Zaharoula Meraklou - Memoirs of an Oriental Dancer



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Memoirs of an Oriental Dancer

by Zaharoula Meraklou

My very first public performance occurred when I was four years old. I sang a Viennese Folk song in German “a capella” before several hundred people in a crowded auditorium, for an International Girl Scouts Jamboree. I had never heard my voice amplified before and I thought I had entered another world where every-thing that I was familiar with was now different but in a special, wonderful way. It became for me a “magic world” that I loved visiting as often as possible.

I grew up as a Christian, a Catholic, and in my childhood, Latin was the language used in the Missa services we attended in Church or chapel. I began to learn to sing these Latin Hymns when I was five years old, as part of the children’s choir in my school. When I was nine years old, I was sent away from my home – three and a half hours by Greyhound Bus - to live and study in a convent of Franciscan nuns. There, I began my serious musical training.

We studied hard under the stern hand of Mother Callista – now I think of her as “Caligula” remembering the hard raps on my knuckles whenever I didn’t project powerfully enough or enunciate well or any one of a number of other “grievous sins” against the music – and I received not only my daily musical and vocal training with her, but in a short time I was also receiving piano lessons as well. My practice was to be several hours a day and often, in the silence between pieces of music, the voices of the other convent children could be heard beyond the walls of my practice room laughing and playing happily. My practice hours were bittersweet: I loved my music but I longed for the fresh outdoors and the company of the other children. So I put this longing into my music and this was the beginning of why the only music I have ever preferred to perform or to listen to are tragic stories of longing and sadness and nearly all in the Minor Key. Tragic Opera is one of my favourite genres, for example and when I was living and pregnant in Vienna, Austria, I attended the opera as often as I could, sometimes as often as twice a week. It was in Vienna that I gave birth to a wonderful baby girl who grew up to become a dramatic Coloratura Soprano!

In our convent, once again a member of our school’s children’s choir, I sang at all the special services in the enormous, old, village church. We sang in a “choir loft” high up near the roof of the church and faced towards the altar which seemed very distant from where we were. As it was essential for us to sing to and respond to the verses which the priest serving at the Missa sang, we needed to build powerful voices. To this day, whenever I sing, I imagine myself at a point very distant from where I stand that my voice needs to reach out to. I particularly love singing to the ocean or across a waterfall, or deep in the valley to a mountain peak.

The Latin Missa was glorious when I was a child. It was filled with mysticism and wonder and the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into the sacred body and blood of Christ. The warm fragrance of the beeswax candles, the waves of Frankincense and Myrrh, drifted up towards the lofty area where we sang. I felt like an angel there, singing with the priest to honour the God I had come to love as my Father in Heaven. The Gregorian Chants we studied and sang added much to the entire atmosphere of the sacred, mystical world which then existed for me. Because of their special tonal qualities, those were the notes that moved me the most deeply. It wasn’t until much later that I learned we were using a form of ancient Middle Eastern Makkam in those chants.

When I was eleven years old, as a child who been living a very restricted and secluded life, I became attracted to the emerging Folk Music scene which I heard in a Coffee House in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city where I was born in the United States. The simplicity of the guitar yet all the things that could be done with it made me eager to try and play it myself. I longed to express all the feelings inside of me which were too complex to speak about. It looked so easy to do it through the Folk Music I heard from Bob Dylan and others at that time. He was also born in Minnesota, not very far from the remote Convent where I grew up. I didn’t know this until many years afterwards, but I had a sudden affinity with his music which was then just beginning to be heard in places like the magical “Unicorn Coffee House” where my best girlfriend’s big sister had taken us one life-transforming afternoon.

There, I drank my very first cup of Turkish Coffee and listened to the guitarists who performed live on a special stage that seemed to float somehow in the center of the round interior of the coffee house. I was able to go to St. Paul on special vacations two or three times a year from the convent and always managed to elude my parents and go to the “Unicorn” to hear the latest singers there and drink the strong coffee I had grown to love.

I remember thinking one afternoon, as I sat listening to yet another of the male folksingers, that it was a terrible pity that there weren’t any girls doing that too. I asked for a guitar from my family who immediately rejected the idea and who were never very keen on anything I wanted to do outside of school anyway, and so – and I blush when I say this – I gradually stole the money from my mother’s handbag, fifty cents or a dollar at a time so that I could buy my own guitar for twenty-seven dollars. After I bought it, I had to hide it away and so I practiced in the basement of our home, where no one ever went, until I could manage to coax some sounds out of it.

One of the boys at the coffeehouse reluctantly, after much impertinent pestering from me, agreed to show me a few things on my “Montgomery Ward’s Special”. He introduced me to a few chord patterns and a magazine called “Sing Out” that I could copy chord charts and lyrics from. He taught me ways of picking and strumming and by the end of that summer vacation from the convent, I had mastered enough of a repertoire of my own to approach the “Unicorn’s” manager and ask him if I could play there one evening.

I persuaded my mother and her sister, my “Annie Fran” to take me there that night and promised them a special treat if they would. Neither of them was remotely interested but finally gave in and accompanied me. When my name was announced and I went to the tiny stage in the middle of the coffeehouse and picked up my guitar which had been waiting there for me, my mother and auntie reacted just the way I had hoped for: with true shock on their faces. I let that pass and slipped directly into my magical world of music as I poured out my heart through the songs I had taught myself to play during the hours and hours of practice in our basement at home.

After that, I didn’t have to hide the guitar anymore, but I was still not allowed free access to it and had to leave it behind when I returned to the convent. It didn’t matter much as I was able to sing every day for the Missa and continued to practice vocals and piano with “Caligula”.

Whenever I was allowed out from the convent and able to return to St. Paul and the home of my parents, I took out my guitar and eventually taught myself dozens and dozens more Folk Songs that I heard on the radio or at the “Unicorn”.

When I was twelve years old, and away from the convent on holidays, I started to “tour” alone, with just my guitar for company. I was ostensibly visiting friends from the convent and their families, who lived in different cities across the United States, but I was, in fact just sleeping in their homes at night after I had performed at yet another “Hootenanny”. Those gatherings of Folk Singers from all over were flourishing in those days and it was easy for me to participate as often as I liked. News would travel at each one I attended and in the morning I would board another Greyhound Bus and head for another friend’s home to a hootenanny in another city. A proper little Miss, I washed the white gloves I wore in the tiny sink in the back of the bus and they were dry by the time I reached my next destination, dressed in a pink and white seersucker suit. At night I donned a long white dress that looked like the gown of a Grecian Goddess and tied a white ribbon in my hair.

The times after my piano practice at the convent were usually spent in the school library, - which I seemed always to have all to myself, - poring over Greek History and Mythology. As much as I loved imagining myself an angel, singing in the high choir loft in the village church, now I entered the mythical world of the Greek Goddesses in the books that I read. It was another way for me to imbue what I was doing with that “magical” inner world which I was creating for myself. I sang my heart out to thousands and thousands of strangers and grew to adore the roar of applause from the darkened theatres where I sang. Most of the time, because of the bright spotlights shining on me, I never saw anything but a vast darkened space in front of me. It was very easy to just relax into my music and sing my sad songs about love-gone-wrong or lives lost and families torn apart by tragedy. I toured in this way until I left the convent at 14. By then, my guitar had become my dearest companion with whom I shared all of my secrets, my deepest longings and my little-girl sadness.

My parents were divorced that year, and so I began a sort of gypsy’s life traveling from my new step-father’s home, to my married sister’s home, or to my auntie’s home, as there didn’t appear anywhere I was really wanted on anything but a short-term basis.

I was now in high-school and by the time my high-school years were over, I had been touring and performing in all the cities my family had sent me to live with my various relatives. Some places, my guitar and my music were so unwanted that I had to hide it away and slip out of a sleeping household late at night to the familiar comfort of a coffeehouse or Hootenanny where I would sit alone on the stage, so flooded with emotion from the stories which I told in my songs that I learned to sing with tears in my eyes without actually breaking down and crying even though I felt my heart breaking with empathy for the pain in the lyrics.

Somehow, I managed to go to seven different high schools in six different states and yet, miraculously, graduated in the top 3% of my class. I was very proud of my little triumph. Living at the time with my married sister, I was desperate to go on to university and study drama and begged my family to agree to this. My family, who ought to have understood me, as my father had been a Shakespearean actor in his youth and my mother had been a Big Band Jazz singer during World War II, once again gave me a negative answer.

Four months after my high school graduation, I arranged for a friend to meet me on a quiet street and whisk me away to freedom on the back of his motorcycle. Wearing a pair of red jeans, a sky-blue tank-top, sandals and a pair of earrings from Syria which my mother had given me, now I was ready to take on the world on my own terms and live every fantastical dream I had ever dreamed.


To be continued...






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