The epitome of 'Sacred'

What makes a concert into a festival?

That’s a question with which the organizers of the World Sacred Music Festival are grappling. In its sixth year, the festival has been reborn as a series of concerts.

The first, by Portland’s Al-Andalus Ensemble, will happen Sunday. Others are planned approximately quarterly – but other details are still to come.

“We’re hoping most of the shows will include two or maybe three groups,” said Scott Stevens, the event’s artistic director. “We’re hoping there will be interaction between the groups and that at least one of the groups will be able to do a workshop, so people can have an interactive experience of music and dance and culture.”

The festival began as a two-day event and for four years was a one-day event – but it’s always featured singing and dancing, and a mixture of religious and cultural elements.

Al-Andalus, which blends classical and world music played on violin, flamenco guitar and oud (a lute played in North Africa and the Middle East), has all of that.

“The group encompasses a whole bunch of different ethnicities and faiths,” Stevens said. “They are doing music from Andalusian Spain at a time when Jews and Muslims and Christians were living fairly harmoniously with each other. It was a cultural melting pot, and this music has influences from all of these cultures.

“They are a perfect group to kick off the new look of the Sacred Music Festival.”

The ensemble is performing its show “Seeds of Peace,” and includes Basque contemporary- flamenco dancer Laura Dubroka, along with founders Tarik and Julia Banzi; Grammy-winning violinist Charlie Bisharat, who has played with Alanis Morissette, The Rolling Stones, Jane’s Addiction, Yanni and others); and multi-lingual vocalist Emily Miles to create an emotive tapestry of sight and sound.

The change in the festival from large event to several smaller ones was inspired by a number of factors, said Kathy Erlandson. Erlandson retired last week as director of Interfaith Works, which organizes the festival, and that is one reason for the change.

“That transition gets in the way, and we’ve had a number of other changes in volunteers and staffing,” she said. “That all-day festival, as you can imagine, was work-intensive to put together.”

While the change to a series of concerts could cause a bit of confusion among festival fans, Stevens said this type of structure has a precedent.

“There are different kinds of festivals,” he said. “The World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles does this. They have a bunch of independent shows that they wrap together.

“We’re hoping it will feel like a festival especially when we have more groups involved in each show and more workshops.”

The new format adds flexibility, he said, allowing the festival to attract – and afford – not only regional acts but those from farther away.

“We can work with artists as we find them and as they fit with what we’d like to present,” he said. “We’re able to get artists who happen to be traveling to or around the United States and can tack on an additional show without incurring huge travel costs.

“We’re thinking of themes for each show,” he added, “different religious traditions or different types of music from a certain country or region.”