Shout Sister Shout: Mara Kiek (IWD 2021)
Approx. 8 minute read
All over this world is a gospel tune performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a lovely piece to open for my interview with on of Australia’s iconic World Music artists, Mara Kiek. She has been all over this world with the Mara! band, whose members include her equally talented and wonderful husband, Llew Kiek. Together they have been learning folk music traditions from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Turkey, Italy… and sharing these gems with national and international audiences.
I got to know Mara through the work we did together on the Musica Viva in Schools program called Music in my Suitcase. I loved getting to know this tenacious and talented individual who approaches her work with such energy and spirit, considering every aspect of the music to ensure her audience is able to connect to it in a meaningful way. I’m so happy that I get to introduce her to you (if you don’t already know her) in this interview.
Sonia de Freitas: Hi Mara, how are you and where does our interview find you today?
Mara Kiek: Hi Sonia, I’m very well thanks! I’m busy preparing for the Martenitsa 30th Anniversary Retrospective concert at Riverside Theatre on Sat 6th March with the Mara! band. It’s the choir’s first live performance since the pandemic hit and we are relishing the opportunity to perform together again, especially in celebration of this significant milestone. When I started the choir 30 years ago, I thought it would be a one-off project, but here we are 30 years later still loving it and going from strength to strength.
The name Martenitsa refers to the small red and white woolen charms that are given by Bulgarians to their friends and relatives in early March and they are worn throughout the month to bring health, good luck and fertility for the coming Spring season. It is named after the spirit of the month of March ‘Baba Marta’ or ‘Grandmother March’. The spirits of all other months are male. Baba Marta is the only female spirit. That’s one of the reasons we chose the name Martenitsa – the choir is all female. Of course, the seasons are reversed in the northern hemisphere, so while we celebrate the beginning of Autumn and the falling of leaves here, they are celebrating Spring and the emergence of new leaves and new life.
The Bulgarian community is celebrating this tradition with a Martenitsa Festival and exhibition in Sydney throughout March, so I’m also preparing a program of Bulgarian music for them with ‘Pippero Quintet’ (Silvia Entcheva, Jarnie Birmingham, Ivailo Karamanliev, Llew Kiek and yours truly). We are performing at the Bulgarian community’s upcoming Martenitsa Festival in Sydney on Sunday the 14th March.
SdF: Can you tell me about your journey in music? When did you know that you were going to make music your career?
MK: I always knew music would be part of my life but I didn’t set out to become a musician. It happened by osmosis more than anything. My mother was a natural musician; a self-taught pianist, singer and dancer. I have a twin sister and, according to our mother, we sang before we spoke. Singing and dancing were our principal means of communication as we grew up. We had little need of conversation, we just sang. So it wasn’t really a choice, it was more a case of doing what came naturally.
SdF: How does your creative process unfold? Is there anything particular you do that is unique to your creative process?
MK: My creative process is much the same as my approach to singing – trial and error. I try something, if it works, I keep going. If it doesn’t, I change tack and move on, gradually building until I achieve something that resonates with me. The all-important key is to have permission. It’s hard to give yourself permission to create. It’s much easier if someone else gives you permission and asks you to create something for them. If you want to create truly original work, the permission has to come from yourself.
SdF: Who is your sounding board? There must be someone that you trust to give you brutally honest feedback on your music. How do they fit into the process?
MK: I have two sounding boards. One is my sister, Jarnie and the other is my husband Llew. They are my family, best friends, colleagues, collaborators and fellow artists. They know my skills, my strengths & weaknesses, likes & dislikes. I can’t hide anything from them and I can always rely on them to be gently critical, yet totally supportive of my work. I couldn’t do what I do without their support.
SdF: What was the first song that you remember making an impact in your life and why was/is it so important?
MK: I’d have to say it was the Irish song Phil the fluter’s ball which my mother used to sing and play on the piano for us as children. I was amazed at her skill – her beautiful voice and exquisite sense of rhythm, how she remembered so many words and played the piano with such ease; and all with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. She was my first teacher and inspiration.
SdF: Have you experienced particular challenges as a female musician? How did you overcome these challenges and what do you think needs to change for others to avoid these challenges in the future?
MK: As a singer I haven’t really experienced particular challenges relating to the fact that I am female. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always worked with sensitive down to earth musicians, be they male or female. However, before deciding to pursue a career as a singer, I worked as a front of house sound engineer for my husband Llew’s rock band. That’s where I came up against towering walls of prejudice and the only way to break through was to be better than them. In those days and in that field, the school of hard knocks was par for the course. Times have changed somewhat, but I don’t doubt that it must still be a challenge for some women trying to carve out a career in the field of audio engineering and recording.
SdF: So, what’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you’re working on or new releases to share?
MK: There are many projects on the horizon for me. Some more modest than others, but all equally important, whether they be working as artist in residence at a primary school in south western Sydney or building a major tour for an expanded version of the Mara! Band that will launch in September 2021. If I had to choose I’d say that the upcoming launch of the Mara! Big Band is the most exciting and challenging project on the horizon for me at the moment. It’s a project that I’ve had on the drawing board for over 10 years, but one that required substantial funding assistance. Early attempts to secure funding failed so it was relegated to the back burner for several years. In 2019 I decided it was now or never and I’m extremely grateful and humbled to have gained funding support from both CreateNSW and the Australia Council to develop the project, commission a new 60 minute work and take that work on the road in September 2021.
SdF: What is your most memorable performance and why?
MK: There have been so many memorable performances I can’t really choose one. With the Mara! Band, a couple come to mind… the Jeudi du Port festival in Brest, Brittany in front of an crowd of over 40,000 people who absolutely roared for more music at the end of our concert. The music we play is quite left field and certainly on the far side of the spectrum from commercial music, so we were genuinely shocked to have such a massive and spontaneous response to our music from so many people, most of whom knew nothing of our music before that event.
Another is a Musica Viva In Schools performance for primary school children at Kalumburu in the Kimberley in Western Australia. It was such a remote location and we were performing to an audience who, we thought, would know little or nothing of our music. We expected a polite but subdued response to the concert. Again we were bowled over by the fact that every child turned up for school, half an hour earlier than usual to attend the concert. They knew all the songs, questioned me incessantly about the stories before we even began the concert and sang with gusto in all the choruses. This was thanks to the exceptional resources Musica Viva provide to the schools prior to our concerts, but also to the children’s music teacher who hailed from Japan originally and was fresh out of teacher training and full of enthusiasm. That concert remains one of the most exciting and inspiring in my memory.
SdF: If you could collaborate with anyone, living or departed, who would it be and why?
MK: Everything I do in music is collaborative. Working with a particular person is not usually the starting point for collaborations I initiate. It’s more a case of having a and idea or goal in mind and then finding the right person or people to help me achieve that goal. However, much of my collaborative work has been initiated by others who have sought my skills to help achieve their goals. I find both process equally challenging, inspiring and fulfilling.
SdF: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians out there?
MK: Play to your strengths but be prepared to take risks. Work hard to achieve your goals and enjoy the process. In the end you will realise that the real treasure is the journey.
To learn more about Mara Kiek visit: maramusic.com.au
To buy the Mara! band’s music visit: maramusic.com.au/Store.aspx
To book tickets for Martenitsa 30th Anniversary Retrospective visit: riversideparramatta.com.au/show/martenitsa/
For more information on International Women’s Day visit: internationalwomensday.com
Keep an eye out for my next interview in the Shout Sister Shout series where I interview Jenna Cave.
Did you miss the previous Shout Sister Shout instalment? Read Amelia Evan’s interview here.