A woman with medium-length silky, jet black hair sits with her left elbow resting on a table, her left hand propping up her head and her face looking upward. Her face is bathed in yellow light. She wears a decorative white vest.

Seattle Sacred Music: A Balm For the Soul

by Beverly Aarons

Have you ever listened to music that lifts your spirit, even after a difficult day? Your heart slows down to an even, relaxed thump, and all of your anxieties dissipate. In almost every culture, this kind of music exists. It’s ancient. It’s unmetered. It’s sacred. And Seattle Sacred Music and Art (SAMA) wants to bring this sacred music from around the globe to Seattle stages and — during the pandemic — screens. Founded in late 2019 by John Goodfellow, SAMA has already begun featuring on its website livestreamed performances from international sacred music artists. I had an opportunity to speak with KEXP DJ and SAMA curator, Darek Mazzone, about his vision. 

“I’m trying to get people to open up their hearts to other places,” Mazzone said. He describes himself as a cultural activist who uses music to change minds. “I’m seeing a lot of closed hearts right now — closed hearts all over this country and other parts of the world — and a lot of fear. And I find that with music as an art form, it allows people to let go of fear and it opens up their hearts.”

Mazzone said that his curatorial vision for SAMA is in the spirit of his KEXP series “Musical People Being Bombed” in which he plays music from artists living in war zones, especially countries being bombed by the U.S. military. He wants people to look past the destructive propaganda and the “us versus them” mentality that war brings and see the humanity of people who may be different but only superficially. 

“I find that when I present music from different cultures, it’s not like a direct attack like sometimes you find with social activism,” Mazzone said. He also explained why he considers himself a cultural activist and not a social activist. “With social activism, it’s a direct attack. ‘You’re wrong. You’re stupid.’ I find that [cultural activism is] like a flank. It gets people to think about this outside of their shields.”

A Black man, Yacouba Sissoko, with very short black hair, wearing a dark suit and with a white shirt under the jacket, plays a tall stringed instrument decorated with beads on a blue-lit stage.
Yacouba Sissoko (photo courtesy of the artist).

Born and raised in communist Poland, Mazzone explored the music section of the library in his grandmother’s village. That’s when he discovered his first taste of sacred music from outside of Poland. At the time, Poland welcomed many international students from places such as Angola, Mozambique, and Vietnam, and their musical traditions came with them. Mazzone’s musical tastes were influenced by those imported traditions as well as the traditional music of his grandmother’s village. 

“There was a lot of music being created in churches,” Mazzone said. “And there’s also a very strong agrarian tradition in Poland. So there were all these villages that would be having these musical expressions tied to nature, tied to the seasons, and community.”

For Mazzone, sacred music has a quality to it that pop music doesn’t. He is a huge pop music fan, but he says that it simply doesn’t address the complexity of human emotion and experience in the same way as sacred music. He described sacred music as an emotional tenderizer.

“It’s a village, and the village could be anywhere,” Mazzone said. “And people are getting together for a meal, and it might be a funeral or a wedding or a baptism or something. And there are musicians there that are just playing unmetered music. So they’re playing violin. They’re playing horns. But it’s not metered. It’s not set to dance or anything like that. And having that music actually prepares your heart. It prepares your emotions for what is coming a little bit later with this music, which is to get people to move, to get people closer together, to get people to share a common experience. And that is the difference between a lot of stuff that we’re seeing right now in pop music versus a lot of these ancient traditions.”

A woman with grey hair styled in a bob wears a long, yellow and white layered robe with a pattern that might be sea creatures in red, pink, orange, and blue stands holding a sanshin (a three-stringed Okinawan musical instrument). Three more sanshins hang on a pale peach wall next to and behind her.
Mako, of Mako and Munjuru, with a sanshin (Photo: Kay Wohler)

Sacred music helps communities “deal with difficult times,” Mazzone said. “Whether it’s like, ‘Hey, a war is coming. We don’t know if we have enough food. There might be a famine.’ Or, just like the day-to-day life in ancient times and what could happen or not happen. These were the musical expressions of that. Right now, and this is overly simplistic, a lot of the music is just to celebrate happiness, celebrate one moment.”

Mazzone wants to cultivate a cultural space in Seattle where international sacred music artists can share the emotional complexity and depth of their work. He also wants to make Seattle a go-to destination for these musical acts. 

“We don’t get a lot of artists coming through Seattle or the Northwest in general from different parts of the world,” Mazzone said. “They usually just go to New York and they think they’ve been to America.”

A woman with medium-length, brown hair wearing a light-colored, sleeveless dress with various patterns (including stripes and others) and a matching, light-weight shawl hanging around her
Kiran Ahluwalia (Photo: George Whiteside)

By inviting and hosting these global artists, Mazzone hopes that SAMA can play a significant role in the Seattle-area music ecosystem. 

“One of the intentions with this was also to support the stages around here — and support all of them,” Mazzone said. “Edmonds and Kirkland — all over the city. South Seattle. We need to make sure that our cultural institutions, the venues, and all the things that make Seattle unique in its ability to foster and grow art and music from all over the place stay as strong as possible as we go through this.”

SAMA hosts weekly livestreamed music performances on its website. You can find a schedule of upcoming performances here and previous video-recorded performances here.

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.

Featured image: Falu (photo courtesy of the artist).