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Today, award-winning vocal jazz artist Emilie-Claire Barlow releases “Spark Bird,” her first full-length album in five years. As the title suggests, birds inspired Barlow’s creativity. During the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, Barlow wondered if she would ever want to make another record. But a yellow-winged Cacique’s daily visit to a house she rented on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, changed everything. On this eight-song album, she features her own playful singles as well as upbeat renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” Stevie Wonder’s 1974 hit “Bird of Beauty,” and more. We are pleased to present the album liner notes in which Barlow talks about his winged muses. Barlow is performing (where else?) at New York’s Birdland Jazz Club and Theater this weekend, March 31-April 2. — the editor
“A bird comes and changes everything.”
Exactly! I think to myself, hearing those words from Ira Glass on the This American Life episode “Spark Bird.” I had already met my Spark Bird and learned what the term meant: “The bird that ignites an enduring love for all things avian,” Bill Wiser wrote on plough.com.
Enter the Yellow-Winged Cacique – my Spark Bird! At first, I didn’t know his name or even what he looked like. I just knew that some kind of bird visited the guest bedroom door every morning in a house that Steve and I rented on the coast of Oaxaca, landed on the doorknob, and alternately banged on the glass and squealed loudly. Every time I tried to sneak into the room to catch a glimpse of her, she would quickly fly away, leaving me with a flash of black and bright yellow.
We quickly set up a camera and the next morning filmed this wonderful comedy activity. The Yellow-winged Cacique is a common bird on the west coast of Mexico, and I started spotting them everywhere. And hear them! They can be quite loud and their vocabulary is fascinating. In the morning, it is one of the first birds we hear. Occasionally a flock will appear at our birdbath and take turns splashing, harassing each other, showing their floppy Muppet-like crests.
They build long, beautifully designed pendulous nests that hang from palm trees or dangle precariously from power lines. Once Steve and I found one in our garden. He had fallen from a tall palm tree on a windy day. We picked it up and heard the little cry of two baby caciques inside! We hung the nest from a bamboo pole as high as we could and were relieved and thrilled when the parents showed up a day later and rescued the babies.
As musicians, it’s almost impossible for us not to hear rhythm and melody everywhere. Birds are nature’s musicians. We feel a kinship! Bird sounds are an almost constant soundtrack here in southern Mexico. It is perhaps the closest thing to living in an aviary. When the sun comes out, you hear the orchestra warming up. The first sound is the rhythmic tapping of the Pale-billed Woodpecker. It has a little drum roll that gets things started. Ba-dap-ba-ba. In fact, it looks more like a block of wood. Then the Rufous-naped Wrens join them, like a jerky fanfare, cascading one after another. Someone appears to be flying in circles around the house, letting out a high-pitched whistle as it passes, creating a doppler effect. Is it the Orange-breasted Sparrow? Is it just one? Or maybe a caravan, leaving for…..where they are going? These are the things I think about when I come in the morning.
The soft, sporadic tones of the Altamira Orioles. Rampant, screaming biker gangs of White-throated Magpie-Jays, and the piercing call of the Greater Quiquivi (which always seems to me to say he’s scolding someone – probably the jays). Then a thrush will arrive to steal the show, with the most diatonic song of all. A lilting melody that makes me feel like it’s in 6/8 time – groovy and so musical. Whatever I do, any time of the day, when this thrush kicks in, I drop everything and dance to its song. I literally turn all my attention to this bird. And that’s really where I’m coming from. These birds have the power to transport me completely.
Who makes THAT sound? It’s exhilarating to hear a call or a song we’ve never heard before. Steve and I will go to great lengths to identify a new cast member to join the cast. Some are elusive. The Citreoline Trogon, with its bouncy, accelerating ball bearing appeal, was initially very difficult to locate. And although they are usually spotted alone, we recently found ourselves under a tree with a whole herd of them calling to each other! It was a pleasure to be among so many people gathered!
Once we climbed onto the roof of a condo we were renting to try to find out who was making the weirdest noises in the middle of the night. We snuck around the building in the dark and finally located the bird, which was actually far out on the grass, bouncing around and doing that beautiful fluttering, flowery trill as it fed. It was a Pauraque, which is a type of nightjar, part of the Whip-poor-will family, and we were beyond thrilled to have found the source!
Of course, I have always been aware of birds and have enjoyed them. The haunting call of a loon during Ontario cottage summers. Dramatic silhouette of a Great Blue Heron by the lake. The onomatopoeic chatter of tits. A bright red cardinal spotted against the snow. The big ring-billed gulls and fast food thieving herring gulls on the beach in Toronto where I grew up – always fun to watch. And Canada geese – maybe entertaining, certainly terrifying. Breathtaking flamingos seen for the first time in Florida – and pelicans!
But that ordinary appreciation turned into a passion and a thirst to learn more about these magical creatures.
I don’t belong to any birdwatching group and I don’t get up at dawn to bird watch. I don’t have a list. Maybe one day! But I can say that birds are an integral part of my life. In this wonderfully biodiverse part of the world, birds are ever present and endlessly entertaining. I feel so lucky every time I have the chance to see one near me. Or when we choose to nest in a nearby tree. I am infinitely fascinated and curious.
When this cacique knocked on my window, I felt a spark. Not just a budding obsession with birds, but curiosity and a desire to see what life would be like if I spent more time in this place that makes me so vibrant and amazed.
It’s been a while since I’ve made a record… a few years since I felt the need to put together a collection of songs in this way.
But the birds, a constant source of joy and inspiration, rekindled my spark. For that, I am full of gratitude.
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