If Anchorage Symphony Orchestra violinist Daniel Perry had been told a few weeks ago he would be chanting healing songs in front of an intimate crowd of people, he might not have believed it.
Yet the Homer resident who said his specialty is playing the classics found himself performing chants and songs from multiple cultures at the Sterling Community Center in late December as part of a release concert for the CD “Holy Ground.”
“It’s so different from what I do,” Perry said. “I’d say it’s a spiritual adventure. … I’ve never chanted.”
Perry met Suraj Holzwarth, who goes by White Eagle Medicine Woman, between sets at the Nutcracker Faire in Homer, and was asked to provide his skills on the violin for a few songs from her new CD. He performed with her and the GrandMother Drum Ensemble during a stop on their tour to promote the album and raise money.
Holzwarth leads the Whirling Rainbow Foundation, a nonprofit that travels the world and promotes peace and sustainability through arts, music and volunteer work. “Holy Ground” was recorded in 15 different locations in eight countries.
“It’s really a compilation of all of the sacred music that has been shared with us by the tribes around the world to pass on,” Holzwarth said. “They’re all, you know, chants of love and peace and unity in every language, and our whole message is that we’re all one people and that life is our religion together.”
A native of New York, Holzwarth has lived in Alaska for the majority of her life after being called to the world of healing music by a vision, she said. Drums are especially powerful healing tools, she said, because they can mimic the heartbeats in every person and have been used historically to rally people together.
“I was in love with drums since I was a small child, and I was always in love with tribal drums,” she said. “I guess I was 26 when I made my first hoop drum with a Native American man in Anchorage because I had dreams of me in tribal dress, and at that time I didn’t know I had any (Native) ancestry.”
Holzwarth travels and performs with what she calls GrandMother Drum, a crystal inlaid wooden drum 7 feet in diameter she received donations and help to construct in 2000. After traveling the world to share music and culture through the GrandMother Drum International Peace Project, the instrument is adorned with flags and trinkets from several countries.
Holzwarth said she keeps her performances and volunteer work as nondenominational as possible to encourage people from all walks of life to get involved. She views drum music as a way to bring healing to cultures that have experienced trauma, and said the work is especially relevant today as the world is facing an environmental crisis. People need to come together to create positive change, she said.
“All of us know this has to happen in our lifetime, and we all have different answers to that question,” Holzwarth said as she opened the concert. “And thank God there are so many different colors of the rainbow for solutions.”
Holzwarth and her ensemble played a sample of songs from the 31-track CD before moving into a set that included more audience participation. The group also constructs what Holzwarth called community drums, or smaller versions of the GrandMother Drum that are left in the places she visits for use by those communities.
Sterling resident Rondell Gonzalez, who has known Holzwarth for about 10 years, had a drum at the performance that was made in Palmer and stays with her in Sterling. She has brought the drum to communities outside Alaska for playing and healing, she said.
Gonzalez played a large role in getting the ensemble to make a stop in Sterling. She too was communicated with in a dream, she said, and the message was that Holzwarth was meant to bring her music to local residents.
“There’s a lot of very spiritual people in Sterling, and it’s important that they have alternatives, period,” Gonzalez said. “And the medicine of the drum is very powerful, and everyone can connect to it if they allow themselves to experience the beat.”
Sterling resident Sabrina Hensley and Soldotna resident Anna Mastrud said they had no idea what to expect when they heard about the “Holy Ground” concert and decided to give it a try.
“I lost it when she first started drumming,” Hensley said. “I started crying.”