Myths, Legends & Music From Belgium To Yorkshire
Iwan Kushka is a man who's travelled the world, worked for the 'devil', and dedicated his life to his art: storytelling. Yorkshire's most prominent storytelling organization Settle Stories, have invited Iwan to perform a 'Story Concert' on the 24th June. An atmospheric blend of story and music, organisers are expecting a dark night of mystery and legends alongside unique sounds from the Iranian Frame Drum, the Zimbwean Mbria thunm-piano and the Armenian Duduk.
Inspired by Jung, his travels and his life experiences we had to catch up with Iwan pre his visit to Settle to let you know more about his fascinating life.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Iwan Kushka: that's not my real name, my real name is Kuchenberg. But that's such a mouthful in English. It means 'kitchen-mountain' in german, but because of the absence of the Umlaut (two dots) on the 'u' on English keyboards, it comes to mean 'cake-mountain'! So we took my wife's maiden name, 'Kerr', and mashed them up: KuchKerr, softened up slightly into Kushka.
I am from the most misrepresented country in the English imagination: Belgium. You see, I am from the East, from the hilly(!) and wooded lands right on the borders with Germany and Holland. It's the highest point of Begium: 694m above sea level.
I initially studied Law, with an MA in International Relations. Essentially because I didn't quite know what else to do and this was pretty broad. In my first job I worked as a Refugee Lawyer for the UNHCR in Brussels, defending Asylum cases against the Belgian Home Office.
This involved sitting people down for a 2-3 hr interview, helping them present their life-story and reasons for need of international protection under the Geneva Convention.
For the people themselves, they nearly almost commented on how liberating it had been to have their story heard.
I guess that was a powerful waking up for me to the realities of the world, but also to the power of the listening ear and the mouth and eyes that tell the story, and what passes through them, touching the hearts of everyone involved.
My next adventure was as a journalist in Cairo for a year.
It was the Foreign Investor's Lonely Planet! So I ran around, with my baby-face and a proper suit and tie, to interview CEO's and government ministers.
This was still in the time of Mubarak, we tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with him, but I did have dinner with the (gorgeous) grand-daughter of Anwar Sadat! We stayed in Cairo for almost a year, in which my Arabic got pretty good.
Things came to a head, and I could not go on with what I had come more and more to recognize as working for the devil. So I left the job and made myself at home in one of those under-developed beach camps on Sinai, learned to play the Oud (Arabic lute) and hung out in this magical place called 'Ras al Shitan' (the devil's head') where Israelis, Egyptians and Bedouins would meet up - an insider meeting place for musicians mostly.
I made a complete u-turn, started years of travelling around the world, un-learning, with the explicit goal of learning how to live happily with myself.
I felt that life had put me on these 'rails' toward an outwardly successful career, but that none of it would bring me any happiness. So I started on my mystical wanderings which brought me eventually to India, where I stayed for 6 months and secured myself a little sheppard's hut in an isolated valley.
With a running stream outside, a big hole in the ground for toilet, a Tandoori oven installed with dried cow-dung, a day's walk from the nearest village.
One night, I boarded the train and got brought all the way into a field on Dartmoor, Devon.
That was it for me, I very quickly settled down and met my wife to be within a month. That's ten years ago now.
I had expected to be in England for 2 weeks, I had a ticket back to India. I let go of all that.
I now am a professional storyteller and musician, community-worker and bodyworker.
The immediacy of storytelling, the authenticity of the experience, and the deep-reaching memory of earliest days set me in a kind of trance. I took it up immediately and have worked with stories for seven years now.
I very quickly realized that for me, music is an integral part of the storytelling experience, this is the way that bards of the past understood it; music to empty the mind, words to nourish it.
I consider C.G Jung the patron Saint of modern storytellers. I have had a life-long fascination for the writings of Jung. Just as my dreams are my personal myth, the old myths are our collective dream. The stories speak in dream language, that is, pictorial, in archetypal ever-valid always-present forces that confront us/the hero.
How did you become a storyteller?
There was a defining moment seven years ago when I bravely decided to call myself a storyteller. I booked myself into an 'Arts and Health' conference in Taunton.
I received a badge with my (new) Kushka name and underneath it said "musician/storyteller".
I had come a long way from my law studies, this was a defining moment. I kept the badge and stuck in on my door at home, it's still there...
At that conference, I picked up a flyer of an organisation called Superact, who sent musicians into schools, hospitals, etc. I phoned them up and asked how to get started for them as a musician.
The response was luke-warm, they had their team of trusted people and weren't looking for more.
That's when I mentioned that I also was a storyteller. 'Oh, really? We just landed a EU funded project which involves storytelling and we have no experience with it, could you come and meet us?'
When I arrived at the office some days later, I was greeted by the words 'we just received the final green light for the funding 2 min before you arrived, we can read a sign when we see one, you're in! We're meeting the partners in Rome next week, get packing...'
It turned out, the project had precious little to do with storytelling and was instead focused on making video films on Senior Entrepreneurs, so I did that for a while...But now I had a foot in the organisation and proceeded to cut out my own creative work for myself, I organised gigs and tours for 'our' storyteller, it was a very privileged situation.
Once, I was sent to Brussels to a conference on the Grundtvig Program (EU Funded projects on Adult Education), with a view to do networking and find potential partners for potential new projects for us to get involved in as an organisation.
Just before leaving, I met a lady who ran the storytelling castle in Belgium and Europe's largest multi-lingual storytelling festival. She was working on a new project and was looking for a partner organisation from the UK...
This is how I ended up in a EU project called "Sheherazade: 1001 stories for Adult Learning" and co-wrote a manual for Language Teachers across Europe, ran a pilot project in Bristol working on Storytelling with a group of Somali and Sudanese Refugees.
So being a 'Storyteller' has acted on numerous occasions like a magic key to fantastic new adventures, my personal Sesame!
Tell us something people may not already know about you...
I take a little daoist book with me everywhere I go. It's 'The Way of Chuang-Tzu' as translated by the great mystic and benedictine monk Thomas Merton. Chuang-Tzu is my personal hero.
The pieces are little stories/poems, I know that I will want to share this material in a storytelling-way one day. The Daoist masters of ancient China are the dudes! For me, they compressed words into the essential expression of the reality of existence, the way things are. Nothing to be added.
The 'Man of the way' lives simply, quietly, every breath he takes eternity...
I met such a 'man in Tao' when I was about 15 years old, on the Greek Island of Patmos. It was the American poet Robert Lax, who had lived on the island for many years, living a life of poverty and simplicity.
Although he will be thoroughly unknown to many, he does have a bit of a cult following and was in fact a great friend of...Thomas Merton! He was in his 80's and I will never forget the way he held himself, his eyes...
What power do you think storytelling has?
Storytelling gives me great pleasure. For me, storytelling is a secret ritual, something very deep and meaningful.
A seemingly light-hearted event, it seems at first to be all about the story; but then there's always a point, when the silence between the words opens up and widens, deepens, and what's said now, underneath the words, is 'hey, isn't this incredible, we're all here, together at the same time...' It' simple and beautiful. Human presence.
When the story works its spell, everybody is spellbound and still, they each bring their presence to this moment, I imagine it like a candle in their hands, the flickering light of their attention and consciousness.
See Iwan live - June in Settle at the Royal Oak. Make a weekend of it and join Iwan on Sat 25th June for his story workshop 'Poetic Body / Playful Mind'.
For more info & booking please visit www.settlestories.org.uk/true-moon-tales.
This interview was conducted by Charles Tyler, Events Manager of Settle Stories
Myths, Legends & Music From Belgium To Yorkshire, 14th June 2016, 17:51 PM