Imagine a music festival where quiet contemplation and spiritual ecstasy can be had for the price of a ticket or even for free as Buddhist sutras or Sufi melodies are chanted by the waterfront.
Since 2009, the Esplanade's A Tapestry Of Sacred Music has been that event. The three-day festival returns next month with four ticketed shows and more than 40 free events.
Among the headliners are India's globe-trotting music group the Divana Ensemble - its members come from renowned Manganiyar families whose music is rooted in the spiritual traditions of Rajasthan - and traditional American balladeer Tim Eriksen, whose many credits include his music contribution to director Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning movie Cold Mountain (2003).
Mr Tan Xianghui, 30, programming officer of the Esplanade, says the idea behind Tapestry, launched in the shadow of the 2008 global financial crisis, is to "showcase the rich heritage of sacred music from around the world, all to be enjoyed as cultural expression in a secular setting".
He explains that the hope at the time was that "this new festival, featuring music that tries to reach beyond the mundane and material, would refresh us as individuals and rejuvenate us as a community".
Over the years, the festival has won itself a following. The Esplanade declines to reveal attendance figures, but music reviewers and festivalgoers Life! spoke to gave Tapestry the thumbs up.
Dr Chang Tou Liang, 48, a physician in private practice who reviews classical music for Life!, lauds the organisers for bringing in a diversity of highquality acts.
He says that throughout history, religion has had an indelible impact on music.
He says: "All great cultures evolved with the religions that they are based on. Without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Vatican, no Sistine Chapel, no Allegri's Miserere and no tradition of the great music associated with the liturgical masses.
"The same applies to Eastern and Asian religions. Even if you do not believe in any religion, you can still be touched by the wealth of art, culture and music that it has inspired."
Highlights of the Esplanade's festival singled out by reviewers include Qawwali masters from Pakistan with their Sufi melodies such as the Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali Group and international singing sensation Faiz Ali Faiz. Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali Group headlined the festival in its debut year while Faiz Ali Faiz came in 2012.
From the West, noted British classical vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble explored Bach's links with sacred music in 2012, while the celebrated Harlem Gospel Choir of New York had the audience on their feet last year, swaying and clapping along to their gospel rhythms.
Full-time doctor and Bharatanatyam dancer Roshni Pillay Kesavan, who is in her 40s, has attended the festival through the years. She has taken family and friends to ticketed shows such as the Harlem Gospel Choir last year. She has also attended several free shows in the festival such as spiritual chants by the riverfront.
She says: "What has struck me over the years is the quality of the acts. They are very authentic. I do not recall a single performer or act trying to make adjustments just because they were performing in Singapore.
"I have heard Sufi music, Vedic chants, Manipuri music and gospel music, and found the performances true to their spirit." Vedic chants are meditative recitation of chants from India's Vedic texts.
Mr Tan of the Esplanade acknowledges that the free outdoor events have added to Tapestry's appeal. These present a diversity of spiritual music, from Japanese kagura shrine ritual music and Balinese gamelan to Thai classical music and European church songs.
In these outdoor spaces, attempts have been made to recreate the original experience of listening to such music. For example, the seats for some Qawwali music shows were replaced by cushions on the floor. In Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia, Qawwali music is typically heard in open settings, sometimes in tents, which provide shelter from the weather.
As of now, Mr Tan says, there are no plans to expand the festival beyond the three days held over a weekend.
The intimacy and small scale of Tapestry is part of the appeal for festivalgoers such as art collector Jean Tsai, in her 50s, who has been attending the event since 2009.
She says: "I like that it is intimate and there aren't too many performances to choose from. We seldom get to hear different kinds of sacred music, often from obscure corners of the world.
"These are not voices you would generally hear in a mainstream arts show. I find listening to such music opens our hearts and minds."
A TAPESTRY OF SACRED MUSIC 2014
Where: Various venues at Esplanade
When: April 25 to 27
Admission: There are more than 40 free performances. Prices for ticketed events range from $18 to $68. Tickets available from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)
Info: Go to www.tapestryofsacredmusic.com or www.esplanade.com
In June 2010, the Manganiyars presented aural magic with their traditional instruments and rich folk songs when they headlined the Singapore Arts Festival.
Those who attended that performance can expect to hear very different sounds when another group of Manganiyar musicians perform at A Tapestry Of Sacred Music next month.
Gazi Khan Barana, 45, leader of the Divana Ensemble, tells Life! the group's focus will be on "songs by mystics, devotional hymns as well as Sufi songs".
In an e-mail response from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where he is based, he points out that traditionally, their repertoire is wide- ranging, spanning ballads about kings to tunes commemorating births, marriages, feasts and festivals.
In keeping with the "spirit of the festival", they will pick the "more soulful and spiritual aspects" of their music for their performance on April 27.
Traditionally, the Manganiyars are Muslim musicians from the Rajasthan state in north-western India who performed for prosperous Hindus, including kings.
Their music is enjoying a contemporary revival, helped in large part by New Delhi-based theatre and film director Roysten Abel's efforts.
In mid-2006, the director debuted the muchacclaimed The Manganiyar Seduction, a musical concert by Manganiyar musicians, at the Osian's Cinefan Festival in New Delhi, the largest film festival devoted to Asian and Arab cinema. The performance was an instant hit.
Since then, that production has toured Europe and it led to a global interest in other music by the Manganiyars.
In January 2010, The Manganiyar Seduction was one of the hot tickets at the Sydney Festival and extra shows were added to meet the demand.
Adding to the music's popularity, Oscar-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) fame has included a Manganiyar song in the Bollywood road movie Highway (2014), directed by Imtiaz Ali.
Khanpromises Singapore audiences the haunting feel that their music is known for.
One song to look forward, he says, is the devotional Savariya Bynaye.
No translation is available for the title, but he explains: "It is a very intense song, with a lot of feeling and depth. It is expressed through the Hindu epic of Mira Bai, the young princess who devoted her life to her Lord Krishna. Many of her Bhajans, including this one, are about her unconditional love for her lord." Bhajans are devotional songs.
Khan feels that these timeless songs with universal themes have a place in modern times. And audiences do not need to know folk songs or India's regional languages to feel the sheer power of the music.
He adds: "After all, our music draws on universal themes - love, faith and devotion. A lot of these themes are handed down through oral traditions, through folk tales and stories. Our songs talk about life and death.
"We sang for Hindu kings in the past, now we sing for a global audience. Our music is sacred, it is a way of life for us. It speaks to the soul."
MYSTIQUE OF THE MANGANIYARS AND LANGAS BY DIVANA ENSEMBLE
Where: Esplanade Recital Studio
When: April 27, 5pm
Admission: $30 from Sistic
Hymns based on folk tunes have a history dating back to the 18th century in the United States.
Among those credited for their recent revival are US musician and musicologist Tim Eriksen, 48, who will be performing with a group of friends at A Tapestry Of Sacred Music.
While he has been popular in the American indie folk music circuit, it was his music for director Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning Cold Mountain (2003) that brought him global attention.
In an e-mail response from Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is based, he tells Life! he has known music all his life. "I have always sung, especially hymns."
He grew up in a musical family and became interested in local history from young. By the time he was in his early teens, he started studying various music traditions. This included shape notes, which he says is a simpler way of "teaching melodies. Instead of traditional notation, people were taught to read music linking a series of shapes with different pitches".
He also became interested in hymns and fiddle and banjo music that he discovered on recordings in a library. "Some friends and I began playing and singing some of this music for our own entertainment, which eventually turned into performances and further exploration of American musical traditions." His musician friends Peter Irvine and Zoe Darrow will play with him in Singapore.
Eriksen says the music arrangements they perform also reflect his many years studying and performing in other world music genres.
On his Singapore show, which will mark his first visit here, he says: "I am very excited about the trip and about the festival. I hadn't heard of the Esplanade before, but I see that my friend, composer and jazz pianist Omar Sosa, with whom I recorded an album a few years ago, has performed there." Sosa performed last week at Mosaic Music Festival.
Eriksen will present a mix of American sacred music at Tapestry, including shape note hymns, sacred ballads and songs from early New England.
Though the singing of these hymns has been associated with old, rural America, he feels it has found a contemporary voice, given its influence in contemporary music spanning country and Western to indie pop. He points to rock and roots specialists such as US singer-songwriter Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs) and John Paul Jones - bassist, keyboardist and co-songwriter for English rock band Led Zeppelin - who have taken an interest in "its raw sound".
Audiences here can expect famous hymns from the shape note tradition such as Amazing Grace and Wayfaring Stranger. Eriksen says:"We will be performing these and presenting some examples of unaccompanied harmony singing and songs with both traditional and innovative instrumentation."
Another highlight is Idumea or Am I Born To Die, a song found in many shape-note hymnals of the American South. Eriksen, who is married, says it is special as it "melds the tune of an ancient love song with an 18th-century Methodist text. It has a beautiful early American harmonic style developed on the East Coast over about a hundred years".
He adds: "The music we will play has fantastic melodies and I have kept the festival in mind in picking the pieces. Each of them are about the often close ties between sacred and secular influences in American music."
FOLK HYMNODY FROM THE EASTERN UNITED STATES & THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS
BY TIM ERIKSEN & FRIENDS
Where: Esplanade Recital Studio
When: April 25, 7.30pm
Admission: $30 from Sistic
It is impossible to miss the energy in Spanish conductor and composer Jordi Savall's voice, even over the telephone from Barcelona.
He starts off by saying "he is like a slave to music". He has been thinking, composing and dreaming music for as long as he can remember.
Jerusalem, presented by more than 20 singers and musicians (right), brings to life the musical heritage of the Israeli city. The concert premiered in 2008 in Paris, France.
Savall, 73, calls it "very special".
He adds: "The music of the city of Jerusalem has many influences ranging from Christian to mediaeval to songs of the Crusades to the Turkish Ottoman empire. It is very, very beautiful." The idea was to pay tribute to a city that is home to three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"I was under the spell of the music. I was looking at ways of putting these sounds on a stage to encourage a dialogue about the sheer diversity of influences that shape us and our cultures. I picked the title Jerusalem because it is such a perfect way to bring the varied sounds of music and cultures together."
Indeed, this is the most multicultural act at this year's A Tapestry Of Sacred Music.
Savall will be accompanied by his two ensembles, Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. They will perform with Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, Greek, Armenian and Turkish traditional musicians. Songs will be sung in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, French and Sephardic, with English surtitles.
Savall says the real challenge of this stage presentation was finding a way to connect three faiths with a history dating back nearly 3,000 years.
Credited as being among those who have revived interest in mediaeval and baroque music, he is known for his ability to draw on the richness of different musical traditions and for his reverent and poetic interpretations.
Jerusalem is an intense musical experience composed of Arabic prayers, Hebrew psalms, Latin chants of Christian monks and Sufi music. Hear songs narrating tales of pilgrims, prophets and warriors that touch on universal themes such as joy and loss in the performance lasting more than two hours.
Savall, whose wife died of cancer in 2011, says he understands these worlds well. Given his exposure to the varied and rich sounds of the world, he feels he is around "2,500 years old. Like most others, I am the result of a mix of hundreds and thousands of generations. Perhaps that is why I keep going to music that is rooted in the past".
Music, he says, is his life and gives him "incredible energy", which he has been sharing with people across the globe. "I feel the only way to find peace in your heart is either through love or music. I have been lucky. I found both."
JORDI SAVALL: JERUSALEM
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: April 26, 7.30pm
Admission: $28 to $68 from Sistic
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