You never know where life as a Singing Leader will take you next. Several years ago now, The Lucky Wonders, an indie folk pop band from Byron Bay, toured Germany. In need of a break after a few gruelling years in the music industry, Jessie Vintila and her partner Emma Royle took off for a drive through Spain and France, and found themselves in St Jean Pied de Port, a small French town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Turns out, St Jean Pied de Port is a common starting place for people walking a spectacular stretch of the Camino Francés, the most famous of all the Pilgrimage routes across the mountains, and on this particular day the atmosphere of the town captivated them both in a powerful and life changing way.
“We saw all these people in hiking gear with walking poles and there was a kind of magical hush over the town. There and then we got the bug for the Camino. Emma has been a keen hiker all her life and she was determined we would walk this track as soon as possible.”
But with return flights booked and paid for it was time to head home to Australia leaving the two women unclear about how they could justify an imminent trip back to Europe. “Being musicians it’s not that easy to travel across the world”, Jessie laughs. Their quest was something to ponder, something requiring time and creative thinking but the vision and the place persisted to play in their thoughts.
On a walk out one evening, an idea and a solution to the situation popped clearly into Jessie’s head…and after all that thinking it turned out, rather ironically, to be a bit of a no-brainer.
Jessie was fortunate to be born into a singing family. As a multi-instrumentalist for most of her life she has also been a passionate choir leader since she was 18: “I can’t get enough of it, I’m an absolute harmony addict, I love having people all around me singing harmonies all the time.” Emma, who is also a musician, is an ardent fan of walking.
The freshly hatched plan combined all these skills and, most importantly at that point in time, gave Jessie and Emma a legitimate reason to head back to the Camino together to explore the idea of setting up their potential new venture: A Singing tour of the Camino for other people to do.
“If we could go over there and set up this project, we could do it!”
Within a few months of their original visit, Jessie and Emma went back to Spain and walked all 800 blister-busting kilometres of the Camino. They decided to focus on the final 200km stretch which they decided would be the ideal distance for singing walkers to cover on a twelve day tour. A significant amount of their time on that first trip was spent researching places to stay away from the traditional and crowded boarding houses or ‘albergues’ typical of the region, and immersing themselves in the culture and lifestyle of the area.
“We found all these special little stops run by families to stay in along the track and pieced together an itinerary which, by the time we’d finished, was gorgeous. A lot of the self-organisational skills we’d honed from being in a band came into use… I only had about 12 words of Spanish but I managed to book 12 rooms for the following year for people who didn’t even exist yet…”
Jessie acknowledges that a huge part of being able to take the plunge and do this was the trusting, welcoming nature and enabling culture of the Spanish people. And it worked.
With Jessie’s vision and Emma’s pragmatism, the women established ‘Sing the Camino’ and, in 2014, took their first group of 9 singers on a 12 day, gospel singing tour through Spain from Ponferrada to Santiago. They were living their dream. The following year they took two groups of 16 people each.
Each of the groups who have Sung the Camino with Jessie and Emma has its own unique character. Some of the singers will know each other and have booked in as a group. Others arrive as individuals on adventures of their own. The tour is inclusive to singers of all levels and experience and non-singing partners often come along too, though they rarely remain non-singers for long.
“Singers of all abilities are welcome… we have found that in a supportive environment, with the right help, everyone is able to experience the joy of singing.”
There will be people who want to flash mob along the track every single day, or put on a performance for the town they arrive in at the end of a day, whilst other groups are not open to these capers at all, and that’s fine too.
As Jessie says, the singers who go out on a limb always have an entertaining story to tell at dinner that night, about how they made the man in the cheese shop cry, or how the man in the fish shop is a fantastic singer and he went and brought in his brother and they sang a song together. Beautiful spontaneous things can happen, but none of them are planned. Which is as it should be.
One of Jessie’s favourite aspects of these trips are the nights when local guest musicians come and sing for them all, and Jessie and Emma have spent a long time building relationships with these people:
“We’ve had the good fortune to discover some really amazing genres of music we didn’t even know existed… like Tuna which I knew nothing about. One evening staying in a little apartment in the town square in Ponferrada, I was already in bed in my pyjamas and almost asleep when I heard this wonderful music come floating up. I hurried to change into my clothes as quickly as I could and ran down to find the musicians as they were packing up. I had to chase these guys – again with my very limited Spanish – and in a garbled way ask them if they’d come and sing for our group on Thursday. They said yes, and have been coming along ever since wearing their traditional capes and singing sonorous harmonies with lots of string instruments of various kinds, accordions percussion and tambourines, sometimes they even have bag pipes, they’re a cheeky bunch.”
Singing the Camino is like a roaming Vocal Nosh. Whilst everyone does the day’s walk at their own pace, they all come together again for a big feast in the evening and an hour’s singing to re-energise, re-connect, and round off the day.
“We always do some Spanish and Galician songs” (Galician being a language of Spain which is more like Portuguese). “We’ll sing in Galician because this is the region of Spain where we spend most time on the tour and the people there proudly identify as Galician, speaking Spanish mostly because they’ve been made to. Generally, we make sure we’re singing whatever people have the energy to do at the end of a day’s walk.”
Jessie enjoys the challenge of meeting a fresh new group of singers, assessing what they’ll respond well to and selecting the right material and repertoire she feels will work best for them all. For this, she draws on her experience of leading singing groups in all sorts of community settings over the years including groups for people with disabilities, kids’ groups, and a rehab choir. “It’s a nice challenge to feel you can rise to.”
“We change the repertoire every time depending on whether the group is an amazing choral group which can nail four part harmonies, or whether they’re there simply because their friends came and then we might want to sing some Carole King or some Abba songs. I keep a printer handy so we can bring in new material if that’s what we want.”
Self care is also an important element of the tours for Jessie and Emma. They find that meditation is a fantastic way to retreat and restore their energy levels. “It goes an incredibly long way to keeping the battery fully charged and we feel a lot less exhausted at the end.”
A significant number of their past singers have been asking if they can all Sing the Camino Portuguese and so Jessie and Emma have done the research and are embarking on this next, in an exciting new phase of their venture. After all, there’s a lot of world to walk out there, and a lot of songs to be sung.
Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with thanks to Jessie Vintila
Jessie is coming to Victoria in October! Join her for a Sing the Camino workshop on either Saturday 20 October in Healesville or Sunday 21 October in Northcote. Tickets, info and bookings here.