A Conversation with Joany about Cantigas' Origins

The below is an excerpt of an interview that was conducted as part of Joan's final concert as Artistic Director in Spring 2018 and was included in that evening's program.

Joan Isaacs Litman, Founding Artistic Director, had the dream for a women's choir long before she started it. While Music Director at Hoboken's Mustard Seed School, Joan conceived of Cantigas when she "would watch mothers watch their children singing. It was so clear that they wanted to sing too." As a musicologist, she had observed that, "[i]n so many cultures, village women gather to sing songs of welcome, healing, and celebration. Where does this kind of singing community happen in America, I wondered? Where are women coming together to sing like this? Cantigas could be such a choir! Why not?"

Rachel Chang, who has sung with Cantigas for 14 years and also does publicity for the group, recently sat down with Joan to discuss tonight's concert and her 16-year tenure as Founding Director.

Onawa's Waltz is something of a Cantigas tradition, a song the choir revisits on and off through the years (and thus is known by nearly all current members and alumna). In the video above, Joany leads the group in song during Cantigas's year-end spring potluck.

Rachel: Rewind 16 years. What did you hope to create when you started Cantigas?

Joan: I hoped Cantigas would be an ensemble that would draw Hudson County women together in order to share rich musical experiences. The choir would include women who had never sung Bach or Mozart, nor realized the musical and historic depth of the mystical text in the Quechua folk song "La Flor de la Cantuta." I hoped those with imagination for less familiar cultures would also enjoy South African freedom songs, Arabic love songs, and melodies and tales of ancient people.

Another of my hopes was to give these amateur (in the best sense of the word) community singers the opportunity to work with outstanding international artists - and we have! Leonardo San Juan from Argentina guest-conducted Cantigas twice, and in 2016 the choir traveled to Buenos Aires to perform!

Rachel: What memories will you carry forward the most from your 16 years with the group?

Joan: Those moments of when we have finished the grunt work of learning difficult music and the piece is suddenly airborne, and we get the feeling that this will be a transcendent musical experience.

Specific moments in specific concerts include trips to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. Who was moved the most, the inmates or our choir members? Immeasurable for sure, but the question has stayed with me for years.

Another special memory is of the time I couldn't find someone who could help with the Catalan pronunciation in a piece I wanted us to do. The next week a woman from Barcelona joined Cantigas. Cool!

Learning that only a few women had sung Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." OMG! Everyone should have the experience of singing one of Bach's most well-loved, enduring, and highly accessible choral compositions. I would have felt mighty guilty if I had left without giving Cantigas the opportunity to sing this beautiful piece. But we are doing it tonight!

Rachel: What legacy do you hope to leave with Cantigas?

Joan: Live music-making belongs to everyone! Everyone should have the opportunity to sing with confidence and enjoyment. The current cultural obsession with "talent" is skewed. I hope to leave memories, melodies, and lyrics that linger - musical impressions that will last and provide comfort when needed.