by Irene D. Thomas
"What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin?" teased one of the little signs posted to a tree every 50 yards or so. Whether put there to slow us down on this dusty washboard of a dirt road or to keep first timers hopeful that they were on the right road to music camp, we never were entirely sure. But being a second timer to Lark camp, I had looked forward to the whacko riddles and the answer coming up just around the bend: "You don't care if someone spills beer on a fiddle!"
"Lark in the Morning" music camp provides real and wannabe musicians a week-long escape into the redwood forest near Mendocino for merry music-making, and more. And then some. The camp's organizer and founder, Mickie Zekley, and his wife Elizabeth affectionately call Lark a "musical party with educational overtones." Actually, he explained to me later, it began with just one clear focus: partying. When the party grew to be 100 or more and outgrew his house, he rented the Mendocino Woodlands campground for a weekend each year, sharing the cost and potluck meals with 250 of his best friends.
At first there was no plan or schedule, but then people began teaching each other new instruments and new dances. And that's where the "educational overtones" came in. Although Mickie and his friends' taste run to Celtic and American folk music, (he is the proprietor of Lark in the Morning music shop in Mendocino) the ethnic variety of musicians and instruments began running wildly all over the map, much to the benefit of the 400 or so campers today. In one week I, for one, would personally sample or take part in Bulgarian singing, Greek dancing, Mariachi vocals, swing singing with a band, dumbek drumming, Russian folksongs, Cajun dance, clogging, and "non-threatening beginning guitar." For people like me, middle aged overachievers who never took the time to go to camp or play an instrument---but whose inner child was alive and well--- this was heaven.
In fact, heaven is where I thought I had died and gone when I woke up that first morning with the forest canopy light dappling my tent, the smell of turkish coffee scenting the redwood-laced air, and celestial Andean harp music wafting somewhere nearby like a glorious call to a musical beyond. The only serious decision to be made in this makeshift heaven was whether to sip coffee and nibble pastries at the Tunisian Cafe set up in this section of "quiet camp" or to take the shuttle bus into main camp for a full breakfast and lively conversation around the campfire. Newly dubbed the "not so quiet camp" because the presence of the cafe encouraged late night, impromptu jams of middle eastern drumming, fluting and even some belly dancing, this part of camp still provided an oasis away from crowds when one wanted it. I found it relaxing to be able to retreat here to my tent with a book and flashlight after a full day of musical socializing.
Many others though-- more obsessed, even more greedy not to miss a thing---carried camp on deep into the night, arriving at breakfast late with silly grins and squinted eyes, like hangovers from their musical hightimes. They might have gone to both dances the night before, maybe to Cajun dancing at nine and then Contra dancing at 11, followed by a jam with their favorite group or any group that might have formed itself after midnight in the dining room or on one of the porches. For me, one dance per night was enough, thank you.
The exception was Balkan and Greek night, where the hypnotic, sensuous, often frenetic strains of exotic, mideastern-tinged music grabbed my soul and urged my feet to dance, no matter what. Gotta dance. The rhythm bounces, jerks, syncopates. Step, cross, brush, lift, our leader modelled the steps as we alternately circled or snaked through the dance hall, the music picking up in pace and forcing us to do the same. Glowing with sweat myself, I spied equally sweaty faces grinning wildly back at me, and others with eyes closed in ecstacy. I wondered what scholars of dance have to say about why this style of dance prevailed in so many cultures. Was it the communal urge? A way to share the thrill of music as an act of cultural cohesion? Or was it a primal form of safe, communal sex for the underaged and already marrieds----the circular moving together to music that stirs and satisfies and finally exhausts its partners?
Whatever theory one prefers, hey, this joint is really jumping. Gradually, reluctantly, the crowd disperses, flashlights bouncing in time to the music left behind, humming on the way to tents or cabins or campers. Some teens never seem to turn up at their parents campsites. One of the beauties of this place is that no one worries. Repeat visitors seemed clear about it--Lark camp is a safe place for kids.
For those who could rise the next morning after a night like that, there were lots more choices to be made after breakfast. Just outside the dining hall you could see a knot of people pondering the list of offerings on the chalkboard, a 6 by 10 timetable on which staff members had listed their workshop offerings. (Mickie points out that there is no essential separation between staff and campers, and I found that to be true.) Those who came with one instrument and one style to master had the easier time of it. Devout fiddlers went off to their Irish, or Greek, Cape Breton, gypsy, Yugoslav. They had their plan and they stuck to it. We dilletantes, on the other hand, could be driven crazy by the palette--which color should we dip our musical brush into today?
To keep my sanity, I committed a schedule to paper and more or less stayed with it through the week. First thing after breakfast was non-threatening beginning guitar. After guitar I was happy enough to sing and dance my way around the musical map, ending each day with swing singing, led by Piper Heisig of the San Francisco group "Cats and Jammers." There in the dining room, punctuated with the arhythmic pot-banging of kitchen workers getting dinner together, we crooned oldies like "Slow Boat to China" and tried to put our own spin on "Satin Doll." Local friends Olaf Palm and Madge Strong kept up the rhythm section.
In between sessions I would move between locations to sample what I could not squeeze into my own schedule. Like a spectator at a many-ringed musical circus, I struggled to hold my focus on each happening. Moving from flamenco guitars to klezmer might require a schizoid brain shift but one I was quite willing to make. Inevitably I would linger at Slavko's Yugoslav session outside the dining hall. Mostly string players, they would be unsmilingly intent on the selection he had brought to work on--like last year's, a haunting melange of Slavic folk and classical styles, this one slated for a performance to benefit refugees from his homeland. Slavko was a Sarajevan. He felt and played his music deeply, and there was always a crowd standing nearby, eyes wet, seemingly stunned by the images his music aroused.
One of my sweetest nonmusical memories of camp was meeting Slavko's mother and wife in the dining hall. Overhearing them speaking what sounded like Croatian, I introduced myself in Czech--my own ancestral language--and we had fun comparing our common wordstock. Cynthia, his wife, was an American who learned Serbo-Croation in order to communicate with her mother-in-law, whom they had brought here a few years ago. After that, I noticed them often around camp, Mama leaning heavily on Cynthia's arm, Cynthia translating in whispers what was being said or sung. Cynthia had confessed that first night I met her that mama had left her country reluctantly. "Why didn't you leave me there?" the elder had asked. Why indeed, I thought, even though I understand well the gut-wrenching ties an old woman would feel watching her world come to an end. All of this--the personal tragedy, the Slavic melancholy, the love for mama was caught up on Slavko's face as he directed his devoted little impromptu orchestra.
Every moment is a learning experience at Lark. For example, one can deduce from being there that the accordian is probably the most versatile instrument of all. ("Play an accordian and go to camp!" reads one of Lark's souvenir buttons.) Perhaps it qualifies for the most multicultural of instruments as well, cutting across all ethnic lines from Cajun to Greek to Argentine tango to French country to Slavic and around the world again. An accordian also can turn out totally hot jazz, I found out, especially in concert with jazz fiddle and bass.
What else did I learn from camp? The dumbek is really fun for unleashing timid drummers. Next year I will work it into my schedule. Maybe it will take the place of clogging which I found was harder on the legs than tap dancing. Food, I learned, though it plays second fiddle to the musical menu, is a major component of Lark camp's pleasures, not only because having it prepared for you gives you more time for music, but also because Lark food is uniformly great. (Baked salmon and tondoori chicken and vegetable lasagna were typical dinner fare.) And the setting--in amongst redwoods and firs, lush meadows and small streams that feed the Big River--ties all the pleasures together, sealing us off from the irrelevant busyness we were retreating from.
There's nothing quite like a week spent around people who don't talk about their day jobs. Not once can I remember anyone asking me what I did out in the real world. I liked that. We were there to make music, not to do P.R. or plumbing repair or professorial chitchat. Wherever we came from, and whatever tune we came to hum, we all sensed the shared humanity of our tunes. We were exhilirated, focussed, and leveled to our highest common denominator. Camp dust settled on us all equally.
I also liked what the guitar teacher (the one with enough patience to teach non threatening guitar) said when he talked about the place of music in his life. "We live in a society," he said, "that relies on things outside of ourselves for entertainment. Maybe we've forgotten how much fun it is to entertain ourselves." If we've forgotten, maybe it's Lark Camp that will remind us.
p.s. Here is a sampling of this year's whacko camp riddles (they get better every year). "What do you get when you play new age music backwards?" answer: new age music. "How do you know when a bagpipe is out of tune?" answer: when someone is blowing on it. "How do you know it's your lead singer knocking at the door?" answer: he always loses the key and comes in late. "What's the difference between an accordian and an uzi?" answer: an uzi stops after 20 rounds. Why do bagpipers walk while playing?" answer: It's harder to miss a moving target.
From: The Galley Fall/Winter 2005
By Inanna Hazel
The last night of camp, we had a barbeque in Camp One. The line stretched down the path to the Dance Pavilion, and while we waited for dinner, the Brazilian percussion class did their annual procession up that path. Loving Brazilian beats as I do, I was dancing in place to the rhythm, and grooving on it. They gathered in front of the barbeque area, drowning out the Irish session which had been playing behind the dining hall. Momentarily, that is.
As one, the session players rose and charged the Brazilian contingent, and a cacophony of sound arose. Brazilian sambas warred with Irish jigs as the two strove for dominance.
Then the miracle happened - everyone began playing together, trading rhythms and beats, the best fusion I've heard in many a year. Every battle should end this way - opposition turning into syncopation.
You know that saying, what if we gave a war and nobody came? Well, what if we gave a war and everybody threw melodies?
By Jack Gilder
In 1985 the French musicians at Lark Camp had spent the year raising enough money to pay for the airfare and such to bring the French folk group "Lo Jai" to camp. As you might imagine, it was an extraordinary year for French music.
The following year one of the musicians, (I think it was hurty-gertie player Pierre Imbert, but I'm not sure) came back at his own expense. On the first night of camp a group of us were gathered in a cabin to settle in for some great French music when someone asked him, "Why did you come back this year, are you on tour or something?" and he said, "No." They asked, "You mean you came here at your own expense?" He said, "But of course." Someone else asked, "Why did you do that?" He replied,"Because this is not a music camp." With that, everyone in the room gasped at what seemed like a possible insult to Lark Camp. He continued, '"This... is a LOVE camp"
By Nora Daly
I was born in Oakland, California, but I was raised at Lark Camp, an annual world music camp that has made mewho I am. Lark is nestled deep in the Medocino Woodlands, where technology is minimal, litter is nonexistent, and themusic and singing brings out the best in everyoneincluding me. I have gone every year of my life since I was six months old, no exceptions. Both of my parents are traditional Irish musicians- my dad sings and plays Uilleinn pipes and guitar, and my mom plays both the accordion and the concertina. Although I don't play the traditional Irish instruments, I'm learning the ukulele, and I join in on the huge variety of dancing that's available here.
My day begins after breakfast, when I head down the hill to the children's acting workshop to watch the kids inventtheir own characters write their own play. I like to reminisce about the years that Iacted in the play. I love watching the children, because thechildren are so creative, and so are all of the people who teach. Susan Spurlock runs an amazing workshop, and as far back as I could remember, it was the highlight of my year at camp.
Once the day heats up, we round up our friends to go to Lily's, the secret river spot where the parental nudists, embarrassed teenagers and the equally nude children gather. The adults read their books, the teenagers catch up on sleep from the night before, and the children bother the teenagers, regularly dousing us with water or tossing afreshly-caught frog onto our dozing torsos. The children at Lark are rambunctious and creative: I have learned to be patient with children, and I know how to handle all of the energy they can throw my way.I've also become completely comfortable with myself I witnessed how accepting the adults are of themselves, and I realized that there was no reason to wait until adulthood to love who I am. I am one of the lucky few teenagers who is comfortable with myself.
The rest of the afternoon is a gently-paced preparation for the night, when Lark's stars come out to shine. Once night falls, the magic begins. It starts as a gentle hum of mmusic from the dancing hall. As the hum gets louder, the sounds of people mingle with the music- the dancing starts, and the night is underway. From Bulgarian line dancing to Lindy Hop swing, the music jumps from person to person and the magic floods us all. We dance for hours, until we are hardly aware that we have feet remaining, and for manypeople, it is time for bed. As the music begins to fade and the people meander to cabins and tents, our nighttime wanderings begin. Sometimes we go for a moonlit swim, sometimes we roast marshmallows, and sometimes we just go down to a meadow and perform a shadow puppet rendition of Shakespeare's greatest works.
2 a.m. arrives, and although many are asleep, it is time for my shift at Mullah's Coffee House, serving the few who brave the cold for the sake of our music. Time loses meaning, and before I look at the time again, the breakfast line is opening, and I know that I will once again be making up for missed sleep at the river.
When it comes down to it, Lark has shaped me. The people are as diverse as the music they play, so I am not deterred by people's differences; instead, I embrace the things that set people apart, like personality, and disregard those things that society uses to separate people, such as race or religion. I have found that no matter what a person is interested in, I share some common ground with everyone. Lark nights are never the same, so spontaneity is hard-wired into my thoughts. Every year the camp itself changes, so I can deal with the unknown. As I have grown up at Lark, I have accepted more responsibility: I care for kids while their parents take classes, I help organize a play written by 7 year olds, and I work a shift that everyone else refuses at the coffee house.
Lark in the Morning has shaped who I am, but it does not define me. How I take what Lark has given me and integrate it into my every day world is what has truly made me who I am. I hail from Oakland, which is just as diverse as Lark, and I am ready to bring my enthusiasm for change and individuality into the world at large.
"It was very gratifying to see the focus of the students and to see so many people make major improvements. I was completely blown away at the amount of progress many of my students made. One violinist went from not being able to improvise, play in tune, or play with good tone to playing an improvisation completely and correctly in raga, in tune, and with good feeling and tone. All in a week! He was practicing several hours a day and taking five classes. Clearly, total immersion in music at Lark Camp works wonders."
- Matthew Montfort
"I personally enjoy the cross-pollination which happens at Lark.When I'm in the Balkan Dance workshop it's just great that an Irish session is taking place right outside the door and someone else is having a private practice session just up the hill.I hope this kind of nonsense remains a part of Lark forever.I love that anyone can start up a workshop, and I think that most of the time people are remarkably considerate of the various groups springing up everywhere."
- Alma Chaney
"A couple of weeks after camp and my head is still reeling from the amazing experience. Thank you so much for having me be a part of Lark camp this year. It was truly a thrilling 9 days for me. I heard so much incredible music and took many fascinating classes and took part in countless different sessions, including one truly magical one. You have developed an amazing music camp!"
- Philip Gelb