Melburnians turn to ‘Soul Food’ for nourishment

September 28, 2008
The monthly Soul Food gathering in Melbourne is entering its fourth year and averages well over a hundred attendees of various backgrounds and religions.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Melbourne stands out as a multicultural metropolis – Malaysian restaurants, Japanese paper shops, music venues with bands from Senegal to Indonesia, all within strolling distance of one another. Not surprising, then, that Melburnians have adopted a Baha’i devotional meeting with a difference.

Called “Soul Food,” the gathering – held once a month in a theater at the imposing State Library of Victoria – combines readings from the world’s great faiths with reflections from leading philosophers, interspersed with live and recorded music by some of Melbourne’s most noted performers.

The program, which this year marks its third anniversary, at one point was listed at No.10 among “20 things to do in Melbourne,” published by the city’s main newspaper.

The readings and music are augmented by photographs and videos that illustrate particular themes – generosity, the equality of men and women, purity of heart, unconditional love – all set against a candle-lit background.

"It has been a great success, with participants coming from all backgrounds and walks of life, some even traveling from outside Melbourne to attend,” says Monib Mahdavi, who with his friend Nima Ferdowsi established the event, based on a similar one in Adelaide in South Australia.

“(Soul Food) has clearly shown that there are many people in the community who share our vision and are seeking opportunities to explore their spiritual development,” Mr. Mahdavi says.

The event quickly built a following, with average attendance around 120 people, he says.

Kristian Hetyey, who was brought up Catholic and now is investigating other religions, is a regular at the gathering.

“It helps me reflect on the month, I guess it’s that internal reflection where you just think about things,” he says. “Sometimes in life it’s easy to just keep plowing through the challenges of every day, but this removes you from the everyday; it questions our existence, it prompts you in a way that provides insight and wisdom.

Some of the musicians who perform at Soul Food are well-known locally, and a diversity of instruments and styles is presented. Slideshow
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Some of the musicians who perform at Soul Food are well-known locally, and a diversity of instruments and styles is presented.

“Obviously it draws on all religions throughout history, and some of the most amazing concepts that the world has ever known, so from that point of view it’s a great combination of things which I haven’t found anywhere else,” he says.

“It’s only about an hour, but it can be really powerful,” he continues. “Essentially it’s building unity in our society, which most religions don’t do.”

Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia, with a population of well over 3 million in the metropolitan area.

The Soul Food gathering is the first Sunday of each month, at 10:30 a.m. On 7 September, the theme of the morning was “Prison of Self.”

Playing live music was Bob Sedergreen, winner of a jazz award as Australia’s best keyboardist.

Quotations, complemented by videos and photographs projected on a screen, came from Confucius, Albert Einstein, Khalil Gibran, James Joyce, St. Teresa of Avila, and Oscar Wilde.

The religious readings came from the Baha’i writings, an indigenous American elder, Hindu scripture, Islam, the Bible, and Zen Buddhism.

“I feel blissful when sitting in the room, listening to the music and quotations and watching the always appropriately selected pictures,” said Monica Subai, who attends regularly.

The music

“I am always amazed how carefully and lovingly the program is put together,” said Ms. Subai, who is not a member of the Baha’i community. “It is very powerful with its message about world peace, humanity, and everything else that is offered to the audience. And the live music is really a treat.”

Ruth Roshan books the musicians.

“I try to have a great diversity of instruments and styles,” she says, “and I’m very keen on high-quality performances.

“And, of course, it has to suit the reverence and atmosphere of Soul Food. In the Baha’i teachings, music is a ladder for the soul, and utilizing performance helps people open up,” she says.

Most of the performers are not Baha’is, she notes, and many are well-known in Melbourne.

“Because Soul Food is such a service for people to sit down and think and reflect, (the musicians) are very happy to perform, and they get such great feedback from the people who attend,” she says.

Mr. Ferdowsi, one of the founders, says the performances sometimes go beyond music.

“We’ve also featured dancers, and we have had people in the past do tai chi moves to the music,” he says. “All of these performances are respectful to the writings, and bring out the spirit of what’s being read.”

“Soul Food is a simple concept but a unique one, which allows people to enjoy inspiring writings without feeling like they have to make an immediate commitment.”

“Also,” he adds, “the music is absolutely beautiful.”

(Article for Baha’i World News Service by Corinne Podger, with additional material from Australian Baha’i News.)