Barefoot in Assisi

Arja Saijonmaa

Nära (Kirkelig Kulturverksted)

Recently I came across a listing for Finnish vocalist Arja Saijonmaa in the Kirkelig Kulturverksted catalog and her most recent album Nara, a collection of peace songs recorded in a church in Assisi, Italy piqued my curiosity since I am an admirer of Saint Francesco (Francis) of Assisi. Standing barefoot (similar to the 12th Century Franciscan monks) on the cover, did Arja, herself a
peacemaker feel the presence of the original Franciscan monks while visiting the famed Italian community? The recording features 17 tracks comprised of medieval and contemporary songs of peace, including St. Francesco’s song, Song to the Creation (which acts as a bridge between historic and modern songs).

Arja follows St. Francesco’s example of simplicity and all of the songs only feature piano and her expertly rendered alto vocals further highlighted by the ambiance of an ancient church.A handful of the tracks, Killen, Marina, Stranden, Balkongen, and Gator were composed by her long-time collaborator, the Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis.

Petri Somer handled arrangement and piano duties. The lyrics are sung in Norwegian and Finnish and there are no English translations in the liner notes. This sent me to do a search on the web where I only found one site, a United Nations site with information on Arja written in English. Arja has played many roles from peace activist, filmmaker, producer, actress and vocalist. As a vocalist she has sold over 2 million albums. She has also starred in musicals and movies written for her and interestingly enough, her career started in 1970 when she gave voice to Greek composer and freedom fighter Mikis Theodorakis’ world tour.

In 1987 she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and since that time she has visited over 40 refugee camps and even produced documentary films on refugees. In 1994, she initiated and organized a major televised peace concert that brought together Yassir Arafat (a Nobel Peace Prize winner), Shimon Peres and 200 Norwegian, Israeli and Palestinian children onto a stage where they sang, We Want Peace. The peace keeper, Arja spreads compassion once again through her vocal talent on Nara. Now that we are on the brink of choosing global peace or extinction of all life forms, it is time to embrace our peacemakers.