Issue #17: Spring 2007
The Music Man
by Vanessa Clarke
Hussein Janmohamed, BMus’96, MMus’98, uses music to bring identity and faith together in a cultural fusion.
Hussein Janmohamed is dressed in a black jacket that reaches to mid-thigh, is buttoned up the front, and has a stylish stand-up collar. “It’s a fifty-year-old hand-me-down,” he says. “It belonged to a cousin.” The jacket looks brand new and could be straight off an Armani cat walk. It’s called a sherwani and is worn on formal occasions in India, where Hussein’s family finds its roots. But although he loves the jacket for its history, he wears it mainly for its comfort and likes the fact that it has a detachable inner collar that you can throw in the washing machine. He usually wears western garb. Hussein, an Ismaili Muslim, is a product of many cultural influences and has often found himself straddling the divide between traditional and modern.
Three generations ago, his ancestors moved from India to Nairobi, Kenya, where Hussein was born and brought up until the age of six. Perhaps because of British colonial influence there, Hussein’s family adopted a few English habits, despite their experience of overt racism among Nairobi’s “Whites Only” hotels and clubs. One of Hussein’s earliest memories is of a Punch and Judy show his parents arranged for his birthday. In the 1970s, when Idi Amin appeared on the scene in neighbouring Uganda and began persecuting minority groups including Indians, the family moved to Canada, choosing Alberta to start their new lives.
In the small town where they lived and ran a store for a while, Hussein’s family once again felt its minority status acutely. It was one of the few families of colour and became the target of racist taunts from some of the locals. As a child, Hussein did not have the capacity to deal with it and wondered about his identity and where, exactly, he fitted in. He was destined to find the answer through music.
Music has been a constant in Hussein’s sometimes conflicted life. It has provided him with solace, joy and a more profound connection to his faith. In particular, he has an overwhelming passion for choral music, a musical form mostly associated with western sacred traditions. “Although we listened to a lot of Indian folk music at home I rarely participated in it,” he says. “My musical life has been mostly western because it’s where I was and what was around me.” In fact choral music has become a metaphor for his life: Hussein is all about harmony.
His discovery of choral music was serendipitous. “In grade nine, the high school jazz choir came to perform at my school. The minute I heard it I knew I must do that.” So he joined the following year. Then he joined the concert and chamber choirs. Then he flew through an audition for the Alberta Youth Choir. “When I was in the music room, or singing in the choir, I could be myself. I could be silly, I could be emotional, I could be vulnerable, and nobody judged me. That’s the great thing. Music leveled the playing field for me.”
Even though he made many good friends through choir, he did not discuss his faith or culture. His life was still compartmentalized. “Being Muslim was not something you talked about. My lives seemed separate. In a strange way, the ceremony of singing in choirs kept me grounded and made me feel integrated as a person.” At the same time, choral music became a conduit enabling him to connect more deeply to his faith. “There’s something spiritual about a group of people singing together in harmony. That was something I was able to take with me to the prayer hall. When I recited the traditional devotional songs there I felt a similar spiritual connection.” But some of his community members and elders didn’t understand his growing enthrallment with what they considered a non-traditional art form. “They thought I should be focusing on becoming a dentist, something I had been considering for a career.” In the prayer hall, too, he felt like an outsider.
In 1989 the family moved to Vancouver. Hussein had already completed two years of pre-dentistry at college, and enrolled at UBC to study microbiology with the intention of applying to the School of Dentistry. But ill health prevented him from completing the year. Convalescing, he had plenty of time to think. Keith Pedersen, his music teacher from Alberta, had always urged him to consider a future in music. When he was well enough, Hussein took the bachelor of music transfer program at Capilano College, then returned to UBC, where the music school became his second home. He completed his masters in Music in 1998.
These days, Hussein arranges choral music, conducts youth community choirs, and runs weekend music workshops for youth. He has twice performed with Ismaili Muslim youth choirs for His Highness the Aga Khan, and in 2004 collaborated with First Nations composer Russell Wallace on a piece to present to the Dalai Lama. Last year, he became the first recipient of the bc Choral Federation’s Malcolm McDonald Youth Achievement Award. He was chosen for his commitment to choral activities, community building and advocacy, and for providing inspiring leadership.
He couldn’t be happier, although he’ll never make as much money as he would have as a dentist. “How much is baring your soul worth?” he asks. He is still nuts about choral music, weaving different musical traditions and cultures into the art form. You can hear the influence of an African beat, or a sound reminiscent of a Muslim call to prayer, or First Nations folklore represented in the text. His work can best be described as choral fusion. “I take traditional forms that aren’t normally considered part of the choral tradition, and bridge them with forms from western music. And I think it works.”
He is cautious, however, about causing discomfort. “Artists have responsibilities. There’s a line between creative license and informed, responsible art. But he also thinks that for younger Ismaili Muslim generations brought up in the west, nurturing creative expression gives them a more meaningful connection with their heritage. “I present traditional sounds and music in a way that respects and honours the roots, but in a way we can understand and connect to. If I present something that gets down to the heart and the essence, if even one person is touched it is a gift.”
Hussein runs workshops for Ismaili Muslim youth, helping them use choral music as a tool to explore their identity. “Youth is a transitory time when you’re figuring out who you are,” he says. “I want to help that process along and help them feel a sense of confidence and brotherhood.” Participants bring in samples of any genre of music and discuss why they like them. “It’s easy to find common themes. A lot of the songs people bring in make them think about love, or bring them hope, or make them happy. We look at the musical elements – the instrumentation, rhythms, melodies – that create these feelings.” Then the group creates a piece that incorporates at least one aspect of each person’s choice. To help them, Hussein will often start with a traditional tune or chant familiar to everyone. He then teaches the group harmonies. Most of the young people have no choral background, and the experience can be quite profound. “You see a sparkle in their eyes, because now they’re experienced it in a new way.”
Recently UBC’s Law school asked him to use his methods in a project on alternative dispute resolution and mediation using art. He thinks it’s an interesting concept. Hussein sees a close analogy between his workshops and dispute resolution. “There’s a struggle in the process of bringing ten different voices together. There’s tension, and questions about how to create a unity of sound while maintaining individual integrity. Everyone has a different opinion. Then I provide them with musical tools. I show them harmony, I show them a multi-faith chant, I talk about how you can introduce concepts with music. I give them a chance to explore how to express who they are as individuals and as a group. Anything goes, so long as it’s respectful and every person feels they’ve contributed. They create amazing things. How does it happen? That’s where the mystery is. This energy creates real bonds among the students, and with bonds, dialogue is easy and creativity can flourish.”
Hussein is excited by this work. He wants to take what he does to broader cultural contexts through mainstream education and community arts projects. He is currently researching and developing a process and materials he can use with teachers to help them design integrated programs built around music.
When Hussein sings, he does it with so much conviction and passion it’s difficult to imagine him wearing a surgical mask and wielding a screaming drill. The route he’s chosen has provided him with clarity and peace, and music is a tool that helps him create some harmony in an often cacophonous world. “It’s all about evolution,” he says, reflecting on life so far. “People immigrate and emigrate, now more than ever. So what changes? What stays the same? For me it is the intention to connect with the sacred harmony that resonates within, through and between all creation. Choral music is one of the ways I can do that. Choral music also helps me remember that each of us is unique and special, that when we are strong in who we are, then together we can make amazing harmony. That’s how I would want to live my life, as a Muslim, as a Canadian, as a global citizen and a living being. Inshallah, to be the best I can be and help others do the same.” ¤
Vanessa Clarke is assistant editor of Trek Magazine.
Hussein is amazing. I have heard him sing just randomly and it was absolutely fantastic! I have also been to one of his workshops and that was just fascinating and inspiring. Keep it up Hussein!!
Its me Salman
We have met at Sirat
Your Music Rocks
Hussain – great music keep it up