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Sacred sounds: World music comes to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2009 - She has heard the music in her travels -- in Fez and Essaouira, Morocco, where women from the Sahara played drums and chanted for protection and good fortune, in Girona, Spain, where deep in the middle of town she listened to a gypsy choir play religious music that was centuries old, and in Manaus, Brazil, where she heard sacred music from the Amazon.

Gathered at sacred music festivals, people of many faiths shared the sounds of their culture and religions, and Cecilia Nadal witnessed it.

"I love sacred music," she says. "It doesn't even matter what the religion is. The point of it is the connection to source."

This Saturday, Nadal brings that experience to St. Louis with the first St. Louis Festival of World Sacred Music. The event was organized by Gitana Productions Inc., a nonprofit arts and education company that Nadal co-founded and is the executive director of.

Gitana (pronounced heh-tah-na) is the Spanish word for gypsy. The group has sponsored musical productions since 1998 featuring various cultures. Thanks to interfaith initiatives around St. Louis for the past several years, the time seemed right this year for a sacred music festival, Nadal thought.

Saturday's event, which will be held at Union Avenue Christian Church, features performers from Christian, Buddhist, Native American and Indian faiths, with Imrat Khan headlining the show with his performance at 7 p.m.

"Imrat is a treasure to St. Louis, and a lot of people really don't realize that," Nadal says.

Khan, an Indian sitar and surbahar player who taught Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and George Harrison of The Beatles, also teaches at Washington University during part of the year.

"This is a man who has so taken command of the sitar that when he gets involved, whether you like Indian music or not, he takes you to places you cannot imagine," Nadal says.

Also performing are John Two-Hawks, a Native American flutist; Brother Seamus Byrne, a Celtic singer and flutist; Iya Ashabi, a Yoruban singer; Margaret Waddell, who sings songs from the 12th century Benedictine abbess' Hildegard von Bingen; Amy Camie, a harpist, and Alerica Anderson, a singer/songwriter.

Anderson will be performing gospel with a choir of local students selected for the event. The students range in age from 9 to 16 and are black and Bosnian, many considered at-risk.

Anderson's 'Holy'

"Gospel music is one of those art forms that is indigenous to North America," Anderson says."Because of my faith, it really stirs my soul. It excites me, it lightens the load from just day to day, while as a musician it challenges me to hone my skills."

Anderson and the choir will be performing a piece he composed, "Holy," and the gospel classic, "Oh, Happy Day."

In addition to all the music, Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya will perform a sacred Buddhist dance that is thought to be more than 1,000 years old.

Since this is the first event of its kind, Nadal isn't sure how many people to expect, though the venue holds 600.

"We're not doing things that are predictable, so we just don't know what's gonna happen," she says.

But she does know that all the performers, regardless of culture or faith, will offer the audience something beyond just a performance.

"The idea is to connect us," Nadal says, "and to learn more about each other."

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