karen orton and
Santiago Rodriguez Tarditi
As a new global movement pursues transcendental states and deep contemplation through devotional music, our three part series delves into the resurgence of devotional music from Sanskrit chants to the sounds of the Sufis.
As a community of people around the globe pursues transcendental experiences and spiritual retreats through intimate celebrations and hedonistic pilgrimages, the pull of sacred music is growing stronger. The mindful seekers are answering the call of devotional tunes, whether it’s Sufi chants, looping ragas of Indian Dhrupad, or rhythmic indigenous influences coming from the Americas. At Scorpios we have responded to this interest in new forms of devotional music by inviting musicians and dancers from around the world to perform at Further Mykonos: The Eternal Festival, including Persian opera singer Ariana Vafadari, Syrian and Iranian musical group Quieter than Silence, Syrian dance collective Dabkesim, and Turkish composer, Mercan Dede.
“There’s this fervor, this collective, inspired emotional movement,” says Arshia Fatima Haq, an LA-based visual artist, writer and filmmaker, describing gatherings in Sufi shrines in Pakistan that she attended. “Musicians feed off the audience, there isn’t a division. These events go on for hours, there is repetition, and they will sing all through the night, for six to eight hours,” says Arshia. Her album Ishq Ke Maare: Sufi Songs from Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan, gathers rare recordings collected at intimate Sufi gatherings. “The transcendental plane is important, and reaching that state beyond thought and intellect.”
The Importance of Ritual
For this new tribe who are interested in exploring sacred music, and whose musical tastes bring together electronic and global influences, rituals are proving to be a gateway into immersive musical experiences. The transcendental state that Arshia references is more easily accessible through merging ritualistic spaces and practices with music. In many ways, that’s because it’s difficult to open up to the possibilities of the moment and enter a vulnerable state in the modern world.
To that end, at Scorpios, we begin certain live performances and DJ sets with ritualistic experiences led by our Mind & Body team in order to merge the two more fluidly. Miriam Adler, a Mind & Body resident at Scorpios who practices transformational breathwork, believes in the necessity of opening up to experiences through rituals that let us appreciate art and music at a higher level.
“We spend so much time being numb and not receptive in the world,” she says. “that’s why certain rituals allow us to appreciate art and understand it more deeply.” During Further, Miriam gathered guests and led a transformational breathwork session, helping prepare the audience for an immersive performance by Syrian dance collective, Dabkesim.
By creating new ritualistic spaces and practices that allow for a deeper engagement with both the music and thesacred, Scorpios is helping our community become more receptive to creative expression and altered states — from the contemplative to the ecstatic, and anything in between.
“music was a profound, immersive experience across every level — physical, mental and spiritual.”
A History of Devotion
From the first Om chants to Sufi epics of longing, the desire to unite with the divine through rhythm has been a constant for humanity. In this sense, music was a profound, immersive experience across every level — physical, mental and spiritual.
In Eastern traditions, the sounds of the words are understood to affect the human psyche and lead to deep inner transformation through their repetition. This might be why Western interpretations of Sanskrit mantras hold such great appeal, even when listeners don’t understand every word. The success of Krishna Das and Deva Premal — who for example sings her own rendition of the popular Gayatri Mantra (taken from the ancient sacred Rigveda hymns) — speak to the deeper pull of mantras.
Comparatively, chanting in Buddhist traditions is seen as a way to prepare the mind for meditation through engaging with the Dharma, like with the distinctive Nam Myoho Renge Kyo prayer that lies at the heart of Nichiren Buddhism. Call and response chanting has been part of human musical cultures globally. In the Maasai villages in Tanzania and Kenya, the adamu is a coming of age ceremony for young Maasai warriors that can last up to 10 days, with a call and response between the men and women matched by the men leaping and jumping, with the singing rising to match the height of their leaps. From the Gregorian chants and distinctive patterns of ringing church bells in the Christian tradition, to the strains of the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer that rings out of mosques and through cities five times a day), devotional music in some form has been institutionalized in every faith.
Joining Two Worlds
With this new global movement pursuing these same states of mind-altering ecstasy and deep contemplation through devotional music, the evolution of these musical form is natural. But therein lies the paradox; does experimentation threaten the preservation of these ancient musical lineages?
One artist bringing sacred music into the 21st century is Persian-French opera singer Ariana Vafadari, who just returned from her performance at Scorpios for Further Mykonos. She has adapted elements of her own spiritual tradition, Zoroastrianism, with her classical training. In sweeping operatic sagas, she infuses new life and emotion into the traditional Gathas that she would hear as a child.
“These are ancient, pre-Islamic prayers and poetry of Zarathustra from 3700 BC,” she says. “When I sang the Gathas, something in them cured me; I chose to sing different mantras at different stages in my life,” she recalls, citing difficult times in her life, adding, “I found my answers in Zarathustra’s poetry.”
Combining traditional devotional music with modern sounds is a natural fit for Ariana. She started by experimenting and singing the Gathas as an encore after traditional classical concerts. The overwhelming response led her to release her 2016 album, Gathas, Songs My Father Taught Me, and the success of this album has led her to bring the Gathas around the world, including to Scorpios, the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Jodhpur, Burning Man and the Bombay Beach Biennale outside of LA.
“The musicians I choose to work with are great masters, so then we know we can come back to traditional scales and yet we are open and free.”
"The Gathas are about choosing your own life and direction, and they explain how difficult situations make you stronger," Ariana says. "This was how Zarathustra sang them. People would sing them to learn to find solutions within themselves. It's about the importance of choice. We are responsible for everything we say and do. This gives direction to our own lives, but also to community and to humanity as a whole."
“For me, traditional oriental music is something I really love. The musicians I choose to work with are great masters, so then we know we can come back to traditional scales and yet we are open and free,” she says.
For Ariana, navigating that fine line between respecting her spiritual heritage while pushing it into a new direction is where she feels most at home. “I’m not a classical Iranian singer at all,” she points out, adding, “but when I sing these Gathas as an opera singer, we are opening to something different and trying to join two worlds.”
Continue reading about the evolution of sacred music, from the trance states of the Sufis to Sanskrit and Zoroastrian chants in our three-part series on Encounters.