Zarina Kadirbaks on Witness

The Makeable Truth of Memory

Zarina Kadirbaks

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Memory is a curious thing and can be triggered in equally peculiar and unexpected ways. While hearing a particular song brings back teenage memories of your cool dance moves (or so you thought they were) to it in the disco, the smell of a dullish musky perfume reminds you of that aunt who always insisted on hugging you too tightly, leaving that awful strong perfume taste in your mouth. Such cases of daily memory retrieval are triggered by all our senses such as smell, taste, audio or visual input. I find it remarkable to realise that this output to me is always visual. This idea might sound more complicated than it is, but take the abovementioned examples; you hear a song from your teens and immediately you see flashes of yourself dancing to the tunes with your school friends 15 years ago (or longer…). While the audio input triggered the memory, the output is visual: you will actually have a vision with your friends on the dance floor of the club or pub you would always go to in your teen years. And as for that unforgettable aunt, well who can forget the  claustrophobic clutches of her vice-like hugs on a special occasion? To speak in contemporary terms: memory is like Google Images. Enter the key words in the search box, i.e. the senses, and out comes your memory in pictures.

But as Google sources can be questioned for their reliability one can question how reliable this retrieved memory is. Are you always 100% certain it is accurate? Some older memories you cannot help but to question and be a little cautious of. Certainly sometimes I feel tricked by my own memories. Indeed there are some key recollections in my life of which I am not even entirely sure if they have actually ever happened or not. On reflection I do not have many childhood memories, but there is a very personal and significant one I’d like to  share here, a striking example of the dynamics of memory.

My biological father left my mum, brother and me shortly after my birth. He never lived with us, nor did I spend holidays with him or  whatsoever. I don’t talk about him with my family either. He apparently visited us at least once when I was young. I have only one recollection of him: he and I are sitting on a bench in a park on a sunny autumn afternoon. My mum was there as well, but not sitting with  us on the bench. I am not sure what my age was, possibly somewhere between five and seven years old. I remember us just sitting  there, feeling the warm rays of the autumn sun on my face, a touching reminiscence of my otherwise anonymous father. However,  curiously enough, I cannot remember a single other moment of his stay with us. Surely there must have been more memorable events I would have stored somewhere on my personal hard disk in the folder ‘memories of a young girl briefly re-united with anonymous father’. More curiously is the fact that I have a photo of that moment when we were sitting on the bench in the park. We are wearing warm overcoats, it looks like a gloriously sunny day and the trees around us appear to have autumn-coloured leaves. My mum must have taken the photo and therefore does not appear in it herself. All details thus correspond with my memory of that moment, but is it actually a memory? Is this photo an aid to remember this particular moment or did this photo create an artificial memory? Did my eyes merely make a visual imprint of this photo, storing a copy of it in my brains? It’s an unsettling thought that such a personal and quite significant memory could be artificial. If I had never seen this photo,  would I have even this experienced this ‘memory’. How reliable am I as a witness to my own memory?

I also question other less significant childhood memories. When talking to my brother about them, we seem to remember the same  events in a slightly different way with distinct details to them. We were both witnesses to the same situation, but seemed to re-interpret  them in our own ways. As he is nine years older than me, I can understand that he brought in more life-experience into them and I might  have had a simpler world view growing up and therefore only extracting from the memory what was more fitting in my world experience of that time. Apparently it is quite common that siblings remember the same things about their shared youth in a different way. The same applies to child and parent. Writing this essay made me reflect on the way I remember things. After realising that I have a lot of questionable memories I started to slightly panic about my sanity. But then as a coincidence I came across an article in Wired magazine by Claudia Hammond, titled ‘ Your memories are made to be reliably unreliable’. Although the article mostly focuses on how people use memories of familiar situations to envisage their yet unknown future, I was surprised and relieved to see that I was merely exercising normal human practice: ‘Memory is essentially a reconstructive process; when we want to re-experience an event we don’t summon up  a tape from the library – we alter memories as we lay them down in order to make sense of them, then we reconstruct them when we recall an event and even change them again if new information has come to light.’

So, it is not only me whose memory is leading its own creative life. Apparently, other individuals suffer from this innate human trait.  However worrying perhaps, it is normal for individuals to have ‘dynamic memories’. But what if collective memory functions in the same  way? Simply put, collective memory is the shared memory and knowledge of a group, which is passed on to the next generations and in  that way preserved. Means for passing on that memory could be art, books, photos, music, and so on. The dynamic process of  remembering not only applies to individual recollection, but also to collective memory. Different generations bring their own values,  knowledge and beliefs into the memory, whilst the varying media that are used to convey these can also clearly influence the  interpretation of the memory.

In university I studied the legend of Robin Hood and got some insight in the different interpretations which have transformed this iconic  legend over hundreds of years. The origins of the fable are either based on actual reports of real existing outlaws of the time or on early ballads and tales about crooks. The oldest manuscripts with tales on Robin Hood as the main character date from the 15th century and  they all bear details that still appear in the  contemporary story of Robin Hood, but there are also many differences and  new details were inserted in following tales. In the first versions of the legend, Robin Hood was a yeoman whilst in texts from the 16th century he is an  aristocrat. Following generations added different details to the story, continuously altering it. While in the Disney animation film (1973) he is a cunning, but friendly and funny hero, in the first surviving story Robin was extremely violent and quick tempered. Interestingly despite his violent crimes, Robin Hood was devout to Virgin Mary in the first known tales, but this aspect of the story also changed over the years as the audience changed from Catholicism to Protestantism and Virgin Mary was replaced by Maid Marian.

I think it is safe to say that the true identity of Robin Hood will never be determined, but the story and surviving legend unites the  identities of all past generations of the audience who have transformed the legend by bringing in their own interpretations to the memory. In itself the story about the legend has surpassed itself and has in fact become the story of its audience. This process of transformation not only depends on contemporary developments, e.g. the Reformation which led to Maid Marian’s entry to the story, but also the  medium being used. In the oldest versions of the story it depended on oral deliverance, later on written texts and now we see the same theme being transformed through films. Although the transformation of this story and development the well-known legend has taken  hundreds of years and evolved naturally, in essence the becoming of Scanner’s Witness is similar to it. The major difference is that for Witness the same ‘story’ or musical narrative is re-interpreted at a much faster pace and done consciously so, but it is still different  groups of people bringing in their own interpretation, ideas, beliefs, identities and traditions into it, reflecting the people and the place in every transformation.

Robin Hood as a the story is still being told, perhaps more so in the form of films, but in the form of a classic children’s book is  becoming rather an endangered species. Recent research shows that fewer children know or correctly remember classic children’s  stories and books. Research conducted by the University of Worcester on 500 children between 7 and 14 years old in 2012 revealed  that only six out of a hundred children had read The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. This follows a genuine concern after the English  Folk Dance and Song Society launched a campaign to revive traditional children's songs amid fears too many are simply dying out or  being ‘sanitised.’

It’s true that new stories and songs will always replace old classics, but it would be a shame and a significant cultural loss if they would be forgotten. They are not only entertaining, but are also still living witnesses of thoughts and traditions of people who are no longer  alive. By remembering and celebrating old stories and songs, ancient traditions are being kept alive and honoured -stories and also music can give an identity and voice to people and reflect their values, culture and traditions.

As a keen amateur flamenco dancer I am very much interested in all aspects of this typical music of Andalusia, the south of Spain.  Although the popular belief it is only about girls dancing around to acoustic guitar music while waving around their pretty skirts and  dresses at fiestas and shouting ‘olé’ all the time, the tradition of flamenco holds a rich and fascinating history. There are several theories on the roots of flamenco, but the mainly agreed upon theory is that flamenco originates from the gypsies,‘gitanos’ in Spanish, who  emigrated from Northern India to Europe between the ninth and fourteenth century. At first they were welcomed and accepted, but as  Spain saw a shift from Moorish to Catholic ruling the gypsies were considered to be a minority group and started to be persecuted, like  the Moors and Jews. The gypsies were discriminated and during the Christian Reconquista of Spain forced to live in ghettos. Over the  next centuries they were deprived of not only their culture, but also of their language. Their songs became their lyrical expression of this  suppression and during secret meetings they sang and danced as a way to express their emotions and to voice their forbidden identity. It wasn’t till late 18th century that gypsies were allowed to live in Spanish cities and participate in society. From then their music, chants and dances were introduced to people outside of their own gitano culture.

However, in the following centuries they were continually discriminated and persecuted. Many gypsies were killed during the Franco  regime and the Second World War. Flamenco reflects influences of Indian, Arabic, Jewish and European song, music and dance. The typical hand movements with the spreading fingers in flamenco show clear similarities to classical Indian dance. But unlike in flamenco, in classical Indian dance each of the hand and finger movements bears a significant meaning connecting to ancient religious hymns and mantras. The hand gestures not only denote all Indian gods, but also animals, planets and many more concepts. Thousands of years ago Indian dancers were connected to temples and their dances were meant to embody religious stories. Although classical Indian  dances aren’t performed for sacred occasions anymore, they still express stories with references to Indian mythology and are surviving witnesses of traditions in the past. Frequently Indian dancers might accompany themselves rhythmically with finger cymbals. It is fairly  likely that the Indian cymbals transformed themselves to the famous Spanish castanets when the Indian gypsies reached Spain.

Flamenco features different styles varying from the festive and folk dance Sevillanas which uses castanets (as the name indicated  typical to the city of Sevilla) to the slow and heavy songs of pain and lament as the Carceleras whose lyrics reflect the history of  suppression and imprisonment of the gypsies. Every year I go on holiday to Sevilla and the entire city breathes, eats and drinks  flamenco, an unforgettable magical experience. Every two years the Flamenco Biennale attracts people from all over the world and of all ages to study different aspects of flamenco, singing, dancing, guitar music or palmas, i.e. clapping to the complex rhythm of flamenco  music. Time and time again it thrills me to see that the pure culture of flamenco is shared by old and young sevillanos alike, with  everybody taking pride in it, celebrating and determining their culture and identity. It is heart-warming to see.

And so with Scanner’s Witness, a musical work that is re-told by participants all over Durham County, uniting players of all ages, some  highly skilled, some amateur, but all connected through a desire to keep story-telling alive and kicking. As in Andalusia the County  celebrates part of its history through surviving witnesses in the form of dance and song. The Rapper Sword Dances were born under the harsh conditions of the mining industry and are still performed after over two hundred years. It’s clear that brass bands will always be the authentic voice of North East England and who knows how Witness might be remembered in the distant future?

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