Friar Alessandro: A Channel of Peace


In a music industry clouded with clutter and noise and rapid consumption, Friar Alessandro's Voice From Assisi will likely come and go without making much of a splash; its simple and unassuming presentation will probably go largely undetected. But for those with ears to hear, this album is a channeling of needed peace to a harried world, a respite of otherworldliness - and for its unique back-story alone, worth every penny.

After executives heard him singing in his native Italy, Alessandro Brustenghi became the first Franciscan Friar to sign a major record deal: and the result is a stunning, transporting experience that will stir and inspire not only lovers of Bocelli, classical, opera, and ancient hymns, but anyone who believes in the life-changing power of music.

J.S. Bach
In an interview on his YouTube channel, we meet a humble 34-year old who grew up listening to Michael Jackson, electronic music, and Bach, and who eventually devoted himself to humble life of poverty within the Franciscan order, working as a carpenter to restore furniture. Yet his love for music never went away, fueled as it was by a deep association with transcendence. This transporting, transcendent quality of music is something which even atheists like Christopher Hitchens (who was also a big fan of Bach) often can't help but concede - and in some ways, find difficult to explain. For Brustenghi, however, the mystery of music is all about the mystery of God.

"Music for me is a direct line with God," Brustenghi says. "It's the way to communicate with him, and it's the way God uses to communicate with us." More than that, he sees a missionary quality to the beauty of song: "It's the way to spread the gospel, to everybody, to the world. And it's a beautiful way."

But as you listen to this album, there is not the slightest hint that this man is busily calculating to convert; instead, he embodies that famous Franciscan maxim (often mistakenly attributed to Francis himself): "Preach the gospel; use words if necessary." Through his powerhouse performances of "Panis Angelicus," "Sancta Maria," and "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace," Brustenghi's voice radiates love, and invites you into his joy - not from any false contrivance, but from a natural disposition. It's almost as if the listener has stumbled on the Friar singing his gratitude to God in privacy.

This gratitude is perhaps a result of Brustenghi's journey, one which is beautifully marked by the convergence of a love of music and a calling to religious life. He writes on his web site:

"When I was a boy I wanted to be a drummer but I knew I would have to study music first, so I began with the organ when I was 9 or 10...I'd always sung in the choir but I had a tiny voice. One teacher told me that I should sing as well, not because she thought I could improve but because she needed the students to fill up her class...by the time I was 19, they were not convinced about me and they thought to stop me."

Then, Brustenghi had a life-changing experience with the divine:

"I discovered the presence of God, a new presence, a different presence. Not just the feeling of goodness, but God as a person. I felt him close to me. He is in the creation, he is in the people, I felt him inside of me and his love for all people, and not for experiences...I was very afraid of this experience, afraid because I had wanted to become a musician. I wanted to have a family of my own, a wife, children. All this was in opposition with this desire that was borne inside of me. It was a conflict. Then I saw a film about St. Francis. He too started off as a merchant and came to the conclusion that he couldn't be linked to material things. This was all inside of me but I thought I am just a boy, let's just think about this for a few years. Maybe there's another way. Maybe I can be a musician and I can still pray and do something for other people."

But the pull of the vocation was too strong; Brustenghi gave up the dream of being a drummer, and of having a wife and family, for the total, unattached devotion of the Franciscan life:

"I joined the order and when I was a postulant I told my spiritual master I will stop singing now, I just want to be a friar to work and pray together. My master said 'No, you will continue. It is a talent from God, you can't refuse it. So I continued to sing doing concerts and exhibitions, and then the master said, 'Now you are going to stop.' At first it was hard, then I felt a strength because I discovered the music was inside of me. It was another spiritual connection. God's gift was in my heart. When I woke up in the morning in my heart I heard melodies."

These melodies were not only about God - because God, Burstenghi knew, isn't petty, and doesn't limit his "direct line" to strictly religious songs.

"Eventually I worked out that I should come back and I could still continue singing. I often sing Neapolitan songs and opera songs that are not religious. Why not? People think, 'Oh, why is the Friar singing a love song?' Well why not? It's not required that I'm living what I'm singing. I am just a channel. I am a man, I am a creature. I have feelings inside of me but I channel them to communicate so I am able to sing whatever I want, whatever is beautiful."

Now, as a singer signed with Decca Records, Friar Alessandro's life is bound to change - in fact, his first ride on an airplane was to being recording at Abbey Road with Mike Hedges, who has also produced U2.

So what does Brustenghi, this humble Franciscan Friar living in poverty, think of all the newfound fame? "I don’t love so much the fame, cameras or journalists," he admits.

And what about the album profits? Easy. "The money will go to assist the activities of the Order of the Friars." 


Lyrics to "Panis Angelicus":

Latin

Panis Angelicus fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum
O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum
Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis
Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis

English

The angel's bread becomes the bread of men
The heavenly bread ends all symbols
Oh, miraculous thing! The body of the Lord will nourish
The poor, poor, and humble servant
The poor, poor, and humble servant

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