Qawwalis, Found Sounds, and Benghazi: Locating the Sacred in a New York Church
Photo by Gil Seo
Many people, myself included, believe that art can build bridges. But the same day that a new festival started in New York that was supposed to do just that, the world was aflame because of another piece of art.
I have been to a fair number of programs where an artistic expression is considered a panacea. There is little thought to curation, conversation, or contemplation. Like anything of value, to make art a tool for bridge-building takes effort. When I attended the opening night of the Locating the Sacred Festival, I heard and saw the power I believe that art has. It was not only well-conceived, but it was also living proof that difference doesn’t have to lead to exclusion.
That night, it was cooperation and transformation on display. The night was passionate, and the performers were exquisite. It was a night that ruptured the vision of the world I had before going to the Church of the Ascension.
I went to sleep the evening of this September 11th, thinking that New York City felt close to normal that day; we really were healing. The morning of September 12th, I woke up at 5 a.m. and offered prayers, then went to my email.
Benghazi was in the news, the American embassy was attacked, and I would shortly find out that Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. I worked on the #NoToViolence campaign. The dread I had missed the day before had returned. As the day wore on, it became clear that Libyans were disgusted with the works of al-Qaeda, and people in the U.S. were able to understand that Muslims were not inherently violent and anti-American. I wasn’t elated, or even hopeful by the end of the day, but at least I wasn’t defeated.
However, the last thing I wanted to do was attend the opening of the Asian American Arts Alliance‘s Locating the Sacred Festival.
I was exhausted. My mind was in a political state, not a spiritual or aesthetic one. The idea of seeing Buddhist monks, a contemporary experimental musician, and a qawwali group perform in a church just didn’t seem like a good thing. It felt contrived and not really respectful to the events of the day.
But I went. I was cynical. I walked in and started criticizing everything.
The qawwali performers were set up in front of a big cross, which is a difficult symbol for many Muslims to deal with, as we do not believe in the crucifixion of Jesus. The Buddhist monks came out and did their blessing chant, and people started applauding. They started applauding! It was a prayer and they were clapping!
I wasn’t critical anymore. I was angry. Angry at the events of the day. Angry at the fact that people would clap at a prayer. And I took a breath. I was still angry, but I understood my anger. Where was God that day? I had not witnessed God Glory and Majesty, and I was being faced with people who had come for performance.
Then I thought about the monks. U Pyinya Zawta was introduced as being one of the leaders of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.
He was a religious leader in exile, but he was in front of a crowd, offering a prayer that earned applause.
It was a reminder. A reminder that one always has to struggle to experience the Divine. That devotion is performance. It’s not always done for the “audience.” But the audience can get something out of it. And I stopped. And I listened. And I looked for the sacred.
I wanted to take each presenter on their own terms, but I needed to have them work on mine. You can never know the author’s intent, and when it is an attempt to bridge you to a greater state of consciousness, isn’t it ultimately about the listener’s experience? The evening was an experience.
Religion is revolutionary. It was, is, and will be a catalyst for change. The Burmese monks were living proof of that. Marx may have thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but he never thought about how radical it was to have to, in the language of the Sufis, polish the mirror of the heart to see yourself and the world anew. That is a radical act. There is the societal revolution and there is the personal revolution, and they are linked.
Bora Yoon was introduced as doing something sublime. It was a good description. My ear is not accustomed to contemporary experimental music. I’m happy that I can appreciate 4’33” by John Cage. Yoon plays with “found things,” including old instruments, things that would not traditionally be called instruments, and sounds. She has an ethereal voice that sounds like it would be at home in the Choir at the Church of the Ascension, which it is, or in the Elvish kingdoms of The Lord of the Rings.
One of her found sounds was of a subway, which she explained came from an elevated line near the Triborough Bridge in Astoria, Queens. As a New Yorker, it was a sound that instantly made me feel comfortable. I realized the rhythm of the clackity-clack of the wheels was the rhythm of a dhikr, or remembrance of God. I was, at the moment, experiencing important parts of who I was as a person: New Yorker and Muslim. It was also a reminder that God can be found in the everyday.
The combination of Yoon’s voice and the electronic components helped create a bridge between the trappings of the modern and sense of spirituality as being ancient. The stories were inverted, and technology was ancient, with spirituality being modern. Perhaps that is the state of affairs we are entering. Twitter and the writing stick are both technology, and we are coming to grips with our own spiritualities now. And when I think about the prayer of the monks, with nothing but their voices, it makes me wonder if we can only understand a mediated spirituality.
With that thought in my mind, we entered intermission.
I looked at the stage again. My eye was once more drawn to the cross on the wall.
There is a Muslim theologian who argues that the cross, not the crucifix, should become an acceptable symbol for Muslims. It’s a reminder of humanity’s broken relationship with God, that we could have treated Jesus, a prophet of God, in such a degrading manner. If devotion is to help bridge that divide between creation and the Creator, than starting with a reminder of that rupture seemed important. I also realized that the Muslims who would be offended by a cross would probably not be setting foot inside a church, or listening to devotional music.
Above the cross were two angels holding a chalice, and it reminded me of a couplet by the famous Persian poet Hafiz. He writes,
Last night I saw the angels knocking on the tavern door
They took the clay of Adam and fashioned a goblet.
It’s a dense verse, but a powerful one. In Muslim thought, angels have no free will. They want to become like humans, who can choose to love God. One can become intoxicated on the love of God, and this is compared to drinking wine. Therefore, the tavern is where Sufis, mystics, go to drink of that love. Since the angels cannot choose to love God, they cannot enter. They try to mimic the experience by taking the clay of Adam and creating a goblet, presumed to be in the form of human, to receive the love of God.
Underneath the angels and above the cross was the inscription, “This do in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19). The quote echoes a verse in the Qur’an, “Remember the name of your Lord” (73:8), which is one of the verses that Sufis use to explain their participation in dhikr, remembering God’s name. Dhikr is the basis of sama’, or the spiritual concert, of which qawwali is one type. Flanking the cross on either side were images of angels with wings that would be at home on Persianate representations of angels. Decorating the moldings for the organ pipes were peacocks, which are the birds of Paradise in Muslim lore. I had moved — from being distrustful of the site to appreciating all these signs of connection amongst traditions.
Then the qawwals came on stage and they started singing “Allah Hu,” a fast-paced qawwali and sure crowd-pleaser. They stopped after a minute. It was a sound check. But a good one. The phrase means “God is.” You, as the listener, fill in whatever you want after the verb. The lacuna is powerful. Those in the audience who were familiar with the tradition were clearly energized.
The group members of Riyaaz Qawwali were trained in various different traditions, but they say they were brought together by their love of the art of qawwali. While all of South Asian heritage based in Austin, Texas, they are unusual amongst modern qawwals in that they are not all Muslim. In some ways, that seems very modern, to have so many non-Muslims involved in a genre of music identified as Muslim devotional. In other ways, it seems normal.
Qawwali has been consumed by non-Muslims in South Asia for generations. It is about the power of the blessing, or baraka, that the music is supposed to invoke. There is little doubt that Hindus and Sikhs participated as qawwals, and contributed to the text.
Riyaaz Qawwali plays to their multi-religious background, saying on their site that their recordings will include devotionals from HIndu and Sikh traditions. That sort of melding of lyrical tradition into qawwali is not unusual, and they gave a preview with a performance that included the refrain “Ishwar Allah donoñ tera naam” (“Ishwar [an Indic name for God], Allah [an Arabic name for God] both are your name”).
They ended their solo set with a well-known song in the genre, “Shahbaz Qalandar.” It was the perfect piece to end with, as it was upbeat and demands participation. More importantly, it is in honor of a figure that is a conflation of two separate figures: Lal Shahbaz, a Muslim mystic, and Jhule Lal, a Hindu deity, who become melded in folklore. The song is about the organic ways in which we come together.
The last song the group was going to perform is a traditional opening or closing song, “Man Kunto Maula.” It is an Arabic phrase that refers to Prophet Muhammad naming Ali as his successor. For Sufis, this is an important moment in history for the transmission of spiritual knowledge.
Riyaaz Qawwali was supposed to perform with Bora Yoon, but technical problems prevented that from happening. However, I could imagine the earthiness of the voice of the qawwals playing against the ethereal quality of Yoon’s; religious traditions, and body and spirit, coming together. While Yoon’s voice was missed, the combinations were still there. The body in motion, the cultures coming together through words, which elevated the spirit, could not have been a better way to end.
That absence of God I had felt, and the cynicism I walked in with was gone. This experience was a hopeful one, not aspirational, but grounded in a reality of that environment. It was a way to locate the sacred.
Photos by Gil Seo, except fifth photo from the top by George Hirose.