Mystic Music: An Interview with Brett Smith of Smith & Dragoman

The mystical and soul-stirring music of the Canadian duo Smith & Dragoman can be felt in all three of the groups albums, originally inspired by The Dawbreakers, and are each based on a certain chapter of the history of the Baha’i Faith.

Their debut album Open The Gates, is based on the heroes and heroins of the Babí dispensation, and their follow-up album Under The Lote-Tree, continues the saga of the those early Babí’s who became followers of Baha’u’llah.

Having just released their third album titled The Mystery, which focuses largely on the life and personage of `Abdu’l-Bahá and the early Baha’is of the West, and also as a huge personal fan of their music, I thought it would be great to catch up with one of the groups founders Brett Smith to talk about their wonderful music and the initiative in general.

Baha’i Blog: So tell me a little about how Smith & Dragoman was born and how you guys came together?

Mike Dragoman and I met in the mid-nineties when I moved to Guelph, Ontario. We immediately connected and started playing music together, mostly folk stuff like Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkle. We use to organize monthly coffee houses with a spiritual theme to them, and invited different artists, poets, musicians and speakers to come in and present something related to those themes. Mike and I, along with a few other musicians, became the house band and would play a lot of cover tunes. I guess we sounded pretty good because people would often tell us that we needed to record our own music. So one day, after reading The Dawn Breakers, I approached Mike and suggested that we write songs about the history of the Bahá’í Faith. He thought I was crazy, but jumped on board in full force. About 18 months later, after connecting with some amazing artists and producers (not the least of which was Mike’s daughter, Emily Dragoman), we had written 20 songs focusing primarily on the stories of the Báb and the Babi’s, and released our debut double CD, Open the Gates.

Baha’i Blog: These albums are a journey through the early history of the Baha’i Faith and focus on the Central Figures. Can you tell me a little about what you hope to accomplish with these albums and perhaps why the history of the Faith is so important to illustrate through the arts.

Like all world religions, the story of the Bahá’í Faith is quite incredible. It is full of stories of heroes and heroines that chose to give their lives in support of their beliefs, in a land that was and still is extremely oppressive. We wanted these stories to come alive in music, to help people connect with the roots of the Faith and to understand the power of the indomitable human spirit. The goal of the music is to try, in some small way, to capture the essence of these stories, these unbelievable lives that have graced the history of our Faith, and our planet – to share them with the world. There are also themes that weave in and out of the music, themes like love, death, crisis and victory, search etc – we feel that these themes are part of human nature and themes that we can all relate to.

Baha’i Blog: Your music has a very mystical sound which really suits the subject matter. What’s the process you go through when writing and composing the songs?

Members of Smith & Dragoman from Left to Right: Chris Church, Emily Dragoman, Michael Dragoman, Asher Lenz, Brett Smith, Aaron Ferrera, Glenn Olive.

There is no set method with how we compose the music, there is no formula that we use necessarily – each song seems to take shape and come into being in its own unique way. But generally, Mike and I will discuss the basic parameters of an album project, such as the latest album, The Mystery, which is largely focused on the life of Abdu’l-Baha. Once we agree on the overarching theme, we each work on developing song ideas, and develop them to a certain state, sometimes it’s just music, sometimes it’s music and lyrics, but then when present the idea to the other and brainstorm on where it can go both musically and thematically. Once we get it to a semi-polished state, we bring it to the larger band and producers for their input, which takes it to a much more refined state, and we bring in some very talented musicians to play some of the parts that Mike and I are not able to, such as violin, flamenco guitar, percussion, chanting, duduks etc. – we then mix it through all hours of the night. It can be a very lengthy process that the average song travels through, and it’s always amazing to see how a song will evolve the more you let it go and trust in the collaborative process. This last album was great because Emily and Asher contributed two of the songs to the CD this time, whereas in the past, Mike and I did all the writing.
In short, it’s both an individual and a collaborative approach. We all work very well together and are very supportive of each-others ideas. We also try to be as detached as we can when contributing music to a project, sort of like the idea of consultation that when you offer your idea, it becomes the idea of the group – this of course is a little more difficult in music, but I think we are pretty good at it.
In terms of the mystical and world music feel to some of the music, I think it comes from our shared love of some amazing musicians and really studying their music – Hans Zimmer, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Loreena McKennitt, Djivan Gasparian and many others who have influenced our music in some way.

Baha’i Blog: Has the process of working on these albums helped deepen your relationship to the Faith in any way, or are there any interesting experiences you’ve had either personally or as a group while working on any of the albums?

Definitely. Reading about the history of the Faith, especially for a Western Baha’i can be a little daunting with all of the Persian and Arabic names and references. But I have to say that the Dawn Breakers is my all time favourite book. I really hope one day we are able to produce a professional-grade movie about those stories as they are truly amazing. So yes, it has deepened my understanding of the early Baha’is and my overall understanding of our history. It has allowed me to connect with the Faith on a much more emotional level.
We have definitely had a few interesting experiences over the course of the last 10 years on this journey. One that comes to mind is how the music comes to us. I often write music while driving or traveling – sometimes I find it better to not have an instrument in front of me when I compose as the instrument might unnecessarily constrain where my mind can go. But that aside…one late evening, I was at my home studio reading Abdu’l-Bahá’s description for Rumi and felt that I should write a song about it. It was amazing how fast it happened. Basically, by the time I had finished reading Rumi’s poem, the song had been written. I could honestly say that it came together in about 5 minutes – it just flowed. I felt like I got out of the way and the music just happened and perfectly lined up with the words and meter of the poem. This of course is a very rare experience. Some songs on the last album, by contrast, literally took months to come together.

Baha’i Blog: What do you hope listeners will feel or walk away with after hearing your music?

I hope listeners will have a stronger appreciation for the countless number of sacrifices that were suffered in order to pave the way for growth and the emancipation of the Bahá’í Faith. Love, gratitude, peace, joy, inspiration, questions, answers.

Baha’i Blog: Do you have any words of advice for other Baha’i musicians out there?

I would encourage them to read the stories of our Faith. They are remarkable and can only inspire your work. Also, we need a lot more music out there, so keep writing!

Baha’i Blog: You’ve now got three beautiful albums under your belt. What does the future look like and do you hope to keep producing more albums or do you have any other creative ideas or projects in the works?

Yes – we will definitely be producing more albums. From the Baha’i perspective we are looking at a number of potential ideas right now including a purely devotional album, an album specifically for Holy Days, an album dedicated to the heroines of the Faith, and an unplugged live off the floor album based on some of our “greatest hits” (I’m laughing at that notion). I also like to do another album to close the historic chapter about Shoghi Effendi and the Hands of the Cause.
Mike and I will also be releasing more of a folk style album, along the lines of Simon & Garfunkle in the near future. We have already written a number of the songs and just need to find some time to produce it. So there’s lots more to come!!!!

Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much Brett for taking the time to do the interview. I think I speak for everyone who’s heard the albums when I say that they really are beautiful and they definitely capture the spirit of the history of this Faith.  Please convey our appreciation and admiration to everyone involved and we can’t wait to hear more!

To find out more about Smith & Dragoman and to buy their music go to www.smithanddragoman.com or follow them on their Facebook page.

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 5 Comments

  1. Since I used to go to Baha’i youth activities in Guelph Ontario some 50 years ago, in the early 1960s, I felt a certain affinity with Smith and Dragoman—who lived in Guelph in the mid-nineties. Playing music together, as they did, mostly folk stuff like Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkle—stuff I got turned onto back in the 1960s and 1970s, also established an affinity. I wondered to myself: “are there any of the same Baha’is in Guelph as there were half a century ago?”

    Go to this section of my website, a section on music, http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/Music.html ….to see if there are any other affinities. Thanks, Naysan, for bringing this music group and their albums to the attention of others; and thanks, too, for all the resources this site is now offering to the Baha’i communities around the world and, of course, other interested parties.

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