Born in Shiraz, Iran on 20 October 1819, Siyyid Ali-Muhammad would become known to the world as the Bab (meaning “the Gate” in Arabic). The Bab was the symbolic gate; it was His mission to herald the coming of this promised Manifestation of God whom we know to be Baha’u’llah. In the Baha’i calendar, the Birth of the Bab and the Birth of Baha’u’llah are celebrated one after the other in one festival referred to as the “Twin Holy Days”.
Gate of Heaven: An Album Dedicated to the Bicentenary of the Birth of the Bab by Luke Slott
Over the last two years, Baha’is and their friends around the world have been celebrating two landmark occasions: firstly, the bicentenary anniversary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah in 2017, and now in 2019, the bicentenary anniversary of the Birth of the Bab. In relation to these two special anniversaries, the Universal House of Justice wrote that “At the heart of these festivities must be a concerted effort to convey a sense of what it means for humanity that these two Luminaries rose successively above the horizon of the world. Of course, this will take different forms in different contexts, extending to a myriad artistic and cultural expressions, including songs, audio-visual presentations, publications and books.”1
Over the course of these two special years, we witnessed a wonderful response of artistic expression from around the world. One of the efforts came from singer-songwriter, Luke Slott, who decided early on to honor these two special occasions by releasing two albums: the first is called Year of the Nightingale, to honor Baha’u’llah, and the second and more recent album is called Gate of Heaven, to honor the Bab.
During these special two years, Luke has been touring the world, sharing his music and the teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah to audiences both large and small.
Baha’i Blog: Hi Luke! Can you tell us what is the main idea behind this album and what inspired you to do it?
The main idea of Gate of Heaven is to highlight the significance of the life and teachings of the Bab, particularly during 2019, which marks the 200th anniversary of His Birth. All the songs on the album (except the Tablet of Ahmad) are based on the Writings and sayings of the Bab.
The album was made possible through a Kickstarter Campaign, which I launched back in 2016 to raise funds for Year of the Nightingale, an album produced in honor of the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah (which was celebrated in 2017). That campaign was so abundantly supported that it provided the means to produce both Year of the Nightingale and Gate of Heaven as ’twin albums’ for the Twin Bicentenaries. So the album was largely motivated by the generosity of my Kickstarter backers.
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything about the Bab or His Dispensation, which really came to mind and really helped inspire this album?
Writing the new songs gave me an opportunity to spend time with the Bab’s Writings in a way that I never had before. Sitting with His words for long periods and setting them to music gave me a whole new appreciation of who He was and what it might have been like to meet Him. His personality seemed to have an unusual combination of tender-heartedness, humility, and king-like majesty.
The whole recording process was permeated with conversations about Him. Every morning, before we began recording, myself and Kelly (Snook) – the producer and engineer of both Year of the Nightingale and Gate of Heaven – and any of the other musicians who were present, would sit together and read a few pages from Nader Saiedi’s book, Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Bab. Our morning reading would then influence our studio work throughout the day.
We were also very fortunate to have Dr. Steven Phelps living just five minutes away from the studio. Having served in the archives of the Baha’i World Centre for many years, Steven had a plethora of insights to share with us about the teachings of the Bab. Between recording sessions, we would often go for tea at Steven’s house or he would visit us in the studio, always willing to share with us some riveting insight from his own studies of the Bab. According to the Bab, everything that exists has its own state of ‘heaven’ and its own state of ‘hell’. To bring something, say, a piece of art, a meal, a relationship, a conversation, to its highest potential is to bring it to its own state of heaven. And to prevent something (or someone) from expressing and developing their higher nature is to imprison that thing or person in their own state of hell. The Bab’s teachings on refinement, the pursuit of excellence in all things, and the importance of the beautification of life, were concepts that had a profound impact on our approach to the album.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope listeners will walk away with after hearing your music, and this album in particular?
J.S. Bach said, ‘The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.’ I always hope that my music offers strength, solace and spiritual refreshment to its listeners. With this album in particular, I hope it awakens in people a new love for the Writings of the Bab, and a fresh curiosity about His life and teachings, and how those teachings can benefit people’s lives today. If the album inspires someone to pick up The Dawn-Breakers or any other book about the Bab with a desire to learn more about Him, I would feel it has fulfilled a worthwhile purpose.
Baha’i Blog: How was this album different to some of the rest of your albums, and what did you try and focus on when writing it?
We recorded the album at Kelly’s studio at Harmony House in Lake Oswego, Oregon. At Harmony House, we were surrounded by an amazingly supportive family, the Badiyans, and a wonderfully vibrant community with many artistic, social and spiritual activities happening right on the doorstep of the studio. We were also blessed to have a team of outstanding musicians work on the album – Diane Badie, Jasmine Olinga, Emily Alves, Ian and Jason Rafalak, Anwar Marshall, Adam Siegel, Cora Venus Lunny, Eric Dozier and Vyvienne Long seemed like a kind of super-band brought together to enhance the songs.
Whereas the songs on Year of the Nightingale had been recorded in staggered stages over a period of many years and in many different places, Gate of Heaven was a singularly focused project, recorded almost entirely in the studio at Harmony House. It was a lot of work in a short period of time. Kelly and I often reflected on how the intensity of focus required and the limited time available to make the album seemed somehow appropriate in paying homage to the Bab, who accomplished so much in such a short time. Without the loving support of our spiritual family and community surrounding us, the album could not have been made.
One aspect of the Bab’s teachings that we focused on a lot in the studio was the seemingly infinite layers of symbolic meaning that He would draw out from both His own writings and other sacred scriptures such as the Quran and the Bible. In the writing and production process, we tried to reflect this element of the Bab’s message through the use of multiple, interweaving layers of sounds, melodies and harmonies.
Baha’i Blog: You’ve been touring a lot over the last two years to share the Teachings of the Baha’i Faith through storytelling and music. Can you tell us why these two years are special and what that journey has been like for you personally?
The period of 2017-2019 marks the bicentenaries of the Births of both Baha’u’llah (born in 1817) and the Bab (born in 1819) so it is a special period of worldwide celebration.
Along with recording the two bicentenary albums, I really wanted to spend these years doing community-based tours, giving concerts that could acquaint people with the story of Baha’u’llah and the Bab through the vehicle of live music. I’m extremely fortunate to now be in the process of making these community tours sustainable, largely through the Patreon crowdfunding platform. Thanks to the support of my patrons, I have been able to offer these concerts over the last few years in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, and right now, the Middle East.
Being able to collaborate with different communities and to meet Baha’is and their friends of different cultures working together towards a common goal has been personally transformative for me. The work feels like a calling and I am thankful to be doing the thing that is most meaningful in my life. Of course, touring can be challenging too, so I’ve formed a habit of typing all my learnings into my phone as I travel. Every time some new lesson comes up, I jot it into my notes app and tag it with the hashtag #learning. Then, at the end of each tour, I can search for that hashtag, review all my learnings, and try to apply them as I move forward. The tours have been personally galvanizing and I am eager to continue developing this work into the future.
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, Luke?
I want to express my appreciation to Shirin Sahba who created the artwork for Gate of Heaven. Her exquisite painting for the album cover became the basis for the music videos for all 9 songs on the album, and brought immense visual enhancement to the music.
A parallel project connected with the album was the Gate of Heaven Video Diary – a series of storytelling videos based on The Dawn-Breakers to accompany the release of Gate of Heaven. All the storytelling videos and songs from the album are now collected on a specially dedicated website: gateofheavendiary.com. I hope this website can continue to be a resource for people interested in getting to know the story of the Bab.
And finally, a question! For the past few years, my work has revolved primarily around the two bicentenary celebrations. Now that the bicentenary period is coming to an end, I’d like to ask my listeners what they would like me to do next. A new phase is beginning and I’m excited at the prospect of exploring new creative avenues. Friends, I would be delighted if you would leave a comment below and let me know what you would like me to work on next.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Luke, and it would be great to hear from our readers about what they would like to see you work on next. Congratulations on such a beautiful album, and we’re looking forward to hearing some more of your music in the near future!
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.