My friend Minja died on Sunday. She and her husband Tim Eriksen, among many other things, were key figures in the local shapenote community. Minja was a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota, where she inspired many of her students to learn about and participate in the local singings. She and Tim had recently been living in Massachusetts, where they both had visiting teaching positions at Amherst. The Johnson Chapel flag at the school is lowered to half-mast today in her memory. Minja's children Anja and Luka are 3 and 5 years old. Luka was a movie star as an infant, appearing in Cold Mountain -- for which Tim provided musical background and coaching.
Minja was originally from Bosnia. She founded the Bosnian/Balkan band, Zabe I Babe. She had quite a footprint in a lot of places. The website for her World in Two Cities project is a few years out of date, but it shows the work she was overseeing at the University. She and Tim were completely plugged in to any number of local ethnic communities. Only a few weeks after the big tsunami a couple of years ago they were able to put together a “World Music for Tsunami Relief Concert,” raising money for UNICEF and featuring artists representing affected countries. The local shapenote singers opened each half of that amazing concert.
I've yet to check out her book, Balkan Fascination, which explores why Americans with no ethnic connection participate in Balkan music and dance. I've got to remedy that. It sounds fascinating.
In my head I hold a moment with Minja that remains bright and vivid, from the time Luka was a babe in arms. Tim was performing on the stage at a local outdoor music festival while I was talking to Minja at the back of the audience. Seemingly without warning, Tim introduced Minja from the stage to join him in a song, and Minja -- without a word -- just handed Luka over to me and walked up to the stage, which was probably the best way to handle this. It took Luka a minute or two to realize that his mother was not there. What I loved is that Minja handed Luka over as if this were the most normal and natural thing in the world. Which it was, although I hadn't really spent much time with Luka at that point. This may seem a stretch, but I think Minja's absolute openness and optimism was reflected in that gesture.
My parents knew Minja as well. She and Tim stayed at their home in New Jersey when Luka was a toddler, for the New Jersey Shapenote Singing Convention where Tim taught a singing school. My mother introduced Luka to animal crackers, for which Minja was grateful, noting to me later that she doesn't always know what sort of treats and cookies the children in the US have.
Here is a recent picture of Minja and Tim, taken at a singing convention in Massachusetts last March. Minja's hair shows the effects of some of the treatments for her illness, but what is most astonishing to me about this picture is that Minja is not smiling. Minja, in my memory, always had the biggest widest most embracing smile on the planet. That was Minja. This is still a fine picture, but it seems very sad and poignant to me now.
Minja's final words to her shapenote friends came in an email message today, forwarded from a good friend of Tim and Minja's:
Through Tim she has conveyed her great love to her dear friends in this singing community, and the wish that she be remembered for her life and not her passing.
I've done my best, but it's hard.
Update 7-18: Interesting remembrance from a recent student of Minja's is here: http://theamherstchirp.wordpress.com/2007/07/17/cheerful-songs-in-a-minor-key-remebering-mirjana-minja-lausevic/