The precision employed by Amir Etemadzadeh with his hands to a daf, a frame drum known well in Middle Eastern cultures, produced a varied rhythm that contributed to Farmina Berenji’s immense joy. The latter, a dancer dressed all in white, whirled round and round on the Shiley Theatre stage and the persistent drum beat was meant to show Berenji “becoming one with God.”
“It’s a whirling meditation, a prayer,” said Berenji (pictured, left) of a Sema Sufi dance performed at the University of San Diego’s 21st annual All Faith Service Thursday. “Spiritually, and in Sufism, we believe that every part of your body is an instrument. When the drum plays, it’s like listening to the drumbeat of my heart. It’s talking to my soul and I don’t want it to stop.”
The Islamic duo’s performance, one of six richly diverse expressions of faith on the theme of “Music as Pathway to the Sacred,” concluded USD’s traditional spring semester-opening event. Also showcased were a Native American story and flute by Cathleen Chilcote Wallace and Brandon Chilcote Wallace; a Buddhist performance by Damien Rose with Tibetan singing bowls; a Christian reflection and violin solo by Nuvi Mehta; a Hindu song performed by Sudakshima Alagia and tabla player Nikhil Gurav; and a Jewish Chassidic Niggun, a repeated meditation medley by Rabbi Shai Cherry.
David Harnish, PhD, chair and professor for the USD Department of Music, also performed. He, along with USD students and staff, led the opening processional as an Gamelan Gunung Mas, an ensemble that uses gongs, metallophones, gong chimes and drums. In Bali, Indonesia, a Gamelan Gunung Mas is present at cremation ceremonies and temple festivals and symbolizes, both musically and physically, the progression of a soul toward release and more. Exposure to the Gamelan and other unique performances on the campus of a Roman Catholic university provided an acute awareness of the powerful connection music and faith hold.
“For most of humanity, music is a pathway to the sacred; in some cases, for example within Sufism, music is the pathway to the sacred,” Harnish said. “Rites of consecration, purification, commemoration and transformation around the globe are accompanied by, and sometimes enacted, via music. It has the power to unite communities and societies together in faith. It heightens the meaning of all occasions — sacred and secular — and allows all to experience the oneness of a moment or the return to the whole of existence.”
“It was a privilege to be part of something like this, it was beautiful,” said USD music majors Kevin Nguyen and Saul Cruz (pictured, right), who’ve performed in the USD Gamelan group for multiple semesters. Added Nguyen, “It was a fascinating opportunity to share something that’s part of Eastern culture to a Western audience.”
Senior Marc Gonzales, one of six students who delivered a short prayer of intercession after each performance, said this year’s event was a personally perfect match. He said watching the flute performance brought back memories of him learning to play instruments such as the saxophone, guitar and clarinet. “My spirituality has always come through music,” he said. “It’s really cool they chose me this particular year.”
Gonzales’ part came after Mehta’s stirring Christian reflection and violin performance. Mehta, a classical music expert, is a renowned violinist. He’d performed before at Shiley Theatre during a four-year stint as a USD music instructor and symphony performer in San Diego. His playing Thursday, in which he complimented Shiley’s acoustics — “it really elevates the violin” — was followed by a speech that expressed music as a praiseworthy expression of beauty, truth and one’s search for God.
After the event, Mehta said, “music as a pathway to the sacred coincides with the pursuit of all artists. No one has written something and thought they did it on their own. They’ve felt they had a connection to it, were given the inspiration and felt they were tapping into a vibration in the universe or something greater than themselves.”
Rabbi Cherry (pictured, left), whose song was more of a chant and encouraged audience participation, expressed joy on multiple levels about being part of the event. “My (late) Dad would have a smile on his face knowing that a Catholic institution invited his son, a rabbi, to contribute to an all-faith service. When he was growing up in the 1930s in the Ukraine, that wasn’t a relationship he had with his Catholic neighbors. To think 80 years later that relationships between religious communities have shifted so dramatically is really heartwarming. It was a blast to experience each of these different, moving, and elevating worship rituals.”
Bahar Davary, an associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies and USD All Faith Service committee member, called the event “a labor of love.”
“The All Faith Service reflects the religious inclusivity we have on our campus and shows a desire to be inclusive on the topic of religion. It’s a reflection of the diversity of the Theology and Religious Studies Department and a reflection of Catholic higher education and its openness to the idea of participating in other religious rituals as a pathway to the sacred. That is beautiful.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of Rodney Nakamoto