Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

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Pilgrimage and Presence

“It’s sad to leave the people you travel with.
How much moreso those who remind you of God.
Hurry back to the ones protecting you.

On every trip, have only one objective,
to meet those who are friends
inside the presence.”

(excerpt from Rumi’s “A Pilgrimage to a Person,” The Essential Rumi)

I am just back now from a trip to Kingston, Ontario with Inshallah, the 100+ voice choir I have enjoyed for 8 years or so. There we joined Open Voices, a community choir in Kingston with similar numbers. Between the two choirs, we were 170 voices strong, and performed a concert in support of Kingston’s Interchurch Refugee Partnership.

The event was spectacular indeed. It was a rich experience to sing with another choir, with two different directors and two different cultures. It truly was an opportunity “to meet those who are friends.” I like the way Rumi puts it: to meet those who are friends rather than meet those who will become friends. This presence he speaks of seems to reference a place and way of being where we are drawn into relationships that almost seem to have been prepared in advance: a feast awaiting our taking place at table.

I had the happy opportunity to be fed by and billeted with Open Voice chorister Stewart and his lovely wife Aileen. They were consummate hosts, a description that befits Open Voices. As we gathered around a programme featuring music both familiar and not, each choir had the challenge of learning to sing together, a process expedited – I think – by the realization that we were there together for the sake of refugees coming to Canada from Syria. They framed “presence” for us in their permanent pilgrimage.

But it wasn’t only the concert and cause that made “presence” real. The trip to and from Kingston on the bus, too, was a gift with much laughing, a bit of napping, some rich conversation and that sort of small talk that builds bridges and opens doors. I have been learning a bit about pilgrimage these last few years, and have discovered that leaving allows you to return to a part of you that might well be buried below the busyness of the everyday. I think this truth obtains for communities as much as for individuals. As a group we experienced ourselves anew, and this was a gift. And so it was so very poignant to come home and pick up my volume of Rumi and read that “it is sad to leave people you travel with.” But sadness is tempered by the memory that together we entered the presence, and were therein gifted.

Silent Might

Last Sunday the global song choir to which I belong, Inshallah, sang at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on the Six Nations of Grand River reserve, some 60 km south of Kitchener. We were there a couple of years ago, and happy to make a return trip. Father Norm Casey, the local priest knows us well, and has been a remarkable host to folk from the Kitchener-Waterloo area on a number of occasions. The seminary where I work has made numerous trips that Father Norm has coordinated. Two of our students have done internships there, and the folk from Six have been to visit us many times. Slowly we have developed a significant relationship and coming to the reserve is always something of a sacred journey for me.

I offered to drive my colleague and his wife, who also sing in the choir since I know the area a bit. Alas, I did not know it quite as well as I thought, and made a right turn one road too late. We had given ourselves plenty of time, and so were able to re-orient and get to the church on time. Father Norm and the folk from St. Paul’s were busy getting ready for all of us. The church has recently received a significant bequest, which has enable the community to do some substantial repair, and so the church was shining, nicely dressed and ready for the party.

Our choir is rather large, and we exhausted the chancel and choir area of the sanctuary. The nave soon filled and the evening began with a traditional prayer, honouring and thanking all the creatures of the cosmos, as well as the Creator. This was done by Mike Monture, a gentle man whose prayer in Mohawk was done in a chanting fashion. He translated his prayer for us as he welcomed us to the territory. The evening then proceeded as we sang our songs, and heard as well the music of the Mohawk Choir of the Six Nations of the Grand River. This was lovely, and touching as well. At the end, Father Norm thanked us, and invited Mike to give the traditional closing thanks. He walked to the mike and spoke slowly, so very slowly, telling us that in the songs and words he heard the Creator remind us of the gift of children, and this touched him deeply because he taught Mohawk to children on the reserve. He thanked us for this, saying he would carry this evening into his classroom the next day. He also noted that he felt a deep peace in his heart and with the community there, and he was glad for this. And then he sang again the prayer of honour and thanks for Creator and all the creatures. It was a profound moment.

I discussed this bit with my colleague, Debbie Lou, the director of our choir. We both noted the profound power in Mike’s words, and how this power came as a truly being with us, evident in the ponderous pauses between his few and so very carefully weighed words, which were as potent as could be. It was the exact opposite of my experience at Ebenezer Baptist church a few weeks ago, but in a way it was the same experience. I felt God in that place and in that time in the authenticity of the speakers. Certainly I believe God is always with us, but every now and then, we have these moments that feel just a little like a veil is pulled back, and we are ushered into a new reality: where wounds are being washed, and memories are being honoured, and bridges are being built and friends are being made.

When we left, we discovered that the road I missed was closed because a bridge was out, and so my detour was, in fact, the most direct route. This seemed a fitting lesson as we slipped away from that holy moment into the fog that accompanied us all the way home.

We Are Party to this Intoxication

We are all traversing

a whirling dervish:

earth in ecstasy,
madly twirling in
love, in
devotion, in
expectation. And
we are party to this
intoxication –
earth under us, earth in us,
earth our mother, earth our song.

Can you hear the music?

Can you hear her heart

beating a cantus firmus?

Will you be her melody?

Will you be her silence, her hymn?

Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.

These Nave Walls

Words evaporate, not
exactly disappearing but
dissipating, they’re
aired in near ubiquity.

Drawn to their limit, they
penetrate these nave walls, where
they wait
until we wait
upon them.

If you are still;
if you but listen,
you can hear echoes
of chorale and converse.

We might join in, or
perhaps not, but
we dare not forget that
there is more to be
heard than said.

Sing me to the Moon

Friday night my wife took me to a Kellylee Evans concert. Kellylee is an emerging artist who gives a jazz twist to a variety of musical genres. I really can’t describe what happened, but I’ll give it a shot.

Energy poured into “The Studio” in the form of a diminutive dame shorn of shoes. She sang with a voice serenely smooth yet strong; soft and strong, her voice invited me in. I crossed the threshold and the door closed behind me. Slowly a table was set. She took music that I might not otherwise imbibe – hip-hop, rap, various genres of music, along with jazz standards – and wound them round her voice, which is as peculiar and precious as scotch – neat with enough peat to pull disparate sounds into a sensual singularity.

She sang, she danced, she transformed a wooden audience into a waving, singing, swinging body. We drank from the same well and became one, if only for this moment of magical escape. But no, that isn’t quite the right word: it wasn’t so much a magical escape as a momentous immersion in the power of music. Here we discovered the joy of being in the presence of Song, in this instance we glimpsed another way of being in the world – a way of joy.

At one moment in the concert Kellylee said: “Thanks for coming out tonight and supporting live music.” Not “me,” not “the band,” not a thousand things you might otherwise imagine. No, she honoured “live music.” It made me wonder how often people encounter music in the flesh. Is our addiction to technology the kiss of death for musicians, for music? Who knows? It seems as if some folk are permanently plugged in – constantly under musical siege. But something different happens at a concert. There is a power in the presence of the songstress and her fellows as they call us to cast aside our control if only for a moment – for a pure moment as they chase the muse where she leads. Something happens in this loss of control, in this gathering around song, in this seeing a new of being in the world – swaying our way into abandoning ourselves to joy. She starred our Friday night.

As I went for a walk Saturday night, I thought of Friday. Kellylee Evans made our night shine. She sang me to the moon, where I could see constellations from a new vantage point. I drank deeply from her vocal well and was wondrously quenched with a new kind of thirst: a wanting more of this wonder at beauty, goodness, and truth, if not Truth.