Ashfield Town Hall, September 15


Here was one to lodge in the memory. Here were sounds, idioms, moods and torrential energies never before combined, and together they made an unfamiliar emotion well up inside you, I believe called joyousness.  This was what the Sydney Sacred Music Festival has been building towards for nine years, and what art does better than any governmental policy: foster social cohesion.

Just as everybody has a heartbeat, every culture has rhythm, but the differences in how rhythms are felt, expressed and applied to other facets of music vary infinitely. Universal Rhythms, brainchild of the festival’s artistic director, Richard Petkovic, made those differences melt away. In the process Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim musical cultures melded, just as people of diverse ethnicity intermingled when dancing became their only possible response to the exhilaration flooding from the stage.

David Jones, above, and at top with Heather Lee, Kim Cunio and Arjunan Puveendran. Photos: Gerrie Mifsud Photography.

The event began with a solo performance from David Jones, long one of the country’s foremost drummers and percussionists. He set the tone with the ethereal ring of a Tibetan singing bowl, before harnessing his singular virtuosity at the drums without forsaking that sense of serenity. He was joined by soprano Heather Lee, multi-instrumentalist Kim Cunio and Carnatic vocalist Arjunan Puveendran for two Indian pieces, the operatic and Carnatic singing combining to create an effect outside space and time.

With Jones and Cunio still on board, the 11-member Aurora Choralis choir was the next revelation. Directed by Robb Dennis (whose charisma, exuberance and exactitude were reminiscent of the late Richard Gill), it bathed Abide with Me in exquisite harmonies, and then for two pieces engaged in a thrilling collaboration with an eight-piece Ghanaian drum ensemble, Karifi, led by the irrepressible Yaw Derkyi.

The 22 artists already on stage were then swelled by three Sudanese Sufi singers, lifting the energy to combustion point. Lee and Puveendran rejoined, and the Sudanese danced with the audience, before we were returned to a trance-like state via Lee’s exquisite delivery of Hildegard von Bingen’s De Spiritu Sancto. Extraordinary.