the natural world and it helps people see that the Earth’s ecology is not functioning outside of them but that we are an extension of it and vice versa. I definitely feel that art is a crucial key to shifting and shaping perspectives on what is possible and how we can dream new ways of being present and taking responsibility for the part that we each have in making this world either a more or less viable habitat for all who dwell here, including Earth herself.