Music in the Spirit of Peace | Print edition


By Daleena Samara


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Driven by a simple desire to help Sri Lankan youth, Haadia Galely created a powerful force for peace

The Beginnings: The Muslim Choral Ensemble performing at the Russian Cultural Center in Colombo

In June 2018, a group of young Sri Lankan choristers opened their souls in song on stage at the Yale International Choral Festival. Their moving renditions of Islamic devotional music, from naats to Sufi-style hamds, baiths and qawwalis, touched the hearts of the audience. After the show, there were hugs and tears. Some said, “I don’t know what you sang, but you moved me.

It was something of a miracle because just over a year earlier, the same young people had auditioned with voices so raw, that the ensemble’s co-founder and executive director, Haadia Galely, walked out of the room in dismay. She was auditioning choristers for her new initiative, the Muslim Choral Ensemble (MCE) and had invited the group of young Sufi musicians to her home. Then she looked worriedly through the door at the reaction of MCE co-founder Professor Andre de Quadros, professor of music and music education at Boston University, ethnomusicologist, writer and human rights activist. man, who had flown to Sri Lanka to help with the auditions.

The teacher was polite. You guys did well, he told them. After they left, he wanted to know what Haadia intended to do. Earlier in the day, a call for auditions yielded only two candidates.

“I want to give them a chance, so we’re going to give them the opportunity to train,” she replied.

Haadia turned to Manoj Sanjeewa, lecturer, musical director, composer and singer at the University of Visual Fine Arts, for vocal coaching. He had formed many choirs, but not one that sang in Persian, Arabic or Urdu, common languages ​​of Islamic devotional music with which he was unfamiliar.

Additionally, training young people with little or no formal musical education has posed challenges ranging from understanding music education technique to thinking and performing in unison, creating respect for traditions. Islamic music and equating these elements with spirituality in the presentation. Manoj took it in his stride and in the process came to know and understand the nuances of the tradition and its central message of love and peace.

Professor de Quadros, a heavyweight in global choral circles, was an important presence, providing direction and inspiration.

Thus began the Muslim Choral Ensemble, born with the simple objective of providing young Muslims in Sri Lanka with an avenue to pursue their cultural musical talents. Haadia, who had been in music promotion for three decades, says Sri Lanka is teeming with young musical talent, but they lack opportunities, funding and direction.

Touching Hearts: MCE at the 2018 Yale International Choral Festival with Festival Artistic Director Jeffrey Douma (front center) and Haadia Galely (front right)

“Young Muslims are in the choirs of public and international schools. They are part of qasida (general Islamic devotional music) groups and other choral groups, but that stops after they leave school because we don’t have Muslim choral groups to absorb them, and some parents are reluctant to let their children take up singing. So, I thought, why not give them a platform for devotional songs,” she says.

MCE was launched in August 2017, with performances at the Russian Cultural Center and Sooriya Village. The invitation to perform at the Yale International Choral Festival, alongside choirs from Mexico, Germany, and New York, came the following year.

Their program at Yale included a crucial element: a joint interpretation of Tala al badru alaina, considered the oldest piece of Islamic hymnology, sung as a welcome to the Prophet Muhammad around 1400 years ago by the inhabitants of Medina. . Performed by MCE and the Yale Alumni Choir, it made history as, perhaps, the first time a choir of Americans joined with a Muslim ensemble to sing an Islamic anthem in America. That the Muslim choir originated in Sri Lanka is also phenomenal.

“It really is a magnificent moment,” the teacher from Quadros told the audience. “With so much division, bigotry and hatred in our society, we should celebrate this moment of love and divinity.”

He also highlighted the power of devotional singing to bring together emotions and consciousness not only internally individually but collectively towards unity and healing. In Sri Lanka, the genre often promotes a mixture of religions, for example, people of all faiths join in Hindu bajans or attend Christian choral performances.

MCE embraced this powerful unifying program. The Easter attacks prompted Haadia, in collaboration with Shangri-La Hotel, to create a new initiative, Voices for Peace, an interfaith concert featuring not only MCE, but also local artists Umara, Dmitri, Soundarie David Rodrigo and Soul Sounds, artists from the University of Visual and Performing Arts, etc. Foreign artists such as Shahid Shabaz, winner of The Voice UAE, have also joined. Voices for Peace reappeared in February this year at Shangri-La with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and MCE choral ensembles, led by Manoj Sanjeewa, Soundarie David Rodrigo and Francis D’Almeida, with Professor de Quadros as guest conductor.

Professor André de Quadros

MCE has welcomed Christian and Buddhist choristers into its fold. In 2019, four non-Muslim MCE members participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Countries Youth Choir in Inner Mongolia. In the same year, MCE also took part in the London International Music Festival and also performed with the University of the Philippines Singing Ambassadors at a church where the two bands intertwined their Christian and Muslim musical heritages in a performance. bewitching.

Besides music, MCE provides a character-building opportunity for young people, Haadia says. Young choristers learn discipline and social and life skills through the variety of experiences they are exposed to, and parents often share with her how these experiences have helped build confidence in their children.

Importantly, MCE has also created a platform for all Muslim sects to unite and showcase Islamic spiritual repertoire, exploring the rich tradition of Muslim devotional music in Sri Lanka.

In a conversation with, the professor spoke about the richness of Islamic music. There is a diversity of different genres in what could be considered the music of the Muslim world…, he said. Apart from the spiritual recitation of the Quran which is not considered music, there are many other things: secular songs, hymns that date back 1500 years, Sufi songs, community songs that praise Allah, in the language of the community, be it Persian, Arabic, Indonesian, Urdu or Sinhalese. MCE would like to represent the full spectrum of Islamic music, including popular songs.

MCE can also help alleviate misconceptions and misunderstandings that have led to the marginalization of Muslims locally and globally. This philosophy echoes the professor’s words in a 2011 online interview: “Music cannot bring peace to the Middle East (and music cannot solve Sri Lanka’s problems…). However, bringing people together to work together, to sing together, to play together, to do poetry together, to experience interaction on a human level allows us to appreciate who the other might be.

The next step for Haadia is the creation of the World Muslim Choral Ensemble (WMCE), which will bring together choristers and instrumentalists from around the world to participate in a celebration of Islamic music. Funding permitting, WMCE will take off from Sri Lanka this year and travel around the world. A number of countries have already expressed interest.

Seeking funding in this gloomy landscape is a challenge, but Haadia believes in her cause. This business is not for profit but for peace, she says. “We are in the performing arts, but beyond the performing arts. All our artists are ambassadors of peace.

“After living through so many years of war, I am tired of words like ‘justice’ and ‘conflict’. There are so many things we are fighting for… I just want to focus on the end result: peace.

See also:

World Muslim Choir Ensemble

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