FAI Keynote & Artist in Residence Presentations from Saskia Tomkins and Madeleine Peyroux Chart Healing Journeys
Folk Alliance International hosted Madeleine Peyroux and Saskia Tomkins for a Keynote Address and Artist in Residence presentation on Friday, May 20th, in a hybrid in-person and online format. Peyroux is a globally known Jazz, Blues, and Folk artist who has released nine albums and is an active live performer. Tomkins is a champion fiddle player who partnered with London’s Mixed Museum for her presentation. Both artists presented autobiographical performative experiences that blended spoken word and music to share their life stories. Experiencing both presentations together suggested the freeing role that music can play in handling the difficult encounters one may face when exploring personal and familial history and the essentially healing, possibly even “sacred,” role of going on those journeys as a family or as a community.
British-born Saskia Tomkin’s particular story focused on the search for information about her grandfather, an African-American GI whose daughter was taken into an orphanage as part of England’s not very well known “Brown Babies” era that did not permit American GIs to adopt their mixed-race children when returning from the UK. Her photo essay, delivered in pre-recorded spoken word, was accompanied by her original fiddle composition to accompany the essay, which was performed live for audiences.
In Tomkin’s opening discussion, she described her personal experience of having mixed race ancestry without much knowledge of her grandfather as “wearing a disguise” that she can’t remove and having a “disconnect between me and the color of my skin.” She also related the common questions she encounters living in Canada, “Where are you really from?” Watching the Black Lives Matter Movement unfold prompted further questions in her life like, “How do people see me?” Engaging with her mother, a textile artist, about this, Tomkins dove deeper into her family’s story.
Growing up with 10 people in a three bedroom council house near Taunton in the UK, Tomkin’s grandmother faced further challenges from an abusive husband before falling in love with an African American GI, Calvin, who was also already married. A child from that union was in danger of being placed in an orphanage for wealthy couples to adopt as part of Britain’s “half-caste” children program. In fact, Tomkin’s grandmother did have her child taken away during a time when she was hospitalized due to domestic abuse, however, recovered her later.
Calvin planned to meet his daughter when she was 16, but the meeting never took place and he passed away soon after. His daughter found more of her own identity by moving to swinging London in the 1960s where she encountered other Black and mixed race women and men. However, “family secrets” weighed heavily on her mental health later in life, leading Saskia Tomkins to go on a healing journey with her mother. They were able to reconnect with Calvin’s family through visiting his former home in Boston and learn more about his artistic life. This allowed “intergenerational wounds” to heal, according to Tomkins. It allowed her to pose her own question, “Who am I?” and come to the conclusion, “I am enough.”
Concluding her performance, Tomkins thanked FAI and the audience for allowing her to be “so vulnerable” sharing this story and working alongside her mother for a “healing experience.”
Madeleine Peyroux opened her presentation by relating that she comes from “American Music” and recognizes that music to be built upon “Black American lives.” It has been particularly true in her case as her father was a Creole man growing up in Tex Arcana among cotton plantations where the sharecroppers were former slaves. She reflected that her father sang many old songs to her from that region, and though he was never a cotton picker, she came to feel as if those songs were hers.
Peyroux began to intersperse her essay with musical interludes featuring classic period songs sung and performed on the guitar, and continued this throughout her exploration of traditions. She introduced her mother’s musical traditions growing up during World War II in the lower East Side of New York where she listened intently to the radio while her father was away at the front. From this she learned songs “for every occasion,” which she introduced to Peyroux as a youngster, whether for waking up in the morning, or walking down a darkened street. She did not shy away from conveying her mother’s own “light and tragedy,” in life as a woman who also suffered “violence” from her husband at home.
Peyroux essentially “broke the fourth wall,” by also speaking about this invitation to speak at FAI and the questions it posed for her in supporting the 34th Annual Conference’s theme of “Living Traditions.” She initially found that proposition challenging because, essentially, she has spent her life as a non-conformist who has seen the negative aspects of some traditions. For instance, “a living tradition of oppression” in the United States in relation to “Black American lives.” For Peyroux, this also includes the “mass incarceration” in the USA that is a “current form of slavery.”
She shared that she has spent her life outside of membership to any institutions, with no certifications other than a GED. Going further into the “self-examination” this invitation encouraged from her, she realized that she doesn’t even have “habitual traits” in life, aside from “being awkward.” Like Groucho Marx, she’s always found herself singing, “I’m against it!” Particularly when it comes to organizations and institutions.
However, there are things that encourage her to talk about “What I’m for,” as she put it. There is “one idea” that continues to inspire her, the “greatest tradition of all,” which is music. Peyroux described Folk music, in particular, as having the “power to invoke the most intimate emotional reaction” in people. It seems to say, “I see you. I honor you. And I empathize with you.”
Peyroux gave a full performance of several songs to illustrate her idea, including “Dance Me To The End of Love,” “Trampin’,” her own song “Careless Love,” and “Hopscotch Blues.” Her thesis that “only love unites us,” reinforced her musical point. However, she also expanded on her idea that what she’s “for” in life is music by clarifying that she feels a “shared mission to unite people, to gather them,” through music. She feels that gathering people together for musical performance is a way to “make space for a sacred human event, the planting of seeds blooming into the unknown.” Gathering is “precious,” she confirmed. She concluded, “I can think of no greater tradition worth living for.”
The two presentations received a standing ovation from the in-person audience at the end of the event.
Check the schedule for FAI, here: https://folk.org