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'Music Unites, Where Words Divide'

Singing the Interfaith Word

'Music Unites, Where Words Divide'

by Marcus Braybrooke

The recent visit of the Pontamina Interreligious Choir to the UK reminded me of the adage that ‘music unites, where words divide.’ Indeed Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN said, “In a world of diversity where often values clash, music leaps across language barriers and unites people of quite different cultural backgrounds. And so, through music, all peoples can come together to make the world a more harmonious place.”

Pontamina means ‘spiritual bridge.’ The choir, started 20 years ago, has emerged as one of the most important actors in the field of interreligious peace-making in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its musical skill emerges from a powerful vision of a future where religions act as a source of unity instead of division and where diversity is a source of healing, hope, and celebration. Pontanima’s music is a celebration of the beautiful artistic diversity that has resulted through the differing spiritual influences in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although many are only aware of how religion has been manipulated to fuel recent wars in the area, the region has a centuries-old tradition of religious co-existence and cooperation among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performs works of Mozart and Beethoven within the World Humanitarian Summit in Instanbul – Photo:    World Humanitarian Summit, C.c. 2.0 nd

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performs works of Mozart and Beethoven within the World Humanitarian Summit in Instanbul – Photo: World Humanitarian Summit, C.c. 2.0 nd

Pontanima has faced many challenges. In the beginning, some choir members found it horrifying to sing the songs of their “enemies.” Singers were criticized by friends who thought they were betraying their own people or religion and some religious leaders who saw it as syncretism. Nevertheless, the group has grown and flourished beyond expectation. Now it is increasingly recognized as a shining ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a major contributor to the cultural life of Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan as a workshop for Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab musicians. Meeting in Weimar, Germany – a place where the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment are overshadowed by the Holocaust – individuals, who had only seen each other as enemies, found themselves living and working together as equals. As they listened to each other during rehearsals and discussions, they crossed deep political and ideological divides. Though this experiment in coexistence was intended as a one-time event, it quickly evolved into a legendary orchestra.

Mother's Day from Singing Our Lives, a choral song cycle commissioned by 3FF and the Mixed Up Chorus, illuminating the stories and experiences of migrants and refugees living in the UK today.

The Mixed Up Chorus, founded in 2013 as part of the artistic program of the Three Faiths Forum, not only brings people of different faiths together to sing, but also audiences to enjoy music from different cultures. The now renamed New Mixed Up Chorus says, “We have no enemies: only friends. We believe that if we sing next to each other, we'll live well next to each other.” In 2017 they worked with composer Mike Roberts and librettist Sarah Grange, along with refugees and migrants from Freedom from Torture, Islington Refugee Centre, and Rhyl Primary School, to create a new song cycle – “Singing Our Lives.” There are many examples of the power of music to bring people together, such as the video here created by the The Faiths Forum to honor mothers. 

Can words also unite? That is a much more difficult task because most spiritual, religious poems, prayers, blessings, and hymns hue closely to a particular tradition. This has always been a challenge when I have organised interfaith services with a shared liturgy. In his book Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue, Douglas Pratt provides examples of what he calls “coherent interreligious prayer,” where the contributions of different faiths are linked thematically. In the 1920s Will Hayes started writing a series of canticles based on words from different scriptures or from spiritual teachers. They can be found in his collection Every Nation Kneeling. A growing number of people are writing hymns which are by intention universalist.

Words can be tricky though and not all “universal” prayers and hymns justly present all religions. In the late nineteenth century George Matheson, a minister in the Church of Scotland who went blind at an early age, wrote the hymn “Gather Us In,” which has been a favourite at All Faiths Services. It begins

Gather us in, thou love that fillest all,
Gather our rival faiths within one fold
Rend each man’s temple-veil and bid it fall
That we may know that thou hast been of old
Gather us in.

While this is very inclusive, the hymn goes on to suggest that each religion reflects one colour of God’s rainbow light and then tries to characterise each religion. For example, “Thine is the Parsee’s sin-destroying beam” is used to characterize Zoroastrianism. This could suggest a superficial amalgam of the teaching of the world’s religions, rather than an example of how faith traditions, through their individual ways of cultivating a relationship with the Sacred, can bring us closer to each other.

A common call to service may more easily unite different traditions, as in Donald Swan’s “We ask that we live and labour in peace.” It says

We choose the road of peace and prayer
Countless pilgrims trod,
So that Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew
Are together in God

Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech inspired Michael Forster to adapt it to be sung as a hymn titled “We have a dream,” sung to the tune Woodlands.

These hymns and prayers both respect the integrity of particular faith traditions and affirm our shared spiritual heritage and the common calling to work for peace, justice, and to serve those in need.

So perhaps words and music can indeed unite. Perhaps more and more poets and composers will provide us new ways to share particular offerings in a universal context. Until then, when you listen to sacred music from a different tradition, let the melody and harmony and sense of the sacred penetrate, and witness how close we can come to each other with both words and music.

Header Photo: Pixnio