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Here’s the biggest curse for any artist: lacking passion and emotion, and not having a muse or a source that will continually inspire and bring meaning to one’s creative expression.
Our band, Smith & Dragoman, creates music through the lens of the early history of the Baha’i Faith, which is a bounty, an honor and a challenge. The Baha’i teachings continue to be our muse, the source of inspiration for myself and my Smith & Dragoman bandmates.
Humanity is so blessed to have firsthand records of the opening pages of Baha’i history, its accounts well-documented and accessible. It’s quite amazing how much inspiration, as a musician, I continue to draw from the early history of the Baha’i Faith – a vast ocean, really, of inspiring and heart-wrenching stories of heroes and heroines that demonstrate the power of the human spirit through unparalleled examples of search, love, sacrifice, crisis and victory.
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Who were the earliest people to respond to the Bab’s proclamation that humanity stands on the threshold of a whole new era? In a 1947 statement to the United Nations, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, summarized the Bab’s revelation and its revolutionary impact:
The Baha’i Faith revolves around three central Figures, the first of whom was a youth, a native of Shiraz, named Mirza Ali-Muhammad, known as the Bab (Gate), who in May, 1844, at the age of twenty-five, advanced the claim of being the Herald Who, according to the sacred Scriptures of previous Dispensations, must needs announce and prepare the way for the advent of One greater than Himself, Whose mission would be according to those same Scriptures, to inaugurate an era of righteousness and peace, an era that would be hailed as the consummation of all previous Dispensations, and initiate a new cycle in the religious history of mankind. Swift and severe persecution, launched by the organized forces of Church and State in His native land, precipitated successively His arrest, His exile to the mountains of Adhirbayjan, His imprisonment in the fortresses of Mah-Ku and Chihriq and His execution, in July, 1850, by a firing squad in the public square of Tabriz. No less than twenty thousand of his followers were put to death with such barbarous cruelty as to evoke the warm sympathy and the unqualified admiration of a number of Western writers, diplomats, travellers and scholars, some of whom were witnesses of these abominable outrages, and were moved to record them in their books and diaries.
Like only a few other historical figures, this cadre of Baha’i forerunners represent the highest qualities of spiritual attainment one can achieve in this world, as true examples of selflessness and searchers after truth and detachment. Their stories are nothing short of legendary.
So why is Smith & Dragoman, for our 4th album, still composing songs about these illustrious people and events?
Connecting to the Heart
When I was 18 years old, I spent four months in South America – Bolivia, Chile and Colombia – doing a period of volunteer service, often encouraged for Baha’i youth. In Colombia, at the Baha’i Ruhi Institute outside of Cali, I came across a prodigious and utterly captivating book, The Dawn Breakers. I had seen the book before, but this was the first time that I really saw it, read it, and attempted to absorb it.
Also called Nabil’s Narrative, it recounts a series of real events that changed the nature of my entire relationship to my Creator, my faith, and my sense of purpose.
While I had grown up in a Baha’i family and had an appreciation, at a rational and intellectual level, of the fundamental tenets of the Baha’i Faith, it was really at that time, during my travels and afterwards, that I began to connect with the Baha’i Faith at a truly emotional level. It went from my head to my heart like a lightning bolt – and the heart is really where true transformation takes place. I am reminded of the words of Baha’u’llah from his book The Hidden Words: “… all that is in heaven or earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and Glory …”
I began connecting with the people described in the pages of The Dawn Breakers, and found myself drawn to their stories, their lives, their devotion and ultimately to the sacrifices they made. They sacrificed everything so that the Faith could grow, the message of Baha’u’llah be proclaimed, and the principles that Baha’u’llah taught – including the oneness of humankind, the equality of women and men, and the harmony of science and religion – could spread from soul to soul, city to city, and nation to nation.
Not too many years after that awakening the band started taking shape. We all felt compelled to put these stories to music, to help others make the same heart-felt connections, and to honor the souls that laid down their lives for something so much greater.
The story of religion, and in particular the story of the Babi and Baha’i Faiths, is truly epic. Its true tales display the extremes of the human condition – from the utmost ignorance and savagery to the heights of altruism, detachment, spirituality, and sacrifice. Its history ranges from blind fanaticism and brutality to enduring fortitude, undaunted courage, and a transcendent love. Stories like the battle of Fort Tabarsi or Baha’u’llahs two-year sojourn living as a dervish in the mountains of Sulaymaniyah dilate the heart and engage the soul at a deep emotional level.
While we had already composed three albums that covered an array of these heroic figures and the surrounding events, there really is still so much to tell, so much to share, and so much to learn. We are continually humbled, indebted and inspired by these larger-than-life characters – the likes of Quddus, Tahirih, Mulla Husayn, Nabil, The Purest Branch, Bahiyyih and so many others – who, through their staunch faith, unflinching steadfastness, and their utmost devotion and love for the teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, through blood and unimaginable sacrifice were able to pave the way for the Baha’i message of peace and unity to spread and for Baha’i communities worldwide to flourish.
Into the Fire
Into the Fire, our 4th studio album, is our latest attempt to capture the essence of the themes, characters, and events that have helped shape the Baha’i Faith. Our hope: that the music will resonate with the human heart and serve as a conduit for people to explore spiritual reality and the teachings of Baha’u’llah, who wrote: “Behold the soul-entrancing song, behold the beating of the drum, Behold the sacred rhythms that from Our hand are raining down.”
Our new Smith & Dragoman album has 13 songs which combine a tapestry of world music instruments, intimate three-part harmonies, cinematic landscapes and folk-rock compositions. Songs like Raining Down, written by Emily Dragoman, take the listener on an emotional journey of self-reflection and hope, and draw from the words of Baha’u’llah to help ease suffering. Songs like Lionheart (which I wrote) and The Hour (written by Michael Dragoman) are anthemic compositions with powerful rhythms and a chorus of voices.
From where we stand in time, the magnitude and greatness of the lives of the early Baha’i believers cannot be fully understood or appreciated. Neither can their stories be exhausted as a source of creativity, inspiration, and insight. It will be fascinating to see what future artists will create to continue to bring into physical reality what can best be described as spiritual and transcendental.
Artists have a manifestly important role to play in the shaping of civilization and the beauty that we bring into this world. But if there is one thing that is certain, the history and teachings of the Baha’i Faith offer a great well of inspiration that we can draw from!