Magazine article The Christian Century

Interfaith Repertoire: A Bosnian Choir Sings Reconciliation

Magazine article The Christian Century

Interfaith Repertoire: A Bosnian Choir Sings Reconciliation

Article excerpt

IT'S A SUMMER EVENING in Sarajevo, and I'm at choir rehearsal. The director is working with the first and second tenors on a sensitive contrapuntal exchange in Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus. They focus intently, trying to keep the tight dissonances intact.

Then a third voice pierces their subtle harmony. Undulating with an expressive vibrato, it begins to rift on an entirely different scale. The tenors' wincing eyes dart confusedly at each other, and the director finally brings the cacophony to a halt. A chuckle drifts across the room as, one by one, we realize that it's sunset and the third voice belongs to the minaret across the street, calling the faithful to prayer.

The Muslim voice's complex melody clashes with the eight-part harmony of Baroque Catholicism. But it is by no means alien to the ensemble. The choir, called Pontanima, features voices from across Bosnia's religious and ethnic spectrum: it's part Catholic, part Orthodox, part Muslim, part Jewish and entirely Bosnian. Pontanima's repertoire places the haunting drones of Rachmaninoff's Vespers alongside Muslim ilahijas (praise songs) and the playful melodies of Sarajevo's Sephardic community.

In Bosnia, the religious other quite recently meant the invading army that leveled your house of worship and killed your father. Given this history, the proximity of these songs and these singers is a remarkable and important thing.

I got to know this small band of Bosnians when I traveled to the Balkans to study faith-based reconciliation efforts. My tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has a history of particular concern for Christian unity. Our founders railed against the scandal of denominationalism; 200 years later, we live in an interfaith world divided by racism and religious intolerance. What do unity and reconciliation mean in this brave new world?

This question led me to Sarajevo, a city that proved a great fit for me. A child of an interfaith marriage, I spent years negotiating religious difference in my own family. Sarajevo's long history of mixed marriages, and the vibrant culture that resulted, appealed to me at a gut level. The city's pluralism has been the source of a uniquely beautiful way of life--good news for a world filled with clashes between cultures.

But Bosnia's history is also pockmarked with periods of fiery violence. From 1992 to 1995, this historically multireligious country was torn apart at the seams. "Ethnic cleansing" is the official, anesthetized way of describing the last circle of hell: mass killings, concentration camps, systematic rape used as a weapon of war. What remained was a severely traumatized people--and the most ethnically segregated Bosnia in its 800-year history.

Sarajevo was hit especially hard by this trauma. In the aftermath of its brutal four-year siege, the city mourned 10,000 dead and many more wounded. A huge percentage of the population had by that time fled to places like Austria, Canada, Germany and the U.S.

The city's choirs felt these losses deeply, and not just in terms of numbers. The sharp blade of nationalism that carved the country into ethnically pure chunks pierced these ensembles as well. Multiethnic choirs disbanded. The few groups that emerged from the ruins did so under the aesthetic of segregation and purity.

Ivo Markovic recognized that the root problem was fear. Everywhere the Bosnian Franciscan friar looked, he saw people fearful of the religious other. And after four vicious years of war, who could blame them? Politicians stoked these flames, manipulating their constituencies as they vied for power. Religious leaders drew more fines than they crossed.

So Markovic approached a small Catholic choir at St. Anthony's Church in Sarajevo with an idea: invite your friends to sing, whatever their faith (or lack thereof). There weren't very many choirs left in town--or in Bosnia--and singers responded to the invitation. …

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