Thursday, October 2, 2008

Singin', Workin', Dreamin' (Again) With the Troubadours of Divine Bliss (Louisville Music News Cover Story)

Photo of Troubadours of Divine Bliss
Photo By Photo by Laura Roberts
Troubadours of Divine Bliss
Singin', Workin', Dreamin' (Again) With the Troubadours of Divine Bliss
By Tim Roberts

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending; --

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

--William Wordsworth,

"The Solitary Reaper"

Let's give Middle Ages a break, huh? Lots of great things happened, even if plagues wiped out a third of the population of Europe and peasants feasted on dirt five nights a week (that's actually an exaggeration: two nights they feasted on dirt, the rest of the time they gnawed on straw; and the old folks, the ones who lived past 45, would say, "Back in my day we didn't have straw to gnaw on. We had to carve rocks into thin pieces to look like straw. And we were thankful. And we had to make our own snow to walk to school in, and had to build our own hills to get to it. Hell, we had to invent schools and snow and hills. And we were still thankful").

So consider what we got from the time of plagues n' dirt feasts:

Courtly Love (not Courtney Love), Chaucer and Dante, the Magna Carta, gorgeous illuminated manuscripts of all kinds of books created by monks, herbalism, the Arthurian Legends, Beowulf, Marco Polo venturing east and and bringing back spaghetti (which means it was probably the Chinese who originated the phrase, "Eat this, it'll make you feel better."), breathtaking Islamic architecture.

And the troubadours.

They were an all-in-one entertainment bargain: they wrote music and poetry and sang them both, they played instruments, they danced. Springing from what was believed to be their origin point in southern France, they traveled and performed their pieces in the language of the people. The speculation is that some troubadours were also Cathars, the mystical sect the Catholic church considered heretical, fighting against them to the point where ten thousand French troops laid siege to a Cathar castle at Montsgeur in 1244. Many of them were burned when they renounced their faith. Days earlier, though, the story goes that several others slipped away from the castle, taking some kind of "treasure" with them.

"We love to go over [to Europe] once a year to balance out the states a little bit," said Renee Ananda. "They're very receptive to the music. We visited the land of the troubadours in southern France. We were on Montsegur and we climbed 768 steps to get to the top where there were these old temple ruins. We stayed up there to watch the sunset. We had been from castle to castle and to all these magical little places.

"And it was about dusk and we were coming down the mountain, just Aim Me and I, and there were tea lights and papers from troubadours. The papers had all this poetry and mystical things written in French. It was really magical."

"We translated it," said Aim Me Smiley, "and it said we're still here. We're still alive. The Cathars and troubadours were one in the same. They were connected."

"It was cool. It was a message from the troubadours."

Aim Me Smiley and Renee Ananda are also troubadours. Specifically, they're the Troubadours of Divine Bliss, a duo consisting of Smiley's acoustic guitar, Ananda's accordion, vocal harmonies more rich than State Fair fudge, and a stage presence that brings the best parts of an intimate cabaret performance and a circus in microcosm. If the spirits of the troubadours of medieval times did indeed send them messages of affirmation for what they do, it's only because the Troubadours have had a message for anyone who listens to them: find your dreams, live your dreams, free your dreams, find your bliss. And have lots of fun along the way.

Since their story was last chronicled in this publication eight years ago, the Troubadours have toured Europe, welcomed a new Blissdog into their family (a black lab named Miracle that Ananda had found abandoned one rainy night on their farm, as a young puppy with its eyes barely open) to join their 16-year-old Lhasa Apso named Blossom, acquired a new Blissmobile (a sleek Dodge Ram minivan, replacing the old late 70s rust-patched Chevy that had taken them across and around the nation), and spent their non-music-playing hours at home at their farm in southern Indiana in a remote area they've dubbed "As You Wish" woods, a name borrowed from The Princess Bride. And as any fan of the book or movie knows, when the farm boy Westley said those words to Buttercup anytime she asked him to do something, he was actually saying, "I love you." He also said, while serving his term as the Dread Pirate Roberts, "Life is suffering ... anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something."

And there's something else new: a self-produced CD, Sacred Letters of Surrender, a follow-up to the double-live set, Off the Cuff, from two years ago. While Off the Cuff caught the Troubadours at their showy best, with fun songs and a few ribald jokes with the audience, with Sacred Letters they turn inward. Most of the songs are based on letters, one written by Smiley's brother while he was in jail in Bowling Green and another based on the words of Ananda's grandfather after his wife of 53 years died, that explore pain, loss, frustration, anger.

But the words in the letters get worked through the Troubadours' own kind of magic. They are transformed into something different, maybe something clearer, without completely stripping away the feelings that created them. It is as if you handed them a block of stone and they managed to carve and polish it into a globe of marble.

"We started realizing that, over the years, we started telling other peoples' stories more and more," Ananda said, "and really embracing the moments and experiences of people. Everybody has a story to share. People coming by choice, or not by choice, to that moment of surrender in their lives."

"There are some deeply personal songs, too," added Smiley, "like a journal entry of sorts, or like a prayer you say to yourself. It's all about letting go. A lot of people, understandably so, are geared toward numbing themselves. Whether it's working to much, watching too much TV. We hope that these songs are kind of an outlet to have feelings. Sit with them, have them, and surrender them."

Their first release, There's No Place Like OM, was followed by Dressing Room for Eternity, the title of which was taken from something Ananda's late grandmother told her: "Renee, our life right now is just a dressing room for eternity." Two more releases later, which includes the double-disc set Off the Cuff, recorded live at a club in Cleveland, Ohio, they now share Sacred Letters of Surrender, featuring a batch of guest musicians from their gigs all across the nation. To be sure, a theme of surrender runs through most of their music. But the surrender is worth it if you are giving up the one thing that is preventing you from freeing your dreams and finding your bliss.

In a way, it was a surrender of sorts that started their journey as friends and musicians when they were both teenagers at the same Pentecostal church in a small town outside Louisville. Ananda was 16 and playing the church organ. Smiley was 13 and bouncing up the aisle as the "Faith Bunny" during an Easter pageant. Ananda's father was the minister; Smiley's was the deacon. After a nasty schism that, even all these years later, is still is either too painful or ridiculous to discuss, Smiley's dad kicked Ananda's dad out of the church. All during their teen years and up through young adulthood, the two young women kept in touch. Ananda graduated from Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri with a degree in broadcasting, got married and ended up selling computer networks. Smiley, meanwhile, studied theater at Indiana University and DePaul University in Chicago, sang in a duo called Cooper's Eden, and performed a two-woman show called Tango Palace.

Ananda felt her life, packed to her hair follicles with stress, was falling apart. She called Smiley. The two reunited, questioned what they were doing with their lives. Ananda surrendered her life of comfort, predictability and its accompanying craziness. Smiley surrendered a show and a life of a solitary libertine. Together, with an accordion, a guitar, and a pair of voices, they became the Troubadours of Divine Bliss.

The feud that drove their father's apart but put them together has shown some vague sign of healing, as Ananda described.

"A couple of years ago, my dad and my mom and my brother were at Cracker Barrel in Shelbyville, and this guy walks up and says, ‘Steve!' And they're shaking hands and talking. Everything was great. It was [Aim Me's] dad. So her dad goes and gets his table, and my family finally sits down, and my brother and mom are looking at him. They're like, ‘What just happened?' He said, ‘What do you mean? And who was that guy, anyway?'

"They had a reunion, and he did not even know it was her dad."

So while time might have dulled the memory of one, the other seems to have sealed off the acrimony behind him.

"They're both forgiving and lovable guys," Ananda said. "They're not going to go out and play tennis together. But they'll shake hands at Cracker Barrel anonymously."

They were grandiose visionaries, as Smiley described them, to the point where they performed an Easter drama for their congregation, complete with an ascending Christ.

"Renee's father had the ceiling cut out of the top of the church," Smiley said. "so that Jesus could ascend. My dad was Jesus, in a loin cloth and eyeliner and mascara."

"Nobody knew what was going to happen," Ananda said, "but the mood was elevating and the music was lifting. Then all of a sudden we heard ... arrrrriiikkkkk Aarrrriiiikkk. They had rigged up this pulley and had fashioned it into the loin cloth of her dad. And he was really ascending. But it wasn't smooth. It was jerky. He'd go up a little bit and stop. Up a little bit and stop. And you could hear the arrrriiikkkk."

"My dad was getting the wedgie from hell," Smiley added.

"But they got him up there, then he had to bungee back down for the resurrection. So you can see they'd been through a lot together."

As have their daughters, as musicians and now as activists. The Troubadours of Divine Bliss have now taken the themes found in a lot of their songs and put them into action.

"In the past year we were awarded a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women," Ananda said, "to work with survivors of abuse."

"It's called the Mariposa Project," Simley said. "Mariposa means butterfly in Spanish."

"And all with the intention of giving women an opportunity to express the trauma and the abuse through workshops, journaling, collage, music, poetry."

"We have these Heart Workshops, what we're calling these home retreats where we've gone into women's homes and also into different neutral facilities. It's a three-hour workshop where we give the women journals. We do a collage on the back of the journal, which is in the outline of a woman's body, [expressing] where they've been and what they've experienced. They make it inside that outline. On the cover is a butterfly. It gives them the opportunity to experience art as healing. Through those visuals comes poetry because you write about what you just did visually."

"It gives them words," Ananda added, "that they didn't know. We encourage them not to second guess. By the time they've collaged the front and back, they have the words. The images are now metaphors for what they've experienced and expressed what they've buried."

They have also started a pair of organizations, the Tree of Life Alliance and Mighty Kindness. Tree of Life is a forestry preservation organization and Mighty Kindness is a community resource web site listing and linking to all kinds of other social organizations, community organizations, volunteer services, and local farms and farmers markets.

"It's really important," Smiley said, "that we build our connections and our community. There are so many amazing organizations springing up."

"That's been the point of Mighty Kindness," Ananda said. "Helping those visions come together so that nobody's duplicating efforts, so people can fan each other's flames."

That doesn't mean the Troubadours of Divine Bliss have stopped performing. They still, in their words, spend evenings on their porch tapping their toes and writing music. They have their gigs at Clifton's Pizza, the Blue River Cafe in Indiana, and the Third Avenue Cafe, and a regular Sunday night performance at the Hideaway Saloon.

"We've been hosting an Open Stage for the Sage at the Hideaway," said Smiley, "which has now been informally dubbed Church on the Rocks. It has that great kind of spiritual community feel. And it's completely open to all. But it's particularly about performing and freeing your dream. People from San Francisco, other countries, say they've never experienced anything like this before because they caught the ahhhh in Jah." Jah, of course, being an abbreviation of Jehovah.
(Troubadours here...noting that we were comically misunderstood, as we actually said, the "Awe of Ya'll", which many of you know what we mean regarding COTR, and it was heard as "Awe of Jah" which was decoded as an abbreviation of Jehovah.;-)
What Aim Me Smiley and Renee Ananda do as the Troubadours of Divine Bliss is an art form that has survived nearly 800 years, a blessed task that has them take music, poetry, and joy to the streets and taverns and into homes. That task, reflected in the epigraph by Wordsworth, is one that slips a song into your heart, one that you carry along.

And in that song might be a message, a call to act on something or think about an issue, or even be the tiny key that unlocks the big dream you've always had.

"We're still playing anywhere we can be soft or loud and tell stories," Smiley said.

"Troubadouring has been the central chord," Ananda said. "These other things have been woven into it to make it stronger."

The carnival of bliss is always open at You can also get connected at