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The Singing Tree - Africa KiVo Project

By Lis Addison

The sacred forest was lush and green and Kenya's ubiquitous red earth puffed beneath my steps. A thin Chuka woman grabbed my wrist with disarming strength and pulled me into a circle to sing and dance a welcome beneath the trees. I fought back tears. I'd only been in Kenya one night and already, was home.

In the days to follow, we would sprout seeds; grow seedlings and plant and water trees, singing all the while to help them grow, just as I do at home. Later, the women and children of the Kamba community would also welcome me with a circle song/dance I'll never forget.

Why did I have to travel so far to be at home? Why did the East Africans understand me better than my neighbors? Why did they know what I know, that singing and dancing are magnificent tools to connect us to each other, nature and spirit and that a song and dance done in a circle can sanctify the simplest of events, like planting a tree and saying hello?

In the six years prior to this journey, I'd created a circle song/dance practice called the Kinetic Voice (KiVo). Decades of working in the environmental, spiritual, music and dance worlds left me frustrated that these interconnected aspects of my life were still segmented in our society and the sense of interrelationship wasn't addressed in the environmental movement. Why not blend these disciplines together in a simple song/dance of gratitude? Why not create a literal environmental "movement" that wells up from the rhythm of Mother Earth through our beings and into the sky, reminding us that we are at once rooted and transcendent?

KiVo emulates nature, allowing us to entrain our thoughts upon her. My original compositions, which incorporate chakra chants and body chants, honor the elements - earth, air, fire and water - and movements that accompany them are named after natural features like well water, anemone curl, blossoming flower and bird perch. When possible, KiVo is practiced outside but when not possible, exercises are employed to connect participants to the realm of nature through walls and ceilings. Nature is woven into KiVo's very fabric.

That's why I felt so at home when we sang around the seeds. With the help of friends in East Africa, I've established an Africa KiVo Project through my foundation, The Singing Tree Institute. Our goal is to rekindle the circle song/dance tradition, reforest the earth and provide livelihood for our sisters in rural Kenya and Tanzania. The sub theme is to create global celebrations that honor nature, spirit and the community with circle song/dances.  (See Indiegogo campaign here.)

Circle song/dances are a primal and powerful medium. What if, prior to a Congressional Session, members of Congress circled up and sang and danced a song of welcome and honoring? What if the same occurred around a board table, or at arrival Gates in the airport? Would contention, derision and separation prevail or connection, compassion, appreciation and laughter?

The power of the circle has long been treasured in Indigenous traditions. The cycle of life, turn of the seasons, healing circle, sacred hoop and medicine wheel are understood there. In our linear society the podium, altar and stage have replaced the circle.

The circle allows us to become one being, part of a whole that, like the web of life, is inextricably linked to the other. It offers an opportunity to look into the eyes of those across from us and take our turn without hierarchy. The circle has its own wisdom greater than the self. Honoring "the other" is built into its very structure.

Spiritual traditions have long revered singing. Medicine Men & Women, Shaman, Yogis, Sages, Healers and Mystics stress the importance of chant for deeper spiritual awareness and healing and as a way to resonate with the very vibration from which the universe emanates.

Science espouses the benefits of singing and dancing. These activities produce endorphins, activate the lymph system and oxygenate the blood. Singing increases immunoglobulin A, a protein in the immune system that functions as an antibody and it produces the anti-stress hormone hydrocortisone.

Combining song and dance with the circle has the cumulative effect of creating an inclusive, honoring, healing and joyful ceremony. KiVo and circle song/dances are not performances. They are celebrations of our humanness, our uniqueness, our commonality and the natural and spiritual worlds around us. They are embodied expressions of sacredness and gratitude.

While in Africa, it became clear that we are starving in ways the Africans are not and they are starving in ways we are not. Our materialism is an obvious hunger for them and their depth of community is an obvious hunger for us. Yet the simple sharing and joy of a circle song/dance is a food we can all share.

To learn more about and/or support the Africa KiVo Project, click here.

Lis Addison is an internationally acclaimed Composer, Vocalist and Dancer Lis Addison composes CDs, soundtracks and choreography in her Singing Tree Studio. A lover of functional art that is participatory and inclusive, her work centers on healing, connection and transformation.

Ms. Addison is a Grant Recipient from Meet the Composer, a First Place Award winner from the Pacific Composers Forum and ZMR Music Awards and holds an MFA in music composition from Mills College. She teaches and performs nationally and internationally in educational institutions, museums and out in the bush.

A proponent of women's wisdom she also empowers women to activate their voices and bodies to do the sacred work they came to do and has trained and licensed KiVo Facilitators in Malaysia, Maui, Chicago, the Bay Area, Israel and the US.

Lis travelled with Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement and Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots on a recent trip to Africa to perform tree-planting service work and study the song/dance tradition. She developed lasting friendships that have been tended as well as the trees. These friends are partners in the Africa KiVo Project.  To learn more about Lis, click here.

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This article appears in: 2014 Catalyst, Issue 10: Green Innovations