How a spell on a remote Pacific island led a creative writing graduate to create a beautiful new album

The words people use most often to describe Trees & Shadows, a new album by Marc Cinanni and Esther Pallejà, are ‘haunting’ and ‘beautiful’. The pair, who together go by the name Mantranima, composed the entire album last year during a nine-month stay on a remote Pacific island.

A graduate of the MSt in Creative Writing, Cinanni’s musical collaboration with Pallejà dates from the time they met seven years ago, on a meditation course in Barcelona. ‘I played one night for some people, and she happened to be there, and we met and she could sing, and that was it – we met through music,’ he says.

Cinanni, who was born into an Italian immigrant family in Canada, sees music and writing as part of the same creative impulse: ‘To me writing is all rhythm. I am primarily musical. I am from a musical family, I was trained in classical piano, and the writing process is all about rhythm and sound, so for me it’s very closely linked.’

While he’d always been interested in music and writing, it was the course at Oxford that took his life in new and unexpected directions. In 2009, he was a member of one of the first cohorts – a small, tightly-knit group of 12. ‘The writing community was very supportive,’ he says. ‘I still keep in touch with most of my classmates.’

Falling in love with eastern music

Shortly after starting the course, however, Cinanni became ill. ‘I had to change the entire course of my writing projects,’ he says. ‘I ended up having to live in my parents’ house back in Canada, so my entire short story collection became a series of stories about suburbia and about the immigrant experience.’

In 2011, he went to the Blue Star Yoga Ashram in Trinidad and Tobago ‘just to see if I could shake myself out of it’. It’s there that he ‘fell in love with’ eastern music and decided he’d like to do something with it someday. Two years later, he and Pallejà teamed up.

The album was inspired by a decision they made in 2018 to take time out from their busy everyday life. ‘We just thought there was more to ourselves than we were living’ says Cinanni. He had recently bought a guitar, so they went to Canada and played a few small venues, before going to Hornby Island, off the country’s Pacific coast, to play some music. ‘We loved it, and we only stayed for six days, so when we returned to Europe, we thought, “This doesn’t feel right,” and so we decided to go back. We sold everything and we just left.’

Power outages and rainwater

It wasn’t an easy adjustment: life on the island is very basic, and it rained a lot in the first few months. ‘It’s really remote so there aren’t any street lights, there aren’t any traffic lights. At night it’s completely quiet, and there are a lot of power outages. We had rainwater for our house,’ says Cinanni. It took three or four months to adjust ­– though the couple’s then four-year-old daughter, Ama, settled in more quickly: ‘She didn’t like it at first at all, she wondered where her whole world went, but she was the quickest to adapt, and basically the island was hers. She knew all the trails and the insects, and the plants, and she had friends from pre-school and all the adults knew her.’

Once they settled in, however, Cinanni and Pallejà found the lack of distractions made it much easier to focus on making music. ‘If you’re a creative person then your creative impulses become very clear in these moments and we really wanted to take advantage of that.’

At the mercy of the seasons

They composed the entire album on the island, with Pallejà on vocals and percussion, and Cinanni on vocals, guitar, piano, bass and percussion, taking inspiration from the different seasons and the natural environment. (The pair have also written an ebook about the experience, called Finding Home: Starting over on a remote island.) Their previous musical venture, The Barcelona Kirtan Project, was a world album, but Trees & Shadows is very different, combining English and Catalan lyrics in an ambient sound with mystical undertones. The haunting quality of the music reflects the experience of being on the island, says Cinanni: ‘You’re at the mercy of seasons and animals and solitude, and all these things are quite frightening. But the result can be quite beautiful afterwards.  If you’re willing to open up to these forces and really live them honestly, you can come out of it transformed.’

You can download Trees & Shadows at:

You can find out more about Mantranima, and download the ebook, at:

Published 29 April 2020