SINGING FOR SAI
Heart unto HEART
- By Sue Kelly Christie
It’s Western time again at the holy city of Puttaparthi. No folks, not Country and Western but Western carols for Christmas. That’s right; it’s the time of the Blessed Birth of the Baby Jesus. That means that the “Westerners” get a chance to strut their stuff for their Beloved Bhagawan.
What an amazing array of humanity has gathered to pay homage to their Master and spiritual leader Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba! So broad and all encompassing are His teachings, that He blesses and indeed encourages all the major faiths and religions to continue with their individual methods of worship. But, with the love of Bhagawan, their worshipping seems to achieve even greater fervour after they visit this great teacher of mankind, even while they are His guests at Prasanthi Nilayam (the Abode of Highest Peace). Christmas time is no exception.
The Western Choir have in their repertoire for their Christmas 2008 programme 18 hymns – including such stalwarts as How Great Thou Art. To make sure that they are in harmony with their host country – Blessed Bharat - the choir also sings a sprinkling of Sanskrit in the form of Bhajans.
The choristers have only nine days to familiarize themselves with 18 new musical pieces – in English – and many of the devotees do not have English as their first language. In addition, there are 36 musicians and to add a final twist of complexity to this ambitious undertaking, most of the people involved are not professional singers or musicians.
Yet, every year for the past ten years the Western Choir have managed to present a most enjoyable programme for their Lord. How do they do it, I hear you cry?
Well, there happens to be this wonderful American woman called Sylvia Alden, who, with her innate musicality and huge heart full of love for Bhagawan, waves her finger-baton and tickles those vocal cords into producing a beautiful sound.
We met Sylvia to find out more about this little musical maestro (by the way the lady has no formal training). She told me:-
“I came to Swami for the first time in 1978. At that time we used to sit on the sands and sleep in the sheds. It was funny, Swami was giving Darshan and He said to me: ‘Come back here in December, I have very much work for you to do’. Well of course, I did come back in the December and instead of being given the Children’s choir to work with (I was a teacher all of my working life) I was given the Adult choir, which was a first.
“In those days we used to write the lyrics out in longhand and all we had was one light bulb hanging on a cord. In those days I would say: ‘Okay, what should we sing?’ These days Swami has given such beautiful songs to people. Back then we had just a harmonium and a guitar. The first programme we presented was in the open air. The Germans wanted to sing Hallelujah. But, open air dissipates the sound and we were singing in the driveway, we were asked to stop in the middle of the song, because the sound simply evaporated in the open air. But, it was a good lesson to teach one not to panic and to just carry on, which we did and the adjusted programme was a big success.”
Sylvia laughs a self deprecating laugh (which one comes to learn is par for the course with this lovely lady) as her memory takes her on a musical interlude.
“I used to have to hold the music down with my foot, in between my toes, because there wasn’t a music stand. But despite all of that, the programme worked well. The men had tears. Swami looked so happy. He apparently said: ‘If you didn’t look at them you wouldn’t know they were foreign.’”
And what do the participants have to share…
I managed to winkle out some Westerners visiting Prasanthi Nilayam for the first time to find out what kind of experience it has been for them, singing for Sai in the choir for the first time.
Kelly Killion, 57, from Arkansas, USA, told me of his first experience.
“Well, I guess it was in 2004. It was my first time in the choir, also my first time in Puttaparthi. Everyone was abuzz with the fact that Swami was going out every day in His red car. So the one day I got it in my head to go outside and wait for His car. I bought a mala -- which is a garland of flowers and five roses. Swami came out of the 2nd gate at the University and as He drove past me; He looked at me and gave me a small smile. I then somehow knew I was to wait. Then, He drove past again. Only this time, He didn’t drive past entirely, His car stopped and as it did, I took my mala and placed it in front of the windscreen, and then I took the five roses and placed them on the side near Swami. Swami gave me a big smile. Then to my own amazement, I heard myself implore Him ‘Christ me!’ Well, Swami looked at me, raised His two hands and Wham! Brought them both down in a big blessing! Whoosh – well, I didn’t know what struck me. I felt my whole being immersed in bliss and I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t do a thing until the next time we sang. When we got to sing for Swami, I was right up front. It was the most unforgettable experience of my life. Thank you Swami!”
So that was a triple first for Kelly! Then I spoke with lovely Lore Lijen, a 25-year-old first timer from Belgium. She told me:-
“This is my first time in Puttaparthi and my first time in the choir. My experiences from the choir are very good. The Bhajans I like -- although I do not understand them! The hymns I like very much, I find them very uplifting. They make me feel verily at home. It’s like celebrating Christmas in a traditional Christian way and yet Sai Baba makes it all feel so fresh!
“What I also noticed and what really interests me -- I am a fitness instructor by the way – and which is something that I never thought I would find so interesting – is the custom of separating the men from the women. It is really good, I think.
“Because, now when I see the women all covered up, I actually see the women – from the inside. I see their beauty and character which emanate from the inside, whereas at home in my own country, many are very body conscious. It is always body, body, body. This I have found to be most fascinating. It’s actually liberating!”
Now let me introduce you to another Parthi first timer, from the US, Miss Paula Hendrix. Paula is a feisty American who has spent most of her life counselling and healing. She has a tremendous love for Lord Jesus. Here’s her feeling on being in Puttaparthi for the first time:-
“I’m from Tampa, Cigar City they call it and it’s in Florida and this is my first time in Puttaparthi. Being in the choir is wonderful. It’s a spiritual experience where some of the songs make me cry. It also makes me less homesick. I feel I am closer to home when singing in the choir. I have pretty much shined in India. Also, for me what is particularly wonderful is that I have found my love for Jesus again. You see, because of the fundamentalists I went right off religion... But being here is like being in a time warp. Being taken back some two thousand years to the time when Jesus walked the earth. That’s what it makes me feel like. Being turned back and now I have shone, on Jesus being here.”
Sylvia reflected on some comments from her choristers: “One lady said ‘I really don’t mind if we sing in front of Swami or not. These nine days of rehearsals have been to me, like a darshan’. Another lady told me, ‘For the first time, I saw my man with tears in his eyes, as he sang.’”
Sylvia added: “I don’t think that surrender is as easy for men as it is for women. Women do that instinctively. Men, from a societal aspect, are brought up not to show any emotion. This choir serves as healing therapy and an opening of the heart. I have seen men in tears on many occasions.”
And what of Sylvia herself? Has her involvement in the Christmas Choir had a healing effect on her?
She confessed: “I had never really laughed until I came to Bhagawan. I was an extremely serious child. I was born into a Baptist family and in my heart I was always afraid of doing something wrong. I was also very angry. I didn’t believe it when I was told that if you grew up in a jungle somewhere you were not worthy of loving God. But then I came to Swami in 1978 and finally was able to laugh”.
During the rehearsals there are, quite naturally, a lot of emotions which generally run high. The means of vocal communication can be a very delicate matter, particularly when one is singing of and for the glory of God. There are a lot of little incidents which happen during the Christmas Choir practice which, on reflection are farcical but at the time of occurrence, it could be felt that World War Three had broken out. For instance, the fans; to fan or not to fan. THAT becomes the question! Lots of ladies want them on, but others want them off!
Then there are the spaces – this is my space, not yours!
And after quite a few other trivia – the music. Every other one of us becomes Mrs. Pavarotti Par Excellence! The beautiful ladies take the Prasanthi Christmas Choir to a whole new level. It’s all part of the process, the teachings. After all, didn’t someone say – Life is a Game – Play it!
So what is Sylvia’s philosophy on these musical machinations?
“I always pray to Swami: Do not let them see me, Sylvia – this body is nothing. Just let them see Thee through me. Let Thy love and light shine through me”.
During the rehearsal sessions Sylvia generously shares with the choristers some of her blessed interview experiences with Bhagawan. This gives them an invaluable insight, which they may otherwise never achieve, into the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. The rehearsals are peppered with these magnificent gems.
What does she lovingly advise her transient musical family to do? Sylvia smiles that beautiful, radiant arresting smile (one that lingers long after the lady has left) and ponders. Then, “If you want to hear God, listen for that soft sweet voice of Love”.
Speaking of that soft sweet voice of Love, Sri Sathya Sai Baba has assembled so many of His beloved musicians for His Christmas Choir. There’s Doug Sanders from New Zealand who Sylvia refers to as her musical rock – and who is also a naughty angel. Doug is a professional musician with the soul of a child. You can hear that when he plays his violin. There’s Peter Bo, who has been playing keyboards for the Christmas choir for almost ten years. Peter’s composition “Christmas in Prasanthi” is being sung by the choir this year. Surely this song will become the anthem for the Choir.
I asked him how it felt to have a choir of nearly 700 interpret his work. He told me: “It is truly wonderful, to feel all that love coming through the song”.
Then there is Gisela Sebastian, whose glorious voice truly inspires the ladies to reach even greater heights. Gisela has composed many songs for Bhagawan. She lovingly goes through the pieces, note by note, chord by chord and semi-breve by semi-breve. Gisela has been involved with music in Prasanthi for the past 28 years. From her demeanour alone, one can see that she honestly lives and breathes for love of God. She has the voice of a Diva and the soul of a Goddess.
The piquant Krishnaveni lovingly teaches us the correct pronunciation for some of the Sanskrit lyrics.
Meet another first-timer to Puttaparthi and to India, 20-year-old Sue Ellen Harrison. She comes from the Blue Mountains of Australia where the famed author Howard Murphet lived and where he penned many of his best-selling books about Bhagawan. She is having a wonderful time in the choir. She tells me that she has been experiencing visions of Jesus all her life. Now she is able to sing in front of the Beloved Lord Himself.
Other members of the 36-strong orchestra include the gifted Anthea on cello, Stan Zaides from Germany, Anne from Australia, Eliena from Russia and Loli Puelles from Spain - to name just a few of this talented group of musicians who all do a magnificent job of making music that brings us to The Music Maker Himself – Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. This Christmas Choir is surely another musical interlude which is part of His unique plan for this period in mankind’s evolution towards Godhead.
It teaches us yet again, as His magnificent story unfolds, that we are all Divine instruments in the hands of the all loving, ever caring and compassionate Creator -- whether we are aware of it or not. So let’s all give thanks to this most Beatific Lord for opening our hearts to be able to sing, albeit only one crotchet in the Divine choir of His magnum opus – His Celestial Song, as it continues to unfold, like the petals of the lovely lily greeting the Divine Light in all its spectacular splendour.
heart unto Heart,
light unto Light,
sound unto Sound.
The Most Perfect Master, again, has been teaching. In this instance -- through the Christmas Choir.
HARMONY…. Not only through music. But through co-operation…To fan or not to fan, that was the question!
PITCH…… Not only in tune musically but with fellow choristers. Think Unity.
PACE……… Not only in musical time but seeing God’s timing in everything that happens around us. Rely on the Self.
PAUSE…….. WAIT for the music and listen in the silence to that small sweet voice of Love within.
God is Melody! Live in Harmony. Promote Unity.
So, with the Blessings of Bhagawan Baba we wish you a Holy and Happy Merry Christmas. Thank you our BABA!
From the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Christmas Choir we sing to you…..
For this is Christmas in Prasanthi. Oh! Swami what a gift – Your Love is filling every heart, with Joy and Peace and Bliss!