Q&A: as part of HarbourVoices festival, this choral artist says music can create 'profound unity'

Composer Hussein Janmohamed will perform at the St. John's HarbourVOICES! festival next week. In this image he is doing the introduction for the Vancouver Youth Choir at World Symposium on Choral Music, Turkey.
Composer Hussein Janmohamed will perform at the St. John's HarbourVOICES! festival next week. In this image he is doing the introduction for the Vancouver Youth Choir at World Symposium on Choral Music, Turkey. (Ki Adams/submitted by Hussein Janmohamed )

The HarbourVoices festival arrives in St. John's next week, with singers not only sharing great music and song but also the unifying and healing power of music.

HarbourVoices is an international festival where 1,400 singers from around Canada and the world gather for concerts, workshops and events where audience are encouraged to take an active part in the creation of music.

The festival starts Saturday, June 29 and runs until July 4, at the Mary Brown's Centre.

Hussein Janmohamed is a choral artist who lived in Canada since he was 6 years old but has Northwest-Indian roots that inspire his art. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya.

He spoke with the CBC's Heather Barrett on Weekend AM radio show.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get involved with music?

A - The first memories of singing I have are being sung to by my grandmother and mother's lullabies as a child.

The second memory I have is going to our prayer halls as an Ismaili Muslim and being immersed in a fervent sound of piety, praise and love.

Especially, I remember going to one prayer ceremony and I was there with my mom and all the women were surrounding me, and I was still a young kid. I was surrounded in what I feel like was a womb of love.

LISTEN | Hussein Janmohamed tells Weekend AM's Heather Barrett about his musical inspirations:

I understand you really got involved with music through the Canadian school system?

When I joined the Canadian school system, once we moved to Canada at the age of 6, I was fully immersed in singing Oh Canada every morning in the school. And I remember those feelings of goose bumps that come with singing together. I remember the pride I felt having being able to sing this beautiful song, and I think in hindsight it was because the word God was in it - connecting back to those childhood experiences from my own tradition.

From then, school music became part of my life.

And then you went on to study classical music at the university level.

Absolutely, so my trajectory was dentistry. I had it all planned out.

And as life has its wonderful turns and adventures, I ended up joining music in doing a bachelor of music degree.

I fell in love with it and it just continued from there on with two Masters degrees, one in choral conducting, opera production and most recently a PhD in music education.

The music that you studied at school and university was from like the Western and the European tradition of classical music. So how did you combine your own heritage and cultural influences into the work that you do?

I sang a lot of choral music in church services. And I think that connection to community, seeing how that music was part of actually a larger communal effort of inculcating values of love, kindness and generosity, which are also Muslim values, became the bridge.

And so I started at an Ismaili youth choir. There we explored more of the diverse repertoire from our communities all around the world.

A few years after starting the choir, 9-11 happened.

I was sitting in a car driving down the highway, and it clicked to me that one of the my favourite choral sounds from high school (sings a tune)…matched the tune from a Muslim prayer, and it just came to my heart: Why don't I combine those?

And it was my way of responding to the misrepresentation and negation of Muslim culture as intolerant, as warring, as terrorists, to find and recreate a vision of what I understand to be a 1/4 of the world's population's faith: a faith of peace, of peace building and bettering the world.

And so that started me thinking about what our music would be? What would my music be? And how could I use the structure of choral music, which was already in multiple layers as a metaphor, counterpoint, to weave back into these beautiful harmonies sounds from my very intercultural and composite musical life - from pop music to devotional music to Hindi songs - to, you know, listening to Cliff Richard.

Choral music became a pathway for me to weave back the beautiful identities of my cultures into what I felt was part of the beautiful identity of school music culture. This was important to me because, growing up in Alberta, we faced a lot of racism. Then, of course, after 9/11, there was an attack not only on my skin color but also on my core values.

Tell me a little bit about the work that you're going to be doing in St. John's when you come here for Harbor Voices.

It's going to be a celebration of group singing and expanding how we think about a choir. I'll be conducting a plenary session with two amazing musicians, thinkers, and writers, Andre de Quadros and Andrew Balfour of Cree descent. I will be discussing how to reframe choral music and create a meaningful repertoire through a justice lens.

The second thing that I will do is an interactive presentation where the audience will get to engage creatively in the musical experience. One of the things that is important to me is that as a composer, I am not only showing a song and then leaving the room, but I want the audience and the singers to really creatively engage.

Hussein, if there's anything that you'd like to tell our listeners about the power of singing together, what would it be?

The power of singing together means to me, the power of creating a profound unity. Especially in a world that is so divisive, in a world where difference is seen as a threat. That power of singing brings us together. It creates a unified fellowship of the heart, a kind of communion if I can use that word, and a catharsis, allowing all of the differences to fall away and to come to the core.

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