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Third Vancouver Sacred Music Festival, 10-12 November 2001

“Music is either sacred or secular. The sacred agrees with its dignity, and here has its greatest effect on life, an effect that remains the same through all ages and epochs.”
--Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The sound of a single voice echoes throughout the great stone church. Then another note appears, floating eerily above the first tone and harmonizing perfectly with it. The harmonies change, come and go, always with a dynamic of loud and soft; high and low. And all the sound is coming from one man: Jerry DesVoignes.

After years of admiring the music recorded at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco (now in its 8th year), I am attending the more local, more cozy Vancouver Sacred Music Festival in British Columbia. Taking place over three days, at three sacred venues in Vancouver, the festival began at St. Andrews Wesley Church in the heart of the city with a harmonic overtone singing workshop by DesVoignes.

The workshop was a perfect beginning to the festival, because while it demonstrated the great skill of a musician, it was also about audience participation and about sacred music on the most fundamental level: that which can be produced with nothing more than the human voice.

Of course, the festival also included many instrumentalists, including everything from the Vietnamese ko ni mouth-resonated fiddle of the Khac Chi Ensemble to an astounding pentatonic pyramid instrument brought from France by seasonal healer Fabien Maman.

The festival began three years ago only when some friends gathered for an evening of music and sacred poetry, after which they decided they should share the concept more broadly as a sacred music festival. Around the same time, the Dalai Lama expressed his interest in promoting sacred music to ring in the new millennium. Through what festival founder Nancy Fischer calls “a string of miracles,” the Vancouver organizers became part of the Dalai Lama’s series of World Festivals of Sacred Music, hosted a representative of the Dalai Lama, and later sent a group of Canadians to meet with the Dalai Lama in India.

With the festival boasting of “160 performing artists representing over 30 spiritual traditions,” it was surprising to discover no representation of African traditions this year, and just one group representing Latin America (though Saturday’s program ended with a Cuban bata drum session featuring south Indian drum master Trichy Sankaran!).

Still, this is just the third year for the festival, and the diversity of the lineup is impressive, ranging from Native flutist Jody Gaskin to the Total Experience Gospel Choir to Turkish master Latif Bolat. And the diversity extends to the venues: Following Saturday at St. Andrews Wesley Church, the festival moved to the elegant Temple Shalom Synagogue on Sunday and to the University of British Columbia First Nations Hall of Learning on Monday.

For anyone who can’t make it to the Fez Festival – and for those seeking a gentle introduction to world music – this is a great festival to lift your spirits amid gray November skies. Even a three-hour wait to re-enter the US because of heightened post-September-11 security didn’t dampen my spirits. I just used it as time to practice my new overtone-singing skills!

For more information:
Vancouver Sacred Music Festival: www.sacremusicvancouver.org
Jerry DesVoignes’ One Voice Harmonic Choir: www.ovhc.org

©Scott Stevens--12/01

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