A Canadian Anthem
On July 19, 2018 I had the pleasure of presenting the Canadian National Anthem at a citizenship ceremony held at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. The Event was hosted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. I had the chance to join with two exceptional musical colleagues to present the anthem - Master Musician Shaho Andalibi from Iran who played the ney (an Iranian wind instrument) and Benjamin Stein who played the theorbo (a 17th century Italian lute/oud-like instrument).
I am going to use the word 'recite' rather than 'sing' to express how the presentation was done. I draw on my Ismaili and larger Muslim experience where we talk about 'reciting' devotional expressions, poetry. The word 'Quran' also literally translates to 'the recitation'. To say that we 'sing' melody and chant-based devotions is not untrue, but could come with connotations of performance, desire for attention, too much focus on physical technique, and diversions from the heart of the poetic devotion. At the same time, the most profound and well-received recitations are those that are intoned with beautiful sound, melodiousness, and emotional sensitivity - especially when the meanings are known and expressed. The vocal tones, intention, and presentation are so beautiful that you cannot help but be moved by their poetry, teachings, and sound. The heart becomes the perceiving organ for the fullest messages of the magnificent texts.
I bring up the idea of recitation because for this citizenship event, I felt like I was 'reciting' the anthem rather than performing it. Actually I felt like the instrumentalists were also reciting, not just accompanying. We were three individuals reciting the anthem together (on behalf of the gathered assembly) letting the weave of our histories, tones and colours speak in this shared moment of allegiance. At this ceremony where oaths were taken, agreements were made to give back to the society, and where stories about hospitable support to new Canadians were told, sanctity and sense of sacredness emerged.
A contemporary conversation
In that spirit, I was excited about this particular musical-poetic recitation because for me the instruments and their histories reminded me not only of histories of encounters in the Muslim world and the Silk Road but also the possibility of such new encounters here in a plural Canada. The theorbo, a colonial instrument (not forgetting the colonial history of Canada) is a 17th century Italian instrument from an era where cultural encounters with cultures across the Mediterranean were part of the sonic mix. The ney is an Iranian instrument that goes back thousands of years, and has been vital in the experience of devotion and poetic traditions, particularly Sufi traditions. I'm trained in Western classical vocal arts but I also bring a South Asian Ismaili devotional quality to my music. I was excited about what new contemporary conversations we could have about being Canadian through this musical collaboration.
At first it seems a simple musical goal. We confirm the key (a major key), Shaho plays an opening improvisation in a resonant Persian mode, then we bring in the anthem as Ben plays chord progressions on the theorbo and and Shaho improvises on the ney. We rehearse for 45 minutes and bid each other farewell till the next morning. We feel good about having discovered a cool sound together, but I am not fully satisfied. Something is missing. The 'quest' is missing. Some kind of musical struggle is missing. There is not fight. It seems too saccharin! It seems almost to easy. We come together, decide on some scales and form, and Voilà music as a universal language fulfills its promise of bringing diverse people together.
A spiritual heart emerges
It wasn't till the next day during our sound check that something magical happens. Since we have a lot of time Ben is curious about the Persian musical tradition. He asks Shaho about a popular mode in Persian music. As Shaho starts playing my heart beats faster. I feel a sense of devotion and spiritual presence reminding me congregational recitation and even choral singing. I feel a deep resonance. All of us in the room, the musicians, staff and volunteers who are setting up also stop to listen. In a very short musical (or shallI say devotional) moment, we all feel a transcendent magic. The air feels suspended. The sound of the ney is in that moment a sound for everyone. That's the unifying spirit, the essence that I felt was missing in rehearsal the night before - the spiritual essence of what makes the ney what it is.
The Reed Flute’s Song by Rumi – translated by Coleman Barks
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
spirit up from body; no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
with a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
Because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes
is for every one. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying
that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn’t want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
it’s best to cut conversation
short, say goodbye, and leave.
In this spiritual heart there is a place of ease. Creativity begins to flow. The idea emerges for Shaho to play a smilar excerpt in that particular Persian mode to introduce the anthem. The mode is not a major scale and not even in the same key we had chosen for the anthem. The formalist classical Western musician starts to struggle because I fear that the almost minor mode in a different key that the ney would play will make it difficult to find the beginning note of the anthem. So we all go on an exploratory quest to find a solution. The next thing we know, Shaho plays a very traditional, Persian, Sufi musical introduction (accompanied by the theorbo), modulates through an improvisatory style to the major key that leads into the anthem. Ben plays plays a progression that also points to the key of the anthem. At this point my heart is racing even faster. I can feel the blood in my body flowing faster. I feel tingling throughout my body. There is joy in the room. We all feel it. A real moment of unity through criss-crossing, contrapuntal, weaving in and out of the known and the unknown. We find a place of creative ease where we are able to be reflectively loyal to the known and at the same time, reflectively open to the new. The new is emergent. The new speaks a spiritual truth beyond what we already understand. We find a sweet spot in the collaboration, taking us beyond the tastes, cultural forms, and norms we knew, to a place where new ideas could emerge.
Spiritually inspired art
His Highness the Aga Khan has said that: "Whatever its vernacular forms, the language of art, more so when it is spiritually inspired, can be a positive barrier-transcending medium of discourse, manifesting the depths of the human spirit." (The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions His Highness the Aga Khan The Ismaili Centre, London October 19, 2003).
In the discovery of an emergent spiritual heart of our anthem recitation, I find myself able to re-hear a spiritual dimension in the anthem itself. The text of the anthem invokes the line "God keep our land". The French text references Christian symbols too. But now, with a newly framed introduction rooted in a Sufi tradition, presented by the ney in such a way that it seems to reach everyone in the room, a window of opportunity opens to cross barriers of difference and enter into a transcendent depth where possibility of unity is real.
Shaho recommends that we play the ney intro for a longer period than a standard introduction. He explains that to truly get into the heart of the emotion it takes some time. Ben is all for it. I am worried that because this is a high protocol event that there would be very little room for negotiation. As luck would have it, as we practice and get to know each other better in the green room area, one of the staff members responsible for the flow says that she would love for everyone in the room to have a chance to hear this music for a longer duration. Again, in an emergent creative moment we come to an agreement that it would be fine to have a longer musical introduction to showcase the instruments and the music. This gives us enough motivation to go on an even longer quest to develop the musical introduction and flow of the anthem. Either time expanded or compressed I'm not sure. But what I'm sure of is that when the intentions of the heart come forth in such a pure way, then indeed those intentions can come to manifest in beautiful ways.
The assembly is asked to rise for the 'singing' of the national anthem. We begin. The ney calls out to its source, invoking a call to the divine, a spiritual heart that fills the room again. The theorbo adds its invocations as the strings of its body resonate with each other. The sound echoes through the high ceilings and the metallic/glass structures of the airport. The right amount of reverb on the amplification gives an even more ethereal effect. I see the audience. Listening. Waiting in anticipation. Something unknown. Something also all to familiar. Maybe a little confused. Shaho tells me that the citizenship judge and the platform party show surprise also. Isn't this supposed to be the anthem? Feelings of anxiety settle and we all feel like we are floating. Then after two or three minutes, I hear the transition to the major scale on the ney, the chord progressions of the theorbo leading to the tonic. With a deep breath I begin to recite the anthem. I can't describe the actual feeling. It feels like we are floating. I am fully ware that we are engulfed in spiritual invocation of the ney, that we are invoking cultural encounters through a 17th century Italian instrument, and that we are bound by chordal structures and anthem texts from a Western history. Yet, there is a newness. There is a lightness. There is a sense of liberation. This musical rendition does not address our colonial history, but I hope that in this moment, there is at least a momentary spark of hope for a shared present and re-hearing of our time here together.
From the audience
I spoke with some of the new citizens, specifically Muslims, who reported that they felt moved and more connected to the anthem - in a way that they had not felt before. A member of the audience reported what a beautiful surprise it was when the ney introduction turned so smoothly into the anthem. Audience members also reported that the rendition felt mystical and spiritually inspiring. Others reported that the slower tempo was also a refreshing experience.
Hearing these reports is a such a gift because for me the connection to our country, our land, it's First peoples, settlers, new comers and visitors and our hopes for a better future is held in a spiritual lap of care. Connecting spiritually, we can perhaps 're-hear' our relationship with the land and each other. Through new textures of sound, and as we collaborate across indigenous, folk, cultural, devotional traditions I hope we can find new tapestries of sound that invoke transcendent wisdom, resonate the one soul from which we all come, and make brave spaces for knowledge to be shared and grown. In these new musical webs, I hope we can find a peaceful and harmonious way forward to solve our societies problems and increase the quality of life for all.
Shukranlillah Al-hamdulillah. Ameen.