Prince and princess join local community in Winspear Centre cultural performance
Don Retson, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Saturday, October 20

EDMONTON – Masoud Habibi fills concert halls around the world with his band’s magical combination of traditional sounds and devotional lyrics. He’s used to playing for hours at a time, then returning for encores.

But at the Winspear Centre Wednesday, Habibi, who is from Iran, graciously ceded his place onstage after his band played just 15 minutes.

Short and sweet. That’s part of the deal of A Mystical Journey, a unique variety show involving more than 60 Muslim artists and musicans. The show celebrates the many creative forms of devotional expression in Islam, and demonstrates the ability of Muslim people to work in harmony despite differences in geography, language and traditions.

A Mystical Journey is an international initiative commemorating the Golden Jubilee of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan as imam or spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The Ismaili Muslims are a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples living in more than 25 countries around the world, united in their allegiance to the Aga Khan as the 49th hereditary Imam and direct descendant of Prophet Mohammad. There are about 75,000 Ismailis in Canada and 15 million worldwide.

Months in the planning, the show involves music, dance and poetry. It’s intended to showcase the richness of Islamic culture and faith.

No matter how big or popular an individual may be, or which branch of Islam they belong to, each of the nine acts is limited to about 15 minutes.

It all works. No ego trips. No tantrums.

In the case of Habibi, founder of the Dalahoo Sufi Ensemble, he has played on 200 albums and 100 pieces for films. Yet at the end of two musical numbers, Habibi reverently bowed his head in response to thunderous applause and made way for the next act.

In an interview, Habibi humbly says he was surprised and honoured to be part of A Mystical Journey: Sufi Music and other Expressions of Devotion from the Muslim World.

“It’s a surprise for all of us,” he said through an interpreter. “We get to see different Muslim people and different Muslim music bands, some of the best in the world.”

In terms of musicial diversity, the show is unlike anything Edmonton has seen.

It’s a journey through music pieces as diverse as qawalli’s, ilahis, kalams, rock songs and performances of whirling Sufi dancers.

The debuting of A Mystical Journey in Canada has a special relevance. As a country with a proud history of embracing diverse peoples and cultures, Canada was once described by His Highness the Aga Khan as “the most successful pluralistic society on the face of our globe.”

According to Diamond Tharani, project manager for the Canadian tour, each of the nine groups involved in the show are “world-class performers in their own right.”

Mohib Samnani, a member of the Ismaili Council for Edmonton, said the diversity of the show is part and parcel of the celebration and commemoration of the Golden Jubilee.

“I think the key message that you would find in this event is that Islam is not a monolithic bloc,” he said. “The pluralism that exists within Islam is very rich.”

Though different in form, Samnani said the musical acts of devotion are common in their peaceful search for the divine, and represent the pluralistic traditions and mystical unity that exist within Islam.

Salman Ahmad is a fine example of that diversity.

A doctor by training and a rock musician by profession, Ahmad founded South Asia’s biggest rock band Junoon, which has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.

With his guitar in hand, and backed by a solo hand drummer, Ahmad was clearly a crowd favourite during the three-hour show.
A Mystical Journey began its world premiere in Vancouver last Sunday. The show is on tonight at the Stampede Corral in Calgary, then makes stops in Toronto and Montreal. It’s expected to resume early next year in the United States.

For many of the artists who performed here Wednesday, the show was extra special because Prince Hussain, the third son of the Aga Khan’s four children and his wife, Princess Khaliya, were among the sold-out audience.

The couple flew to Edmonton from France earlier this week.

Prior to the performance, the Prince was honoured at a gala reception attended by dignitatries as well as representatives of other branches of Islam and other faiths.

Government House leader Dave Hancock, who delivered greetings from the province, was one of three cabinet ministers at the function. Also attending was Calgary MLA Shiraz Shariff, who is Ismaili.

Mayor Stephen Mandel presented Prince Hussain with a framed certificate proclaiming him an ambasador of the City of Edmonton.

The proclamation notes that Prince Hussain is involved in cultural and environmental projects that seek to enhance the quality of life of concerned communities.

It also says the Prince has travelled to more than 50 countries and visited an array of development projects, acquiring first-hand experience in educational, health, housing, water and sanitation programs.

Meanwhile, about 200 members of the local Ismaili community, many of them children, huddled outside the Winspear, hoping to catch a glimpse of the prince and princess.

Nur Lakhani and her son Shakeel, aged seven, were among those holding up handmade placards of welcome. In one hand, Shakeel clutched two reds roses and a balloon inscribed with the words “I Love You.”

“He really wants to give it to the princess,” his mother explained. “It’s our symbol of love and affection for them.”

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