x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Transcendent beat

Music The World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles brings together musicians from more than 41 countries.

Khete Kahn, Habib Langa and Bunda Langa of Rupayan, an ensemble from Rajasthan, perform.
Khete Kahn, Habib Langa and Bunda Langa of Rupayan, an ensemble from Rajasthan, perform.

Think of music and Los Angeles, and inevitably one thinks of the secular world of rock 'n' roll - the fabled Capitol Records building with its stylus-shaped spire, the great machinery of music producers and promoters and labels, and distinctive West Coast bands from The Doors to the Eagles to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. For the last two weeks in September, however, the City of Angels plays host to a very different sort of musical jamboree - a celebration of sacred music from around the globe, with the emphasis on something altogether deeper than what Joni Mitchell once memorably described as "the star-maker machinery of the popular song".

The musicians participating in the World Festival of Sacred Music - the fourth such event over the past decade - almost all live and work in Los Angeles, but represent musical traditions literally spanning the globe: tanbour-playing from classical Persia, the throat-singing of the tiny Asian republic of Tuva, dancers and drummers from Burkina Faso and the flute-playing of indigenous tribes from across the Americas.

The music is not religious in the most immediately recognisable sense. We're not talking about church choirs or songs of praise. But it is, according to the event's organisers, deeply spiritual in intent, if not also in overt meaning. Judy Mitoma, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California in Los Angeles who first brought the festival into being in 1999 and has overseen each of its incarnations since then, sees her mission as nothing less than a redefinition of the relationship between musicians and audiences - one no longer based on crass commercialism, but on finding both a spiritual and a cultural connection.

"Performance in the West represents a very narrow band of what performance is as you look around the world," she said. "We in the West are in the minority - with our separation of art from people's lives and belief systems. "Our thinking with this festival was: let's create an environment in which we can foreground this - give artists more room to reveal the private connection to their artistry." The scope of the project is impressive in itself: more than 1,000 musicians playing in 41 different venues over a 16-day period. The gala opening on Sept 13 took place on the UCLA campus. Other events are being held at the main Los Angeles public library, a Jewish temple in the San Fernando Valley, an American Indian cultural centre in the foothills and the wide sandy beaches of Santa Monica.

In some ways, this is a quintessentially Californian event - an exploration of spirituality already familiar to anyone on the West Coast who has dabbled in eastern religions, or yoga, or attended a political event in support of the Dalai Lama. It was in fact the Dalai Lama who got the ball rolling, back in the late 1990s, when he sent out a mass mailing from the Tibet House in New Delhi proposing just such a festival celebrating the oneness of spiritual experience around the world. Mitoma, as it turned out, was the only person who responded to his letter - prompting him, on his next visit to Los Angeles, to pronounce her "the one" who could make it happen.

The first festival, in 1999, turned out to be a success against the odds. The powers at UCLA were uncomfortable with the idea that it would somehow be a marriage of church and state - an alien concept in American public institutions - and worried that the project would be a violation of the terms of various grants Mitoma had received to do her ethnomusicology research. The festival ended up opening an office off-campus to circumvent these objections, and became what Mitoma calls a "stone soup project" - one where a large number of people wanted it to happen, but understood that they all had to play their part to bring it about. Many of the venues donated their premises and other resources for free. Musicians leapt at the chance to showcase their native cultures and traditions and, in some cases, to mix it up with others'.

By now, the sense of community behind the event has become well established. This year's event is operating with a budget of around $300,000 (Dh1,100,000) but the total expenses involved add up to something closer to $2 million (Dh7.4 million) - the difference being made up by individual and institutional donations. The opening concert set the tone in fine style, with a line-up including the great Angolan singer Waldemar Bastos, the throat-singing group Chirgilchin, a fascinating collaboration between the Indonesian singer Emiko Susilo and the American jazz guitarist Rob Levit, and the LA-based classical Persian musical group, the Lian Ensemble.

The Middle East is well represented throughout the festival, with a heavy emphasis on both Sufi and Sephardic Jewish traditions across the region, as well as Moroccan music and music from classical Persia. One of the more intriguing performers and producers is Vanessa Paloma, a Colombian-American musicologist who has travelled extensively in northern Morocco, collecting women's songs in the Judeo-Spanish tradition. The work she presents includes multiple influences from what is one of the most culturally rich corners of the Middle East - strains of musical tradition from Andalusia, the Arab world, the indigenous Berbers, the Sahel African Gnawa, and more.

"In mainstream North African music, women are certainly talked about and often idealised," Paloma said. "But we don't always hear so much about what is going on with the women themselves. This music includes songs about weddings, about life cycle issues?In Morocco there is not so much interest in women's music. These are considered work songs, songs about daily unimportant things that wouldn't ever find a place on a concert stage."

Moroccans, though, are among her most appreciative audience members. "We cover a big range of styles," she said, "and for Moroccans it's a reminder of the variety of home." It is also an exploration of cross-cultural resonances that inevitably has political overtones. The very act of exploring a common tradition binding Jews, Muslims and other groups in Morocco is an expression of cultural unity often lacking from political discourse.

Paloma, who sings many of the songs herself and also plays the medieval harp, said that, for her, the idea of oneness in human experience is a deeply religious concept. Mitoma echoed her sentiments, saying she very much hoped the festival could act as a tool for promoting greater understanding, especially between peoples who have shown a disinclination for that sort of unifying force. "If I didn't think this festival could be an agent of change," she said, "I wouldn't be doing this."

Mitoma freely acknowledged that attending the festival was not so much about seeking out music you already know you like, but rather allowing yourself to be open to new, often unfamiliar things. As she put it: "It's not about your taste, it's about who someone else is." Clearly, that's a high bar to cross - especially when musical traditions have deep roots in the cultures from which they come. The challenge, she said, is to ask this question: "Is there information embedded in the work that transcends language, tuning, scales and instrumentation?"

To judge by the popularity of the festival in a city famous for its ethnic diversity, the challenge has been well and truly met. At a time of turmoil around much of the world, the festival's various appeals for peace - in Tibet, in Darfur, in the Middle East, and elsewhere - have resonance in themselves. And when, on the last day of the festival, 100 dancers and chanters gather on the beach for a sunset tribute to the Hawaiian deity of the ocean, many Californians will have little difficulty joining in and feeling the ceremony is somehow part of themselves.

For more information, visit @email:www.festivalofsacredmusic.org