Harmony on the Horizon Aims to Elevate Humanity With Early Voting Concert Series

Photo courtesy of Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series

While voting is a key component of the Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series, orchestrated by Tennessee-based civic participation organization BriteHeart and music incubator nonprofit This Is Noteworthy, it’s merely one part of the overarching message the series aims to instill in viewers: your voice matters.  

This Is Noteworthy Founder and Chief Strategist of Community Development at BriteHeart Becca Finley is the visionary behind the series, born out of the original Harmony on the Horizon series that sees artists performing a virtual show from the comfort of their homes. Like many others around the world this year, Finley watched as people flooded the streets to make their voices heard. She took her own form of action by creating the musical narrative series filmed at The Caverns, a cave system-turned-renowned-concert-venue in rural East Tennessee, non-audience and socially distanced over three nights. With Go To Team Production behind the camera and a team of volunteers helping to coordinate the production, 18 musical acts all donated their time and talents to the cause that elevates stories through music and art.

My own role as part of the production and promotions team for the series provided exclusive insight into the vision and purpose behind the series; I worked alongside Finley to coordinate efforts behind-the-scenes for production, in addition to engaging in media outreach. But I also wanted to explore the creative side of this series, and what it means to trust in someone’s vision to create beauty and compromise, which in a way reflects our democracy. So I chatted with several artists and organizers to report the full scope of the poignant series.

Becca Finley, founder of This Is Noteworthy and creator of Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series. Photo courtesy of Becca Finley

Finley, who also directed and edited all of the shows, says the concept behind the Early Vote series evolved from a series of questions: “How can we put all the stories together in one place that protects and honors each one of the stories as individual stories that deserve to be heard? When we put them all together, how do we have one story that everyone can relate to in some way?” This was no small task, considering that the series features artists as diverse as Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, Kyshona Armstrong and Louis York. “You visually see a lot of different people who have a lot of different stories, but they are underlying, and they’re all people who live in and love our country,” Finley explains.

Described by BriteHeart Founder and Chairman Chase Cole as “the box set of all civic concert events,” he says the meaningful concept only furthers the organization’s purpose in being a civic motivator. “BriteHeart’s mission is to use the arts to increase civic participation. This series is the ultimate embodiment of that goal,” Cole expresses. “We’ve gathered diverse musical voices to speak their truths to a broad group of viewers who we hope will be inspired to vote and remain active in their community.”

The invisible thread that binds each component of the series is intentionality, beginning with Finley’s request that each artist submit ten original songs that she then turned into sets of six songs, each harboring a unique story that connects to the show before and after it, creating a metaphorical book of our nation. “It was a feeling,” Finley says of what drove the song selection process. “It’s really sitting with all of the music. It’s taking the time to first listen and feel it and then going through and really reading the lyrics and dissecting those; what was going to honor all of these people and these two organizations who dedicate themselves to civic engagement and to the overall health of the music ecosystem and how does all of it fit together.”

The series, which airs each night of early voting in Tennessee along with a pre-election show on November 2, launched on October 14 with a stirring performance by Armstrong, “the warrior who’s going to fight and stand up,” as Finley describes, followed by Gustavo Guerrero, a native of Honduras who shares his story as an immigrant in the United States, one who loves his native land as much as he does the one he now calls home. The genre-spanning lineup also features Lord Goldie, a Nashville native making honest hip-hop music in the country music capital of the world, her songs ranging from the forewarning “Icaraus” to a letter she wrote to her late father who passed away when she was 14; Becca Mancari, a rising force in the Americana and roots music world who turns her experience as a gay woman into soul-searching lyrics; and Mel Washington, who speaks candidly about racial inequality in America and his experience being homeless, simultaneously staring his obstacles in the face with the motivational mantra, “fail forward.”

These voices represent the genuine diversity at our nation’s core, a crucial element that compelled The Shindellas to sign their names to the series. The Nashville-based trio of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece, who will perform on the grand finale with their Weirdo Workshop counterparts Louis York on November 2, felt a sense of gratitude being part of the all-encompassing lineup. “[It’s] a story of empowerment,” Jones says on behalf of The Shindellas. “Seeing all of these different faces, but everyone has the same common theme of healing and community, it’s really empowering. It makes you feel like the world is presented as so crazy and chaotic, but when you look at these people here around us, they all have something in common as we do.”

The music is set against the equally awe-inspiring backdrop of The Caverns, the pure-spirited cause aligning with the meaning of the Sequoyah Cherokee script that The Caverns owner Todd Mayo had etched onto the cave doors: “Welcome to The Caverns where the great spirit brings all people together through music.” As a lifelong Tennessean, Mayo was inspired by the nonpartisan effort to motivate his fellow citizens to vote, which he cites as “one of the most American things you can do.” “America contains multitudes,” Mayo says, quoting Walt Whitman in reference to the series’ diversity. “I think that was celebrated on the Harmony on the Horizon series in all of those ways, and that’s really what I like, where I think the Harmony on the Horizon what they’re doing and what we’re doing at The Caverns, those entwined very easily together.”

Viewers will notice that in between songs, the artists share heartfelt reflections on a range of topics, some speaking about marginalized voices while others address mental health and unity. Prior to filming, the artists were posed with a series of questions inspired by their art, appearing strategically in the set as a compelling link between the songs and larger vision of the series. For SUSTO, his thesis statement centered around finding common ground with those who have differing viewpoints. The Charleston-based indie rock artist, who is a board member of This Is Noteworthy and one of the beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s healthcare grant initiative for touring musicians, notes that the marriage between the songs and the questions encouraged him to go inward, becoming “re-inspired” by his own work in the process. “That definitely lended for some deeper self reflection, and also figuring out what my piece is in all of this big drama of human existence, specifically here, at this moment in our country and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.

Like Mayo and The Shindellas, SUSTO was also inspired by the diverse lineup and honored to represent one piece in this “mosaic of stories.” “I think seeing that kind of variety in the artists speaks a little bit to what the democratic process is about,” he continues. “It’s hearing a bunch of different voices with different stories from different backgrounds come together in unity and sometimes agreeing to disagree, that’s part of it, and then sometimes just learning from each other. Being a part of this…I felt like a participant in something bigger.”

Oftentimes, being a part of something bigger than oneself involves trust, and epiphany that R&B soul singer Larysa Jaye let guide her through the atypical set and corresponding questions, aligning with the vision when she realized the connection between the songs and reflection points. “I was thinking how we need to have so much more grace and compassion and empathy for each other,” she says. “I think we can be so hard on each other a lot without knowing people, what they’re going through, what their background is, their mindset. We don’t have enough grace for other people to even have conversation.” Sharing these messages she in her show, she adds, “It’s important to keep conversations going, that’s how you grow. Each of our stories create who we are collectively. We all shape each other’s worlds and that’s why it’s so important for people to vote because if only one portion or one demographic is voting, your government’s not going to reflect your world.”  

The Shindellas, too, felt they’d become part of a grander mission as they stood on stage in the center of the earth, beginning their set with songs of self-acceptance and community and ending with the proclamation that loving oneself without fear enables us to embrace one another and become a unified force. And when Finley concluded the set by inquiring about their thoughts regarding the intention behind the event, they realized the magnitude of what they are a part of. “Somebody actually asking me these very specific, deep questions, you have to put your thoughts to it and have an opinion and really use your voice, and it is very humbling. You feel elemental or you feel like this communication is what we’re supposed to be doing,” says Jones, again speaking on behalf of The Shindellas. “Because there’s so much representation and people are being asked questions that when you answer, you can’t really answer without a point of view, you can’t be neutral on the questions that we got asked. So in that way it reflects democracy, in that all voices are being heard. The concerts were set up saying, your songs matter, all that matters, but your voice matters.”

The message of “your voice matters” is the beating heart of what this series represents – a timeless message that remains true long after the election cycle is over and encapsulates the profound element that unites us all: humanity. “What matters is the process. What matters is that we all chose to show up for each other. What matters is that we cared enough about our country and people’s voices to represent them and try,” Finley proclaims.

“I feel like on the whole, we want to be led and represented by people who care about us, by people who want to serve us, or people who have our personal best intentions, but also the best intentions of our nation at heart. I feel like this process was an exercise in that. It’s an exercise in leading and in compromising and paying attention and working together with all of us, with our democracy…It’s about using our voice. It’s taking the time to listen and figure out for yourself what is the story that each one of these people is telling and what is that thread. But I think if you really go through it, the thread for me that connects them all, it’s love of our country, but it’s the belief in humanity and it is that we’re all curious, and when we take the time, we all have the ability to listen and to be compassionate. And if we are willing to remove our ego,” Finley concludes, “then we have the ability to empathize and recognize a piece of ourselves in every other story.”

Watch the Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series now via BriteHeart Live on YouTube. Donations are being collected for the artists through This Is Noteworthy’s PayPal Giving Fund, with a portion of the proceeds also benefiting The Caverns and This Is Noteworthy’s artist grants program.

RSVP HERE: Shelley Thomas Livestreams via YouTube + MORE

Shelley Thomas composes and produces lush orchestral arrangements that she has dubbed “world chamber pop.” She has figuratively and physically gone around the world with her compositions, traveling to 17 countries and studied with over 40 music teachers that have influenced her style that melds Balkan, Arabic, Hindustani, African, and classical music. She can sing in 15 different languages and plays the oud, which is like a short scale pear shaped lute that has been used in Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asia for thousands of years.

Shelley’s latest single release, “Mirror,” guides you through a sonic journey to the beautifully haunted side of yourself. Her vocal harmonization traps you in a trance that eventually leads towards acceptance and healing. If that isn’t enough to meditate on, her recent video for “Cancer Moon” captures her immense live band while boiling down all the intense emotions the moons of this past summer have ushered in. The next chance you’ll have to catch Shelley making her world music magic is September 25th at 1pm via YouTube. She also does a livestream from her Patreon on the last Friday of every month. We chatted with Shelley about the transformative power of music, what rituals inspire her and shaman drums.

AF: What got you into the oud, qanun and composing world orchestral music? 

ST: I grew up with a classical pianist mother, and took dance, piano, voice and guitar lessons as a youth. I studied World Music Performance at CalArts (BFA ’08), where I had a six-piece band called Blue Lady I wrote songs for. I got into Arabic music shortly thereafter via a vocal class. I fell in love with the style, and picked up the oud a few years later to accompany myself while singing Arabic music. Then another few years later, I felt inspired to start composing again after years of only singing traditional music – but with a bigger vision, for more instruments, including strings and qanun, because I love the delicate and emotive textures. After many years of absorbing and learning from masters, the music started pouring out of my mind. And that’s the album I’m working on now. I’ve always felt that music is the soundtrack to my life, and enjoyed profound journeys and transformations through listening. I hope to give listeners such an experience.

AF: Can you tell us some stories about some of the countries you’ve traveled to and music teachers you’ve worked with?

ST: Two of my incredible vocal teachers were Rima Kcheich and Ghada Shbeir, whom I studied with in Lebanon and also at Simon Shaheen’s Arabic Music Retreat in Massachusetts. Rima taught me to pay attention to the details and sing maqam, and Ghada taught me to improvise and add different vocal timbres to my toolbox. Simon himself teaches me passion, discipline, and affirms music as my greatest love. I spent about six months in Lebanon and loved the culture, nature, and its music especially. I also studied Manned drumming from Guinea with Jebebara ensemble there. 

My mentor at CalArts was Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian chief and master drummer. I was obsessed with Ewe drumming, and my friends and I spent all of our free time playing and learning those rhythmic compositions. He taught us to know when we’re “OFF!” While at CalArts, I also studied Bulgarian choral music with Kate Conklin, and Hindustani music with Swapan Chaudhuri and Aashish Khan. Aashishji said, “You can’t sing both rock and Raga.” 

I’ve traveled to Morocco several times, also toured with Vlada Tomova’s Bulgarian Voices Trio in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Russia. I’ve studied Fado singing in Lisbon, Portugal, and Bulgarian Folk Singing at Plovdiv Academy of Folk Music. I sang with Petrana Kucheva, a fantastic vocalist and mentor whom I met there, for a few years. I’ve toured with Black Sea Hotel in the states, Sweden and Denmark and performed at Emirates Palace in UAE with Mayssa Karaa. I’ve been to Turkey, where I witnessed Ottoman music in the otherworldly cave-chimneys of Cappadocia, and Oman, where I saw an exquisite concert of Amal Maher singing Oum Kalthoum at Muscat Opera House. I’ve studied oud with Charbel Rouhana, Wassim Odeh, George Ziadeh, and Bassam Saba, a dear mentor and Artistic Director of the NY Arabic Orchestra. Bassam has taught me style, taste, humbleness and soul. 

AF: What’s it like learning to perform a song in a language you aren’t fluent in? What language do you enjoy singing in the most?

ST: It’s a fun challenge. Language lights up my brain. Just as an opera singer learns to sing European art songs well, I study and dedicate to the linguistic nuances the same way. I’d say it’s 80% listening, and 20% translating that into your body. I watch old-timey videos of singers and study the shapes of their mouths. I had a fantastic Arabic diction teacher, Dr. Iman Roushdy-Hammady. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to Arabic and Bulgarian singing, but I am now enjoying the most singing my own songs in English. You have to learn to lighten up, let go of perfectionism, and not take yourself so seriously. It’s okay to make mistakes! At the end of the day it’s about following your heart to what’s interesting, and joyful expression through music and cross-cultural understanding.

AF: What types of symbolism and ritual inspire your music? 

ST: I love psychology and Jungian symbolism of the shadow and the divine child archetype, also expressed by Carolyn Myss. I love the artwork of Alex Grey, which portrays us as multidimensional beings, and I’ve performed in his sacred space at CoSM. I’m fascinated by many rituals around the world, from Amazonian ayahuasca healings and their beautiful icaros songs, to the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, to West African dance drumming, to Episcopal church services with epic organ arrangements, incense and flags, to sound baths and crystal energy healings. Drumming is very important to me and I maintain a strong rhythmic element to my music. Drums and shakers, in particular, have been used in healing rituals since ancient times. When I’m around drums, I can hear them speak, and feel them cleansing my body and shaking energy up inside. Also language, poetry, and the power of the spoken word, with sound and intention, is an important element of ritual. Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way is my anchor, and I write morning pages regularly. Essentially, I’m interested in the all ways humans have created meaning, healing and transformation, and connect to higher realms through music and sound.

AF: What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this month?

ST: The most inspiring thing I’ve seen this month is the sun setting over the ocean, and the sea’s iridescent colors of dusk; the way they work together to create something more beautiful than they could be individually.  

AF: What would you want listeners to take away from your latest release?

ST: “Mirror” is specifically about shadow work and integration of all parts of yourself into one loving whole. The more we can accept and understand ourselves, the more we can begin to accept and understand others. Transformation begins from within, and it takes time, patience, and humility. The way forward to a better world, in my vision, is with greater compassion, sensitivity, and this knowledge of self, which can be catalyzed by music. So we can become less violent and reactionary, and more inspired, loving and proactive. We are creative beings, meant to create, meant to shine, and meant to enjoy life, not just to suffer. We can heal, we can let go of our old stories. We can become friends with ourselves and create a life we don’t need to escape from. It’s up to us to choose joy in each moment, to make the best of our current situation and find a positive way forward, and to choose to be willing to move towards this healing with honesty. When we make this choice individually and then come together, with all of our gifts and solutions and ideas, that is the power of community. Then, we can truly live and flourish in harmony, and fulfill our potential.

AF: What is your livestream set-up like?

ST: I use the streaming platform Stage Ten, link it to my Youtube Live, and press go. I have a BOSS RC-300 loop station that I improvise with and program vocals into with some beats. I have a Shure Beta-58 microphone, my oud with pickup mic attached, and various percussion like shaker, frame drums, and riq, which I layer with the looper. I have a Fishmann Loudbox Mini amp, so I plug 1/4’ cables from my loop station into that. I plug the mic and oud directly into the loop station.

AF: What are your plans for 2020 and beyond? 

ST: I am in pre-production for recording my first full album of original music with a ten-piece microtonal chamber ensemble! I’m finishing the scores, arrangements, and parts in Sibelius, and planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign to support this work. First I’ll record and make a music video for my next single, “Dreamtime.” Once the world opens up again, I’ll be touring a lot with this ensemble.

My ultimate goal is to open an artist retreat & performance center with music and photo/video production studios. This space will be available to artists from around the world from all socio-economic backgrounds to come and create the art that’s meant to be made through them, in a supportive, inspiring, and unpretentious atmosphere. 

RSVP HERE for Shelley Thomas livestream via YouTube at 1pm ET. To pre-order the upcoming album, email info@shelleyvoice.com. 

More great livestreams this week…

9/25 Langhorne Slim, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Mt. Joy & More via Philly Music Fest. 7pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/25 Modern English (Live from London) via AXS. $15, 8:30pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/25 Long Neck, Baby Grill, gobbinjr, Oceanator via Twitch (Around the Campfire). RSVP HERE

9/26 Angel Olsen, Beach House, Big Thief, Blood Orange, Charli XCX, Solange, Wilco & More via Hotel Figueroa (Pitchfork Drive-In). $39, 10pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/26 Oh Sees via Seated. $15, 8pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/26 Reggie Watts, John Teida, Girl God, Shannon Lay, Ramonda Hammer, & more via Echo Park Rising. 12pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/29 Pom Pom Squad, Charlotte Rose Benjamin via BABY.tv (Neon Gold Presents). 8pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/30 The Nude Party via Rough Trade UK Instagram. 1pm ET, RSVP HERE

9/30 Laraaji (Sun Piano) via NoonChorus (LPR Presents). $10, 9pm ET, RSVP HERE

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Newport Folk Fest ’15 Day 2

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Photo by Mery Cheung
Photo by Mery Cheung

At eleven this morning, Spirit Family Reunion are giving their best sun salutation and we accompany them with hands and hearts. These rabble-rousers make dangerous music, you know the type, the kind that makes you want to swallow a glass of whiskey whole and howl into the night.

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Photo by Mery Cheung
Photo by Mery Cheung

Throughout the day Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear sing us regal goat songs, the Barr Brothers serenade with sweet harp lullabies, and Nikki Lane rocks us dirty. When an audience member voices his approval, Langhorne Slim assures us that “you sound good too.” I look around at the scenic harbor and feel a pang of jealousy for every musician that gets to play music where the air smells of raven waters.

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Photo by Mery Cheung
Photo by Mery Cheung

Even Sufjan Stevens mentions that playing this festival is a lifelong dream come true for him. His humanity has never been more apparent. He laughs as the audience helps him remember the words to the second verse of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and when he chokes out some of the higher notes he recalls that those same notes were a lot “easier when [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][he] was younger.” We hear in Sufjan’s voice the ephemeral nature of everything; he intones “we’re all gonna die” and we allow ourselves to both recognize and release this simple fact. It is a moment of perfect chaos, heavy lightness. Sufjan plays us out with a hypno-dystopian version of “Chicago” and for the moment we believe in fairies.

Photo by Mery Cheung
Photo by Mery Cheung

The Decemberists, ever professional, come outfitted in suits and make the kids twist and shout. We head out just in time to catch the next water taxi and marvel at how easy it would be to get used to this.

Photo by Mery Cheung
Photo by Mery Cheung