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Aga Khan Park Opening

On Monday, May 25, 2015 I had the amazing opportunity to lead an octet of Ismaili Muslim Youth to sing at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Park, presided by His Highness the Aga Khan and Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne.

The Choir performed one piece before the arrival of the Honoured Guests and their entourage, and the Canadian National Anthem to initiate formal part of the event.


We performed Song of Encouragement, by Russell Wallace. Russell comes from the Lil'wat Nation of BC. The song's lyrics comprised vocables - syllabic sounds that Russell tells me are evocative of the sounds of nature. The song is a chant like expression, with a repeated motif that Russell and his family singing group, Tzo'Kam harmonized. We added Gospel and R&B Solos to our edition.

The reason we chose this piece was many fold:

1. Since it was the Aga Khan Park that was to be inaugrated, it seemed fitting to choose a song that was connected to the land.

2. To honour the lands on which we were standing. Though not from Ontario, including this piece was a recognition of the First Peoples of Canada who gave up so much for us to be there. This was our way of saying thank you and expressing our Canadian roots.

3. The idea of encouragement (which can mean many things) are inherent in the work of the Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Development Network. Encouraging education, health, economic development, diversity, pluralism, enlightened encounters, and improved quality of life, among others.

4. The piece evoked for me a form of remembrance, like a mantra, chant, or zikr. We felt that based on the event and the park's contemplative nature, that this kind of piece would be suitable to set the mood and centre our hearts and those of the guests.

5. We were asked to choose a song that could be compressed to 1 minute or expand to 7 or 8. So we chose a chant like piece that we could do that with.


Related to this song, we had a wonderful chance encounter after the event with Gary Kamemoto and his team of architects who worked closely with Fumihiko Maki to design and erect the Aga Khan Museum.

The first thing he said when he met me, was how he remembers the National Ismaili Choir sing at the 2008 opening of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat which his team also designed with Mr. Maki. I was blown away. What struck me was what he said about how the choir brought the space to life in a whole new way, and how the sound bounced off the various surfaces of the space.

He was so passionate about how the sound interacted with the space, so I naturally asked if he had heard the acoustics of the courtyard of the Aga Khan Museum, which a tone has at least a 10 second sustain in the room? He mentioned that he was aware of the acoustics but not that. Next thing you know, here's me singing for Gary Kamemoto in the courtyard which he helped design!

He was fascinated by the effect and in conversation expressed sadness about the tent acoustics we had just sung in that didn't allow for a piece like the Song of Encouragement to resonate as it should. He expressed his thoughts on the chant like nature of the song and how he would have loved to hear it in an acoustically generous space. I liked how he mentioned that the song reminded him of architectural principles, like repetition and geometry, found in the Ismaili Centre Toronto, the Aga Khan Park and Aga Khan Museum - and how the soloists we had added sparkle and interest to the repetitive motifs like one might design into a building. It was wonderful to hear his thoughts and see how the piece resonated.

The choir was lucky enough that timing and opportunity aligned soon thereafter, which brought us into the auditorium of the Aga Khan Museum to sing the Song of Encouragement for Mr. Kamemoto and his team. When we sang there it was totally a different experience, as it would be, than the tent. The overtones in the room sounded through the auditorium and back to us. We were singing WITH the space, not in the space, or for the space. The acoustics were fantastic.

It was also a special moment for us to give back to Mr. Kamemoto making it possible for him to hear the song in a nice acoustic space - one that he had a hand in! Not often does a group of young people have the opportunity sing a song, in an auditorium, for the architectural firm that helped design it, so we were transported to whole new world. What a special moment. We learned also that the space was designed for a 2 second reverberation, and we were delighted that Mr. Kamemoto was so enthusiastic about choirs singing there in the future. He was so down to earth!


Our arrangement of O Canada came from Cynthia Peyson Wahl, an outstanding music educator based in Winnipeg Manitoba.

Her arrangement evoked for me a sense of uplift, gratitude, and spiritual presence which we felt would be just the right arrangement for this event. In my research for arrangements I found little available. So I posted a request on facebook which yielded a message from Cynthia offering her arrangement.

The arrangement is perfect for high school and community choirs. The arrangement uses the basic harmonic progression of the song itself, but adds moments of harmonic colour that make the piece sparkle. Easy enough to learn on solfege or even by rote. There is enough challenge in the harmonies and other aspects of the arrangement that become foundations for solid musical learning, which was evident in our work to prepare. Congratulations Cynthia!!

What was interesting to me is guests attending the event, some of whom have limited knowledge of specific Western musical terms, spoke in a heartfelt way about the music, it's spiritual atmosphere, the way the layers of voices complimented each other. To me it sounded like they were talking about the arrangement itself. One guest remarked this was the best version of O Canada he had ever heard. Pretty awesome for the singers to hear that from a respected elder in the community.


We had talked alot in rehearsal about handling our emotions or nervousness when performing for our spiritual leader and dignitaries gathered for the event. Of course to sing at an event like this can be nerve wracking. And the pressure was one for us to deliver! What we came to understand is that the process of rehearsal, practicing, re-membering, keeping our 'thinking minds' always on, listening to each other, encouraging each other, harnessing the technique, and consciously recalling the little nuances we worked on, would hold us in good stead.We also talked about how all the kinesthetic gestures we used in rehearsal would help them embody the feeling.

All these aspects would ground us and keep us focussed. They would become a sort of container for our emotions and heart to be expressed. And indeed, our job there was to share a skill, a unique musical skill to commemorate the event. It wouldn't have worked well if we all fell into a puddle of emotions on stage, right? The singers with such grace and poise found that focus and delivered the anthem beautifully. I felt really grateful to see how the singers, who only came together as a group for that weekend, embraced this spirit and rose to a new level of performance and presentation.

I have to say, that I also understood that I needed to practice my own conducting gestures many times, thoughtfully and carefully, so I'd remember them in the moment. It's easy to forget!!! So the lesson I was trying to share with the singers, I think was teaching myself as well! As a teacher often what knowledge we think we are imparting becomes a pathway for our own learning and discipline.


Once we finished singing in the event tent, we came back to our green room and the Aga Khan Museum to watch the live stream of the formal ceremonies, speeches, etc.

We were then free to go, but we decided to mingle with the guests and soak in the energy. We had the blessing of meeting Ismaili leaders from across the globe, who shared their thoughts with the young singers. It was so powerful to hear words of gratitude and praise, honest and sincere praise. I know for these young people, to be able to see first hand the impact of their musical contribution meant a lot.


We took the opportunity that afternoon to go into the courtyard of the Aga Khan Museum, a glass enclosed courtyard, with an open roof. What's amazing about the courtyard is it's 10 second sustain in the sound. So with full hearts, having just performed one of the most important gigs of our lives, sang in the courtyard the National Anthem again, as well as devotional music. I can't explain what that moment felt like. But I wish I could show you the smiles on the singers faces, and their unity in singing, sharing knowing looks and encouraging eyes with each other. We were more than a choir in that moment. We were a living, moving being rooted in our allegiance to faith and motivated by musical excellence. We were floating in the harmony of the spheres, I like to think.


At one point, we were escorted out to the front of the Aga Khan Museum, where His Highness and the Premier would be passing by after a small reception for Mrs. Bata [Who was very kind & gracious in consenting to sell the land, which housed Bata HQs, and combined with the adjacent plot purchased by Aga Khan Foundation, for the purpose of Aga Khan Museum, The Ismaili Centre & The Aga Khan Park on Wynford Drive.]

Premier Kathleen Wynne saw the choir first, exclaiming, "Oh here's the choir!" It was amazing how she recognized the choir and how enthusiastic she was. Though for a short moment on stage and again here, seh really took in the choir. She spoke very kind words to the choir, followed by His Highness who shared his congratulations and praise. We were all very blessed for that moment which I know we will cherish for years to come.

On our way out we also had a chance encounter with Valadimir Djurovic (architect of the Aga Khan Park from Lebanon) for whom we sang an Arabic song Lamma Bada, which we were hoping to prepare for the event but didn't learn in time. He was SO genuine, down to earth, and excited to hear it. Our rendition was arranged by Shireen Abu Khadr. It had some interesting layers that Mr. Djurovic and his wife Mira were curious asked about. It was a joy to see this world renowned architect take so much interest. We continued to sing for him some of our other repertoire. It was fun to see a small crowd of event volunteers gathered to listen as well. We felt honoured to be able to create a positive energy in the room. As we exited we asked Mr. Djurovic if he would share some of his thoughts about the genesis and design of the park, which he so generously shared.

Yet again, what are the chances that a group of youth would have such an opportunity to hear from the architect directly, and to sing for him songs from his background. Once in a life time kind of moments.

These are all the special moments that as I told the singers they would tell their children and grand children. I imagine the day when a grandchild of one of the singers sees one of the photos in an archive somewhere and says, "That was my grandfather. They sang our Canadian National Anthem at the opening of the Aga Khan Park."


I want to acknowledge all the volunteers and staff of the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre Toronto, and Ismaili Council for Canada who went above and beyond their duty to make it possible for the choir to participate in this event. It is only because of their immense hard work, compassion, and genuine care for youth development, that we were able to do this. Thank you to all the singers also who showed such open hearts, willingness to work together, patience, leadership, and grace throughout the process. What an honour and privilege to walk along side you in this journey.

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