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Suzanne Teng

September 2005 | Feature

Suzanne Teng’s Sounds of Ecstasy

by Caroline Ryder

Over the years, wind instrumentalist Suzanne Teng has gathered literally hundreds of flutes from all over the world and brought them back to her hillside home in Topanga.

There’s a wooden mijwiz traditionally used by Egyptian snake charmers, a 20-year-old Taiwanese bamboo dizi, a shepherd’s flute from Bulgaria, an Arabic oboe called a zurna—and that’s just in her travel bag. “People always ask me how many flutes I have, and to be honest, I have no idea,” she laughs.

Teng is performing at LA’s World Festival of Sacred Music on Sept. 24 with her band Mystic Journey, winner of the Best New Age Artist award at the 2005 Independent Music Awards. Teng and Mystic Journey are best known for taking a diverse range of ethnic sounds and creating ethereal, ecstatic global music.

What many people don’t know is that Teng, originally from Berkeley, started out as a classical flautist. The raven-haired beauty spent years playing with top symphony orchestras, her goal being to break into the international classical scene. Thoughts of entering the ethnic music scene had never crossed her mind until she met an African drummer at an experimental music workshop. What she learned from him transformed her entire perception of music.

“We went to a retreat center and studied exploratory music, improvising with drums and chants,” she recalls. “That day turned my life upside down. I started along a new path, spiritually and musically.”

She quit classical music, started playing ethnic instruments and found herself on tour with 14 African drummers. It was quite a transformation. “I went from playing classical scales every day to improvising with a bunch of drummers!” she says. “But I had realized there was another path and it was something my heart felt really comfortable with.”

Teng moved to LA and started a Ph.D. at UCLA’s Ethnomusicology department, focusing on the healing power of music. However, the scientific emphasis of the course didn’t resonate with her; she longed to perform again. “I didn’t want to be a professor,” says Teng, who has composed music for yoga and acupuncture videos. “I wasn’t interested in measuring the effects of different frequencies on the soul. To me it’s more spiritual, it’s about opening up to the music, having faith and feeling the energy flow up and around—that’s where the healing comes.”

Teng’s husband, New Orleans native Gilbert Levy, is also Mystic Journey’s percussionist. The couple married four years ago in Topanga, tying the knot at sunset before enjoying a full moon and a shooting star. “That cost a lot of money,” Levy jokes. A year before that, the two had received an impromptu marriage blessing from a shaman in Chicoi, a coastal cave in Guatemala. “It was summer solstice and the energy was very high,” recalls Teng. “There was a procession in the cave and then the shaman said he was getting a message from his guides saying he was to marry us.” He anointed the couple with his holy water and afterwards the whole group went to a restaurant to celebrate. “There was no one there apart from us, and the tables had been set up as if for a banquet. It was like a wedding reception, even though none of it was planned.”

Audiences at the Sacred Music festival can expect Mystic Journey’s usual whirl of flowing, improvised melodies as well as some choreographed dancing, something Teng has only recently begun to incorporate into her performances.

“This Festival is so exciting,” says Teng. “It’s amazing because it involves so many people in the city, and so many venues. Everyone involved is full of heart and love belief. It’s not about money—it has greater vision than that.”

Caroline Ryder is a culture and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in LA Weekly, Swindle Magazine, The Book LA, and The Independent (UK), among others. carolineryder.com.

Suzanne Teng & Mystic Journey, featuring Gilbert Levy on world percussion, Fritz Heede on world strings and Barry Newton on string bass, will perform at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre as part of 2005’s World Festival of Sacred Music. Special guest artists include Prince Diabate and the Lexi Pearl MoMementum Dancers. Also performing will be the Naser Musa/Adam del Monte ensemble with flamenco dancer Laila del Monte. Call 323.461.3673 for tickets or visit fordamphitheatre.org.

Behind the World Festival of Sacred Music

Thai puppeteers, Brazilian carnival queens and African-Indian Sufi dancers are among the multitude of artists preparing for a spectacular celebration of multiculturalism at the World Festival of Sacred Music.

The largest event of its kind in Los Angeles, the 16-day festival kicks off Sept. 17 and features more than 1,000 acts from dozens of countries across the globe. All the more amazing when you learn this event was put together with a staff of three (plus three interns) and “hardly any money.”

“It’s been a wild ride, but really rewarding,” enthuses festival director Judy Mitoma, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA. She has organized all three World Festivals of Sacred Music so far. The first was held in 1999 in response to calls by His Holiness the Dalai Lama for cities across the globe to hold an event marking a commitment to peace. The 1999 festival was supposed to be a one-time-only occurrence, but the events of 9/11 inspired Mitoma and her team to hold another, in 2002. This year’s will be the third.

“The way it seems to work is that we do the festival, take a year to rest and recover, then a year to think about doing it again and then a year of actually doing it,” laughs Mitoma.
Japan, Australia, South Africa and Germany had all expressed an interest in holding similar events in response to the Dalai Lama’s request, but LA was the only community that actually managed to pull it off. “Everyone else took the typical arts management approach,” explains Mitoma. “That is, you get your million dollars together and then you build your festival. Unfortunately, they could never find the money.” Mitoma, on the other hand, focused on creating a broad-based grassroots plan that relied more on volunteers and collaboration than enormous fundraising.

The first festival cost over a million dollars and featured 85 events. The second, in 2002, was smaller, with 54 events at a cost of $500,000. This year’s will have 43 events with a projected cost of around $250,000. Despite almost halving in size since its inception, the World Festival of Sacred Music will still be the largest multi-venue event taking place in LA this year—although big is not best as far as Mitoma is concerned. “We’re trying to refine our project so that it uses the least amount of money necessary,” she explains. “We want a festival that is not seen as some blockbuster commercial endeavor.”

An estimated 60,000 people are expected to attend the Festival, which opens with a benefit concert at UCLA under the harvest moon. A truly international affair, this event will feature artists from Thailand, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Siberia, Cameroon and elsewhere. The closing ceremony, called “Honor the Sea,” takes place Oct. 2 on the shores of Santa Monica beach.

“This festival is about advocating cultural understanding across religions and faiths, as well as races and cultures,” said Mitoma. “And of course we know how important this is today.” —CR


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