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Creating New Folklore

Music in the Institute Process

By Istvan Dely

Moonlit night in a wide clearing in front of the Bahá’í Center in Kambalua, in the jungles of Upper Suriname. Heini, the local Saamaka tutor and myself sit in the heart of a tightly packed circle of kids, junior youth, young mothers with suckling babes, elderly women, young men and elderly men (in this order). The two of us are tirelessly playing the traditional apinti and apuku drums, and the multitude around us is singing at the top of their voices: Haika, baa! Mbei du ma no mbe wöutu bisi yu. (Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning). The kids started it half an hour ago. The drums and the singing drew as a lodestone virtually the whole village into the growing circle around us. More and more people learn the song and join in. They keep on singing, ever more vigorously, and wouldn’t let us, poor drummers, stop.

This “hit song” was composed by a group of junior youth of a Study Circle three villages downriver barely five days ago, a previous stopover of our teaching trip among the Saamaka Bush Negroes of the Upper Suriname. Two other villages since then already learned it and added a composition each. The group in Kambalua learned all three and added their own contribution, another song in traditional music style, to Bahá’u’lláh’s selected quotes in Ruhi Book 1 in their mother tongue. I and my African drum served merely as catalysts in starting and encouraging this process, recording on a cheap cassette recorder the new repertory being created, so that other communities could learn it. This process, simple as it looks, is nothing short of CREATING NEW FOLKLORE.


Folklore, Shoghi Effendi says, is the expression of a people. A people, however, is not a static entity. By law it must change: decay or grow. The Creative Word of God for today is the single most potent agency to empower people to grow. The Institute Process is at present the best channel for effecting individual and collective transformation organized around a sequenced group study of the Sacred Word. The Sacred Word can only release its transforming power if it is planted in the very heart of the culture of a people. “It is here, at the very heart of a culture, that the process of the transformation of a people begins (Letter dated 21 August 1994 from the International Teaching Centre to all Continental Counsellors).” Hence the importance and urgency, stressed time and again by the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre, of an integral, systematic and grass roots focused use of the arts as an essential part of the Institute process.


Let me stress again: it was not this lowly servant who performed such an outburst of musical creativity among the Saamaka: it was their own grass roots youth, participants of the Study Circles. I only took the lid off the pressure cooker. The fire heating the cooker was Bahá’u’lláh’s Words, teachings, and love.


In some communities you’ll find specially gifted individuals who would spontaneously compose music to express their newly found faith, knowledge and love of Bahá’u’lláh. But my experience is that every group of youth, without expression, can be successfully induced to make collective compositions to the quotes you give them. Toward the end of a two-week intensive training course on drumming and related arts for tutors and participants of Study Circles at the Regional Institute in Salvador, Brazil, I split up the twenty odd participants into four groups, wrote Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Word “O friend! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love…” on the board (in Portuguese, of course), broken down as if it were a poem or lyrics for a song, and gave them all the task to scatter in the spacious green area surrounding the institute and collectively compose music to these words, in any of the traditional, typical Bahian music styles. Each group took along one or two! drums, a pandero, an agogo or a birimbao to help shape the rhythm. After about an hour and a half we all gathered together and each group presented its composition to the rest: four very different and equally beautiful compositions were born that day, within their distinctive musical identity! I had just walked around from group to group, encouraging them with eager sympathy. That’s all a tutor has to do: to be a promoter: “By being a promoter of the arts at the grass roots, a tutor opens up ‘creative channels through which can flow inspiration and the force of attraction to beauty.’ (Letter dated 5 November 2001 from the International Teaching Centre to all Continental Counsellors).”


By so doing, we are not only enriching and deepening the collective learning and transformation process which is at the core of Study Circles, but also performing an urgent task of “cultural ecology”. Shoghi Effendi says that “Music, as one of the arts, is a natural cultural development...(Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 49).” However, this natural cultural development has been interrupted and all but effaced by the omnipresent multinational media onslaught of our consumer society: the music thus carried to the farthest corners of the globe is not the expression of a people, any people, any more, but manipulation from a giant industry which tends to level to uniformity the rich cultural diversity we Bahá’ís have a Divine mandate to preserve. To offset the cultural erosion brought by globalization as practiced today, a conscious, sustained effort, resting on principle, must be brought to bear, and Bahá’ís, though not alone in this enterprise, should be at th! e forefront of the battle for the preservation of the diversity of cultural identities as essential building blocks of a future global civilization as envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh. That’s why “The House of Justice supports the view that in every country the cultural traditions of the people should be observed within the Bahá'í community as long as they are not contrary to the Teachings. (Letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 16 December 1998, regarding traditional practices in Africa).”


On the other hand, the prevailing, world-engulfing “MTV culture” of our times not only threatens cultural diversity, but spreads what Shoghi Effendi called “the prostitution of the arts.” “Even music, art, and literature, which are to represent and inspire the noblest sentiments and highest aspirations and should be a source of comfort and tranquillity for troubled souls, have strayed from the straight path and are now the mirrors of the soiled hearts of this confused, unprincipled, and disordered age (Letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 10 February 1980 to the Iranian believers residing in various countries throughout the world).” In the face of this trend “…the House of Justice feels that one of the great challenges facing Bahá'ís everywhere is that of restoring to the peoples of the world an awareness of spiritual reality…One of the distinctive virtues given emphasis in the Bahá'í Writings is respect for that which is sacred…Bahá'ís endowed with artistic talent are in a unique position to use their abilities, when treating Bahá'í themes, in such a way as to disclose to mankind evidence of the spiritual renewal the Bahá'í Faith has brought to humanity through its revitalization of the concept of reverence (Letter dated 24 September 1987 on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual. Compilations, ! The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith).”


So in our work promoting the arts at the grass roots we should reach back to those layers of the culture that are still untouched by modern contamination. “At the most profound depth of every culture lies veneration of the sacred. Efforts to advance the Faith in rural areas, then, are most successful when the sacred in the culture of the villagers is identified and they are assisted in transferring their loyalty and allegiance to the Faith, placing Bahá’u’lláh and His Covenant at that sanctified core of their universe (Letter dated 21 August 1994 from the International Teaching Centre to all Continental Counsellors).”


This “sanctified center of their universe”, of course, is easier to identify and plug into where traditional religions are still preserved and practiced. Such is the case of the native American religions and the African religions of the Americas (santería, vodoun, winti, candomble). In these religions the medium of “theology”, so to speak, are the arts, especially music, dance and drama. Here, arts are not reduced to mere hedonistic and trivial entertainment, but preserve their primary sacred, spiritual and community building nature and function. This fact makes the music and dance modes preserved in these deeply religious cultures especially appropriate to be used as preferential “raw material” in the institute process which revolves around Bahá’u’lláh’s Words, instead of the prevalent fashionable pop music styles. When brought into the Faith, however, they undergo a process of selection, adaptation and synthesis: that is, while preserving their original association with th! e sacred, they grow and develop into something much greater and more universal.


As a one time tatan’ganga (high priest) in the Afro Cuban Congo religion, I feel especially privileged and graced by Bahá’u’lláh’s bounty that allowed me to help the friends in West Africa, Haiti, Honduras, Suriname, French Guyana and Brazil free their rightful African spiritual and cultural heritage from centuries-old prejudice and discrimination on the part of the dominant Western cultures and incorporate it into the Bahá’í Faith through the Institute process. I was moved to tears when I saw a representative of the National Spiritual Assembly of Haiti state with pride in a television interview: “We are Bahá’ís, but we are also Haitians, and Bahá’u’lláh teaches us to preserve our cultural identity, and vodoun is definitely part of Haitian cultural identity.” To say this publicly in Haiti takes a lot of courage. This very friend, at the time of my first teaching trip to Haiti, would vehemently deny any association with, nay, even any knowledge of vodoun and its rich treasur! e house of music, dance, drama and visual arts. Let there be no misunderstanding: this change of heart is not my merit. It’s all there in the Writings and the spirit of our Faith. We only have to look, hearken and heed.


There is, in my experience, an additional benefit to this “cultural ecological” approach in the promotion of the arts at the grass roots in the institute process: it can offset and counterbalance the apparent uniformity of the institute courses that have been adopted in the entire Bahá’í world and ensure that the Faith becomes culturally embedded into every community and is not perceived as something foreign. The International Teaching Center is aware of those concerns and even reticence I myself have encountered in some quarters regarding the Ruhi courses: “Gradually most national communities around the world adopted for their basic sequence of courses the Ruhi Institute curriculum, which had been developed over many years specifically in response to large-scale expansion. In light of the focus and energy being devoted to furthering the institute process in every national community, concerns were expressed by some believers about the emphasis on training and the use of a u! niform curriculum. In such a wide-scale enterprise of taking great numbers of friends through a set curriculum, it is to be expected that some individuals might not find the materials suited to their learning style.” (from the document arranged by the International Teaching Centre, Building Momentum: A Coherent Approach to Growth)


I found that by bringing in those cultural ingredients that a systematic use of the community arts imply, into the ways we deliver these courses, these fears and perceived obstacles can easily be surmounted. Those Saamaka villagers from the Upper Suriname who memorized the Ruhi book quotes by singing them in their own music, certainly didn’t feel threatened by any undue imposition from outside. They were creating their own new folklore from the powerful new “lore” (knowledge, wisdom) enshrined in the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, on their way, from their own roots, to become a new “folk” (people), part of the promised “new race of men.”

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