Malibu’s Music Corner

Festival connects human spirit universally through music

The fourth World Festival of Sacred Music takes place throughout the month of September.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

One thousand artists, 41 events, 16 days and World music. These are the elements that comprise the fourth World Festival of Sacred Music taking place beginning this Saturday at venues throughout the Southland, from UCLA’s Royce Hall to Santa Monica Beach.

The brainchild of Judy Mitoma, a professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA, and Andrew Beath, a Malibu entrepreneur and founder of the nonprofit EarthWays, the World Festival launched in 1999 after Mitoma received a letter from the Dalai Lama, seeking international support for a festival that would celebrate “the new millennium with hope and commitment to peace and universal responsibility through music,” Mitoma said.

“We thought this would be a one-time thing,” Mitoma said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “The festival was, and still is, a purely volunteer process, with thousands of artists giving their time and talent freely in this great, harmonic expression of joy. Most fine musicians understand that music connects the human spirit universally.”

Mitoma had worked with theater and opera director Peter Sellars for the 1990 Los Angeles Music Festival and was well versed in juggling the logistics of staging an event featuring hundreds of acts in multiple venues. When she learned that the Dalai Lama would be available to appear at the World Festival one afternoon, she decided to book the L.A. Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl.

“This was sort of a gamble at the time,” Beath remembered. “The Bowl holds 17,000 and, if those seats didn’t fill up, the event could have been a total failure. We don’t have corporate sponsors we can fall back on.”

The nearly sold-out performance made enough to cover all expenses and set the stage for the next festival, which was to run three years later.

“It does take time to organize an event like this,” Mitoma said. “But cooperation can get you far. Our desire is to offer an inclusive reinforcement of our human connections to the world and celebrate the great cultural richness of our planet. It speaks to the diversity of our state and country and helps create a balance to the money-driven, temporal world. Surprisingly, many of the artists, though not native, live around L.A. and they come to us to offer their talents.”

Each festival has enjoyed its international moments, though, with foreign groups planning tours to coincide with the World Festival, such as the Lifou Island Dance Theatre from New Caledonia.

“This music is certainly not religious,” Beath explained. “We mean sacred in the same way the earth is sacred. These dancers and musicians and singers come from other cultures and communities. We’re celebrating not religions, but religious traditions of respecting the planet.”

The festival’s 41 events will feature groups performing in theaters, churches, temples and gardens, with gospel music from the historic First A.M.E. Church to classical Sufi music from Pakistan to wayang kulit (shadow theater) of Bali.

Other types of music and performances include Afro-Cuban percussion, a cello performance at the Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills from which the $18 admission fee will go to victims in Darfur, Middle Eastern dance, love prayers on a tanbour (an ancient long-necked Persian lute) and Zen archery from the Japan American Theatre.

Houman Pourmehdi’s Liän Ensemble will perform at the opening gala concert Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall. He will play classical Sufi music and some of his own compositions for Rumi poetry to a tonbak-an ancient Persian skin drum-and other instruments with exotic names like a tar (a stringed instrument), a kamanche (a sort of violin) and a nay (a reed pipe).

“The Rumi message is about humanity and peace,” Pourmehdi said. “This music is very complicated rhythmically, but the meaning is simple. It describes the unity in oneself with the universe.”

Beath said that, at this festival, the audience is as much an element of the event as the performers.

“One thousand artists and all that energy of people coming to watch creates a Gestalt,” Beath said. “The audience is part of it and you create it together.”

Mitoma said the festival emphasizes the “healing power” of music.

“Not in a touchy-feely sense,” she said. “These musicians share in the context of real healing.”

Her contention is supported by studies at the University of Helsinki and at the University of California San Diego, which show that music can help reduce chronic pain by 20 percent and alleviate depression by up to 25 percent.

Beath’s EarthWays helped stage the first (now traditional) closing concert on the beach in Santa Monica.

“It’s grown into an amazing event of thousands,” Beath said. “Everyone dresses in white and there are drummers, dancers and a Tongvan canoe that paddles out with offerings to the sea. It’s quite moving.”

World Festival of Sacred Music performances take place Sept. 13 to Sept. 28. More information and performance schedules can be obtained by calling 310.825.0507 or by visiting the Web site www.festivalofsacredmusic.org

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