Your Basket is Empty
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.
Feature - Issue #13
The Colour of Transformation
Introduction by Bryony Benge-Abbott with photography by Ewelina Ruminska
Dialogue - Issue #13
Everything is Blindingly in Bloom
Words and illustration by Shana Cleveland
Dialogue - Issue #13
My Local Pond is Disappearing and I Can’t Stop Watching
Words by Diyora Shadijanova with illustration by Amelia Rouse
Feature - Issue #13
Rights and Responsibilities
Words by Sherri Mitchell
Feature - Issue #13
Words by Kalpana Arias
Interview - Issue #13
Koji is Community
Interview by Josephine Marchandise with Pao-Yu Liu with photographs by David Reeve