Sacred music, earthly goal

Entertainment is king in Los Angeles, and the arts are inexorably tugged toward its commercial center. But Judy Mitoma, director of the World Festival of Sacred Music, saw a need for arts and artists expressing other parts of the Angeleno experience — the spiritual, the connection to nature, the acknowledgment of peace.

In 1999, when the Dalai Lama sent out a call for a sacred music festival, she knew that was what she was looking for.

On Saturday, the fifth World Festival of Sacred Music will fill Los Angeles’ historic theaters, churches, temples, museums and beaches with spiritual dance and music for 16 days and nights. What the Dalai Lama had proposed as a way to celebrate the millennium has grown and evolved over 12 years to promote the idea of spirituality as well as interfaith and intercultural exchange among Los Angeles communities. The 2011 festival, featuring 832 local and international artists performing in 32 events, reflects themes of peace, tolerance, unity and environmental consciousness.

“One thing I’ve come to understand is that at the source of art-making, there has always been a connection to nature and spirit,” says Mitoma. “At its heart is the opportunity to transcend your sense of self and your sense of community.


“I want our festival to show that faith, spirit and nature are all things to take care of — that we as a community need to constantly remind ourselves, and each other, not to get caught up in our materialistic, consumer culture.”

The festival opens with Honoring the Sea, a free event on the beach in Santa Monica featuring more than 400 artists. Varying in style from the Agape International Choir to Swing Brazil Tribe to the La Cañada High School Marching Band, each group contributes its unique dance, music and rhythms; a procession concludes with a large gathering of artists and viewers at the water’s edge.

Two weeks later, the festival concludes with a gala concert, “Water Is Rising,” addressing the plight of Pacific Islanders threatened by ocean levels rising because of global warming. Through song, poetry and dance, 36 artists from the Pacific Atolls of Kiribati, Tokelau, and Tuvalu bring their message to the stage of UCLA’s Royce Hall, expressing their dependency on nature, and their ancestral connection to the islands. Mitoma says that this is the first time in history that the artists of these islands have been asked to share their art outside their country.

“When we make a bridge between art and science, we have multiplied the impact,” explains Mitoma, who is also curating “Water Is Rising.” “These individuals living in the Pacific Islands have no control over climate change or rising water levels. But they do have control over their message.”


The festival is expected to draw 20,000 to 30,000 people over the course of 16 days. Many of the events, such as the Kurdish music of Ali Akbar Moradi or the Polynesian songs and dance of Te Vaka, are free or call for a “freewill offering.”

Composer Robert Een is participating in his fifth WFSM, this time collaborating with choreographer Kristen Smiarowski, along with a cast of dancers, instrumentalists and vocalists for Groundswell, an Oct. 8 performance celebrating the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. Een explains that this site-specific dance and music piece is not driven by religious motivations — the intention is to draw audience members to the marsh and simply bring their attention to it.

“Music has a power to speak the things that we cannot find words for and people respond to that,” Een says. “We’re not trying to form anyone’s opinion by bringing them to a freshwater marsh; we just want them to take it all in.”

Lesa Terry, artistic director of the festival’s Oct. 9 event “Emerging Voices: Spirit of the Child,” leads an ensemble of talented young string players, dancers, spoken-word artists and singers from South Los Angeles. Terry explains that the racial and religious diversity of the ensemble enables the children to experience a sense of collaboration and partnership that realizes a larger vision. Furthermore, the arts have given these children a voice and a message of hope and optimism for the future.


Terry says that being a part of the 2008 and 2011 WFSM has enabled her to understand the significance of doing work within the context of a sacred music festival.

“The festival allows us to feel that we are part of something much larger and more significant,” Terry says. “In a sense, we become teacher-healers. It does not have to revolve around a certain denomination; we can offer healing simply because we are human beings living in a world at a difficult time.”

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