Reimagining sacred music

Audio 11:12
Susheela Raman in rehearsal with Sam Mills
Susheela Raman in rehearsal with Sam Mills

As Christians come under attack in some parts of the Arab world, British musicians Sam Mills and Susheela Raman have pulled off an ambitious and important musical project  Sacred Imaginations: new and ancient music from the near east. The performance is a reminder of how much religion owes to music and sends out a strong message of artistic unity beyond religious dogma.



Guitarist Sam Mills and singer Susheela Raman have brought together 18 musicians from Greece, India, Lebanon, Syria, Russia and Ethiopia. World-class talent like Lebanese Abeer Nehme who sings mainly traditional hymns in Aramaic, the Russian polyphonic Doros Quintet and Armenian/Syrian oud player Haig Yazdjian.

“It's very diverse,” says Mills following the concert in Paris on 30 July, “but everybody has a consciousness of the Christian tradition of their particular music”.

One of the Greek singers, Christos Chalkias, spent 11 years on the famous orthodox monastery Mount Athos, where he “got into the esoterica of Byzantine singing”. While the breath-taking Greek clarinet player Manos Achalinotopoulos teaches Byzantine music to monks, “but he's very secular himself, just an amazing musician,” Mills says.

The idea of celebrating the diversity of sacred music goes back 15 years but the couple are not religious.

“We just like the music,” Mills adds, “Russian polyphonic singing, the wierd Ethiopian sound of the incredible [King David's] harp…”

The harp is performed by Temesgen in one of the rare occasions it’s been heard outside a liturgic context in church.

“For us it's all about the sacred and profane, we don't consider the sacred to be fixed. It's something to be negotiated,” says the guitarist who’s also studied the anthropology of religion.

British-Indian singer Susheela Raman has negotiated in her own inimitable way, veering more towards the pagan.

Just as her last album Queen Between gave a psychedelic twist to Sufi and Bhakti traditions from India and Pakistan, she brings a shamanistic feel to Sacred Imaginations; notably on her rendition of Sogandinum, a Syriac hymn to Jesus on the cross.

The hymn is more commonly sung by priests from the Syriac orthodox church in Kerala in southern India which is where Raman went to prepare herself for the project.

"They still do the liturgies in Syriac and Aramaic. It was quite an experience going there and learning the Syriac hymns,” she says.

Raman clearly thrives on the musical crossover and was helped by shared musical modalities. She says the Greek mode leatos corresponds to an Indian mode “so we find parallel modes and make the crossover”.

On the Syriac hymn Maryam, Mary Magdelene becomes a tad less virginal as Raman takes off on Ethiopia's Samuel Yirga’s flying carpet of notes and Achalinotopoulos’ exciting clarinet. "We were able to negotiate between our world and the Christian world a little bit," she says.

“What’s exciting about this project,” adds Mills, “is that it’s the opposite of the dogmatic religion thing.” Instead they’re all coming from a more communal musicians’ point of view where you have get on. "It’s social, that's a kind of transcendental thing. I think musicians have something to offer in that way.”

After three concerts in London, Paris and Berlin, Mills says some of the music that's been created will now be recorded. “It's too strong for us to let go of it now."



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