One needn’t be born in Portugal or the Azores to experience that particular sensation, or the emotions it conjures.
Growing up, I heard my grandmother’s stories about the islands, and about the family history. She was different from the grandmothers of my friends. She spoke differently. I met my grandfather only once, when he came to visit from Brazil. He knew barely a word of English. But he would send gifts, tiny paintings he did of the islands. There was a definite sense of foreignness, I felt, associated with the family.
I first visited the Azores when I was fifteen-years-old. We spent time on Santa Maria, São Miguel, Faial and Pico, and stopped by boat at São Jorge and Graciosa.
I was there for half a summer. I saw dolphins and whales, the whale factories and the men who hunted them. I pulled a tooth from one of the sperm whales hauled up on the flensing platform. I breathed in the beauty of the islands, traveled round São Miguel, drank mineral water from the pure springs along the roadway, drove all over Faial, hiked round Capelinhos, and climbed to the summit of Pico.
From the peak we watched the sunrise, saw the shadow of Pico on the ocean below, and could see Terceira, Faial, Graciosa and São Jorge glimmering down below.
All of which spurred my imagination, especially when I returned some eighteen years later and lived there for three-and-a-half months, going back and forth between Faial and Pico. That was when I wrote my first story set on the islands.
During my research on the novel, I collected books and magazines about the Azores, Portuguese history, the discoveries, pored over books on Portuguese nobility, and genealogical records, until my head spun with names repeated prodigiously over and over like drone chords. I had written stories set on the islands where people didn’t die, or lived beyond death; and then read books like AMONG THE AZORES, by Lyman Weeks, where it is stated, “It is rumored no one ever dies here.” I wrote a story, “The Child of the Sea” about a mermaid found on the islands, long before I heard of the legend of Santa Maria, about a mermaid a fisherman caught.
People asked me repeatedly if these were authentic myths or legends of the Azores, which I used in my own stories. I answered that I was writing my own myths and legends of the islands. The stories represent my reality, what I saw, heard and experienced on the islands. After all, I did live there, and have known people my whole life from the islands, as well as my own family. I married an Azorean woman. I bought food and wine shipped from there. I lived surrounded by the islands. They were and are a huge part of my life.
I trusted in my instincts, in my senses, and imagination, to create what I had envisioned. They may not be your reality of the islands, but then they may be another’s. Some will dismiss them as fantasies or fancies conjured from an over active imagination.
But I was there. I heard and saw what others perhaps missed. I’ve gone to Pico and asked about local caverns, or caves on São Miguel, and had the people I spoke to shake their heads, not knowing was lay just a few kilometers away from their homes. But I heard grown men and women talk about virgins having babies, of folk disappearing, of storms that carried animals, trees and people away, of darkness for twenty-four hours, of witches stealing fishing boats and casting spells.
Flights of fancy? Perhaps.
I read Portuguese poetry and some fiction, and listened to Portuguese music, some Fado, but mostly the music of Pedro Barroso, Dulce Pontes, Zeca Afonso, Brigada de Vitor Jara, and Fausto. After I chanced to see the musical group, Cantinho da Terceira, from the Azores in 1995, I discovered the music of José Medeiros and Luís Bettencourt, as well. All of which helped awaken in me a music that had lain dormant for some time.
It’s difficult to do two art forms at one and the same time. At least to do them well. I’ve tried my best to juggle both. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of coming up with music to fit the poems of Fernando Pessoa, Florbela Espanca, Antero de Quental & Luís de Camões, music that does the poetry justice; to piece together melodies, changes in key, or a shift to make a chorus, or a bridge.
I am blessed to have a wife who was born in Santa Maria, and who shares my interest in all things Portuguese and Azorean, and a daughter who not only does as well, but who sings Portuguese beautifully.
The words are purely Portuguese or Azorean, the music, my own, is from somewhere between here and there, that other realm.
Darrell Kastin was born in Los Angeles, California, and currently resides in Southern Oregon. His maternal ancestors came from the Azores, settling in the United States at the end of World War II. He has spent considerable time on the islands over the years, using them as a setting for many of his short stories. His novel The Undiscovered Island is due to be published this Summer (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth). A short story collection, titled, The Conjuror & Other Tales of the Azorean Nights is scheduled to be published in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in The Seattle Review, The Crescent Review, The Blue Mesa Review and elsewhere. Darrell is currently setting the poetry of Luís de Camões, Fernando Pessoa, and Florbela Espanca to music. His daughter, Shawna and he are currently preparing to travel to Portugal to record his songs with Pedro Barroso producing the cd. Samples of the Portuguese songs can be heard at http://www.myspace.com/shawnalenore or at http://www.myspace.com/darrellpkastin
Kastin, Darrell. The Undiscovered Island (Portuguese in the Americas Series- University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in press)
(An excerpt of the novel):
“Alarmed by her father Sebastiao’s unexplained disappearance, Julia Castro travels from California to the family’s ancestral home in the Azores and finds the mid-Atlantic islands abuzz with tales of ghost ships, seductive sirens and witchcraft. The mystery deepens when a drowned man’s body is discovered on a mountainside and an unknown island emerges from the sea. As she pursues the search for her father, Julia gradually succumbs to the bewitching allure of the Azores–and to Nicolau, a fellow musician–eventually discovering a place where dreams lie just beyond the horizon, shrouded in mist. History, legend, poetry and myth are seamlessly interwoven as the novel explores relationships between personal and cultural identity, fate and self-determination, reality and illusion. The novel is a lyrical evocation of a locale and a people, rendered with wonderful respect for Azorean tradition.”
FOTO: “Kid in Blue”
© Hélder Blayer Góis