In the intimate setting of the New Orleans Healing Center, performers from diverse faiths and cultures will gather Saturday for the Sacred Music Festival — a celebration that incorporates music, chanting and ceremonies.
“With so much tension and division … we want to help celebrate the connection, the universal thread that we all have as human beings,” said Sean Johnson, co-founder of the Sacred Music Festival and vocalist and harmonium player for Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band.
The festival offers a rare opportunity to experience Tibetan Buddhist chants and dance, spoken word poetry, medieval hymns, Japanese Shinto drumming, cantorial prayer, spirituals, blues, gospel, the Muslim call to prayer, mantra music and, for the first time this year, Sufi music.
People can explore the various altars and an exhibition of sacred art, and speak with spiritual leaders and performers.
“A lot of our musicians are known in one genre, but people have not heard them perform in another before,” said Sallie Ann Glassman, co-founder of the Sacred Music Festival and voodoo priestess. “Everyone has a sense of who Deacon John is, but to hear him do spiritual is so moving.”
That’s local R&B stalwart Deacon John Moore, who will be back, performing at the festival for the third year in a row — drawn to the festival by what he says is an outlet for his spiritual side.
“I grew up in a boys’ choir singing church songs. It was an integral part of my musical heritage. Gospel music was the formation of me as a singer,” said Moore. “For me, personally it is an opportunity for me to share my spiritual gospel music with my fans who rarely get a chance to see me in this light.”
All the performances will be held on the Istanbul Café Stage, a small area that blends the audience with the musicians.
“It makes me feel like my music is a healing force for the people in the audience,” said Moore. “People come there with all their trial and tribulations, and their daily lacerations; they come to a place where they can sit down and connect with the spiritual world.”
Steering away from the feeling of being stuck in church, many of the performances are interactive and educational, teaching people about faiths and cultures they are otherwise never exposed to.
Kirtan music, for example, has deep roots in the practice of yoga in India.
“The practice of Kirtan is really designed to help people open up their hearts and sing through any numbness and dullness that they may feel inside themselves,” Johnson said.
The Wild Lotus Band takes Kirtan music and the traditional mantras — a word or sound repeated to aid meditation — and blends that with genres such as rock, gospel and folk music.
“The mantras in many cases have been chanted for thousands of years,” said Johnson. “Each of the mantras are associated with a particular kind of universal quality or strength that we have inside of us, and when we chant these mantras, it is a way of engaging the attribute that we all have, no matter what our beliefs are, the language we speak or where we come from.”
With each mantra or song, lasting for about 15 to 20 minutes, Kirtan music is designed to be interactive and participatory.
“It is a really electrifying feeling when everybody is singing along and participating. It takes it to a whole other level, and it becomes less of a performance and more of an actual visceral experience,” Johnson said.
For the first time this year, the festival will open with a Peace Walk from St. Roch Cemetery to the Healing Center at 10 a.m.
A group of about 175 local men, 16 to 30 years old, who are advocating for peaceful change in the St. Roch neighborhood, will lead the short walk.
Closing the festival is a group of Mardi Gras Indians who will lead a second-line to the Marie Laveau Shrine, where a dedication with a blessing and ceremony will take place.
“Music is the healing force of the universe,” Moore said. “When you have a setting like this, it gives people a greater connection and purpose in life.”