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Radio: Shabads in the city

20 July 2011

by Edward Wickham

ONE of the many whizzy features of the BBC Radio website is something that seems to have been borrowed from Amazon. If you click on the link “More like this”, you will be taken to programmes that some­body has decided you might like on the basis of the programme you are currently listening to. It can unwittingly reveal how cultural and broadcasting marketers think.

Last week, as I was trawling through five days of Sacred Sites (Radio 3, weekdays) — a series of concerts from the Manchester International Festival which featured singers from different faith communities performing in venues that reflected their faith background — the “More like this” button was luring me towards The Early Music Show, which last week was focusing on music at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

What connection there might be between the humanist repertoire of Renaissance Germany and Sikh and Hindu incantations, I cannot imagine, except that the mystique, the value placed on a kind of “authenticity”, the “otherness” of these repertoires — all these concerns appear shared between both “early” and “world” music, and their audiences often overlap.

Festivals have always sought to engage with the diverse cultures that, by claiming to be a city festival, they try to represent. What is particularly pleasing about Man­chester’s programme is that this engagement is taking place in the communities’ own faith spaces.

The festival has brought world-famous artists such as Dya Singh, Candi Staton, and Anuradha Paud­wal to, respectively, a Sikh temple, a Pentecostal church, and a Hindu temple in the city, so that regular users can experience the sacred music of a culture in a meaningful context.

Of course, the reality is a little different from the aspiration. In mid-programme interviews, a num­ber of the artists admitted that performing in a sacred space was not exactly what they were used to. Mr Singh’s beautifully executed Sikh hymns, or shabads, and Ms Paud­wal’s Hindu mantras were both cast in idioms that were at times self-consciously stagey.

This highlights contradictions inherent in trying to present “world sacred music” as some embodiment of ancient tra­di­tions whose sanctity is conjoined with its history and authenticity. Better to forget the claims of Radio 3 presenters, and simply enjoy the artistry.

Qari Syed Sadaqat Ali, who per­formed in the Manchester Central Mosque (broadcast on Friday) was mesmerising. The vocal and timbral range employed in these incanta­tions of the Beautiful Names of God was a truly authentic expression of worship through the power of the human voice.

“Whoever strives with all his might, that man we can redeem.” Thus reads the epigram from Goethe’s Faust over the score of Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic symphony, broadcast as part of the BBC Proms Choral Sundays programme. But the massed choirs and orchestras last Sunday failed to raise this elephant into the sky.

On Proms Plus Choral Sundays (Radio 3, Sunday), even the chorus master, Adrian Partington, did not sound convinced that the effort was worth it: it was like Tallis’s 40-voice Spem in alium, but with none of the enjoyment.

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