If you’ve seen Argo, Ben Affleck’s film about the rescue of American hostages during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you might remember the scene in which Affleck’s character, CIA operative Tony Mendez, sits alone in his hotel room, contemplating what will be the most dangerous part of the mission. The hostages, masquerading as a film crew scouting locations in Teheran, are to leave the protection of the Canadian Embassy for the first time. Nothing actually happens in the scene. But what gives it its undeniable punch is the musical score that accompanies it; a lone female voice singing what sounds to the untrained ear like an Islamic chant.
But the language is not Arabic, the song’s content is not Islamic, and the singer is not Iranian. She’s Denver native Laura Mangus, who composed the melody to go with a traditional Aramaic version of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
“Aramaic is a colloquial, Semitic language close to Hebrew and Arabic,” Mangus explained. “It was the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. There are still a small number of people who speak it today in Syria.”
As if all of that isn’t irony enough, there’s an additional twist which has to do with the fact that the song cuts off in mid-prayer with the words, “Thy will be done.” One might interpret this to mean that Mendez has come round to the understanding that he must act, even though whether the mission succeeds or fails is entirely out of his hands. “I have no idea if the placement was deliberate,” Mangus said, “but it’s still significant.”
Although she’s come to think of music as her principle spiritual practice, Mangus would not describe herself as a professional musician. In fact, other than some stress-inducing violin lessons as a kid, she’s had no formal musical training at all. She does see herself, however, as a lifelong spiritual seeker who’s been influenced by the teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and especially Sufism.
As a child of seven or eight, she remembers having lucid dreams in which she would encounter “older and wiser beings who’d take me on adventures.” She also remembers hearing voices that the adults in her life could neither hear nor explain. “I was both curious and distressed by these experiences,” she said. “Part of me just wanted to be a normal kid. Another part of me wanted to understand.”
Her search eventually led her to Boulder’s Naropa University where she took courses in Buddhist philosophy and Christian mysticism. It was at Naropa that she was introduced to the music of Krishna Das, a kirtan (devotional) singer in the Hindu tradition. “Listening to it was like an arrow that bypassed my rational, thinking mind and struck my heart directly,” she said. “It had the effect of opening up my voice and connecting it to my heart and to the Divine. Kirtan definitely opened up the path for me.”
It was her Sufi teacher, the Aramaic scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, who suggested that she set the prayer to music. “He had a retreat space in Edinburgh,” she said. “I was there studying with him. I asked him why no one had ever set it to music, and he said, ‘Maybe that’s your job.’ Over the course of a year, the melody came to me in its present form.”
How has her recent cinematic success changed her life? “No great offers from Hollywood,” she joked, “but it has had a definite impact on my family and on the Sufi community. I think the biggest effect has been on me personally. It’s given me an infusion of confidence and strength, and I can see there’s a lot more music inside of me…and it’s something that the world embraces.”
For more info:
Laura’s song on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2cxY3RyU8U
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