Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Spotlight - Brooke Fraser

For today's spotlight, we're heading down under to New Zealand (I wonder if all the little dust particles you see in the light of the spotlight would swirl the other way, too?) to meet Brooke Fraser who released her sophomore album, Albertine, earlier this year in the States (it's been out since 2006 down under). She toured the states earlier this summer in June, and recently took some time to explain the origins of the album's title track, an extremely moving number which becomes even more powerful once you read about its birth. As always, text in red is Brooke's and questions in black are mine.

Brooke Fraser - Albertine : Albertine


Over the short space of 100 days in 1994, one million Rwandans were massacred by their friends, neighbors, teachers and pastors in a genocide that was brutal, pre-meditated, preventable evil. The West stood by and twiddled their thumbs. I was ten years old.

Eleven years passed and in that time I discovered a passion for women and children in the developing world, became a World Vision artist associate, went to the field in Cambodia, meanwhile signing with a major label and beginning the album making/promoting/touring cycle. In 2005, Rwanda came onto my radar as an adult and pulled at me for months before I realized I needed to go.

I got my vaccinations, booked my flights, and flew into the middle of Central-East Africa to turn up on World Vision's doorstep and hoped that the good Lord would guide me from there. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there, and on the first night whilst staying at a dodgy guesthouse with a gash in my finger and no clean water to wash it with, I had my first experience of feeling out of my depth (I gave in to the pleas of my rational friends to move to a hotel).

I spent two and a half weeks with a World Vision staffer named Joel Nsengiyumva, who showed me as much as he could of this beautiful country quite similar to my own country in terms of the landscape. I watched his ease with people - whether they were the mayor of a township or a sick child, heard his voice choke up when speaking about the lack of clean water in the communities we were visiting and its devastating effects, felt his love for the people he was serving and his personal pain for their suffering. I couldn't help but wonder about this man's past - I knew he had completed post-graduate studies in Geneva before returning to Rwanda and I couldn't tell how old he was - was he even in the country when the genocide occurred? If not, he must have had many family and friends who were. I kept my mouth shut.

On my final day I found myself in a small schoolroom in a village in Kabuga. Joel had brought me to a school to see the children, the future leaders of Rwanda, the hope of the nation. We exchanged songs and dances (I enjoyed a stirring rendition of Michael Jackson's "Beat It") for an hour or so, then the children left for home and Joel turned to me. “This is not on our itinerary, but there is an orphan I would like you to meet…”

So here we were in this classroom. Joel, our Ugandan translator Christine, myself, and a girl in the school uniform.

Joel began telling me that he “very much likes” to be a humble man so that God will get all the praise, and that what he was about to tell me not even many of his colleagues at World Vision knew.

“I could not save very many lives in the genocide. But I could save one. I will now speak in my native language so that I can talk freely, but before I do, I need to tell you that you must go back to your people and tell them about us here in Rwanda. You must write a song. And I will tell you what the name of the song is going to be. This is Albertine.”

He then gestured to the girl who had walked into the classroom with us and began speaking of the horror of the genocide, during which Joel, a Hutu, was able to save Albertine, a Tutsi, risking everything to do so.

I have never been the same since this day. I have been back to Rwanda twice more and visited my friends Joel and Christine and the communities in which they live and serve. I have seen Albertine, too, and given her her own copy of the CD that bears her name. I don’t know if she quite understands what it means, but I tell her that I have been able to share her story with tens of thousands of people, many of whom have responded by deciding to help, to give.

And now a few more questions for Brooke:

1.) That has to be one of the most moving song dedications I've read. Wow. I can't imagine the pressure you must have felt to make it perfect while writing it. How long did it take you to get the song just the way you wanted it? Was it an immense relief when it finally came together?

It was pretty overwhelming to be given such a weighty commission. I knew I couldn't do it, and there was a kind of freedom in that. I've never been able to just sit down, decide to write a song and pull a gem out of my ass. It just isn't the way songs come to me. So I did the only thing I really knew to do... pray. On the whole journey home from Africa, I journalled. I think a lot of the things I saw in that first trip were too much for me to cope with while I was actually experiencing them, so it wasn't until Nairobi airport that I felt able to pull out my notebook and begin to pour it all out and deal with this new pain/love/responsibility. I was still in that "processing" mode when I reached home in Sydney, and I think it was a few days later that I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom, I picked up my guitar and started playing that opening riff, and the whole song came in about 20 minutes (this is not normal).

2.) In your liner notes you cite Ephesians 3:8 (Although I am less than the least of all the Lord's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ) at the end of your "Gratitude" panel, suggesting that you're trying to spread the word through your music. Before taking a closer look at the notes I really didn't pick up on that message, but after taking the time to read the lyrics, I see subtle references everywhere that could be interpreted in many ways. Were you doing this intentionally so listeners could take their own meanings from the songs, Christian or otherwise?

The references aren't conscious. But I am never surprised when they pop up. I think songs are like feces. Whatever you feed yourself will come out. So as a songwriter, my worldview, my passions, my convictions, those things which have affected me at a core level will inevitably spill out... Everything I write will come through the "filter" of my personhood.

3.) Last month you played at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Did you get to actually meet and talk with any legends that you particularly admire?

We were at the designated "musicians" hotel, and every elevator ride you were surrounded by cats, with their beat up cases and hard living in their wrinkles. A few times I felt like I should probably get out on the next floor because I didn't have the right to ride with these guys! Very humbling. Also, I had the great honour of supporting Daniel Lanois and then getting to sit side of stage and soak up his show. Completely inspiring. Especially his gradual stripping down to his undies - a garment removed for every child sponsored. I asked my husband if I could incorporate that into my shows now... He's thinking about it.


The rest of the album is just as moving, and at points much more uplifting. Brooke has put together an album of deep and mature lyrics (surprising based on her age, but not so much based on her experiences) and well produced instrumentation. Enjoy the following tracks to hear for yourself.

Visit her website and become her friend on MySpace.

1 comment:

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