Wednesday, February 4, 2009

from singapore

Truly, those who have attained to faith in this Word,
as well as those who follow the Jewish faith,
and the Sabians and the Christians––
all who have faith in God and the Final Day and do righteous deeds––
no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.
Qur’an 5:69

Wed. 4 Feb, 2009

Greetings from Singapore. An uneventful 20-hour trip over, with a short stop in Seoul, Korea. My friend Leonard bravely waiting for me at 1 AM to whisk me over to the friary at St. Mary of the Angels where I have stayed so many times now.

Leonard does like to fill up my days when I am here but I managed to keep the first morning to myself. I now have made this trip enough times to remember that my body is going to be stiff and swollen from the trip, though I am never sure what causes that. My hands and feet are puffy from the change of climate, and back especially is stiff and tight, from the plane trip, I guess. Just knowing that makes me take better care of myself the first days now, lots of fluids and forcing myself to do some asanas knowing full well it will be like bending a 2 X 4.

Leonard picked me up at noon and we headed off to meet Farid. I had met him two years back at the Islamic Harmony Center here in Singapore. He has now organized an inter-faith event for this Sunday that I am participating in. Actually he organizes a series of inter-faith events such as this, every one with a different theme. This particular one is called “Music in Faith-Traditions: an alternative route to the soul, an interfaith experience.” We went to a wonderful “Chinese fusion” vegan restaurant. (Farid is a committed vegetarian, something I think is rather unusual for a Muslim.) He greeted me like an old friend, and has apparently been following my doings on our web site. I found out more about him. He started out working for “Outward Bound,” the wilderness experience for young people, which was, he says, started in England. (I thought it was founded in the States.) He now teaches at a local college about body consciousness, relaxation and health, I think he said; and he also works for the local government on the inter-faith council. They are pretty serious about that here in Singapore, which is good if not obvious: it is such a melting pot of Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, Christians, and Sikhs.

Farid took us over to a place called the Istana Kampong Glam, which was formerly the palace of the Sultan of Jahore, a city right across the water in Malaysia, and is currently the Malay Heritage Center complete with a museum and shops. We visited an artist who does very a modern style of batik, and then right next store a ceramicist, both of whom were very gracious and talkative about their work. (Chris and Debi, if you are reading, this would be a good place to stop on your world tour for Red Egg Gallery.)

Then we went over to the Masjid Sultan, which is considered Singapore’s premier Mosque. It’s history is like a snapshot of Singapore in the last century, tied in with Sultan Hussian Shah, the ruler of Temasek (the former name of Singapore) and Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company. The current building was begun in 1924. I brought with me this time a copy of The Light of Dawn, Camille Helminski’s selections and renderings of the Holy Qur’an. After the Sangha’s study of Islam this past year and my recent wonderful visit with Kabir and Camille at their Threshold Society meeting, I have grown increasingly fascinated by Islam, and this trip is going to give me a little more opportunity to interaction with Muslims. It’s a particularly sensitive interaction, I know, and southeast Asia Islam has a little different character than Arabic.

I am really excited about Farid’s event on Sunday. It is being held at the Sikh Centre, next to the Sikh Gudwara here in Singapore. I am the “headliner,” and so will sing and talk for about half an hour, and then a muzzein will sing the azan, that beautiful Muslim call to prayer, and do a recitation of a short Qur'anic Verse in Arabic. After that another Muslim group will be singing the Naat––Muslim praises to Prophet Mohammad) a capella in Urdu. (That’s interesting because the last song I wrote was “Hidden In My Silnce,” a setting of a poem on the 19th century Islamic Indian poet Ghalib, who also wrote in Urdu. Look up the video of that song on YouTube!) Then there will be some contemporary music sung in Malay language about the theme of love in Islam, followed by Baha’i recitation. The part of the program that everyone seems to be the most excited about is Taoist Prayer Chant that will be done by Master Chung Wei Yi, who is all of 25 years old. Farid said that there will be a Hindu group there as well doing some kirtans and the program will end with music by the hosts of the event, the traditional Sikh Ensemble from the Gurmat Sangeet Academy performing the traditional Sikh kirtans. There will be some Buddhists attending the event and Farid is yet hoping they will perform something as well.

I suppose my remarks will set the tone for the event––they have over-stated my reputation, I think––but I am not sure yet what I am going to say. My tendency is to let the music speak for itself. I almost wish I could go last, and sum it all up by drawing a little from each tradition. Farid is also hoping for what he called an “interfaith jam” at the end, while being sensitive to folks who would not be comfortable singing certain words or names of God. We shall see…

For now, today I am going over to give a talk (on something or other) to the Franciscan novices, and then going trekking with a couple of young friends I met here last time, Richard and Joyce Koh. Real work starts on Friday night and Saturday when I will be doing a workshop on liturgy and music for the Franciscan parish here. I haven’t done much teaching about liturgy here or at home these past few years, but John Wong, ofm, who has hosted me so many times put in a special request since he is the one in charge music here at this huge parish, so how could I refuse? Coming off a visit to the North American Academy of Liturgy in Baltimore, a week of composing with the Collegeville Composers Group and the Composers Forum in Saint Louis, I might just have something to say. I might actually have too much to say––the problem may be organizing and synthesizing it in digestible chunks.

There was so much preparation for this trip, the longest and most complicated one that I have made yet. I was groaning under the weight of it just a few weeks ago and mourning leaving my beloved kutir in Corralitos, but now that I am here I am looking forward to whatever adventures await. It does seem odd to be in Asia and not be on my way to India. The feel of the tropical air and the call of the koel bird, not to mention the many Indian faces here in Singapore, tug at my heart a little, but it was not meant to be this time. Though I must say I’m already looking forward to the trip there in 2010 for Abhishiktananda’s centenary.