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'Songs of the Spirit' Stresses Commonalities in Faith Through Music

Peace on earth: It's a wish we often hear. But how do we turn that wish into reality in this deeply divided world? Music has always been a popular way to make harmony from our differences. That was the idea behind Songs of the Spirit, a multi-city touring concert in which musicians from diverse world traditions celebrate the joys of the spirit together. VOA's Adam Phillips reports from New York.

On a recent cold winter night in New York's immense Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, an audience of several hundred people had just settled in and hushed, when the silence was broken by the sounds of an Australian didgeridoo, a giant ram's horn trumpet from Africa, and a five-meter long Himalayan horn.

The vibrations that echoed off the cathedral's darkened stone naves emanated from religious cultures worlds apart. But the aim of the Songs of the Spirit tour was to find the underlying unity of all faiths.

"What we were looking at in putting this together was finding the places where we can connect with the music and in the music," co-producer and co-artistic director Jonathan Secor explained in an interview. "And the commonalities are there. It is about opening emotional doors, intellectual doors. And when you see those doors opening for people, it's fantastic and wonderful."

The bitter-sweetness of life were highlighted in Hasidic melodies performed by Lorin Sklamberg and Frank London of the Klezmatics . London says the spirit of Hasidism, a mystical Jewish sect with roots in 18th century Eastern Europe, contains equal parts joy, sorrow and the sacred.

"On the one hand, you have great sadness and longing," he explains. "The fact is we as human beings are in exile. We are far away from the Creator. We don't live in Paradise anymore. We live in this world."

But London says Hasidic teaching commands its believers to be happy. "You're really not allowed to sink into despair or depression."

The struggle for freedom is a central theme in African-American spiritual music. Concertgoers were visibly moved when Odetta, the legendary folksinger and civil rights activist, now almost 80 years old, took to the stage.

Songs of the Spirit included readings from sacred and secular texts that focus on the common ground between peoples of many spiritual paths. Haale, an Iranian-American musician known for combining Persian rhythms with a downtown New York rock and roll edge, took a moment to show the audience a different face of Iran.

She told them that English translations of the poems of Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic, have been bestsellers in America for 15 years. " I think it has to do with a lot of the urgency of his message, the message of love, the message of unity, the message of human transformation, of traveling through pain to get to the other side…. It's not easy to be human, but it is possible to transform from pain to peace."

The African continent was well represented on the Songs of the Spirit tour. Backstage, a girl sang alone in her native Swahili as she waited to go onstage with her young colleagues in the Shangilia Children's Choir of Kenya. Shangilia is a Nairobi orphanage that rescues kids from the street, and enrolls them in school where they learn academic and performance skills. And while the girl started alone, the joy was both shared and unrestrained once she went onstage with her young friends.

Equally at home were the Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery. They chanted and played according to ancient holy traditions. Spokesman Thupten Tendhar stood among 20 or so of his fellow saffron-and-burgundy-clad monks, beaming. He said he was happy despite the challenges of living in exile far away from his homeland. "Most of the chants that we do carry lots of great messages for [the] transformation of mind, [the] generation of a good heart and love and compassion, caring for others, respecting others' culture [and] for the enlightenment," he said.

At the end, everyone came onstage to mingle their individual musical voices in a final, collective song. Haale, for one, said she initially doubted that the tour would produce harmony at all. "And I thought, 'Oh, is this going to work?'" she recalled. "And then I thought, 'We [musicians] are sound makers, so that unites us all. And if we can't find some harmony among us, then, who can?'" She paused a moment, then added with a laugh: "I think we've done it. And I think it's beautiful."