The arts and cultural practice provide a compelling route into understanding how people are connected to landscapes. The Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP) Artists in Residence are exploring the relationships that exist between nature, people, and landscape, helping to understand and express how communities connect to the places where they live, work and play.
One of the ELP Artist Residencies was awarded to Romanian born music producer and DJ Nico de Transilvania, also founder of non-profit Forests Without Frontiers. Nico grew up close to the forests of the Carpathian Mountains, where an ELP-funded Restoration Landscape project is based. Providing habitats for Europe’s largest populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes, these mountains are as beautiful as they are essential to life.
Through collaboration with the communities of Făgăraș villages (a mountain range within the Carpathians), Nico is exploring how the biodiversity of these mountains are interconnected with local traditions. She is particularly interested in giving voice to elders from Romanian forest communities, since their traditional music centres around human connections with natural cycles. Some of her earliest memories are singing with her grandma near the forest where she spent her childhood. Living in communion with nature, the songs they sang were about the natural world, about longing for connection with nature, and love.
“We used to sing a lot when we worked in the fields. When people are working on the land, harvesting hay or potatoes or corn or sunflowers, we sing, to keep spirits up. Doinas [the traditional Romanian folksongs], were passed from generation to generation, from grandparents to parents and children. A particular one I remember from very young age that has always stayed with me is ‘Saraca Inima Mea’ (My poor longing heart). My grandma used to sing it, as well as my mum Ileana and my mum’s sister Jenica, which is about healing a broken heart with the help of music and the company of good people.”
With music, film, photography and storytelling, Nico’s residency aims to share the joy and importance of restoring the forests and raise awareness of the endangered landscapes and traditions in the Carpathian Mountains.
“A lot of the old traditions are disappearing, and the elders and indigenous knowledge and songs are not being respected in the way they were. It’s almost like they’re losing value, although they are so important to us and for the future generations. Our interest in the cultural heritage of the Făgăraș Mountains brings a sense of pride, not only to the elders, but the communities that live in the area too and encourages people to embrace their traditions. It also inspires the younger generation and gives them a sense of pride in their heritage and culture, which is at the core of who we truly are. It’s so important to me because I am really proud of my heritage and I’m very grateful for it. I believe if I hadn’t had all this beautiful knowledge and songs passed to me from my grandma and mum, I wouldn’t be who I am now. I think that it taught me to truly appreciate life and nature. And it’s something that I wish to pass over to my son and my grandchildren one day.”
Building relationships with members of the community has been a focus for Nico. One important and special friendship which has developed is with an elder of Nucsoara, Silvia Dan, who sings at the local church. Through recording, and therefore bringing attention to, Silvia and the church choir, has brought a new sense of pride in their music and costume heritage of the area. It has also deepened Nico’s connection to the natural landscape even more.
“We filmed Silvia in the church with the local singers. It was very special to have Silvia recorded in her place of peace. With the help of my co-producer David we also gave all the women in the choir the opportunity to tell their story in front of the camera, as well as enabling Silvia to be celebrated by her own community. I was lucky enough to spend time understanding Silvia’s day-to-day life and connection to nature and her relationship with the wider community. She showed around the places she values from her childhood. She took me to the most beautiful old beech tree that’s been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, and taught me the beautiful songs and stories she has about her village and the old ways, how people used to live in harmony with nature, with the forest and the wildlife there. It was truly inspiring. It helped me understand her better as well as reconnect with that landscape and deepen my knowledge of what wildlife used to live there, the old ways of life and how they used to look after the forest. Silvia, as well as Viorica, the seamstress of the village who we interviewed as part of the project, both had parents that worked in forestry. Hearing their stories made me want to protect nature even more.”
Along with some of the other ELP residencies, artists often act as a bridge or catalyst, to bring different groups of people together, open up conversations around conservation, and change preconceptions. With Nico’s project, music is bringing together different generations and celebrating the connections between living with nature and their shared cultural heritage.
“I always envisioned that the music that I compose and the mixes I put together, and the events that I organise, would appeal to all generations. My wish is to create this bridge between generations – art is a great way to do this. If we don’t have this bridge between the elders and future generations, that indigenous knowledge, the wisdom and understanding of how to work and live in harmony with nature will disappear. We need to create this bridge, using music and the arts as a form of expression for all ages. It can bring people together and start conversations and communication. As an artist I aim to bring music and film that will draw in younger people, but also have a message about our traditions and the knowledge of our ancestors. It’s combining the old and the modern with a particular focus on communion with nature and the old ways and how we need to protect what we have – and bringing that to a new audience.”
Nico recently attended the ‘Nature of Us’ conference in Poland in May to talk about her work with the ELP Artist Residency and Forests Without Frontiers.
“It was a truly inspiring to be part of this forward-thinking conference with artists, scientists, environmentalists and cultural leaders coming together to explore different climate and environmental issues and discuss creative solutions.”
Forests Without Frontiers is a non-profit based in both Romania and the UK. They are planting trees for future generations and protecting forests with the support of global musicians and artists.
Nico’s recordings of traditional Romanian songs and forest soundscapes will be combined with new electronic sounds, and will come together in an album which will be premiered at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London in September.
This artistic project will be dedicated to the memory of Nicoleta’s mum, Ileana, and David Alexander Yeoman one of the co-producers, both of whom sadly passed away recently.
All images: Nico de Transilvania and Marius Sumlea, 2021/22
The ELP Artist Residencies are a collaboration between the Endangered Landscapes Programme and the CCI Arts, Science and Conservation Programme. To find out more about the project in this article, please visit the Carpathian Mountains Artist Residency project page.
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