World Festival of Sacred Music Showcases 1,000 Artists in 16 Days

World Festival of Sacred Music Showcases 1,000 Artists in 16 Days

From Sept. 13 to Sept. 28, what Judy Mitoma calls the "miracle" of the fourth festival will happen, and, again, the breadth of it is breathtaking.

UCLA Today Online

By Cynthia Lee

Judy Mitoma

Judy Mitoma

IT WAS ONLY supposed to be an opening act for the 2000 millennium, a peaceful, joyful way of using music to counter the fear and paranoia generated by Y2K.

And so the World Festival of Sacred Music took place in Los Angeles on a grand scale in the waning months of 1999, with a directive from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who conceived of the festival. He called for people to make a commitment to peace and universal responsibility through music.

"It was a one-time thing," recalled Judy Mitoma, festival director, professor of world arts and cultures, and director of the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance. "The thought of doing it again was just out of the question. We worked so hard — it was exhausting. Every chit I had was called for. Every friend I had — old and new — we asked to do the impossible. It made sense to do this just once in our lifetime."

But twice? And now once every three years?

From Sept. 13 to Sept. 28, what Mitoma calls the "miracle" of the fourth festival will happen, and, again, the breadth of it is breathtaking. For 16 days, nearly 1,000 artists will offer a global repertoire of music and movement in 41 different events in venues all across the region — on a Santa Monica beach, in the splendor of Royce Hall, at the Los Angeles Central Library, in the Temple Kot Tikvah, at an American Indian cultural center in La Cañada.

There will be throat singers from Tuva, a small republic near Mongolia, and prayer-drumming from West Africa. You can witness a celebration of the Fall Equinox by the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere and experience a sunset tribute to Kanaloa, the Hawaiian deity of the ocean, by 100 dancers and chanters on the beach.

You can listen to the Pasadena Scottish Pipes and Drums ensemble or join thousands of others at the Global Mala Yoga for Peace Ritual for six hours of sacred movement and music featuring teachers from 108 Southern California yoga studios and centers, among others. The festival will also feature performances by more than a dozen faculty, students and alumni from UCLA.

Tapping her 35 years of experience in world arts and cultures, Mitoma has matched artists who have never worked together before and persuaded them to share a stage. To blend mystical music, ancient and new, Mitoma partnered award-winning flutist Suzanne Teng, who plays 20 different kinds of ethnic wind instruments and earned her Ph.D. at UCLA in ethnomusicology, with Prince Diabaté of West Africa, hailed as the "Jimi Hendrix of the kora" (a gourd lute/harp). They will perform Sept. 27 at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park.

Mitoma, who will be retiring from UCLA sometime next year, admitted that not even she has the stamina to attend every event in this arts extravaganza. But her hope is that even if you attend just one event, you will walk away with a better understanding about what "sacred" means.

"The word, 'sacred,' actually came from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I might not have chosen that word myself," she said, because of the word's subjectivity. "My definition might be quite different from yours."

But it's clear enough to the many artists who apply to perform in this inter-ethnic, inter-faith festival, to the committee who selects the participants and to her that there is a common thread of spirituality that will stitch together the 16 days of poetry, Gospel music, choral singing and instrumental music spanning the globe.

"This is music that reaches to a spiritual space that may or may not come from formal religious practice," she explained. "But the intention of it is to get us to go beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary, the transcendent. And not in a heavy-handed way and definitely not to proselytize."

For example, she said, "You may or may not have ever gone into a Jewish synagogue. This is your chance to go. What is sacred? What is religious? Whatever your definition was before you attend an event will expand and be inclusive after it. Being in the presence of these artists, you will understand more than you did before."

Since its founding in 1999, the festival, whose main sponsors are the Foundation for World Arts, Earthways Foundation and the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, has come to mean financial support for artists performing outside the cultural mainstream and a way for the City of Los Angeles to lure audiences to neighborhoods and venues off the beaten path.

"The tendency of all human beings is to go to the familiar, where you feel comfortable and safe," Mitoma said. "I like to tell people, "Close your eyes, open the brochure and point somewhere on the page, then go there.

"If you trust that we have created a festival of great interest, quality and content, why not? Go somewhere you haven't been. Make a day of getting to know our city."

Published: Friday, August 22, 2008