SOAS Interfaith Music Festival: Anja Fahlenkamp, Founder, talks to Insight

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The 3rd edition of the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival takes place on 24 February 2014, with the title ‘Coexist’. Insight caught up with Founder and Director, Anja Fahlenkamp, as she prepares to launch this year’s Festival.

The event: details for the 3rd edition of the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival

➤ Date: 24 February 2014
Time: 11.00 am to 9.00 pm
Venue: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre: The School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS], University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG (map)
Flyer: Downloadable PDF flyer with details of the 3rd edition of the Festival

The video: sample musical performance from 2nd SOAS Interfaith Music Festival held in 2013

This video, filmed by Ruari Lane at the 2nd SOAS Interfaith Music Festival on 29 February 2013, shows Shumei UK performing Japanese drumming and meditative chanting that derives from the Shinji Shumeikai religious movement (16.19).

Insight meets Anja Fahlenkamp, Founder and Director of the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival

SOAS; Anja Fahlenkamp

Insight: Where did you get the idea for the SOAS Festival?

Anja: I finished my BA course in politics at SOAS this summer and I am now studying for a Masters degree in international relations in Berlin, Germany. While I was studying at SOAS, I found that the University of London’s fame for its multicultural atmosphere and inclusive student body is well-merited. This great mix of cultures, faiths and people was especially apparent at SOAS.

Although I saw there was plenty on offer for students who were members of the different religions – faith student societies, religious events, etc. – I was sad to notice that each faith society and group kept mostly to themselves, without engaging with students from other religious backgrounds. None of the societies invited members of other religions to come and explore their group. Moreover, no one organised any major interfaith events.

Insight: Please tell us more about your personal interest in interfaith issues.

AnjaBeing Jewish myself, I am immensely interested in other religions. I believe that interfaith dialogue is a crucial way to bridge the gaps that still cause bitter and violent conflicts between members of different religions. I feel that fear and ignorance of other religions are the main reasons for these gaps. I wanted to show what my own life experience has taught me: all religions, even though they may be very different in some ways, really do have a lot in common. I believe that learning about other religions can enrich our own understanding of the world and of spirituality.

Insight: How did the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival begin?

Anja: Before I started studying at SOAS, I attended a small musical interfaith event there in 2008. The event was organised by Chazan Jaclyn Chernett, from the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy [EAJL], in cooperation with the SOAS Jewish Music Institute and the London MTO Sufi Society. I found the event truly wonderful and enlightening, but I was sad to see that the biggest event venue at SOAS – the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre – was almost empty, so the event did not attract a large attendance.

When I returned to SOAS as a student in 2010, I remembered what a great idea that event was. I felt that it would be really worthwhile to attempt to organise an interfaith music event on a much larger scale, with loads of religions being represented musically and, hopefully, hundreds of students attending the event.

Insight: How did you organise the 1st SOAS Interfaith Music Festival?

At the end of my first year as a SOAS student, I stood as a candidate for the University’s Student Union and was elected to the post of Anti-racism Officer. Previous incumbents in the Anti-racism Officer role had not made the most of the opportunities it afforded: work in this area was not a prime focus within the Student Union. People had tended to concentrate on combatting the politics of the English Defence League [EDL] and tackling racism against people from different ethnic groups. I decided to broaden the spectrum of the Anti-racism Office to include interfaith efforts, especially in light of ongoing religious conflicts and Islamophobia.

In 2011, I approached the SOAS Events Office with my idea of an all-day interfaith music festival that would not only be accessible to SOAS students, but also to everyone outside the campus who would like to come. Payal Gaglani-Bhatt, SOAS Senior Marketing and Events Officer, loved the idea. I was delighted when, to my surprise, she offered to cover all venue and AV costs from within the Events Office budget.

Once a date was set, I started to look for peformers who were willing to share their religion’s music with others. My challenge was that I had no budget, but I did not want to charge people admission for entry to the Festival.  I had to find about 15–20 acts who would be willing to perform for free: I could not even offer to reimburse them for their travel expenses.

Another challenge for me to overcome was that some of the acts required the use of a piano. The Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre does not keep a piano on site. After exploring all my options – including moving a piano from the SOAS main building – I ended up getting Deb Viney, who runs the SOAS Equality and Diversity Office, to make the financial arrangements needed to rent, deliver and tune a piano in time for the day of the festival.

Insight: What reaction did you get from musicians and audience members for the 1st SOAS Interfaith Music Festival?

As the day of the Festival approached, the more I realised that the fact I had no budget was no problem at all. I found that there was a huge desire in people living within Greater London to participate at the Festival by performing their music. Many SOAS students wanted to take part and numerous ‘non-SOASian’ religious and professional musicians from a variety of faith backgrounds also offered to perform their music. Everyone expressed how much they wanted to play at the Festival and so further the cause of interfaith dialogue.

I also organised two panel discussion session with wonderful speakers who shared their feelings about the importance of music in their religion and their experiences of using music as an interfaith tool.

In the end, the 1st SOAS Festival took place on 19 April 2012, and it received a wonderful response: several hundred ‘SOASians’ and Londoners attended the Festival througout the day. The next day, the SOAS Events Office asked if I was willing to organise and run a second festival the following year. I was delighted to grab the opportunity to run the event again.

Insight: How did the SOAS Festival develop for its 2nd edition?

Anja: The 2nd SOAS Festival took place in the same venue on 28 February 2013: it was a huge success and attracted even more attention than before. This time, the Festival was listed in the magazines Time Out: London and London Student. I was also contacted by the BBC London 94.9 radio station, who wanted to cover the Festival on their show, Inspirit. This series discusses religious, moral and ethical issues. I was invited to speak about the 2nd Festival on the programme that was broadcast on the Sunday that preceded the event. I took a group of musicians with me to the studio who played some interfaith music for all Londoners to hear that they had composed especially for the occasion.

Insight: What happened after the 2nd SOAS Interfaith Music Festival?

Anja: The 2nd Festival was attended by more than twice the number people who came to the first event. It was a huge success that prompted the Events Office to ask me to run a 3rd Festival in 2014, even though I would have finished my studies at SOAS. This event takes place on 24 February 2014.

Insight: How has the SOAS Festival been viewed by the University?

Anja: The impact of the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival has been fully recognised by the University.  The event has been fêted with a series of awards.

The 1st SOAS Festival was awarded the accolade ‘Best Cultural Festival’ by the SOAS Student Union. After the 2nd SOAS Festival, the event received a number of other awards.

I received an Outstanding Volunteering Award from the SOAS Careers and Enterprise Service. I was also awarded the SOAS Director’s Prize in the University’s end-of-year Student Awardss for my work as Anti-racism Officer and for founding and organising the SOAS Interfaith Music Festival. I was also runner-up for Young Achievers Award in the Arts Category for my work with the Festival.

Insight’s guest interview policy

The Insight Film Festival publishes interviews on our blog from guests of interest on an ad hoc basis. The Festival is delighted to publish a range of interview pieces on the themes of film and faith, and other subjects, but the personal views expressed in such articles do not reflect the views and opinions of the Insight Film Festival itself, which is an organisation that comprises individuals of many different faiths and none, all of whom have their own personal views and opinions on films, faith and other subjects.