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May 13, 2021

Interview with Jessie Vintila: Sing the Camino at St Kev’s

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Singing the Camino Workshop on Sundayat St Kevin’s Hall in Bangalow, 2.30–5.30pm.

Sing the Camino at St Kevs

Join choir director extraordinaire Jessie Vintila and sing up a storm with the songs that will be sun in the Sing the Camino tour she is leading in northern Spain later this year. There will be some rollicking Galician drinking songs, and some classic folk and bluegrass for good measure. All welcome… but what about this bucket list Spanish singing tour? Jessie filled us in.

Tell me about your Camino trip. What inspired you to make it happen?

Towards the end of our time touring with The Lucky Wonders, Emma (Emma Royle, tour manager) and I played some shows in Germany and then had a few weeks’ holiday, road tripping around France and Spain. We stumbled across the village of St Jean Pied de Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees, on the French side of the border with Spain. This is the place most people begin their Camino, the 800km track that’s been made famous by movies such as  The Way.  The atmosphere there was unique, kind of hushed and reverent, people with walking gear everywhere, embarking on their big journey. We met an amazing gypsy guitarist and had some great jam sessions in the campground there. We were due to go home in a few days but the Camino idea had taken hold. We were determined to come back and walk it as soon as we could. When we did, we spent two months travelling that route, walking our own pilgrimage and also researching how to set up the first Sing the Camino. It was such a wonderful experience, but the one thing I missed was my regular fix of harmony singing, so I knew that to bring groups of people to sing on the journey together would make for a very lush, nourishing experience. We chose the last 220km of the track for Sing the Camino, which is a 13-day trip, because of its beauty, and the northwest, Galicia, is much cooler and greener than the rest of Spain.

What is it about the Camino that is so special? You have obviously done it before.

To connect with the earth and with human history in this very physical way feels beautiful and profound. And the path, the journeys undertaken by the thousands of people over a thousand years, create a kind of enigma, one that is changing all the time as we move through such different cultural eras. Many say it has pagan origins. It has the very well-known St James history and a strong tradition of being walked for penance and redemption. Now I think the majority of people who walk it feel freer to choose their own interpretation of its meaning, their own spiritual or secular journey. Even just to give yourself the gift of time spent enjoying your body, your health, in a beautiful place, letting the mind rest, stepping out of the rat race. The Camino pulls people from all over the world, for all their unique reasons, and the connection that is created among everyone meeting on the walk is incredibly special. Hearts are open, stories are shared, friendships are forged. I found that camaraderie the most moving aspect of the journey.

How many people can you take on a trip?

Most of the places we stay at are quite small, so we are limited to eleven rooms, usually 14 to 18 people. We don’t make people share a room unless they want to, because when you’re walking all day, challenging yourself like that, a good rest is essential!

Do you organise everything for people?

We organise wonderful accommodation, places with lots of character, usually family run so you get some honest cultural interaction as well. One casa rural has been in the same family for more than 1,000 years! We also transport your luggage so no heavy backpacks, provide a support vehicle, organise the dinners, wine and breakfast with menus we’ve been perfecting over five years now. We hold singing sessions every evening and, my favourite part, performances from guest musicians. It has been mind blowing being treated to these intimate shows from some world-class musicians who are keeping alive some incredible folk traditions that I hadn’t known even existed.

What kind of requirements do people need? Do they need to be fit? Or able to sing?

You need to train up to being able to walk an average of 22km a day, which is well within the means of any reasonably healthy person. For many people throughout history, walking all day is a very natural way of life. You find a rhythm, and it generally feels good. The more prepared you are, the more you are likely to enjoy the challenge rather than struggle. Something I am really proud of is motivating people to get fit, who may not have otherwise, and it’s such a wonderful gift to give yourself. One of the most inspiring people we’ve taken was a man of 87, who walked the whole distance without missing a beat. In fact, he wouldn’t even stop for lunch until he’d walked his whole distance each day, and then he’d drink an entire bottle of wine!

The singing is just for the joy of it. We don’t perform on the trip, unless the group wants to do a quick flashmob here or there, just for fun, which we sometimes have. So there’s no pressure to be a great singer, but a few people have come along as non-singers and been well and truly converted.

How are you going to make music part of the Camino trip?

The singing sessions are before dinner every night, and are a lovely way to connect as a group, and lift your energy after the day spent walking. Some songs we sing are in Spanish or Galician and really connect us to the people and the land we are in. Gathering these songs is an ongoing project that I am lucky to call part of my job! The musicians who perform for us are true folk artists, with beautiful dedication to maintaining their ancient cultural traditions, and it’s such a special way to learn about a place and its history. Then of course the bolder of our guests burst out in song on their days on the track and create little gems of moments for themselves, and the locals, and other pilgrims. I love how music does that when we let it!

What would you say to someone who is thinking about coming but is thinking, maybe next year, or next time?

The testimonials we receive are very humbling. ‘The most amazing experience of my life’ is an example from last year. ‘Life affirming, full of grace and happiness’ is one from 2016. Some people come back and do it again! We have a new Sing the Camino trip starting this year, on the Camino Portuguese, which we only opened to our past guests, and it sold out in four days. If you are lucky enough to have the time, money and health to do Sing the Camino, seize the moment,  vamos!

How does the workshop on Sunday relate to the Camino?

In the workshop on Sunday we’ll sing the songs from our trips, some in Spanish and Galician, some in English. Like all group harmony singing, it’s a joyous way to spend an afternoon, meet other local singing people, and sample some of the rollicking and beautiful folk traditions we tap into on Sing the Camino. It’s also a good chance to find out how lovely and charming I am, and ask some of the million questions about the trip that people usually have when contemplating crossing the globe and walking 220km!

The workshop on Sunday is at St Kevin’s Hall in Bangalow over 2.30–5.30pm. Tickets are available at www.singthecamino.com, $25 earlybird, $30 from March 16 or at the door. No Spanish language or singing experience are needed. All are welcome.

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