April 9 2014 02:41 PM

New arts group collects colorful stories of San Diegans and their connections to songs

Boni Musa records a lullaby and story at the SongStream Project booth at the City Heights farmers market.
Photo by Vanessa Contopulos

When Irene Castruita was pregnant with her first child, she was understandably nervous about going into labor.

"It was kind of a little bit nerve-wracking," Castruita says in a recent podcast recorded by The SongStream Project, a San Diego arts group. "I didn't know what to expect, so I wrote this song to kind of manifest the birth—the natural birth—and then just to kind of express [my baby girl's] galactic-ness and her energy that I felt coming through."

In the audio recording, posted online at thesongstreamproject.org, Castruita explains that the fear, mixed with excited anticipation, inspired her to write a song that would both calm and celebrate her and her baby. She says she started singing the lullaby to her child while she was pregnant, and three years later, the song remains one of her daughter's favorites. The artist and powerhouse vocalist then starts performing the song on the podcast, revealing the unique combination of spoken-word and sung melody that she still shares with her children (she's since had a second child, a daughter) to this day.

On a recent Saturday morning, Castruita and her two kids were among a handful of people at the City Heights Library who were there to listen to The SongStream Project's "A Landscape of Lullabies," a collection of stories about songs San Diegans sing to their children. It's a mix of original songs, like Castruita's, and traditional classics; every lullaby eventually segued into personal stories about people's backgrounds, cultures and the values that they hoped to pass onto their children or were passed onto them by their parents.

From left, The SongStream Project's Michael Fryer, Alex Dausch, Talia Morales and Vanessa Contopulos

"What we've found is that people start to talk through music, and then it opens up the door to a wider conversation, which they maybe wouldn't have started talking about if we'd said, ‘Could you please sit down and talk about memories of your grandfather?'" said Michael Fryer during the listening event. "Music is the thing which opens that door."

Fryer, along with Vanessa Contopulos, Talia Morales, Megan Gilbert and Alex Dausch, came up with the concept for The SongStream Project about two years ago. They envisioned a mobile recording studio, ideally housed in a refurbished vintage Airstream trailer, which would travel around, gathering stories somehow related to music. Both Contopulos and Morales are music therapists, so they know how inextricably linked songs and melodies are to memories and emotions.

"We just knew there was a treasure trove of stories there," Morales said.

A year ago, the group posted the first collection of stories, "Voices of Autism," on its website. The series checks in with three local families affected by autism and explores the ways in which music has played an important role in discovering the abilities—rather than disabilities—possessed by those on the autism spectrum. The group's since recorded an in-depth piece featuring local duo The Lovebirds as the first story in a series focused on how music is a source of resilience and recovery during tough times. The Lovebirds' Veronica May is open about her struggles with bipolar disorder, and her former girlfriend and bandmate Lindsay White joins the discussion, which is intimate and long (almost an hour).

The SongStream Project collected the most recent stories about lullabies by setting up a recording studio in a canopy at the City Heights Farmers Market during the last few weeks (the Airstream has yet to materialize).

"What we've essentially been trying to do with all of [these series] is explore, through the lens of music and memory, social issues and just capture voices, which maybe aren't being heard," Fryer said.

The SongStream Project is so new that it's not officially a nonprofit yet, but it's supported by the nonprofit Creative Visions Foundation, an arrangement that will allow them to receive grants and other funding in the future when they have the resources to pursue those options. Currently, though, the founders pay for everything out of pocket, and nobody is paid for long hours spent producing and editing the segments. They're driven by their belief that shared stories evoked through music can lead to connections across cultural and religious divides, and the lack of funding doesn't seem to be limiting the group's enthusiasm. They're currently wrapping up editing a piece about addiction and recovery. In the future, they want to collect stories relating to people's memories of home and tales about the songs people listen to when they're low to help them grieve.

At the City Heights Library, the small group of listeners was introduced to lullabies and stories from a mother from Guam, a father from Mexico, a young family living in City Heights and other people from myriad backgrounds.

"The thing that excites me about this ‘Landscape of Lullabies' project is that we've hardly even scratched the surface," Fryer said after the last story was played. "We would love this to expand, so we record and gather lullabies from all over the world that are being sung here in San Diego.... And then, as a result of that, there might be conversations about connections and all of these shared common values.

"So," he continued, "a family from Somalia who maybe thinks they have nothing in common with a family from Vietnam suddenly realizes they have some connections. My ultimate dream is that a wealthy white mother from Del Mar ends up singing her child to sleep with an Iraqi lullaby because she heard it and it was just beautiful."

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