Healing Journey

1024 745 Ann Mortifee

(Originally published in West Vancouver Lifestyles Magazine, March 1996)

Onyx eyes flashing gypsy fire, hair like eagle down, a tender open smile strengthened by primeval instinct; Ann Mortifee is a million contradictions rolled into one passion. Her angelic soulful voice transcends the ages. Her journey has taken her from overnight star in Vancouver at the age of 17 to the New York stage, London, Paris, through the civil war in Lebanon, the back streets of Calcutta and home again. Both adored and criticised for her choices, Ann never wandered very far from who she really is. At the invitation of Ann’s publicist, I agree to take part in one of her healing workshops at a holistic retreat on Cortez island. As the Coval Air seaplane taxis out of Vancouver harbour, I wonder what awaits me. The city grows distant as the islands of the Northern Gulf come into faded view. The subject of ‘Compassion and Healing Through Sound’ is a bit over whelming and I am hoping the workshop will be intimate, in concert with the peaceful environment of Hollyhock Farm.

Ever present is the best way to describe Ann Mortifee. As a child absorbed in the moment she radiates a loving, beckoning energy. Our rapport is natural. A quick overview of her life sets the stage for the three days ahead. Ann’s workshops are a mini version of experiencing your own life, through singing, the way she has.

“We all have a destiny, we just have to find it.” Ann’s began in South Africa, as a child of an upper middle class family in the big white house on the hill. Born into privilege, she wondered why others lived in shanty towns. She wrote poetry at an early age but she didn’t start setting words to music until after her discovery in 1967 in Vancouver.

As a teenager, she picked up a guitar, taught herself music, and sang other people’s songs. Her family never thought of her as having any musical ability. It was a friend who recognized her gifted voice. Reluctantly she accepted the suggestion to audition at the Vancouver Playhouse. It was for the lead in ‘Ecstasy of Rita Joe‘. The producers needed someone not only to sing, but improvise guitar and voice. The rest, as they say, is history.

She played Ottawa and New York as the toast of the town, but she didn’t feel comfortable until her next challenge. She was asked to write a whole new score for the Royal Winnipeg Ballets version of ‘Ecstasy‘ She then discovered “the power of music to transform an audience.” Ann recalls her first experience working with the Royal’s choreographer. “Out of the feeling, music would come…he would dance pain… and I would empathize with music… I never aspired to be a writer, it happened by default.”

By the 1970’s she had cut her first album, was hosting a TV series out of Ottawa and playing with the stars of the day including Bruce Cockburn and Seals & Croft. Her next big stage performance, Jacques Brel, put her in New York again. This time being wooed by a London producer. Her second album, Baptism, produced at Abbey Road Studios, included original songs. She signed a major contract which involved three years of touring. Then, just as her international career took off, Ann threw it all away.

She was looking for something deeper. “I couldn’t imagine singing was what I was meant to do.” Perhaps her roots in South Africa or later days mountain trekking with Chief Dan George revealed a bigger picture. She saw the potential of global transformation through spiritual pursuit. She quit music, earning a reputation as a volatile talent. To the chagrin of her producers she chose to take a three year pilgrimage.

Her journey of self-discovery took her to the ashrams of India, to Calcutta to work with Mother Theresa, and to Lebanon trying to understand civil war. Finally she found Paris, painting, writing and still searching. She returned to Canada to the surprise that she was more popular than ever. It was another turning point. She did her second one woman show and cut a third album.
Journey to Kairos was some of the best work I’ve ever done….all of my passion, all of my feelings about Lebanon and India went into that album and my voice had taken on another octave, with a deeper, darker sound to it.”

Ann became more confident. She started her own record company. Then it happened again. The lure of a major label put her under a commercial producer’s control. On the road again as a working artist, she cut more albums and wrote scores for film and ballet. She bought a home in West Vancouver, met a partner, had a son. Still, something was missing. She was living outside of her vision.
In 1988, I was at the refrigerator looking for orange juice, my son was crying and I broke down. Here I was; my relationship ended, my career headed down the wrong path. The last album, “Bright Encounter”, was out of sync with my destiny. I was experiencing the pain of doing work I didn’t believe in….something most people live with.”

For the second time in her life, the singer let the curtain fall. She cancelled her record contract and stopped touring. “I had lost my way. I didn’t trust myself. I swore I would never write again until someone actually came to my door and told me what to write about.” Two years later, someone did.

Before her fateful meeting with California psychologist David Feinstein, Hollyhock Farm had finally convinced Ann to lead a singing workshop at the retreat on Cortez Island. Hollyhock had been calling for some time, but she had refused for lack of formal training in music or teaching. “Our interest is in your spontaneity and passion”, they had said. Once again she jumped into the unknown.
“At first I panicked. Buying books on how to sing, teach, and organize…. then I realized all I had to do was go inside, see my process and share it.” She amalgamated her knowledge of yoga and meditation. The end result is transformational. When you express your innermost feelings, healing is the by-product…if you allow it.

The workshops filled Ann’s void in the late eighties. She was in touch with her self again. She thought she had finally found her path. Life would soon present another surprise.

Enter: Dr. David Feinstein, author of Personal Mythology and co-author of Rituals for Living and Dying. Her music on the ‘Born to Live’ album caught Feinstein’s attention. He had been using it in his work. “I think you were meant to write music for people who are dying,” he told her by phone from California. He flew up to her West Vancouver home and held her hand until she did Serenade at the Doorway. The album, unmarketed, took off on its own and found its way into hospices, cancer and AIDS clinics and palliative care homes. Within a year of the album’s release, the singer was doing workshops with the dying in nine different countries. She was in demand as a keynote speaker. She won the Order of Canada in 1992.

“To work with the dying was not a logical choice for me, but once I started, I realized what I needed to know about my own mortality. I was living as though I had endless time, so I upped the ante. Dying people are authentic, they have no time to waste. I began to live my life to the fullest..as if I only had one day left.”

During my three days with Ann at Hollyhock, I felt the whole group of 14 transform. We began disjointed, self conscious, tentative. By the end we were whole, one person, loving and singing our hearts out.

“Healing is not about whether the patient lives or dies,” says Ann, “it’s about coming to a place of peace with who you are.”
These days Ann is working on a new musical that is the culmination of her own journey. It is a work in progress in the truest sense. It is the reworking of When the Rains Come, a love story set in South Africa, presented as a workshop last year at the Arts Club. She expects to complete it by the time this article is published. It is her most daring work yet.

In the first rendition of Rains she chose the old paradigm that life should be sacrificed for the good of the whole, as in war. “That is the masculine principle,” she says, “but now the desire for power no longer serves us, the only way we can survive on this planet is through elevated consciousness.” It is Ann’s personal message and the most ardent display of her own desire to be of service.
From a recent collection album:
“This is a healing journey
We walk it one by one
Each woman and each man alone
To the sound of a different drum. “

Ann Mortifee

Singer Ann Mortifee is a genre unto herself. Blessed with a remarkable four-octave range and a gift for impacting hearts with her music and lyrics, her albums, concerts, full-length musicals, scores (ballet, film, opera, TV), and In Love with the Mystery book have generated national/international distinctions and awards. She is an Order of Canada Member, the country’s highest civilian honour. A world traveller, compelling storyteller, and sought-after keynote speaker for major conferences, Ann creates and facilitates inspiring arts and consciousness workshops and co-founded two foundations - for social innovation and for forestry conservation. Based in BC, Ann is the wife of the late jazz flutist, Paul Horn.

All stories by: Ann Mortifee