Singing for Sai
It’s Western time again at the
holy city of Puttaparthi. No folks, not Country and Western but
Western carols for Christmas. That’s right; it’s the time of the
Blessed Birth of the Baby Jesus. That means that the “Westerners”
get a chance to strut their stuff for their Beloved Bhagawan.
What an amazing array of
humanity has gathered to pay homage to their Master and spiritual
leader Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba! So broad and all encompassing
are His teachings, that He blesses and indeed encourages all the
major faiths and religions to continue with their individual methods
of worship. But, with the love of Bhagawan, their worshipping seems
to achieve even greater fervour after they visit this great teacher
of mankind, even while they are His guests at Prasanthi Nilayam (the
Abode of Highest Peace). Christmas time is no exception.
The Western Choir have in their
repertoire for their Christmas 2008 programme 18 hymns – including
such stalwarts as How Great Thou Art. To make sure that they
are in harmony with their host country – Blessed Bharat - the choir
also sings a sprinkling of Sanskrit in the form of Bhajans.
The choristers have only nine
days to familiarize themselves with 18 new musical pieces – in
English – and many of the devotees do not have English as their
first language. In addition, there are 36 musicians and to add a
final twist of complexity to this ambitious undertaking, most of the
people involved are not professional singers or musicians.
Yet, every year for the past ten
years the Western Choir have managed to present a most enjoyable
programme for their Lord. How do they do it, I hear you cry?
Well, there happens to be this
wonderful American woman called Sylvia Alden, who, with her innate
musicality and huge heart full of love for Bhagawan, waves her
finger-baton and tickles those vocal cords into producing a
We met Sylvia to find out more
about this little musical maestro (by the way the lady has no formal
training). She told me:-
“I came to Swami for the first
time in 1978. At that time we used to sit on the sands and sleep in
the sheds. It was funny, Swami was giving Darshan and He said to
me: ‘Come back here in December, I have very much work for you to
do’. Well of course, I did come back in the December and instead of
being given the Children’s choir to work with (I was a teacher all
of my working life) I was given the Adult choir, which was a first.
“In those days we used to write
the lyrics out in longhand and all we had was one light bulb hanging
on a cord. In those days I would say: ‘Okay, what should we sing?’
These days Swami has given such beautiful songs to people. Back
then we had just a harmonium and a guitar. The first programme we
presented was in the open air. The Germans wanted to sing
Hallelujah. But, open air dissipates the sound and we were singing
in the driveway, we were asked to stop in the middle of the song,
because the sound simply evaporated in the open air. But, it was a
good lesson to teach one not to panic and to just carry on, which we
did and the adjusted programme was a big success.”
Sylvia laughs a self deprecating
laugh (which one comes to learn is par for the course with this
lovely lady) as her memory takes her on a musical interlude.
“I used to have to hold the
music down with my foot, in between my toes, because there wasn’t a
music stand. But despite all of that, the programme worked well.
The men had tears. Swami looked so happy. He apparently said: ‘If
you didn’t look at them you wouldn’t know they were foreign.’”
And what do the participants have to share…
I managed to winkle out some Westerners visiting Prasanthi Nilayam
for the first time to find out what kind of experience it has been
for them, singing for Sai in the choir for the first time.
Kelly Killion, 57, from Arkansas, USA, told me of his first
“Well, I guess it was in 2004. It was my first time in the choir,
also my first time in Puttaparthi. Everyone was abuzz with the
fact that Swami was going out every day in His red car. So the one
day I got it in my head to go outside and wait for His car. I bought
a mala -- which is a garland of flowers and five roses. Swami came
out of the 2nd gate at the University and as He drove past me; He
looked at me and gave me a small smile. I then somehow knew I was
to wait. Then, He drove past again. Only this time, He didn’t
drive past entirely, His car stopped and as it did, I took my mala
and placed it in front of the windscreen, and then I took the five
roses and placed them on the side near Swami. Swami gave me a big
smile. Then to my own amazement, I heard myself implore Him ‘Christ
me!’ Well, Swami looked at me, raised His two hands and Wham!
Brought them both down in a big blessing! Whoosh – well, I didn’t
know what struck me. I felt my whole being immersed in bliss and I
couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t do a thing until the next time we
sang. When we got to sing for Swami, I was right up front. It was
the most unforgettable experience of my life. Thank you Swami!”
So that was a triple first for Kelly! Then I spoke with lovely Lore
Lijen, a 25-year-old first timer from Belgium. She told me:-
“This is my first time in Puttaparthi and my first time in the
choir. My experiences from the choir are very good. The Bhajans I
like -- although I do not understand them! The hymns I like very
much, I find them very uplifting. They make me feel verily at home.
It’s like celebrating Christmas in a traditional Christian way and
yet Sai Baba makes it all feel so fresh!
“What I also noticed and what really interests me -- I am a fitness
instructor by the way – and which is something that I never thought
I would find so interesting – is the custom of separating the men
from the women. It is really good, I think.
“Because, now when I see the women all covered up, I actually see
the women – from the inside. I see their beauty and character which
emanate from the inside, whereas at home in my own country, many are
very body conscious. It is always body, body, body. This I have
found to be most fascinating. It’s actually liberating!”
Now let me introduce you to another Parthi first timer, from the US,
Miss Paula Hendrix. Paula is a feisty American who has spent most of
her life counselling and healing. She has a tremendous love for
Lord Jesus. Here’s her feeling on being in Puttaparthi for the
“I’m from Tampa, Cigar City they call it and it’s in Florida and
this is my first time in Puttaparthi. Being in the choir is
wonderful. It’s a spiritual experience where some of the songs make
me cry. It also makes me less homesick. I feel I am closer to home
when singing in the choir. I have pretty much shined in India.
Also, for me what is particularly wonderful is that I have found my
love for Jesus again. You see, because of the fundamentalists I
went right off religion... But being here is like being in a time
warp. Being taken back some two thousand years to the time when
Jesus walked the earth. That’s what it makes me feel like. Being
turned back and now I have shone, on Jesus being here.”
Sylvia reflected on some comments from her choristers: “One lady
said ‘I really don’t mind if we sing in front of Swami or not.
These nine days of rehearsals have been to me, like a darshan’.
Another lady told me, ‘For the first time, I saw my man with tears
in his eyes, as he sang.’”
Sylvia added: “I don’t think that surrender is as easy for men as it
is for women. Women do that instinctively. Men, from a societal
aspect, are brought up not to show any emotion. This choir serves as
healing therapy and an opening of the heart. I have seen men in
tears on many occasions.”
And what of Sylvia herself? Has her involvement in the Christmas
Choir had a healing effect on her?
She confessed: “I had never really laughed until I came to Bhagawan.
I was an extremely serious child. I was born into a Baptist family
and in my heart I was always afraid of doing something wrong. I was
also very angry. I didn’t believe it when I was told that if you
grew up in a jungle somewhere you were not worthy of loving God. But
then I came to Swami in 1978 and finally was able to laugh”.
During the rehearsals there are, quite naturally, a lot of emotions
which generally run high. The means of vocal communication can be a
very delicate matter, particularly when one is singing of and for
the glory of God. There are a lot of little incidents which happen
during the Christmas Choir practice which, on reflection are
farcical but at the time of occurrence, it could be felt that World
War Three had broken out. For instance, the fans; to fan or not to
fan. THAT becomes the question! Lots of ladies want them on, but
others want them off!
Then there are the spaces – this is my space, not yours!
And after quite a few other trivia – the music. Every other one of
us becomes Mrs. Pavarotti Par Excellence! The beautiful ladies take
the Prasanthi Christmas Choir to a whole new level. It’s all part of
the process, the teachings. After all, didn’t someone say – Life is
a Game – Play it!
So what is Sylvia’s philosophy on these musical machinations?
“I always pray to Swami: Do not let them see me, Sylvia – this body
is nothing. Just let them see Thee through me. Let Thy love and
light shine through me”.
During the rehearsal sessions Sylvia generously shares with the
choristers some of her blessed interview experiences with Bhagawan.
This gives them an invaluable insight, which they may otherwise
never achieve, into the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. The
rehearsals are peppered with these magnificent gems.
What does she lovingly advise
her transient musical family to do? Sylvia smiles that beautiful,
radiant arresting smile (one that lingers long after the lady has
left) and ponders. Then, “If you want to hear God, listen for that
soft sweet voice of Love”.
Speaking of that soft sweet voice of Love, Sri Sathya Sai Baba has
assembled so many of His beloved musicians for His Christmas Choir.
There’s Doug Sanders from New Zealand who Sylvia refers to as her
musical rock – and who is also a naughty angel. Doug is a
professional musician with the soul of a child. You can hear that
when he plays his violin. There’s Peter Bo, who has been playing
keyboards for the Christmas choir for almost ten years. Peter’s
composition “Christmas in Prasanthi” is being sung by the choir this
year. Surely this song will become the anthem for the Choir.
I asked him how it felt to have a choir of nearly 700 interpret his
work. He told me: “It is truly wonderful, to feel all that love
coming through the song”.
Then there is Gisela Sebastian, whose glorious voice truly inspires
the ladies to reach even greater heights. Gisela has composed many
songs for Bhagawan. She lovingly goes through the pieces, note by
note, chord by chord and semi-breve by semi-breve. Gisela has been
involved with music in Prasanthi for the past 28 years. From her
demeanour alone, one can see that she honestly lives and breathes
for love of God. She has the voice of a Diva and the soul of a
The piquant Krishnaveni lovingly teaches us the correct
pronunciation for some of the Sanskrit lyrics.
Meet another first-timer to Puttaparthi and to India, 20-year-old
Sue Ellen Harrison. She comes from the Blue Mountains of Australia
where the famed author Howard Murphet lived and where he penned many
of his best-selling books about Bhagawan. She is having a wonderful
time in the choir. She tells me that she has been experiencing
visions of Jesus all her life. Now she is able to sing in front of
the Beloved Lord Himself.
Other members of the 36-strong orchestra include the gifted Anthea
on cello, Stan Zaides from Germany, Anne from Australia, Eliena from
Russia and Loli Puelles from Spain - to name just a few of this
talented group of musicians who all do a magnificent job of making
music that brings us to The Music Maker Himself – Bhagawan Sri
Sathya Sai Baba. This Christmas Choir is surely another
musical interlude which is part of His unique plan for this period
in mankind’s evolution towards Godhead.
It teaches us yet again, as His magnificent story unfolds, that we
are all Divine instruments in the hands of the all loving, ever
caring and compassionate Creator -- whether we are aware of it or
not. So let’s all give thanks to this most Beatific Lord for
opening our hearts to be able to sing, albeit only one crotchet in
the Divine choir of His magnum opus – His Celestial Song, as it
continues to unfold, like the petals of the lovely lily greeting the
Divine Light in all its spectacular splendour.
heart unto Heart,
light unto Light,
sound unto Sound.
The Most Perfect Master, again, has been teaching. In this instance
-- through the Christmas Choir.
HARMONY…. Not only through music. But through co-operation…To fan
or not to fan, that was the question!
PITCH…… Not only in tune musically but with fellow choristers.
PACE……… Not only in musical time but seeing God’s timing in
everything that happens around us. Rely on the Self.
PAUSE…….. WAIT for the music and listen in the silence to that
small sweet voice of Love within.
God is Melody! Live in Harmony. Promote Unity.
So, with the Blessings of Bhagawan Baba we wish you a Holy and Happy
Merry Christmas. Thank you our BABA!
From the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Christmas Choir we sing to
For this is Christmas in Prasanthi. Oh! Swami what a gift – Your
Love is filling every heart, with Joy and Peace and Bliss!