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Cross-stitches of Sound

This past weekend I had the beautiful opportunity to collaborate with the now Toronto-based world renowned master musician Shaho Andalibi from Iran, a fantastic oud player Hanna Touma from Syria, and wonderful vocalists Shifra Cooper and Nila Rajagopal. I was kindly invited by Anna Camilleri of Red Dress Productions to offer a short set of songs at the culmination of one of their always magical community arts events.

We presented three songs:

1. Kad Procvatu Behari (Arr. Mario Katavic), a Bosnian Illahi (a Sufi Muslim song of praise to the divine) that I originally learned from Pontanima Choir (A choir for peace) from Sarajevo.

2. Adinu, an Arabic song from 10th century Spain with text by Sufi philosopher Ibn Al-Arabi that I originally learned from Shireen Abu-Khader

3. Malaika, a Swahili song from Tanzania made famous by Mariam Makeba that I grew up with as a child living in Kenya.

Our ensemble comprising five musicians from different cultural backgrounds including Persian, Arabic, Tamil, Gujarati and European, and different faith backgrounds was not lost on us. In our new musical meeting global choral sound, Persian sound, and Arab sound found contemporary resonance through devotional and folk songs about love from Bosnia, Tanzania and the Levant. Product and process seemed to meet in a crucible of exploration, experimentation and creative trust. In performance, the songs we set in rehearsal I would say became more porous. In the moment taking from the Persian and Arab musical traditions, we improvised not only the content but the form. I'd say we had to become more open as individual musicians interacting in a collective where we would shape and move together in a musical journey. It definitely left me with a sense of excitement about how choral sound and practice could interact with music of the world, how and where the boundaries of cultural conversations lie, where formal structures of 'classical' choral music could meet formal and informal structures of music of the world, and how the two musical knowledge systems could enrich each other.

It was such a magical experience where especially we as choral musicians got a chance to break out of our choral boundaries to improvisatory and soloistic realms. It makes me think about how choral musicians sometimes lose their vocal identities in the musical whole, and how/where the opportunities lie in world music collaborations to re-present individual vocal identities, but in a layered counterpoint, bridging formal and informal, written and improvised, soloistic and ensemble music. In the moment of making music I felt anxious from a music director point of view, because I wasn't sure where the music would go next, how I would guide the ensemble forward, or if I needed to lead at all. In hindsight, I realize that being on edge, being challenged in the moment musically, having to step up to the present moment, and be excited about what was yet to come (that we hadn't heard before) was where the magic was. The struggle and somehow collectively getting through it allowed us to fly. I have a feeling that both the audience and we ensemble felt the nervous energy and musical 'struggle', but in that struggle somehow I believe we all came together, sat forward in our chairs and in our beings, and found a place of ease. The audience could no longer expect a standard performance of 'choral music' accompanied by instruments, but they could expect to be in the present, in a contemporary cross-stitch of sound that would hopefully delight and make room for music (familiar and new) to reach the heart in unexpected ways.

I like to think that in this contemporary sounding of worlds in conversation, experimentation, exploration and creative trust make for brave spaces for both audience and performer to become awakened to an anticipatory present. In this space where each of us is drawing on what we know and don't know I like to believe that we can find a new sense of unity and participation. We hear and re-hear ourselves, bringing what we can to the moment so that we can all be held mercifully together in a world beyond the music we encounter.

Thanks to Red Dress Productions for making beautifully brave spaces for people to connect in such a genuine way.

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