- The Muslim Choral Ensemble takes its first global step
“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” is likely one of the most famous quotes about music that one can find. The line was uttered by a character in William Congreve’s 1697 play ‘The Mourning Bride’. More than anything, this quote illustrates the power and versatility of music – to heighten joy, act as a balm for a troubled soul, evoke emotion, and foster peace.
Last week saw a unique step forward in the world of music with the inauguration of the World Muslim Choral Ensemble (WMCE) – choristers and instrumentalists from India, Iran, Pakistan, the US, and Sri Lanka coming together to perform and learn in a residency in Colombo from 18 to 24 July, with a final public performance and public ceremony taking place today, 24 July, at the Lionel Wendt.
The official birth of the WMCE
The WMCE is unique with an international membership that hopes to continue enlisting musical Ambassadors for Peace to collaborate and celebrate Islamic choral music traditions from around the world. In so doing, not only does WMCE breathe new life into an interest in the genre, but also encourages and nurtures budding choral talent with a passion for Islamic choral traditions.
This Peace Ensemble consists of both female and male artists, transcending borders and encouraging cross-cultural collaboration worldwide to reach its goals, with participation open to not only Muslims but also non-Muslims with a passion for the genre.
WMCE is the brainchild of Haadia Galely (Executive Director) and ethnomusicologist Prof. André de Quadros (Artistic Director). The Muslim Choral Ensemble (MCE), under which the WMCE falls, was co-founded by Galely and Prof. de Quadros in August 2017 as a platform for Muslims in Sri Lanka who have a passion for Islamic choral singing. Behind MCE has been their vocal Coach Manoj Sanjeewa who has dedicated himself to training members from its inception.
A world first, MCE celebrates the richness and diversity of the rich Islamic choral traditions which span more than a millennium. The inaugural WMCE will focus largely on Islamic devotional music traditions of South Asia and perhaps Iran.
The WMCE was inaugurated on 18 July at an intimate gathering, where Prof. de Quadros spoke of the cycles of violence and poverty he had seen in his many years of travel and how encouraging it was to see support for the WMCE at a time when Sri Lanka was dealing with so much.
Prof. de Quadros also shared that the WMCE was initially meant to be inaugurated in 2020, but had been delayed because of the pandemic. “The world has not yet left Covid behind, but we are grateful to start this human endeavour face to face with our bodies and hearts sharing the same space together,” Prof. de Quadros said, adding: “Being together by phone or Zoom is never as good as being in the same space.”
Farzad Omidi, one of the international choristers performing in the WMCE, also spoke with Brunch at the inauguration of the WMCE about how excited he was to be part of such an initiative. “I generally love seeing new people and finding new friends and making music with them,” Omidi said. “Combining human voices together to make one thing is magical. It’s also a new experience for me to sing Islamic music this way. I’ve not experienced something like this before.”
Developing Muslim choral music
Following the inauguration of this new step forward for the MCE, Brunch sat down with Galely for a chat on how the MCE and WMCE came to be, how she sees its work fit in with Islamic tradition, and where she sees it going.
Galely first began focusing on music after the 2012 Senses and Soul Colombo Music Festival (Galely has worked in the entertainment industry for many years as an event promoter). At this time, Galely had also just met Prof. de Quadros who attended the 2012 Colombo Music Festival and conducted workshops with schoolchildren. Galely was looking to slow down and felt an innate pull towards supporting the arts and performing while also maintaining peace of mind and spiritual balance.
Muslim choral music came to Galely, because she noticed that Muslims, especially locally, didn’t have a choral platform. Adults and even schoolchildren move out of choirs they joined in school, and this is mainly because of the misconception of music being haram, or forbidden by the tenets of Islam.
Sharing her view on this aspect of public perception and the Muslim Choral Ensemble which she founded in 2017, Galely said: “It’s a very personal thing. Some people don’t even know why they consider music to be haram. I asked questions because I was willing to be informed about it, to learn something I didn’t know.
“Music has a message. It’s the connotation of what you sing and how you sing it. Qawwalis, Qasidas, Nasheeds, they’re all in praise of God, and I decided that was the path I was going to take – to create a platform where Islamic spirituals and devotional music can shine and one that embraces all the different styles of such music. You can compare it to gospel music, there’s not much difference.”
This said, not all forms of spiritual and devotional music are equal, and even within the MCE and the WMCE, care is taken to accommodate what makes performers comfortable and the medium they are using to perform. For example, Galely explained that some performances take place as ‘a capella’ performances or with only the duff (a type of frame drum) as accompaniment.
“The entire vision of the MCE and the WMCE is to go beyond the music and performing arts and align to something meaningful – music as a means of therapy and peacebuilding,” Galely explained.
True to Galely’s vision, over the past five years, MCE has extended its vision beyond the performing arts to include peacebuilding by participating in joint performances with choral ensembles of other traditions such as the Yale Alumni Choir at the Yale International Choral Festival in 2018, and with the Philippines Singing Ambassadors in a church at the International London Music Festival in London in 2019.
MCE also initiated and participated in Voices for Peace, an interfaith concert featuring a diversity of performers from all Sri Lankan communities in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, made possible with their hospitality partner Shangri-La Hotel in 2019, and the next in February 2022 at the same venue, in unison with Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu choral ensembles.
As a result, MCE is today recognised as an ensemble of peacemakers, and this vision will continue with the WMCE, and its choristers and instrumentalists will continue to embrace unity in diversity by acting as Ambassadors for Peace. Choristers and performers from around the world who become part of the WMCE will commit to serving, celebrating, and using their voices and music for peacebuilding.
Unfortunately, due to the current crisis in Sri Lanka, the WMCE’s inaugural residency programme has been unable to undertake outreach programmes at social welfare institutions as planned, and instead, this first residency will be focusing on a few small performances culminating in one larger performance at the WMCE closing event which will take place this evening. The performance and closing ceremony are open to the public and tickets are complimentary on a first come, first served basis.
The blending of different Islamic traditions from around the world
Part of what makes the WMCE, and even the MCE so remarkable is the nature of religious devotion. It is a deeply personal thing and how each person relates to it can vary even within the same country, and this, of course, translates into a performance setting. At the same time, devotion also unites, and this is what Galely uses as her foundation to bring all choristers and instrumentalists together across schools of thought and creative processes.
“Islam is a religion of oneness. Why should we divide at all?” she questioned. “We follow one religion of love. Some people use the meaning of love as a very generic term, but if you think about it, there are so many things that stem from that one word. We shouldn’t identify as being a denomination or group in Islam. Humanity combines with Islam perfectly. We don’t ask people what order they follow.”
To this end of humanity and inclusivity, MCE includes non-Muslim members as well, including its vocal coach Manoj Sanjeewa, who spoke with Brunch about leading a choir whose traditions and languages were not immediately familiar to him.
“It was quite a new experience for me. My genre is not Islamic music, I was trained in western music, and in conducting choirs and vocal training. This choir has been a totally different experience for me from the very first day. I had met aunty Haadia [Galely] before and she invited me to work with the MCE. The first day I met them was very exciting. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me.”
On training the MCE, whose songs are largely in Arabic, and now with the WMCE growing to include Farsi, Persian, and the Kashmiri dialects as well, Sanjeewa explained that overcoming the boundaries of language had not been a very big challenge. “I had lots of help from aunty Haadia and the other choristers as well when it comes to the nuances of these languages and performing them,” he shared. “But the language wasn’t really a barrier, because music is one language; it transcends barriers.”
With WMCE now on track to make its debut after years of planning, we asked Galely what her favourite part of the MCE and the WMCE journey has been, and was told that there was no one moment, but instead a collection of them: “At the end of every performance when I know it has all gone smoothly, and I know that we’re evolving and have taken yet another step forward, that’s when I’m happiest.”
The WMCE’s public performance and closing ceremony are open to the public and will take place on Sunday, 24 July at 7 p.m. at the Lionel Wendt. Tickets are complimentary and available at the gate on a first come, first served basis.