Music found its way to me at a young age. When I played music I was in my ‘happy place’. I learned to play the recorder in grade one and then saxophone and clarinet in elementary and junior school. I sang ginans (Ismaili devotional hymns) and cultural songs at the jamatkhana (prayer hall), and actively partook (with my family) in the Ismaili Marching Band.
Ismaili Marching Band
It was not until High school, however, when choir found its way into my life. Since then, choral music has been central to connecting to my faith, building friendships, and informing my social conscience.
My family emigrated from Kenya, Africa to Alberta in the 1970s. Racial slurs, prejudice and discrimination were the norm. Life was not easy and we did not accept being translated negatively by others. Somehow we found a way (motivated by faith) to hold strong to our cultural values and positively respond. Creativity and community involvement empowered our response through which we also better understood, negotiated and constructed our identities.
For me, music became the bridge. I really enjoyed singing—at jamatkhana (prayer hall) or in choir because when I sang with other people I felt connected. I especially loved choir because we got to layer our voices and create harmony. When we were totally in sync with each other a magical feeling would fill the room. We knew this feeling by the goose bumps forming on our skin, and the electrifying chills running down our spines—a kind of spiritual feeling—the same kind of spiritual feeling I felt reciting ginans in jamatkhana. It was in these goose bump moments when we truly felt unified. Nothing else mattered—not our difference(s) nor the impacts of racism. What mattered was being in the same room with others and making music together.
My friendships, community bonds, and sense of identity were organically shaped by these multiple ways of making music. Over time these different musical experiences began to intersect revealing new possibilities for bridging cultures and making music. At first I added vocal layers and harmony to ginans—a very simple exercise that not only sounded cool but also somehow linked my spiritual and material lives. Different ways of knowing the world amplified each other. I was excited by the musical outcomes and continued to experiment with patching together music from different parts of my life to express identity and respond to the realities of our world. If I could feel goose bumps singing other people’s music with them, could they not feel goose bumps singing my music with me?
Ismaili Centre Toronto at Night
Nur: Reflections on Light
In 2014 I was fortunate to receive a commission from the Aga Khan Museum to write a site-specific piece for the Ismaili Centre Toronto opening. The piece drew from the Verse of Light (24:35) from the Quran and explored the ineffable qualities of spiritual and physical light. I imagined music where waves and particles of light would dynamically co-exist—suspended in time and holding multiple voices in an interwoven fabric of sound. The more I worked at it the more I saw the piece as a way to envision a society where diverse peoples could mingle compassionately in each other’s light.
Elmer Iseler Singers and Ismaili Choir at Ismaili Centre Toronto Opening (photo credit selfie)
The Elmer Iseler Singers premiered the piece with six Ismaili singers from across Canada. This would be the first time I would experience those choral goose bumps performing along side musical friends a piece of music that represented my identity and that was sung in my community setting.
I felt a sense of liberation. I felt elation. I felt pride. Most of all I felt hope—hope in the power of music to undo past hurts, bridge understanding and tell our stories anew.
In a world where Islamophobia, ‘clashes of ignorance’ and negative representations of Islam are prevalent I hope that more composers and musicians will have the courage to stand up and sound out their understanding of a peaceful faith that is rooted in compassion and committed to the uplift of society. I am grateful to the Esprit Orchestra and Elmer Iseler Singers for recognizing these global tensions, and opening their musical doors so we can be in the same musical room together.
My deep thanks also to mentors, friends and family for walking with me on this musical journey. I hope that going forward we can together discover musical ways of knowing that make it possible for all people to speak, and in so doing shape, reshape and compose our collective identities.