A Global Song: Chris LaMountain's Circumnavigator's Blog

The Baha'i faith began in 19th Century Persia by the prophet Baha'u'llah. Generally speaking, this faith system emphasized globalism, inclusion, and progressivism, and as such, Baha'i communities recognize sacredness in all the major world religions, ie. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. This has made an unique opportunity for Baha'i communities to form a musical tradition, especially in the pursuit of musically expressing the globalist nature of the Baha'i faith during devotional services. With only eight Continental Houses of Worship around the world, such as the North American Continental Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, IL, each House of Worship has approached this "globalist Baha'i music," in a different way that is often musically appealing to the local culture. For example, the North American Baha'i Temple Choir sings Baha'i Gospel songs that are inspired by the African American Gospel tradition.</span> <span style="font-size: 13.5pt; font-family: 'Tinos',serif; color: black;">During his trip, Chris will travel to six countries over 11 weeks to study the choral music traditions of the Bahá'í faith. He plans to visit six Continental Bahá'í Houses of Worship and participate in a few Bahá'í Choral Festivals. On his journey, Chris will interact with the choral traditions and choristers unique to each destination; specifically, Chris will be looking out for the different ways that each temple choir approaches musical style, use of languages and vocal technique, as well as presentational aspects of music during Baha'i devotions in each House of Worship. Overall, Chris is hoping to use the observations from this trip to deduce a method by which any community, sacred or secular, can promote inclusion and globalism through locally-appealing music.

India: Delhi belly… soiled again!

Kind World,

Trust me when I tell you that India is not easy on the senses. From the infinite splashes of color, car horn conversations that fill every street, 110 °F humidity, clouds of curry smells (and bodily odors (often from myself…)), a simple walk around town can feel almost violating for an unsuspecting Westerner, like myself.

Western and AFRAID

The most exciting of the Indian sensual experience, though, must be taste. Indian cuisine seems to have the goal of knocking your every taste bud with the greatest impact. I swear, I was not even aware of some earthly flavors until a friend I met at my first hostel brought me to Greater Kailash market for some street food. For a total of about 3 USD, we ate spicy tandoori, salty and creamy Afghani chicken, crunchy and sour pani puri, and the sweet, deep fried jalebis.

We finished our multi-course market meal with a popular dish, aloo tikka, which is a spicy potato patty served with curd, green and red chutney, and pomegranate seeds. My tongue replied: “Whom is she?” With little sleep, no shower, and now full with India, I settled behind the thick curtain of my hostel bed and tried to sleep among the snores of my nine roommates.

The next day, I blossomed out of my hostel bed and bounded down the forty minute walk toward the Lotus Temple. I passed various food markets, Hindu temples, impoverished families sleeping on the road, a cluster of high rises encircled by high-end cars. I felt I had seen everything by the time I reached the temple grounds. And finally, there it was.

Blessed is the Spot!

This stunning, egg-shell, Sydney Opera House-inspired structure, peaking out above the trees of the surrounding park. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the path, I was so distracted. Maybe it was the jet-lag, but I felt in a daze.

I floated passed the security check, and down what felt to be a three-mile (in actuality it is about 1000 yards) path from the Baha’i Information Center to the Temple doors. Immediately, I spotted an incredibly short man with a familiar face: it was Jafar, who was my main contact for the Lotus Temple during my research proposal process. He was supposedly the choirmaster of the Lotus Temple devotional music, even though I would come to discover that the Lotus Temple does not have a choir…So who was this mysterious short man?

Jafar the one in the blue!

The second he saw my face, he lit up, grabbed my hand and whisked me into the bowels of the temple to the tea room. Before any words, he poured me a steaming cup of chai, and–handing the scalding cup to me–he exclaimed, “You made it!”

He proceeded to explain that he is the choirmaster, which at the Lotus Temple, roughly means the manager of the devotional services. This Baha’i House of Worship functions much differently than the others that I have seen, as with about 10,000-30,000 visitors a day, the Lotus Temple offers a schedule of four daily prayer services, during which six selections of Holy Scripture (Baha’i prayers, Torah, Bible, Quran, Bhagvad Gita, Buddhist writings, etc.) are presented, either by reading or intoned in a chant.

Various Visitors coming in and out of the Lotus Temple

The choirmaster ensures that there is a diversity both in the textual source of the prayer and the language of the prayer. The most common languages used within these services are Hindi, English, and Sanskrit. During the Holy Days or other special occasions, such as the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the birth of the Baha’i prophet, the Bab, the choirmaster will organize an ensemble of chanters that will intone in unison, or add a few lines of harmony to a preexisting chant melody. For this reason, my research on the Lotus Temple’s devotional music will primarily focus on the solo intonations, and I suppose I will have to change the orientation of my research from “choral devotional music within Baha’i Temples” to simply “devotional music within Baha’i Temples.”

Solo intonement in the Lotus Temple (Photo approved)

The intonation practices within the Lotus Temple are nonetheless full of intrigue and add a great diversity to the global aggregate of Baha’i devotional music.

Fully jet-lagged and crusty eye, I was ushered by Jafar upstairs to the Temple interior where I was asked to present a prayer… How should I enter this world? I concluded to lead the way I had at every other Baha’i House of Worship: by singing my improvised, Van Gilmer-inspired version of “Remover of Difficulties.” After I delivered what I thought to be a well-executed, soulful sound, Jafar arose and sang a Sanskrit prayer from the Buddhist scripture (“Namo Dassa”).

I was stunned; his voice did not have a quiver of vibrato, his range seemed an easy half octave above mine, the melody was so simple, but so effective in the space. Prayers like this seem perfect for the booming acoustic in the Lotus Temple, as the listener can focus on the vibrations of the tone, which becomes meditative in itself. The more lyrical melodies of my Baha’i prayer repertoire are likely less effective in that space, as the characteristic melodic runs get lost in the reverberations. To say the least, I was enchanted by these new sounds and eager to begin learning more about this devotional music.

On my way out, I was introduced to Shobit, Reena, and Kavya who are the other chanters at the Lotus Temple, all of whom are volunteering as temple guides for a few months. Little did I know, I wouldn’t see their shining faces for the next week… (Cue evil, something-bad-is-gonna-happen music)

Flash forward a few hours, another friend from the hostel took me into the center of Delhi, a place called Connaught Place, as in “I simply Connaught with you anymore!” Here, there are various shops, restaurants, and my favorite, an underground market. And no, I don’t mean that it was on the black market or under-the-table type situation. This market (the Palika Bazaar) was genuinely underground, as in you had to descend to find the venders. Guided by my Delhite friend, I bargained for a nice mandarin collared shirt, and wore it as we walked for some more street food.

I don’t know what was going through my mind. Delhi street food… again? After our paneer tikka, my friend acknowledged, “I’m shocked you’re able to stomach this, most foreigners immediately get Delhi belly after eating food like this or drinking non-bottled water.” Delhi Belly, the words I had been warned about for months, now flooded back into my awareness, and seemingly realized themselves within my little, little body.

The next morning, I would wake up, a corpse. My body had completely gone limp. My temperature was reaching heats greater than the Delhi air, and my poor stomach was churning like a Betty Crocker stand mixer. How was I supposed to continue on? And can you imagine my OCD mind in complete conflict with my immobile body? It was–as Hannah Montana would not say–the worst of both worlds.

After three days in the Delhi Belly Underworld, all legends must rise again, and thus after my days of rest behind the heavy curtain of my hostel, I got out of bed with a stabilized temperature and less violent stomach. Some of the kind people I met in my hostel that had taken care of me over the days decided it would be a good time for us to venture to actually see some of Delhi.

By the grace of Rakesh and Bunty, I was shuffled around Old Delhi to see various Sikh Temples, an impressively large mosque, and Red Fort. I had always been aware of the Sikh faith, as there is a substantial population of Sikhs in my hometown, but I had never really investigated the faith. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, many American Sikhs mistakenly faced Islamophobia, due to the turbans that are worn by men. My time at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the largest Sikh temple in Delhi, completely opened my eyes to how amazingly hospitable the Sikh community is, which in full honesty shifted many of my own false ideas on these turban-wearing peoples. Similar to the Lotus Temple, the Sikh temple will collect your shoes at a desk, free of charge. As you walk barefoot around the temple grounds, they will shine your shoes, again free of charge. There were plenty of stations of free drinking water, water to wash your hands and face, and (my favorite amenity) a foot pond for feet rinsing before passing the temple threshold. Everything was kept in pristine condition, and the white marble shined beautifully against the multicolored head scarves worn by the temple visitors. Inside the temples, there was a section of musicians playing the tablas and singing in the call-and-response style. I could have stayed and listened for hours, it was enrapturing. The walls were coated in gold and vibrant colors. Passing the main “alter” area, I received a flower that had been blessed by a sage, and I was urged to hold onto this flower by Rakesh, who is Sikh himself. Leaving the temple interior, we descended to a massive pool area, where people will come to be spiritually cleansed. Watching hundreds of Sikhs perform this rite as the sun was setting was an unforgettable image. To top off this unexpected experience, I was brought to the feeding area, where the Sikh kitchen will feed anyone that walks in, again free of charge. I ate some delicious chapatti, rice, lentils, and tasty sauces. I was given a full cup of chai that brilliantly washed down the well prepared food. Rakesh informed me that the Gurudwara kitchen is one of the largest kitchens in the world, and Sikhs of all socioeconomic backgrounds will volunteer there to feed the temple visitors.

Gurudwara with its night lights

This experience rocked my world and gave me a beautiful, new perspective on the Sikh community. I anticipate my return home to central Massachusetts to visit a recently-erected Sikh House of Worship, just a 15 minute drive from my house. Nothing better than the destruction of cultural walls and misconceptions!

We also spent some time walking through Red Fort, which is an impressively large grounds surrounded by a tall-standing red wall. Passing the Red Fort markets, mosques, canals, and Arab-inspired architecture, Rakesh and Bunty were eager to capture a picture with me at every Red Fort corner, which gave me some well-needed time to exercise my camera skills.

Guardian of Red Fort?

The day finished up moving southward and making a quick stop in central Delhi. Here we passed by India Gate and the Parliment and the President’s House.

India Gate, a memorial for fallen soldiers

During my survey of Delhi, I became to truly understand the lasting impacts of India’s history with English colonization. Where Delhi is now, most all things seems like some functional, messed up meshing of the western and eastern worlds. The British political system of Prime Ministers and such are housed within stunning Indian architecture. The fully-air conditioned, pristine metro, so characteristic of Western metropolises, has a majority of stops with Hindi names. The McDonald’s do not serve beef! This is proof of the clashing of the worlds. And it works seamlessly. Well perhaps not as the food of Indian entered my American body, but all such conflicts will settle eventually, or so I am told.


Murchison Falls, Masaka, Matugga, Kampala: Memoirs of a Mzungu

Call me Mucunguzi. Now that I have found myself back in stable WiFi, I now wish to share with you my latter week in Africa, which I spent wandering around Uganda in a true mzungu style. My first stop brought me about four hours north to a natural reserve known as Murchison Falls.

Picasso: “Safari in sorrow” circa 2019, oil on canvas

This is one of ten major parks in Uganda where people will trek to find unfathomable landscapes and beautiful wildlife. I had the pleasure of taking a three day safari with Watalii Safaris, a small and newer company based out of Kampala. With no other tourists looking for a Murchison safari on those days, so I was the only one in the truck, along with Mark (a manager of Watalii Safaris) and Sula (the driver).

The guhls!

A personal safari… not too bad! But I was quite terrified, as I had negotiated a student discount with the company, so they explained all accommodation and food would be “budget” (I had been imagining the entire week leading up: “what is budget food?”) But this experience proved to anything less than budget! These guys hooked me. We stopped maybe four times on the car drive north at different markets and food stands, where Mark bought me chapattis, jackfruit, roasted corn, and other street food delights.

Sula and me, feat. pineapple (eaten like corn on a cob!)

We also stopped along various restaurants on our northern trek, where we consumed some fresh avocado, amazing lamb muchomo (BBQ lamb) and chapatti (of course).

I love matoke, beef stew, and avocado

I was charmed. Later afternoon, we arrived at our “budget accommodation” which was called Red Chili. Sula, our driver, claimed this place to be his “second home:” he knew everyone that worked there and they all seemed to treat me with special services because of it. I assessed my fate as we passed all these low hanging tents and huts, but eventually the grounds manager brought Mark and me to a cabin with the title “Segal” How opulent, #se-guhls!

Best chapatti wrap of my life? at Red Chili Safari grounds

Things were not as budget, as I had predicted after all. Red Chili was nestled over a great valley outlook, and the grounds were filled with friendly travelers from all corners of the globe. One traveler, named Helen, shared a drink with me and told me of her life growing up in Kampala, facing the loss of her parents in her teenage years, and eventual exile to England when she was 21 years old. I find it’s places of great turn-over that people tend to open up surprising amounts, and I was happy to listen to all the lives that were willing to share.

Chillin’ with Helen

Before the sun found its rest, Sula brought Mark and me to Murchison Falls, which is the most powerful waterfall in all of Uganda. I tell you, I looked at it for about thirty minutes straight… it was mesmerizing.

~Fall~ing in love with Africa

Essentially, the wide and fast Nile is pushed into a 7 meter pass which causes intense water pressure and results in this unstoppable natural fall. According to Sula, local people use to bring goats to the falls as divine sacrifice. I find this element of “nature religions” to be so interesting, in order to express gratitude or ask for something, valuable commodities, like a healthy goat, would be given to the fall, almost as if to feed the earth deity. Excluding the ethical issues with destroying the life of goat, I think the implication of respecting and giving back to the power of nature is something from which many text-based religious cultures, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc. could learn. When there are less systems or rituals to condition someone into witnessing the power of the natural world, the more one can justify the destruction of the earth. As the world’s powerful countries continue to wake up to the abundance of resources in Africa, places like Murchison Falls have been threatened with dams and other manufacturing to harness its natural power and as a result destroy its natural beauty. Fortunately, local Ugandans have greatly resisted these political pushes, and we can hope that Murchison will continue to spit its falls for many more visitors to experience.

I analyzed my time on the safari as a witnessing of natural power. There is so much superhuman force in the world: the falling river, the charging elephant, even the elegant giraffe as she longingly lifts her head. I was in my zone for this three day stretch–communing with the giraffes, families of elephants, and occasional lions. I will never forget these feelings.

Seeing as I was the only member on my private safari and Mark, the Watalii manager, lived within my cabin (#se-guhls4lyfe), I got to know his special soul on a deep level. He explained to me his background as an orphan from a very young age. With HIV/AIDS hitting Africa in epidemic proportions in the 1980, many Ugandans in my generation and a few decades older became orphans or grew up in a single-parent household. For this reason, there are various NGO (non-governmental organizations) and programs that exist to provide accommodation, education, and hope for such children. Mark, after hearing my life-long interest for religious music, opened up to me about Watoto Church, which is a Protestant church in East Africa that is famous for the Watoto Children’s Choir. This choral program takes in orphans and, along with providing them living, learning and worship spaces, teaches them songs and dances. These children’s choirs go on tours around the world, presenting their music to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The tours also serve as a platform for children to grow as leaders and witness different parts of the world, as Mark explained that many such children do not have the scope to see beyond their desolation. As a young adult, Mark worked with Watoto for six year, leading the groups of children to various corners of the world and providing musical support for the choir on stage. Mark and I even swapped a few religious songs, and we sang them together throughout the long stretches of savanna.

Watoto Church stage, before the Sunday service. Rock on!

The Sunday following the safari, Mark was kind enough to bring me to Watoto Church Downtown in Kampala and show me the upbeat worship from his faith background. I had never been to a church like this (and secretly I was so into it). It was essentially a rock concert with an uplifting message and a sermon at the end, and I was whippin’ my hair back and forth for the Lord. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the intensity of the Kampalan faith expressed through the very stimulating atmosphere of Watoto.

After getting changed out of our Sunday Best, Mark took to meet Michael, the other owner of Watalii Safaris. Michael and his wife we kind enough to prepare a full dinner featuring some of my Ugandan faves: matoke, sausage, katogo. The night ended with mandazi (fried, sweet dough balls) and dawa tea. “Dawa” comes from Swahili, meaning medicine, and darlings it tasted like it: ginder, lemon, green tea, honey. It took me many minutes and many beads of sweat to finish it, but apparently my drinking it was my tribal initiation, as Michael gave me my African name: Mucunguzi (Champion).

Later that week, I joined my host brother, Syrus, to visit his friend Sydney’s village, Masaka. This village in the Buganda region has some sections of relatively high development, but we went straight into the banana plantation to the small cluster of about forty homes where Sydney grew up. We walked the entire town and got to see some of Sydney’s old neighbors, the vast majority of them farming, drying coffee beans, or gathering water from the bore hole.

Matoke Time!

We even got to pass a man who was preparing bark cloth, which is a fabric made from dried and pressed bark that is often worn by royalty. This man, who spoke no English, explained to Syrus and Sydney how he uses a sharp reed to remove a layer of bark off of the tree, then this section of bark is flattened and dried, which makes it triple in surface area.

Masaka local in the first steps of making barkcloth

Finding rest in Sydney’s humble house, I was greeted by his mother and auntie. Both of them went to their knees and bowed to me, which I was quite shocked to experience. Apparently in more rural sections of Uganda, such gender dynamics exist. As the boys and I sat in the living area, the women were all preparing matoke and tea, which they later served to us on their knees. I was greatly humbled by the generosity of these people: they fed and treated me like royalty, though they have very little themselves. I was taught the phrase “Gyebaleko Nyabo!” (meaning “good work, ma’am!”), as a polite response to well prepared food. I left the village feeling full of mashed banana and appreciation for this experience. And as a cherry on the top, we stopped at the equator line to take a few pics.

Friends in both hemispheres!

On my last days of Kampalan existence, I spent some time roaming the arts and music departments of Makerere University with a Baha’i artist, Ezra. By chance, we ran into his old arts professors, who turned out to be one of the designers of the Shilling Bank note!

Later that evening, I was delighted with a songfest at Jjajja’s compound. Many Baha’is and Baha’i friends came to the compound, prepared with a song to sing. I got to hear many of the various Baha’i community songs (accompanied with djembe), Ugandan folk songs, original solo works. I was asked to sing some of my repertoire, and I found myself cracking up at how much the mood in the room shifted, as I started singing “Flow my tears,” or a heart-break ballad from an Italian operetta. I find great value in the uplifting spirit of African music, especially when juxtaposed to the often somber undertones of Western Art Music. Nonetheless, this was a wonderful community event of many, diverse sounds, and we ended the night with Uncle Wes singing the Lord’s Prayer. Sublime.

The last day, I found myself on the back of a 30-minute bodaboda drive to a suburb called Matugga. This was the town where a Baha’i choir singer and composer, Teddy, lives and works. She showed me around the private primary school at which she instructs music, dance, and drama. Eventually, she brought me to her class space, where about 40 of her student performed “You raise me up” and “Hallelujah” both fully choreographed. I was secretly crying as I filmed it. It was so powerful to see these children expressing themselves to these inspired songs. It was wonderful to get to experience more of Teddy’s spirit, as I will be in closer contact with her as I write my thesis on her music.

Starting positions for “You raise me up!”

Never stop singing, kiddos!

Teddy helping me board a bodaboda going home

And then I was gone. One last time, stuffed into the back seat of Syrus’ car, as four members of my host family came to see me off to the airport. Somewhat stressed and sweaty, I lugged my bags past a troupe of African dancers that welcomed recent arrivals into the dusty Ugandan atmosphere. And it will be these sounds and sights that will remain with me forever in my memory of Uganda: everyone smiling, shaking their body, and the drum never stopping.

Goodbye Uganda!


Kampala: The City of Seven Hills

Kind World,

Many will argue that Rome is the City of Seven Hills, but I beg to differ. After just under two weeks buzzing around Kampala, I have come to learn that this city in the heart of Africa has its own set of seven hills, making it a Holy City in its own way. Faith fills the air here just as much as road dust off of a busy street, and I have had the pleasure of breathing it all in.

Dusty and faithful roads of Kampala

With about one half of the Kampala population practicing Catholicism, one fourth Protestantism, one fifth Islam, and the remaining popoulation practicing other religions (Hindu, Baha’i, etc.) there is great religious diversity within the city bounds. Due to the general culture of openness here, Kampala displays its vibrant religiousness: taxis often feature Bible quotes and Psalm verses, vendors will dedicate their store names to God, and every other street sign advertises places of worship or prayer groups.

“God is Good!” according to this Ugandan taxi

The locals, too, tend to be very comfortable outwardly expressing their inward beliefs: I have had many Muslim taxi drivers that wear a Shalwar Kameez (tradition Islamic dress) and I have found myself in lengthy conversations with boda boda drivers and waitresses about Kampalan Protestantism. From what I can observe, people here have found a great balance between public displays of faith and acceptance of different faith systems. This of course is not to say that Kampala is a utopia of religious coexistence; at least, relatively to the Christian-centric (and sometimes islamophobia) undertone of the Western World, Kampala seems to hold itself together by its faith diversity.

Zooming out of the religious framework, Uganda itself holds incredible multiculturalism. Similar to Frankfurt, it is rare that I encounter a local that doesn’t speak at least three languages. After its British colonization in the early 20th Century, Uganda took English as an official language. Most every local Kampalan also speaks Luganda, Swahili, and one or more of the 50+ tribal languages found within the Ugandan borders. I have found most people here are eager to share about the Ugandan region from which they originate, their unique tribal culture, their mother tongue, and their life journey that brought them to the city of Kampala (most often for work). For example, Ezra lit up to explain to me the five languages he speaks, his origins in the Ankole Kingdom, and his eventual journey to Kampala to pursue a degree in arts at Makerere University (one of the most prestigious universities in Africa).

Sharing Matoke and Posho with my dear friend, Ezra

About two weeks ago, my host brother Syrus and his friend Sydney brought me to Ndere Culture Center, where I was DELIGHTED to witness a three-hour dance and musical performance that accurately displayed the cultural traditions from the various Ugandan tribes. Some of the highlights included Buganda drummers, the tribal love rituals from the in which men will court women by chasing them and proving their strength in a wrestling match, the circumcision rituals from Teso in which teenage boys must circumcise themselves in front of the village to prove their manhood. This monumental night of culture concluded with a full-audience invitation to the stage, where everyone danced together to traditional Uganda beats. It was electric and I totally experienced the participatory approach to art that is characteristic of African culture.

Impressive pot stacking by Ndere women

With its religious and cultural diversity and its geographic centrality, it is no wonder why Uganda was selected as the home for the African Continental Baha’i House of Worship. Unlike the North American Baha’i Temple, which is situated on the quaint, suburban streets of Wilmette, or the European Baha’i Temple, which is softly tucked into the wheat fields of Langenhain, the African Baha’i Temple was placed on top of a hill. It has been such a pleasant surprise to see the top of the temple peaking out on the horizon of my every drive back to the compound, and the experience of climbing up to the House of Worship feels like a magnificent spiritual ascent as well.

Baha’i Temple peaking out!

Unlike the past two Houses of Worship to which I have been, the African Continental House of Worship is (quite refreshingly) not white! Rather, it boasts light shades of orange-red and green, which happen to dominate the color palate of the Kampalan landscape between the dirt roads and the vibrant greenery. Architecturally, it was designed to appear like the huts that African farmers have been erecting and taking shelter in for millennia. Again, we can see an instance where the House of Worship becomes expressive of the culture of the continent on which it is placed, while still abiding by the unifying Baha’i architectural tropes for a House of Worship: nine-sides, surrounded by gardens, circular, chairs facing Haifa, etc. Analyzing the temple’s devotional choral music as the “voice” of the House of Worship, we will later discuss this same principle, where the musical component of temple devotion is both rooted in the local musical style, while also globally framed in it’s connection to Baha’i teachings.

House of Worship atop the hill

So far, I have found the music sung by the African Temple Choir to be fascinating in its rhythmic expression of local drum music, use of various languages common to the area (English, Luganda, Kiswahili, French, Lugisu), and method of presentation. Some songs will feature syncopated and disjoint bass lines which add a great local flair to the universalist text being sung. Similar to the European Temple choir, the variation of languages is a helpful tool in creating globalism within the sonic environment of the devotional service. Unlike the other Temple choirs, the African Temple Choir sings from the center seats of the House of Worship, just underneath the center of the dome. It is quite contrary to the audience-performer spatial orientation of the European Temple Choir and–in my opinion–is very reflective of the participatory approach to music-making that is characteristic of the local style. Given the immersed placement of the choir, a devotional attendee may feel more physically part of the production of devotional music than an attendee that watches a choir that stands in front of them.

The entire hill that leads up to the House of Worship is clothed in gardens of Ugandan flora, making the fenced-in hill area a peaceful space, especially when coming from the chaotic Kampalan roads. The choir meets for a pre-devotional rehearsal on a lawn just next to the House of Worship, so the practice of devotional music-making always has this sacred space in its backdrop.

Outdoor choral rehearsal

Continuing, the hill itself provides the setting for the Baha’i National Center, dormitories for volunteers, the housing for the Temple Director and his family, and places for childrens’ groups and devotional gathers. I was fortunate enough to catch the Kampalan Baha’i community during a Holy Day (Martyrdom of the Bab) and a Baha’i Wedding, during which I sang with the choir.

Alan and Angela’s Wedding!

For me, the Baha’i Temple hill has proven to have some significant mystical powers. Here, I ran into and sang with a woman named Dawn, who I would come to learn had attended Northwestern University some sixty years ago. Considering the number of universities in the world and the relatively small Kampalan Baha’i population (roughly 700) and the fact that I managed to overlap with Dawn’s two months of visiting Uganda, I found this somewhat of a mindblowing meeting.

Dawn and me after a choral devotional service. Go Cats!

The universe also delighted me with what I will deem a Baha’i miracle on this hill. After singing with the choir during the Sunday devotional service on July 14th, I was reflecting in my seat in the House of Worship. Out of nowhere, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up to see my Northwestern friend, Leana. I was surely hallucinating. Why was Leana in Africa? Was I still in Africa? I looked up to see an entire group of Northwestern students walking about the House of Worship grounds. They were participating in non-profit work in a town called Jinja (about a three-hours drive from Kampala) and had been visiting Kampala for the day and happened to be touring the House of Worship at the exact time that I was on the hill. Miraculous!

Leana and I visiting the Kampala Central Mosque

Wildcats on the Baha’i hill

I was enchanted. And this enchantment only continued as their guides allowed me to come on their (heavily religious) tour of Kampala. We visited the central Mosque, various street markets, and ended our day at Namugongo, which has a beautiful church dedicated to that location’s history of martyrdom that three popes and (our darling) Mother Teresa have visited.

Kampala has great intrigue for a young, strapping scholar of religious studies of my likeness. With its atmosphere of different faiths and cultures, its geographic centrality in Africa, and overall open approach to humanity, Kampala seems to be an excellent home for the African Baha’i Continental House of Worship. I am looking forward to telling you more of the surprises that I have found walking the seven hills of this Holy City.

Until then,

Kampala: In the Heart of Africa

Ensi ndungi,

Traveling makes me EMO sometimes, okay?!

The plush seats of Emirate Airlines have gently deposited me in the heart of Africa, and as a sage once said, “This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto.” I was welcomed by a three-hour wait in the immigration line, equatorial heat (which is somehow much milder than Frankfurt’s weather, ily climate change), and the kind faces of the temple choir director, Gloria, and her husband, Nelson.

Welcome Wagon from Gloria and Nelson

Carolyn, known as “Jjajja” (Luganda for “Grandma”) to the Kampala Baha’i community, swung around in her car to drive us away from the Entebbe Airport to her compound in Kampala. Perhaps seeing the equal levels of awe and distress in my face, Carolyn brought us to Cafe Javas on the drive home, explaining, “This is your last taste of the Western World,” as she ordered two Chicken Supreme Pizzas for the table. I could see all familiarity disappearing with each bite.

On the drive to Kampala, we passed stretches of banana farms, tea plantations, loose cattle and goats, and anarchic traffic. The tarmac road eventually turned to dirt and suddenly we arrived on at Carolyn’s compound. Being the secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly for the Kampala Baha’i community, Carolyn has generously converted her large Kampala estate into a community center and boarding house. Along with organizing various community events within her home, she hosts three members of the Baha’i community: 1) Shoghi, a diligent high school student and dedicated football fan, 2) Cyrus, a college graduate, now studying for the CPA, and 3) Wes, the kindest elderly man in the world, who loves to sing. I quickly learned that this compound would become my safe haven through my stay in this beautifully chaotic city and thus would become my Home.

Backyard garden of the compound

Mamma and baby monkey atop the compound roof

I can distinctly remember Jjajja’s first Kampalan complaint: “This city never sleeps, it’s as if the air is always buzzing with sound.”She was not wrong; we live adjacent to a Gayaza Road, which features piercing honks from the perpetual taxi during the day and booming music from the local bars throughout the night. Just when the DJs begin to quiet their stereos, the Salat al-fajr (Muslim call to prayer before sunrise) takes over the soundscape. It is always buzzing, and I am enamored by this (though my sleep schedule occasionally suffers). There is something so raw and alive and persistent about this city that I could have never expected coming from the ever silent streets of Kriftel, Germany.

Kampala Mosque, featuring the tower from which the call to prayer is projected

My host-brothers informed me that the cheapest and fastest mode of transportation in Uganda is a motorcycle taxi service, known as “boda boda” (supposedly coming from their ability to bring a rider from “border” to “border” without required vehicle registry). 3,000-5,000 Ugandan Shillings (about 1 USD) can get you nearly anywhere in the city, but these bikes are not designed for the faint of heart. Without seatbelts or a helmet, a rider will be whipped around, as the driver finds the most efficient way to weave through traffic. Hundreds of bodas will swarm the streets making a trip to the House of Worship or downtown Kampala an exhilarating, yet very dangerous event. A singer in the Baha’i Temple choir that I spoke with commented that Kampala is ruled by “functional anarchy,” which I quickly noted on my first boda experience.

The main taxi park in downtown Kampala… functional anarchy for sure

It is nonetheless a great way to witness the local way of life. With my frequent use, I have gotten to know many of the boda drivers in my neighborhood by name and my first steps out of Carolyn’s compounds are often accompanied by a warm “Ki kati Christopher, where can I take you?” from the Katalemwa stage (boda stand).

An image of me emotionally preparing for a boda ride into town

Along with my risky rides on boda bodas, I have often opted to walk around the close neighborhoods, such as Mpererwe and Komamboga. Being a few kilometers from the Kampala Kamwokya (city center), these areas are less “developed” than some more urbanized neighborhoods, making my walks full of surprises.

A field I pass on my walk to the House of Worship

I am often the only white person within a vast radius which has been–honestly–a challenging experience. I am often the recipient of stares and calls, children swarm me, screaming “Mzungu” (meaning “wanderer” or “stranger”), and at first I didn’t know how to interpret this attention. Finding myself in the center of the bustling Kalerwe Street Market, I gravitated close to my host-brothers as vender begged me to purchase their artfully stacked produce.

Kalerwe Market

Being white in the Western world, it is easy to forget that you have a “race,” but my short time here has taught me much about this aspect of my existence. I am lucky to be experiencing the racial minority from a place where most people don’t look down on me for my skin tone, as so many people of color experience in America. I am also lucky to be within Kampala’s racial lingua franca of hospitality toward a friendly, white man; an overwhelming majority of locals have greeted me with extreme kindness when I smile or say hello. I have formed fast friendships with Ugandas from the Baha’i community, especially through the commonality of music. The venders in my neighborhood seem to have memorized my order of a rolex (chapati flatbread with an egg) and roasted maize when I pass them for a mid-morning snack.

Roasted Maize, yummy yummy

The past week alone has been packed with challenges and rewards for which I could never have planned, and I think American culture could learn a lot from the way native Ugandans approach people of different colors as family.

New friends: Nino, Mash and Ibrahim

My experience thus far in Kampala has been “family.” Every morning, I share tea and breakfast with the house-helpers, Auntie Jane and Teddy, every afternoon, I am packed in the car with my host-brothers to get groceries at the market, and every night I find myself at some Baha’i devotional gathering with my Jjajja and the warm members of the Kampala Baha’i community. This Kampalan buzz is constantly in the air, like a hug… everything here is overwhelmingly alive and somehow living together. I truly am in the heart of Africa.


Langenhain: Still Learning to Say “Auf Wiedersehen”

Freundliche Welt,

No one said it was easy, tossing my bag of bones around the world. But I had no clue that the secret mode of transportation on this small globe was the Emotional Rollercoaster! Wow this is a sticky situation, my friends: two weeks per destination is such a wonderful/troubling amount of time. It seems the instant I grow accustomed to the area, truly fall in love with the city and find my way into the Baha’i community, it is time to go.
My last days in Frankfurt were distinctly special. Last thursday, I was invited to the 55th Anniversary of the Haus der Andacht’s Inauguration (1964). This was a splendid gathering of Baha’is and friends of the faith from the Hofheim area at the temple grounds. There was a grill for endless bratwurst, plenty of apfelschorle (non-alcoholic obvi), and even a beautiful “55”-shaped birthday cake.

Happy 55th, Haus der Andacht

Let them eat cake!

The seventy attendees ate and chatted, while a family was over in the grass played a few songs on guitar, all as the sun gently fell over the wheat field. It was so magical. We all then proceeded into the Haus der Andacht, where devotions were recited or intoned.

Setting sun in the field across form the temple

The night ended by moving back out to the lawn for a “storytelling” of the temple’s history, the significance of its architecture. Just like all other Houses of Worship, the Haus der Andacht in Langenhain has nine doors to symbolize the unity of all peoples and welcoming of all religions. It was so beautiful to watch the temple community reflect on their roots and take in this moment that they had been building towards for the past half century.

Storytelling on the temple grounds

Friday, I took the fastest train of my life to Darmstadt, which is a university town about 35 kilometers south of Frankfurt. That weekend, Heinerfest had taken over the town and the streets were flooded with food stands, carnival rides, stuffed animals, and neon colors. Everyone was so joyous, flicking a few euros to lose another round of ring tossing.

Heinerfest in Darmstadt

I only took it in with the eyes, and my friend quickly whisked me away to another treasure of Darmstadt: the Woog (pronounced like “vogue” in a dark, German accent). This is a small, fenced-in pond, perfect for a swim on another record-breaking day of global warming (39°C=103°F=toast w/o butter). With the student discount, the entrance was basically free. There was a dazzling slide, a raft to swim to, and some fun, well-manicured walkways surrounding the pond. I sat, eating almonds, trying to figure out how I would leave this place.

Vogue in the Woog

Saturday, I stopped by the Haus der Andacht again and spent some time in the library. I found a few books on the Institution of Houses of Worship and Baha’i Arts in the formation of a global community (The Fashioner), both of which I think will be very helpful in my research–I’ll keep you updated on my findings. I mosied up the short incline to the House of Worship, where I spent some time reading, reflecting and singing “Allah’u’Abha,” which seems to be one of the songs most all Baha’is know around the world. The temple’s acoustic is very unique. Something about the dome shape and the 540 window pannels does wonders for the vertical reverberation, so both in sound and physical sensation my voice felt multitudinous, as if some higher being was singing with me. It’s truly a special corner of the world.


As I walked out of my sacred session in the Haus der Andacht, I ran into the temple’s gardener, Manfred. Over the past two weeks, he has been a contact for me, as he is part of the various choirs that sing in the Haus der Andacht. As a side note, I am also quite drawn to his life and his committed time to creating beauty on the temple grounds. The image of the garden is very attached to Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah emphasized the importance of agriculture and often compared humanity to a garden, full of peacefully coexisting shapes, colors, sizes, smells, etc. but all receiving the same sun and the same rain. Manfred pointed me to an L-shaped patch in the middle of the lawn, naming all the different flower kinds.

“Ye are… the flowers of one garden.” – Baha’u’llah

He then, with the greatest excited, asked if I would do him a favor. Of course, I said… Anything for Manfred. He brought me toward the Haus der Andacht, through the bee-buzzing bushes, and down into the gardener’s cellar. “Take these,” he handed me four bags full of sweet-smelling seeds, “I was hoping to send these to the Ugandan gardener, but maybe it will be easier since your going directly there. I had to consider for a moment if i could legally transport seeds internationally, but regardless of law I could not turn down this opportunity. Can you imagine? Me, a floral missionary of the world, spreading flowers into new gardens. I was so inspired. So I took the pouches and said goodbye to the dear gardener.

Until next time, Manfred!

And now I am off. What an experience? To pour so much of myself into creating familiarity over the past two weeks, walking kilometers on end to meet more people and absorb more music, all just to be left, the process about to begin again in Uganda. My German diction has proven to be quite mediocre, so I will spare the Frankfurters from my attempt at “Auf Wiedersehen.” I suppose “ciao” will do for now.


Netherlands: The Haarlem Globetrotter

Vriendelijke Wereld,

My brave, little heart took the leap out of the safety of my German village homebase for a day. This past Wednesday, I traveled (in quite an appropriate direction) northwest to witness the European premier of “The Crossing,” which is a professional choral ensemble based out of Philadelphia and directed by my choral director at Northwestern University, Donal Nally. “The Crossing” and Nally have received two GRAMMYs over the past two years for their choral performances, so I was not about to miss this opportunity.

I knew I was cursed the moment I entered the FlixBus. For those of you that are not twenty-years old and/or looking to engage with cheap, terrifying, or unethical modes of transport, FlixBus is a bus service that will drag a low-budget traveler all over Europe on trips ranging anywhere from 2 to 20+ hours. Here is how I entered the FlixBus:

My first looks from the FlixBus (Frankfurt to Amsterdam)

Truly and already a European legend, optimistically on my way to Amsterdam. To flavor this post with some foreshadowing, I will now include how I left Amsterdam. Not cute.

My mug after yet another Amsterdam tragedy

Nonetheless, I arrived in the Netherlands quite joyously. I had already been last November, but the canals and bridges and pink flowers were as spectacular as ever. There is something so refreshing in the air (unless you find yourself outside a Coffeeshop, of course): so many people biking around, constant reminders of water on every walk, colorful signs singing against the neutral facades of the classic Dutch architecture. You truly feel the pace of the city as twenty cyclists fly by you without warning and sometimes a small apology. Even just six hours of Flixbusing brought me to an entirely different lifestyle than the soft-pretzel village life of Kriftel.

Netherlands or Always-lands???

I took a ten minute train over to the city of Haarlem, which is exactly like Amsterdam, except just a few meters shorter and vastly more preserved, as it faced less attacks during WWII. Many of the original Cathedrals still stand with preserved stained glass, which is sadly not the case for most of the gorgeous churches of Amsterdam.

Cathedral of St. Bavo, main church in center of Haarlem

Among the passing bikes and running waters, I was able to grab a bite to eat with my Northwestern friend and the current assistant director of “The Crossing,” Kevin Vondrak. We shared two pizzas at a table next to the composer of Aniara, which was the performance I would see by “The Crossing” later that evening. I was also delighted to get a visit by Donald Nally and catch him up on my studies of Baha’i choral music.

Kevin bought me dinner, so we love him

Three choristers in the streets of Haarlem

The performance itself was SUBLIME. I have never heard “The Crossing” live, but I tell you, there was surely some of my own spiritual crossing over during this performance. Nally takes more of a “straight-tone” approach to choral performance, which is common for early music and contemporary choral ensembles; Nally instructs the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE), the choir that I am a part of at NU, to sing with less vibrato, in this “straigh-tone” performance practice.
This style of vocal production allows for less interruption or variation in the pitch’s frequency and therefore the harmony of each chord is more easily heard and more overtones are produced, which gives the sound aesthetic a different (and arguably better) color and depth. Straightone choral singing also allows for an easier, more consistent unification of voices, which gives the artistic expression of “one voice alone.” Such a performance practice fits nicely with sacred music of the Renaissance and Baroque, which often had homophonic chants, hymns, and chorales. In terms of reception, the text of the choral song is easier to hear when the choir sings without vibrato, and in sacred spaces, the textual content of the song is often of great importance to achieve the didactic goals of the music. Nonetheless, with the rise of bel canto, the Italian vocal pedagogy for operatic singing beginning in the late 18th century, choral singing shifted to feature more vibrato, which turned the artistic expression of the choir to “many voices together.”. From this shift, Late Classical and Romantic composers like Beethoven for example, embraced the artistic possibilities of larger and less unified aesthetic of choral singing and produced works like the 9th Symphony, which evokes imagery of a collection of individual voices through the bel canto-inspired choral affect. This form can have vastly different rhetoric from the single-voice sound of sacred choirs, and in the case of the 9th Symphony, is used to aesthetically symbolize the diverse brotherhood coming together to witness something divine. This difference between forms and affects has been explored by Van Gilmer at the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Festival, to heighten the amount of sonic diversity of the program.

Donald Nally (the conductor), the librettist, a mediator and the composer at a Pre-Performance Q&A

Aniara was a wonderful work of choral performance art. The stage was set on the floor in a rectangular space with the audience facing in on two aisles on both long edges of the stage, facing inward. The performers moved in and out for about 90 minutes, with textures changing almost every thirty seconds: the entire ensemble would sing homophonically one moment, and the next, there would be a polyphonic quartet of singers, and so on. With planned movement around the stage, it was interesting to experience the sound dynamics based on which singers were close and which were father from my seat.

Aniara performance space

This spacial set up made me think a lot about space in Baha’i choral performances as well; even noting the difference between the spacial practices of the North American Baha’i Temple choir–singing from the hidden, 2nd-floor choir loft–and the European Baha’i Temple choir–singing in front of the devotional attendees–there could be an interesting difference in the attendee reception of devotional music based on the spacial placement of the choir.

I hurriedly left the performance, only to–my deepest tragedy–miss my FlixBus back! And no customer service number to call! Nothing! I was Cosette, sweeping and weeping! But I decided to pick my sweaty bones up, grab a heaping plate of fries, and eventually hop on a train back to the safe cobblestoned roads of Kriftel. If I have learned anything from my brief sojourn in the Netherlands, it is that I deeply miss singing with Donald Nally, I need to give myself at least an hour of buffer time with schedule transportation, and I will NEVER take a FlixBus again (though this is likely a lie… they’re so cheap!)


Bahá’í Moment No. 1: Oneness

Hallo Freunde!

I wanted to introduce a new segment to my blog, which I will delightfully call “Bahá’í moments.” In such blog posts, I hope to hone in on general aspects of Baha’i teachings, and explore how those ideas are exercised in the lived experiences of the community that I am visiting. One of the challenging aspects of my research project is that I am trying to best understand these general aspects of Bahá’í life alongside my specific studies of the music. I predict the greatest appreciation of the musical culture will come about with an accurate understanding of what life and faith means to Bahá’ís. As with all research in the Academic Study of Religion, there is great danger in generalizations, as no two practitioners will have identical understandings of the faith, and this is where religious stereotyping and xenophobia often arises. All people, regardless of religious background, can be thought of as a balanced expression of their innate biologies and constructed cultures within a moment in time. Moreover, a 19th century, European Jewish woman may conceive and act upon life in a vastly different way than a 21st century Indian, Bahá’í boy due to a culmination of their respective internal and external experiences. These blog posts are not looking to evaluate any religious practices against my own conception of religion or to prescribe a necessary way of Bahá’í life. Rather, I hope to document my gradual understanding of the faith, as it is exposed to me in my interaction with each community and through studies on Baha’i teachings. So without further ado, here is the first “Bahá’í Moment.”


As appropriate for the #1 Bahá’í moment, I wanted to discuss what I have found to be a central idea of Bahá’í teachings: oneness. This theme manifests itself as the oneness of God in Bahá’í belief and the oneness of humanity in the practical goals of the Bahá’í movement. Generally speaking, the Bahá’í faith can be categorized as a monotheistic belief system (believing in a single God, one ultimate source of Divinity); the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, saw great unity between the Holy scriptures of the major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam. He viewed the leading prophet figures from each religion (Krishna, Buddha, Elijah, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, etc.) as different manifestations of the same eternal Divinity, explaining that the evolving humanity needed new teachers at different times of great worldly chaos, hatred, and injustice. One of Bahá’u’lláh’s quotes engraved on the North American Bahá’í Continental House of Worship is “All the prophets of God proclaim the same faith.” This outlines the fundamental Bahá’í belief of Progressive Revelation, this cyclical manifestation of Divinity in different sacred figures throughout the course of human history. Given this notion, all peoples are essentially practicing the same religion and therefore praising the same Divinity. This suggests an inevitability for the unification of humanity: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,” and consequently, Bahá’í teachings tend to promote equal treatment of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, social status and religious background. Bahá’u’lláh’s philosophy encourages practitioners to actively work toward world peace and global concordance, which have been exercised on the larger, institutional dimension, such as the Bahá’í World Congresses in 1963 and 1992, on the local community dimension, such as the Bahá’í Sommerfest in Langenhain, and on the individual practitioner dimension, such as the suggested year of service for Bahá’í youth.
From what I have observed, there are strong emphasises on both community and individuality within Bahá’í practice. Religious hierarchy is largely reduced, if not completely disregarded; there is no Bahá’í equivalent of the Pope or the Dalai Lama or even a structural system of priests, rabbis, shaman, for example. This accents the importance of individual commitment to the fulfillment of worldly oneness. Nonetheless, seeing as the organization of community often requires at least some leadership to be taken, Bahá’í institutions, such as the Universal House of Justice, National Spiritual Assemblies (NSA), and Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA) exist to create platforms for Bahá’ís to come together. If one were to regard the peaceful formation of a diverse community as a fulfillment of Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, the weekly devotional meetings in a community member’s house, Ruhi study circles at Baha’i community centers, or less formally organized time spent with one another becomes Baha’i worship itself. This past week, I have attended various Bahá’í community events in both Langenhain and Frankfurt: devotional meetings and study circles, which both featured delicious food and a warm environment. (I was even taken by a lovely group of Bahá’í youth in Frankfurt to an open-air pool, which was something like a low-key Water Country, after a devotional meeting. It was great fun and so interesting how this casual outdoor activity became a continued exercise of worship through community!) At such events, all individuals are given equal opportunities to voice their opinions and contribute to the divine community atmosphere; for instance, in devotional meetings, each member has the opportunity to recite a passage of Holy scripture of his or her choice. Bahá’í teachings empower the oneness of the individual to witness the oneness of humanity, and eventually work toward the oneness of the world. I hope to discuss at length how this aspect of Bahá’í teachings influences choral practices within Houses of Worship.

Schönen Tag noch,

Baha’i Universal House of Justice. “The Faith of Baha’u’llah: A World Religion.” Haifa, Israel. 1 July 1947. https://www.bic.org/statements/faith-bahaullah-world-religion

Faizi, Gloria. The Baha’i Faith: An Introduction Baha’i Publishing Trust. New Delhi, India. 2003

Langenhain: Baha’i Sommerfest

From our lovely discovery of Frankfurt, the journey takes us west to the quaint, old farmer’s town of Kriftel. Unlike Chicago with its urban sprawl, the borders of Frankfurt are true to themselves, and where the city line is placed, the metropolis stops. This means just a few kilometers from the Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, you can find delightful German villages, blossoming with pink and red roses, unbroken cobblestone, and Ma-and-Pa restaurants with the most divine schnitzel.

Schnitzel from Zum Turmchen in Hofheim

The cheapest lodging I could find in my preparations was a single room in a villa-style house in Kriftel. Although it may not be the most convenient proximity for research at the Bahá’í Haus der Andacht (about two villages over), I have taken the opportunity to relax my lifestyle over the past week, take in the beautiful landscaping of every residence in this village, and master my pronunciation of the greeting “Hallo!” for when I pass the elderly couple that seems to always be picking at their garden.

Gardens on my walk to the Subway in Kriftel

I first appeared to the villa host (a lovely mother of four named Joan) as a genuine mess, my two bags extending off my sweaty body. And from there, I was whisked away by the S2 Subway to Hofheim, where I would somehow discover the 403 bus to take to me to Langenhain, the hometown of the European Continental Bahá’í Haus der Andacht (House of Worship). I remember passing through these small villages, signs everywhere directing cars to the local churches, or even displaying a Bible quote in German.

Sign in the center of Kriftel, John 14:6 “Jesus Christ: I am the way and the truth and the life.”

It wasn’t until the bus ascended to the peak of it’s route that a few signs began announcing the Bahá’í House of Worship. I exited the bus and walked about a few yards out of the residential part of Langenhain to what appeared to be vast farming fields and forests.
And, finally, there it was:

First sight of European Baha’i Haus der Andacht

This lemon-press-looking, incredible, space-ship type, white building is placed in the far corner of a large grassy field. It was June 23, and the Bahá’í community had put on their 24th annual Sommerfest. The Sommerfest (summer festival) is a staple of German culture; it can be considered under the Volksfest (carnival) category, being a secular, celebratory gathering, although some German church parishes may host their own summer festivals. Similar to a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) or Oktoberfest (you all know what this is), a Sommerfest will feature various stands where community members can purchase food, such as bratwurst, fleischkäse, küchen, etc., partake in exciting activities, for example a bouncy house, slides, and swings, and spend time together under tents or in the kind, reemerging summer Sonne (Sun).

Baha’i Sommerfest 2019

For two and a half decades now, the Langenhain Bahá’í community has been welcoming local Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís alike to the temple grounds for their own version of a sommerfest. I found this to be the coolest thing and incredibly pertinent to my own research on the incorporation of local culture into the global framework of a Bahá’í space! The Sommerfest trope–traditionally one of German folk culture–was reframed in a Bahá’í setting, and thus the Sommerfest’s community-building nature is used as an expressive tool of Bahá’í teachings on interpersonal unity and the divine joys of human consonance. Suddenly the secular becomes the sacred.
I was simply in awe; hundreds of people of all ages, races, and religious backgrounds were picnicking, making music, and laughing together under the sun, all with the Bahá’í Haus der Andacht in the background. Since then, I have found myself at two other Sommerfests around the area (I swear they are EVERYWHERE), so I can attest to the electric community energy that was unique to the Sommerfest at the Bahá’í Temple grounds.

Baha’i Sommerfest 2019 Map

Cake stand in Baha’i Sommerfest 2019

As if this was already not an incredible experience, I was fortunate enough to go to three devotional services in the Haus der Andacht that were scattered throughout the eight-hour duration of the Sommerfest and featured the “Stimmen Bahás,” a Bahá’í choral ensemble established in 2001. Ameli Dziemba, a skilled Bahá’í musician and founder of “Stimmen Bahás,” conducted a four-song repertoire that was repeated at each devotional service along with various sacred-word readings. It was explained to me that the “Stimmen Bahás” ensemble has 60 active singers from all around Germany or surrounding countries, and they meet a few times a year to rehearse and present choral devotionals during larger events, such as the Bahá’í Sommerfest. Only approximately twenty members of “Stimmen Bahás” were present to sing at the Sommerfest devotional services.
Both the choral selections and the readings were in various languages including Arabic, German, and French, which is one way that this specific House of Worship expresses multiculturalism and globalism. The music itself varied in styles from German folksong to choral jazz to church chorale, and with even a hark to Taize choral music. I will speak in greater depth of the songs themselves in a future post.
To cap off my kick-off event for my journey of Bahá’í music research, Ameli Dzeimba was gracious enough to sit down for a long conversation with me under the blazing sun. I got to hear more about her journeys with music and the Bahá’í faith and the moments in her life when the two paths intersected, if not converged. I find this conversion so fascinating, specifically when the religious component emphasizes oneness and human consonance, like Bahá’í. The divine experience of harmonizing with one another, both literally and through the metaphor of music. This is so incredible: the creation of choral music is Bahá’í in nature, and Bahá’í teachings are–in a way–very choral in nature. I am hopeful that this coming summer will allow us to explore this wonderful conversion of music and faith, as it manifests in different Bahá’í communities around the world.

Happy to be here!

Until next time,

Frankfurt: On a one-way ticket to Divers-city

Freundliche Welt,

Today marks the fifth day of my worldwide tour, and my young bones are already aching! 40 miles of walking, 5 miles of running, 6 laugenbrezel mit käse (cheese pretzels), endless kaffee, and an infinite curiosity for this corner of the world. I had the blessing of being able to meet up with my Northwestern friend, Samantha Baran, for my first day here which made the immediate transition very fun and the pre-circumnavigation jitters mostly calmed. Apparently everyone has lied to me my entire life, as Sam enlightened me to the fact that there are multiple “Frankfurts” in Germany, and thus this city is best called “Frankfurt am Main.” The suffix refers to Main river that passes through the city and connects it to many other German towns, including Offenbach am Main and Mainz. The city name refers to the Frank people that inhabited the area in around the 3rd century CE and the “ford,” which is a shallow section of a river that could be easily passed by foot or vehicle. So the city name itself associates this area of the world with travel, especially movement over water. The centrality of Frankfurt’s European geography along with its accessibility via the Main made Frankfurt a focal point in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as a site of abundant commercial trade. It seems at times there are as many churches in town as there are major, international banks. The Global Cities and World Research Network has identified Frankfurt as an “Alpha world city,” being a commercial global hub and a center of immense cultural diversity. And, people, they are not wrong!
I have spent the past few days racking up my steps trying to take in this (at first somewhat confusing, but nonetheless) vibrant city. Before even flying across the Atlantic, I can distinctly remember the airplane attendant reading the names of some travelers who needed to check in; the poor woman, was obviously struggling to pronounce these names of travelers coming from different parts of the world: a Japanese family, an Arabic man, a couple from India. I would later learn that the Frankfurt airport is one of the busiest in the world and over half of Frankfurt’s population is immigrants, which would explain the cultural diversity within my flight alone. After the disembarkation and upon exiting the Hauptbahnhof (the Central Train Station) I was greeted by Kaiserstrasse, which is a walkable street that seems to endlessly stretch with restaurants: a Mexican grill, a burger joint, a Chinese market, a pizzeria, a falafel stand, etc. I was pretty shocked, yet so interested to see so many different food cultures standing right next to one another, with tourists and Frankfurters all passing through. Just the other night, I had dinner with a few locals, and one woman expressed her love for the city, saying “It’s like you could eat in a different country every night,” as we shared a delish Turkish döner sandwich with ayran, a salty yogurt drink (apparently I’ll get used to the taste!).
The city’s architecture is also remarkably unique in its eclectic and multicultural expressions. At times, I’ve looked out at the skyline and the city looks mistakable for an American metropolis. Other times, in the Altstadt (Oldtown), for example, there is a quiet, yet overwhelming pulse history. There are moments when I walked along the Main and a church steeple would appear to stand at level with the corporate high-rises. There are also some wonderful instances in the architecture, where the reconstructed Gothic facades of the of the Römer houses are decorated with more “Eastern” ornaments, such as the golden dragons on the Stadthaus am Markt.
This city is unapologetically decorated in its multiculturalism, and I am loving it! Given its central geography, its uniquely diverse character and its strong connection to religious history, it is no wonder that Frankfurt was selected in the mid-20th century to be the home of the European Mashriqu’l-Adhkar (Baha’i House of Worship, literally translating to “The Dawning place of the Remembrance of God”). But more on that later!

Guten tag!

Essay No. 1: Experienced Diversity in the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Festival of North America

“Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men….”

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of participating in the Baha’i Choral Music Festival of North America. This was the thirteenth iteration of this event, in which singers have been gathering in the Chicagoland area to worship together through choral music. While the majority of the 160 singers were American Baha’is, the festival had participation from singers outside the United States and outside the Baha’i faith. The 2019 festival began on the afternoon of Thursday, May 23 and the final devotional concerts were on Sunday, May 26. In the days leading up to the devotional concerts, the diverse community of festival participants rehearsed twelve choral songs, shared in Baha’i devotions, and discussed pertinent Baha’i topics, such as racial unity. Van Gilmer, the choral conductor and festival director, organized a varied program for the devotional concert featuring songs from the Baroque, Romantic, American folk, and contemporary Baha’i choral styles. Gilmer also included a few compositions of his own on the concert program which pertain to the Baha’i Gospel style, a subset of Baha’i choral music of which Gilmer has been pioneering over the past three decades. While the festival’s schedule and structure may have been oriented toward the final “performances,” many participants noted the spiritual significance in the rehearsal process itself, where the coming together of diverse voices became an expression of the oneness that is at the core of Baha’i teachings.
Unlike other choral festivals that I have participated in, each segment of rehearsal began with a devotional presentation of Baha’i-related writings, such as the words of Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Biblical excerpts, Native American prayers, etc. These were done by various members of the choral festival and each member brought his or her own unique styling to the presentation of Baha’i teachings. For example, some devotions were read in the participant’s native, non-English language, some devotions were sung or chanted, and some devotions were recited with multiple participants at once. In one of my favorite devotions, three participants sang “My name is Abdu’l-Baha,” which is an three-part vocal song that harked to the musical stylings of contemporary R&B from late 20th century American popular music. The pre-rehearsal devotions gave an equal opportunity for voices of all backgrounds to be heard and gave the festival members a chance to witness the diversity of the group, as unified through the formal structure of Baha’i teachings. These devotions often set an intention to the following rehearsal by providing a thematic frame through which the music could be experienced, for example global unity and justice. Similarly, Gilmer would often take time out of musical practice to relate a song’s lyrics to social issues or would feature discussions on American injustice during a meal break. With this, the festival itself contributed to the Baha’i movement toward human equality, as it presented a platform for productive multiracial conversations on the often taboo topic of social injustice. This is one explanation for why the rehearsal process itself carried much spiritual significance for the participants, as approaching the choral music with a Baha’i intentionality transformed the rehearsals into an exercise of worship and a lived experience of Baha’i teachings.
The devotional concerts occurred during the standard devotional times for the North American Continental Baha’i House of Worship (9:30 am and 12:30 pm). The Baha’i Choral Festival Choir sung in front of the attendees on the ground floor; every other Sunday, however, the Baha’i Temple Choir, a choral ensemble of about twenty singers from the area, sings from a “mezzanine-level” choir loft which has a wall that blocks the attendees of the devotional service from seeing the choir. According to Gilmer, the visual blocking of the Temple Choir exists to deemphasize the ritual and performative aspects of devotional music and turn the focus toward the meditative experience of the service’s attendees. While having the Festival Choir positioned on the ground floor may have been due to the limited space of the choir loft, Gilmer noted the importance of the visual element of our music making. By putting the 160-singer choir center stage, the attendees would witness Baha’i teachings on global unity both symbolically and literally, as people of various races, nationalities, ages, genders, and hair colors were singing together in harmony. The devotional concerts not only metaphorically conveyed the pleasures and powers of diverse concordance, but they embodyed Baha’i teachings of divinity through community.
The program of choral music itself was greatly varied in style, giving participants and audience members a diversity in the physical experience of the music. Gilmer actively chose music with a wide range of styles, tempi, layerings, and cultural origins to create auditory diversity throughout the devotional concerts. For the singers, rehearsing and performing European Baroque music, such as “Worthy is the Lamb” from Handel’s Messiah, required a much lighter and more agile vocal technique than that of the African American spiritual music, such as Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” Similarly, given the compositional traditions unique to each genre of music, the audience could experience this diverse program of songs in various physical ways. For instance, the Baroque music may lead an audience member to a more acute auditory attention to the independent vocal lines, whereas the African-American Spiritual style, with its powerful cadences, may be experienced more viscerally, as the vibrations seem to physically shake the performance atmosphere. The engaging physical experiences of the concert’s program reflected Baha’i practices of witnessing global diversity, and the intermittent devotional readings united the program’s experiential diversity within a Baha’i frame.
Gilmer furthered the experience of diversity for both singers and attendees through his selection of soloists in the devotional concerts; with soloists of different races, language backgrounds, and styles of vocal training, Gilmer created a another platform to convey the choir’s diversity, this time through the individual voice. An attendee listening to the multiracial, soulful duet of Adrienne Ewing-Roush and Emily Taub, the beautifully sung Spanish of Tommy Kavelin, and my younger, classically trained voice may experience a variety of individual sounds, which expresses the variety of individuals that came together for the festival. This aspect of the devotional concerts, similar to the individual devotional readings during festival rehearsals, aligns with the Baha’i cultural attitudes toward individual celebration within diverse communities and resists cultural homogeny. Gilmer interestingly decided to omit solo singing from the rehearsal process, only having solo singers emerge during the last rehearsal and the devotional concerts themselves. This choice added to the choral singers’ devotional experiences, as they could experience the novelty of the varied solo voices with the attendees.
With music that was not originally written for Baha’i Houses of Worship, Gilmer reshaped the compositions to fit these songs into the Baha’i atmosphere for the devotional concert. For example, both Handel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” and Brahms’ “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” had their orchestral accompaniment removed so that these songs would abide by House of Worship sound regulations that only permit the sound of the human voice. Similarly, Gilmer changed the lyrics in Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” which was originally written for an African-American Christian community, so that it would feature many Baha’i-recognized divine manifestations and not just Jesus. Gilmer’s changing and reframing of traditionally Christian music expresses the Baha’i teaching of progressive revelation, as the Baha’i presentation of these songs makes their musical divinity universal and transcendent of their Christian contexts. Continuing, with original compositions in the Baha’i Gospel style, such as “Justice,” Gilmer expresses Baha’i teachings by musically setting Baha’i texts to a compositional style that is characteristic of 19th century African-American slave communities. Combining this musical revival of America’s history of grotesque racial inequality with Baha’i texts, Gilmer implies the universality of human suffering and the global responsibility to work toward racial justice. On his concert program, Gilmer repurposed Christian musical compositions and styles in a new Baha’i context to be expressive of cyclical manifestation and Baha’i teachings on racial inequality.
Gilmer’s also chose to include contemporary choral songs with Baha’i-related texts, such as Wolcott’s “Blessed is the Spot,” Atkins’ “Greater is God,” and M. Levine’s “Refresh and Gladden my Spirit.” Compared to the “Art music” songs from the Baroque and Romantic choral canons, these originally Baha’i selections tended to be homophonic (with harmonized voices moving rhythmically together) and the vocal lines tended to be stepwise. The relative simplicity of this music gave the singers more liberty of vocal technique without the fearful tension of singing a complex vocal line incorrectly or a prescribed performance practice of “lighter singing.” This technical freedom in vocal production allowed for a more “authentic” sound from each individual singer, which emphasized each singer’s individual connection to the vocalized Baha’i texts, while also heightening the vocal diversity in the collective choral sound. The act of singing these Baha’i-inspired choral songs, given their compositional style, became an expression of Baha’i teachings on spiritual connectedness and oneness of a diverse globe of people. An audience member, seeing this choir of visually diverse singers and hearing the unified sound of many different voices, would have experienced the effect of diverse concordance through both sight and sound.
Academic assessment aside, the four days of the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Music Festival were easily some of the most meaningful days of my time in the Chicagoland area. I am grateful for the degree of hospitality that many festival participants showed me, even from the moment I (quite nervously) walked into the rehearsal room. Mr. Van Gilmer was generous in creating platforms for me to grow into this community, including making me the assistant tenor section leader, assigning me a solo on his premier composition of “Justice,” and allowing me to speak about my upcoming research trip to the entire festival choir. I was overjoyed to meet and speak with many fellow choristers and take in a beautiful variety of perspectives from this blossoming musical and spiritual culture. And while some chords may not have been perfectly tuned and some starting pitches may have been somewhat confused, the experience of oneness–that chilling rush that could only come from the consonance of diverse voices–was undeniable.