The birth of a global sound
The composition Music for a New World is a microcosm of our city's diversity. The names of its authors-Amir Haghighi, Amy Stephen, André Thibault, Fana Soro, Joseph Danza, Khac Chi, Lan Tung, Mei Han, Moshe Denburg, Ngoc Bich, Randy Raine-Reusch, and Qiu Xia He-indicate the range of traditions represented in this 20-minute piece. It's a testament to the ability of musicians to reach across linguistic and cultural barriers that others find more daunting.
The composition was created by members of the Vancouver World Music Collective in the early summer of 2003. The writers worked on its units in small teams at a retreat on Bowen Island, then came together to assemble the pieces, forge connecting passages, and refine the thematic elements. This process and MFANW's first performance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival were lensed by local filmmaker Georges Payrastre. His documentary-also titled Music for a New World-was broadcast across the country last year on TV.
The first part of the movie focuses on several of the musicians who live and work as couples, among them Stephen and Haghighi. During the filming, Stephen was in the final stages of pregnancy. Twenty-one months later, their son Youssof is already singing along to the chant by Haghighi that weaves the work together. According to Stephen, he nearly knows the score by heart.
"Youssof was there the whole time," says Stephen, who plays accordion and Celtic harp, reached at her North Vancouver home. "Since he was born, the video is the only thing he'll sit through. It's around 45 minutes long, and sometimes he'll go through it twice."
"And he can already sing some parts," chips in Haghighi, speaking on another line. "The verse [in Farsi] that I sing, 'Booyeh sharob mizanad,' he repeats over and over. He's trying to pick up the rhythm, which is in five-time. He concentrates and tries to clap the five, but he still hasn't got it yet."
The interview with the Straight is punctuated by Youssof's vocal exercises. He's clearly inherited his dad's lungs. The composition of MFANW is bookended by Haghighi's powerful and impassioned voice. "It starts off with that chant," says Stephen. "Then it goes into a section that we've called Indo-European, because it included Celtic, Jewish, Arabic, and Persian parts-in that order."
The Farsi chant returns, and leads to MFANW's Asian section, characterized by the sounds of rare and exotic instruments such as the Vietnamese dan bau-a monochord zither-and the k' ni, essentially a two-stringed fiddle that uses the player's mouth as a resonating chamber. "Then the piece changes rather abruptly into what we called the Afro-Chinese section because when we put the piece together the thing that Qiu Xia had written was jibing so well with what [Joseph] Pepe [Danza] had done," says Stephen. "It goes into a Chinese song and the African dance sequence, and then the final chant from Amir."
MFANW had its debut one morning in July 2003. Getting so many musicians and instruments from different cultures together in front of Payrastre's cameras was a major achievement. Even more miraculously, Youssof had the courtesy to wait another two days to be born.
The VWMC will reprise Music for a New World on four occasions at the Vancouver International Children's Festival, which runs from this Monday to next (May 16 to 23) in Vanier Park: on Monday at 10 a.m. and 11.30 a.m., Wednesday (May 18) at 10 a.m., and next Sunday (May 22) at noon. (For more information about the festival, see www.vancouverchildrens festival.com/.) An introduction to the rarer instruments will precede each performance. Naturally, Youssof will be at the front of the audience for each show, chanting along to his dad's singing. If the kids and parents in the tent knew the meaning of what he was declaiming, they'd get an extra kick out of his antics.
"The words are from [13th- century Islamic mystical poet] Rumi, and their deeper meaning is to cleanse yourself and submit yourself completely to the beloved," says Haghighi. "The actual words that I sing translate as 'I know you were somewhere last night-you'd better tell me what happened. Don't play the fool with me. I can tell you've been drinking the wine. And I can smell the fragrance of the wine. Don't try to eat something to cover it up. I know.'"
Some of the sounds in Music for a New World may be strange, but its themes are universally familiar.