Making music is just the output of sound, right? Actually a huge part of making music is tuning into the environment around you, like your bandmates or the audience. That keen awareness and perception is what allows musicians Annabelle & Ash to move between the mainstream world of musical performance into the more intimate and closed-loop world of leading musical healing, Medicine Music Ceremonies.
This journey started over a decade ago when the two began making a partnership together, both in life and in music. Annabelle is a Gizzy girl whose post-music degree career led her to the cruise ship stage. There, she and Ash really honed their musical talents. Ash, who is also musically trained, credits the cruise ship environment and later getting positions in some great HB-based bands with helping him tune his ear for improvisation. Says Ash, “It was such a learning space for me. I was playing with accomplished jazz musicians, learning how to listen to what they were doing, to improvise.” When I asked him if he had a favourite style of music to play, it was less the genre and instead the improvising. “Creating music is where my art is, where I’m most joyous.”
This music creation is what happens at a medicine music ceremony. Annabelle and Ash tune into the energy of the attendees and tailor the music to the room. I recently attended a Medicine Music Ceremony as a newbie and was surprised by the jumble of paradoxes. It was ancient and yet modern. It was foreign but also right here and now. The other people there were both inconsequential to my little experience but also compulsory to the undeniable sense of unity. They played a half a dozen songs, starting with a song that featured the Hare Krishna mantra. I’m not experienced in mantras or musical medicine. But I am the daughter of a big Beatles fan, so I knew the Hare Krishna mantra from the Beatles’ famous study of Transcendental Meditation and specifically George Harrison’s incorporation of it into his famous song “My Sweet Lord.”
Annabelle and Ash shine as gifted musicians and musical ceremony leaders with the songs they’ve written around the mantras. These are no 3-chord numbers. They are modern and musically complex – maybe where you could recognise all those hours improvising with those jazz musicians. But they’re also easy to learn in a matter of seconds. The reason mantras are so effective at calming the mind and honing in on an intention is that they are simple, repetitive, hypnotic.
Attending a musical healing ceremony by Annabelle and Ash, it could be understandable if you attended just to listen to them play. Because in addition to the power of the mantra and the beauty of the ceremony, what I want to tell you is how sublime and enchanting the music was. Ash plays the acoustic guitar in a way that grounds and also lightens the songs. He grounds the songs with percussive strumming and lightens the song with intricate and complex chords that serve as accompaniment to Annabelle’s voice that’s both bell-like and soulful.
These ceremonies have a touch of an intimate concert in that the regulars knew the songs. I even heard quiet whoops of glee at one point when Annabelle told us the mantra that was coming next. But even as a newbie who knew none of these songs, it was impossible not to get swept up in the beautiful melodies and the soft choir of voices around me. It was like the best kind of concert, one where the artist plays all the songs you know and love and you sing along.
Although they happily still play mainstream gigs, like wineries or weddings, it’s been a personal journey for the two of them to find themselves leading musical healing workshops. It was built on their curiosity about world music and the staying-power of these ancient words and instruments. They found themselves in a place in their lives, re-evaluating their priorities. “Do we love this? Is this making us happy? Purely happy? Not just a facade of happiness?” They embarked on a quest of introspection that at times felt like a major upheaval. When looking at alternate ways to live, when choosing happiness as the marker for success, it can feel like you’re reprogramming yourself.
Says Annabelle about the mainstream life they’d left, “You ask yourself, ‘Is it acceptable to live this life?’ Because we’d given up our 9-5s in pursuit of this happiness. And inevitably there was a lot of judgement out there, people wondering what we even do. So we were feeling some hard emotions about it.” As musicians, they turned to music to help them. “We used music as a tool to help ourselves transform.” Ash says, “Those hard emotions came up and we were able to use music to express those emotions. And once expressed, you feel amazing.” They’d found a way to lighten the emotional load.
This was one of the things that Annabelle stressed at the start of the ceremony. The mantras have the power to help you move the unwanted energy out of your body. It’s pretty well-accepted that stress, anxiety, negative emotions and thoughts can wreak havoc on our physical state. We might clench our jaw. The muscles in our neck and back can tighten into knots. Our blood pressure can rise. And similar to guided meditation, Annabelle reminds us that music, the process of setting an intention, bringing these ancient words into our minds, breathing in and singing them out, can allow us to let go of the negative emotions that aren’t serving us. We too can lighten the emotional load.
In the beginning of their journey, they made familiar music that allowed them to express emotions. In talking with them, I was reminded that actually we all do this all the time. Were you ever a teenager who got dumped and felt hurt and rage and found comfort in yell-singing along with Alanis Morrisette? Too GenX-y? What about Taylor Swift? A bit over-excited for this party? Get the up-beat bangers on and belt it out.
Soon, Annabelle and Ash began attending musical healing retreats. They explored accessing altered states of consciousness through holotropic breathwork. They were now surrounded by people with different knowledge and expertise who then introduced them to sanskrit mantras. “The words are some of the oldest in the world.” says Annabelle. “They’re known to hold the power of creation.”
It’s no coincidence that folk singing and mantras have been well-preserved and shared over centuries, and still have relevance today. It’s because they still have power. They ground us in the moment. They link us to the people who are with us. They spiral our consciousness around an intention. In a word, it still works. And in our modern lives, with an infinite amount of input, Annabelle and Ash are seeing increasingly more people opting for a break from the modern onslaught of content and choosing this ancient and primitive kind of input. Annabelle and Ash’s songs are simple and comforting, containing maybe half a dozen words, sung in mainly the same order, with a couple variations of melodic lines, with just a guitar, a few percussion instruments, and a few dozen voices guiding you along. I found myself closing my eyes and singing along with the other voices and weirdly forgetting there were other people there.
As Ash says, “It’s powerful enough to have these experiences by yourself. It’s even more powerful to have them with a group.” Annabelle adds that while there might be emotions that people let go of, mostly the ceremonies are about actively creating joy and a sense of unity, which might be lost amidst our rushed and busy lives. And that’s exactly what I felt: the delight in listening to the beautiful music and then the simple, infectious joy of singing along.
Thankfully, as a society, we are talking about mental health and the importance of sharing your emotions with others. Suffering in silence serves no one. Annabelle and Ash seek to provide a safe space where people can express those emotions, literally usher them out of your body, without judgement. We all feel fear, grief, pain of one kind or another. Music can help us acknowledge and then let that pain go little by little, breath by breath, word by word. Says Annabelle, “We started to wonder, ‘How can we use music for another purpose, not just to entertain people? To help people heal themselves?’ Because we’re not actually doing the healing. We’re providing a safe space for people to heal themselves.” And that’s exactly how it worked for me. I felt happier and lighter. (Although, I was also definitely entertained a bit, too.)
If you are looking for ways to be mindful, to let go of your busy thoughts for a time, or to do some introspection and introduce ancient musical medicine to your life, seek out Annabelle and Ash and their Musical Medine Ceremonies.