Bio in Three Acts
WHO CAN CLAIM TO BE . . . a singer blessed with a 4-octave voice, who has toured internationally, dazzled critics, created a full-length anti-apartheid musical, scored ballets and award-winning TV specials, volunteered with Mother Teresa, visited 74 countries, met Queen Elizabeth four times, written a book that’s one of Oprah’s favourites, who Bryan Adams was delighted to sing with, who toured with Harry Belafonte, spent time with the Head Sangoma of the Zulu Nation, is a Member of the Order of Canada, was born to tell stories, and can touch peoples’ hearts and souls with her stories and music? The only one who can say, “THAT’S ME!” is the incomparable Ann Mortifee.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Ann spent her early childhood on her family’s sugarcane plantation in Mtubatuba, KwaZulu-Natal. Her father, Alfred Mortifee, a politician/farmer and Member of Parliament, was opposed to the apartheid system of racial segregation. When Ann was 10, he moved the family to Vancouver. At the age of 15, in response to a dare from her classmates, Ann sang on stage for the first time. The venue was The Bunkhouse, a coffeehouse popular with touring performers, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and high profile American singer/activist, Josh White. White recognized Ann’s extraordinary talent, and became the first of several acclaimed performers with whom she would tour.
Ann’s natural stage presence and remarkable four-octave voice caught the attention of the theatre community, and she was cast as the Singer in the world premiere of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a tragic story of a young aboriginal woman adrift in an unfeeling city. Ann co-wrote the musical score with Willie Dunn and formed a strong bond with Chief Dan George, who played Rita’s grandfather. The play resonated with audiences, and opened Ann’s eyes to the power that art has to touch emotions and effect change.
‘Rita Joe’ was invited to be one of the inaugural shows at the opening of the new National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. Ann stayed on in Ottawa after being cast in the Love and Maple Syrup Revue, which played at the NAC, then toured to New York and ran for one month off-Broadway. Clive Barnes, the influential New York Times dance and theatre critic, wrote, “Ann Mortifee . . . could be quite a discovery. Miss Mortifee has a voice like a dark lark and a faraway look of mischief in her eyes, and she plays a guitar with more than common expertise.”
Ann stayed in New York for a year, performing in east coast theatres and joining the cast of a touring production of the musical revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. She commuted regularly to Ottawa, where she co-hosted the CTV music/interview show, Both Sides Now. When the Royal Winnipeg Ballet commissioned her to compose the score for what would become an internationally acclaimed dance version of ‘Rita Joe’, she returned to Canada. While preparing the musical score for recording, Ann met jazz flutist Paul Horn. Together they improvised the overture and epilogue of her first ensemble LP, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
Ann returned to Vancouver to perform in an Arts Club Theatre production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Over 8 sold-out months, it broke attendance records, helped establish the theatre, and launched a long friendship between Ann and fellow performer, Leon Bibb.
After the 8-month `layover’ she was back on the road. Her next ballet score was The Grey Goose of Silence, for the North Carolina Dance Theatre, and back in New York she appeared in her third production of `Brel` – this one at the Village Gate Theatre in Greenwich Village. Renowned EMI music producer, Norman Newell, was so captivated by her performance that he produced her first solo LP, Baptism, which was recorded in London at Abbey Road Studios.
Following Baptism’s release, Ann created her first one-woman show, which played for 6 sold-out weeks at the Arts Club. She then composed two ballet scores, Klee Wyck, a Ballet for Emily Carr (Anna Wyman Dance Theatre) and A Yesterday’s Day (Les Grands Ballet Canadiens). She narrated an award-winning documentary, played concerts, and was profiled on the BBC-TV series, The Camera and the Song.
Within the whirlwind of accomplishment, rave reviews and success, Ann sensed that something was missing. At the close of a solo concert in Vancouver she announced that she was stepping away from performing and composing to pursue other life experiences, and to concentrate on inner expansion and growth.
Her sojourn began in Whistler, BC, where she built a chalet and made travel plans. She then set off on a journey which included India, where she studied meditation and volunteered with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy (an experience which sowed the seeds for her future work in palliative care). She cycled through France and Italy, studied painting for several months in Paris, and lived for a year in war-torn Beirut. After giving an impromptu concert in Tunisia to a fractious group of delegates from a United Nations conference, and observing how music connected them, she came to a realization. ‘Rita Joe’ had shown her music’s power to raise social awareness. She now saw its power to build bridges between cultures. It was time return to composing. It was time to go home.
Profoundly affected by her travel experiences, Ann`s new, more deeply layered music was featured in a one-woman show, Journey to Kairos, which toured across Canada and became an award-winning TV special and an LP. Her career was back in motion, and the idea of using her music as a healing tool started to take shape.
Ann’s touring schedule expanded and she performed with John Denver, Ramsey Lewis, and Academy Award-winning composer-pianist Michel Legrand. She received a West Coast Music Award (Best Female Vocalist), and co-wrote the Born to Live LP with Michel Legrand. Harry Belafonte invited her to tour with him. A friendship with Prime Minister Trudeau, who she had met in Ottawa, deepened, and she accompanied him to dinners given by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Reflections on Crooked Walking, her first full-length musical, premiered at the Arts Club Theatre, and the cast recording became her next LP. She was nominated for a Genie Award (Best Original Song – Gypsy Born) from the score she created for the movie version of Margaret Atwood’s novel, Surfacing.
She sang with symphony orchestras across North America and Europe, starred in an Arts Club production of I’m Getting my Act Together and Taking it on the Road, and returned to the USA, where she composed the score for and starred in The Arabian Knight at the Cleveland Play House. Her next LP was Turned on Christmas with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Synthesizer-Rhythm Ensemble.
Ann’s third one-woman show, Welcome to the Planet, toured across Canada, and `Brel’ was re-staged for a short, sold-out run at the Arts Club. She recorded her Bright Encounter LP, and frequent TV appearances included an award-winning jazz special on CTV with Moe Koffman and Bobby McFerrin. In the midst of these busy years, and with great joy, Ann gave birth to her son Devon. Parenthood coincided with a commission from the Canadian Opera Company to write the Rose is a Rose children’s opera.
Away from the spotlight, Ann was actively realizing her vision of using music as a healing tool. She presented arts and consciousness workshops at lifelong learning locations including Hollyhock on Cortes Island, BC, and the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. Somehow, despite being a multi-tasking young mother and an in-demand librettist, composer, performer and workshop facilitator, she found the time to co-write a book with activist/author John Robbins. The topic was one that she had lots of experience with – finding balance in the busyness of life!
Ann’s activities and music caught the attention of California-based clinical psychologist David Feinstein, PhD, author of Rituals for Living and Dying. A great friendship developed and their many talks about the healing power of music led to a collaborative LP, Serenade at the Doorway. The album has comforted and inspired thousands of people in transition. Ann was invited to sing a key song from the LP, Healing Journey, at the Closing Ceremonies of the XV Commonwealth Games. One half a billion people worldwide watched the televised event.
Soon afterward, Ann gave her first-ever keynote address at an international conference on palliative care and hospice. It led to work throughout North America and Europe with those facing death and those who work with the incurably ill. The seeds planted in her volunteer experience with Mother Teresa were sprouting.
Ann’s exquisite singing generated a Juno Award nomination for Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year, and then she received greater honour. In fact, it was the highest honour that can be bestowed on citizens by the federal government. Ann was appointed a Member, Order of Canada, in recognition of her “marvellous vocal range that thrills listeners, her deeply stirring, emotionally powerful poetry, her composition of children’s musicals, scores for ballets and scripts for stage and television, her offering of music therapy to disabled persons, her sense of social awareness to people of all ages and backgrounds, and concerts that benefit a wide range of worthy causes from the peace movement to environmental protection.”
The next album that Ann released, Healing Journey, was a compilation of songs from previous albums. It evolved into a concert tour and a series of workshops which eventually were used in support of greater care and understanding between patients, caregivers and professionals. She then moved on to other topics in workshops, on her own or in collaboration with people renowned in their fields, including Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Marion Woodman, Bernie Seigel, John Robbins, Jean Houston, John Kehoe and David Feinstein. Amidst the travel, she returned to Vancouver to be inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, and was also deeply honoured to receive a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award.
Although Healing Journey projects occupied substantial time and energy, Ann continued to compose and perform. Her apartheid era Romeo and Juliet-style musical, When the Rains Come, written in collaboration with David Feinstein and Edward Henderson, premiered at the Arts Club. She re-united with the original Arts Club cast of ‘Brel’ for five sold-old 25th anniversary performances and a cast recording was released. In Cleveland, she co-wrote and appeared in a musical play, Jacques and Maddly, about Jacques Brel and his last love, Maddly Bamy. It was a thrill to have Maddly Bamy herself appear in the show. Ann returned to Vancouver for a workshop presentation of The Skin You Shed, her newest one-woman show.
Ann’s Healing Journey work was profiled on a 30 minute episode of CBC-TV’s Man Alive series. For a seven year period she had travelled constantly, working with people in transition, and somehow kept her hand in composing and performing in musicals, touring, and even co-writing a book. She now felt that it was time to move on in order to focus her energies on a deeper musical exploration of her African roots, and to contribute to societal and environmental healing in new ways.
In 2001, Ann and her brother, Peter co-founded a foundation to support social innovation, the environment, social justice, health and education. They named it The Somerset Foundation in honour of their father, whose middle name was Somerset. The upbeat spirit with which they undertook the project would soon be tested.
Ann’s apartheid-era musical, When the Rains Come, was chosen from hundreds of submissions to be presented to producers, agents and industry professionals from all over North America and Europe at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s 13th Annual Festival of New Musicals in New York City. Sadly, the terrible 9/11 twin towers disaster happened 12 days before the festival opened. The city and the country were in crisis, and festival participants who would have otherwise flown to New York to attend were unable or unwilling to travel. The festival that year was sparsely attended and sombre.
Shortly afterward, an Evening of Song with the Bibbs and Mortifees took place at the Stanley Theatre in Vancouver. The concert featured Leon Bibb and his musician son, Eric, and Ann and her singer/actress sister, Jane. It was a tour de force and audience spirits were greatly uplifted through the quartet’s compassionate tone and superb musicianship.
The events of September 11 had raised public consciousness of the deep need for human and planetary healing, something dear to Ann’s heart. Her next project was co-creating, with David Butterfield, the Trust for Sustainable Forestry in support of healthy forests for a healthy world. Soon afterward she was thrilled to be a featured performer with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Celebration for Peace Concert, in honour of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.
Ann travelled to South Africa to deliver workshops with John Kehoe and David Feinstein, and on her return, created a new one-woman show and tour, The Skin You Shed. She then turned her attention to another Africa-themed project. On an earlier trip to South Africa she had spent time with Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a revered Sangoma (Shaman) of the Zulu Nation. Their pivotal meeting laid the groundwork for her masterful theatre production and album, Into the Heart of the Sangoma, which premiered at the Arts Club.
The launch of ‘Sangoma’ coincided with her marriage to renowned jazz flutist and dear friend, Paul Horn. In describing ‘Sangoma’, Paul said, “Ann has created a masterpiece in this recording. Her years of travel, spiritual searching, performing, writing and a deep desire to touch bases with her roots in Africa, all come to fruition. I am deeply moved.”
Ann and Paul embarked upon a rich, joyful period of touring, traveling, and giving workshops and talks together. She wrote a second book, the best-selling In Love with the Mystery, and was thrilled to learn that Oprah Winfrey keeps the book on her nightstand. Another honour arrived when she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for service to Canada. One of Ann and Paul’s final projects together was an interview for the PBS documentary, Where is the Quietest Place on Earth. A month before Paul’s death in 2014, he and Ann, with their friend and colleague Ed Henderson, recorded a still-to-be-released album, The Beloved.
Ann continues to write, tour, perform, deliver workshops, and give keynote talks. She recently sang at the Angkor Wat International Film Festival in Cambodia, and at the Marginal Arts Festival (inspired by George Ryga) in Summerland. Her newest full-length musical, The Mysteries, co-created with Edward Henderson and David Feinstein, is in development. Her workshops inevitably draw enthusiastic participants, and – as an indefatigable and lifelong storyteller – she has started writing another book.
Ann was blessed with prolific talent, a luminous aura and a sparkling personality that draws people wherever she goes. She is a holistic, multi-faceted person of optimism whose music defies categorization. It effortlessly blends aspects of folk, musical theatre, pop, sacred, and world music into her own unique, uplifting genre – Human Journey music. Her extensive travels (to 74 countries) and her years of inward journeys and support for others on their journeys and transitions have gifted her with extraordinary life experiences and insight.
Atmospheres where people of all ages join together and share what matters in casual, friendly surroundings are precious to Ann. She sees this as the perfect time in her career as an author, composer, singer, storyteller, and workshop facilitator to bring the threads of a lifetime together. And like colourful, inscribed prayer flags dancing on a string, where it all will lead is written on the wind.