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January 12, 2009

Our Face of Love

Eddie Vedder

It's understandable why someone would like their entertainment to provide an escape from worries and reality. This record creates a healthy opportunity to process some of these emotions rather than deny them. Music's at its best when it has a purpose.

-- Eddie Vedder

Sister Helen Prejean

I live my life with as much integrity as I can muster, which means doing what love demands. Anyone can do what I've done, and if given an opportunity, would… Enlightened self interest? You better believe it. Because when we love, truly love, we become very alive; we grow, and if that’s not "self interest," I don’t know what is.

-- Sister Helen Prejean

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

Yesterday we asked:

What was it that brought together an atheist rock star from Seattle and a Sufi Muslim Qawwali singer from Pakistan? The song "Face of Love" by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder was an unlikely collaboration.

Yesterday's CompassionRise article, named after the song Face of Love, introduced the topic. At the bottom of today's article, again, are the song's lyrics, translation, and a copy for listening. You may want to begin with yesterday's article for context and you can click here to listen to "Face of Love" in your music player.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun from New Orleans, wrote the book Dead Man Walking to recount and reconcile her companionship with convicted killers sentenced to die -- and with the families of their victims. Before the book and since, she has worked with death row inmates, their victims' families, and with a broader campaign to raise awareness of the death penalty in the United States.

An American Catholic, Tim Robbins made the film "Dead Man Walking" by scripting a simplified version of Sister Prejean's story, depicting experiences with one inmate and victim's family, to focus the film. Robbins brought Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder together to write two songs for Dead Man Walking's haunting and inspiring soundtrack, including "Face of Love." Though not its title track, the song became a musical metaphor representing the film. Sister Prejean points to the success of Dead Man Walking in 1995 as a turning point in American opinion against the death penalty.

The opening and closing scenes of the film are set to parts of "Face of Love." They show rural fields with a long road, then urban streets with people -- children and traffic. The unremarkable, familiar context begins and ends a story with which we can each, personally identify. Robbins has a subtle way of telling us: although it will be incredible, this story is real.

The story told in the film is one of simple but profound compassion in Sister Prejean's actions and interactions with other characters. It sheds direct light on the death penalty -- an often unconsidered act of our justice system, done in our name but out of our view. We are shown the humanity of a man sentenced to die. His personality is sharp, hostile at times but not inhuman. He is also in great pain, weakened by a tortured past, conflicted, and ultimately penitent. With the possessed acting of Susan Sarandon as Sister Prejean and Sean Penn as the killer on death row, and the steady direction of Tim Robbins, every scene rings true to life. As viewers, we are confronted by the film's honesty.

The "Dead Man Walking" script has several direct, poignant exchanges. Between Sister Prejean and a prison guard:

CLYDE PERCY: How can you stand next to him?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Mr. Percy, I'm just trying to follow the example of Jesus, who said that a person is not as bad as his worst deed.
CLYDE PERCY: This is not a person. This is an animal.

Between Sister Prejean and the man sentenced to die:

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Show me some respect, Matthew.
MATTHEW PONCELET: Why? 'Cause you're a nun?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Because I'm a person.

Our common humanity is the thread from which compassion is woven. In recent writing, Sister Prejean reflected on the way in which people who are otherwise ethical can support the death penalty or any killing, such as in war: "It’s all about dehumanizing -- defining someone as 'other' or not 'fully human' so we can redefine 'moral behavior' in relation."

Again from the script -- Sister Prejean to Matthew Poncelet:

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I'll be the face of love for you.

Here the script's words are close to the accounts in Sister Prejean's book. In real life, Sister Prejean also, recently wrote in an open reply to a murder victim's surviving family: "I cannot stand directly in the flames of anguish you must feel." Her real words and deeds are at least as moving as the film.

This CompassionRise article is called "Our Face of Love" because we are called to ask if we limit our compassion, how, and why. "Dead Man Walking" does not take a side in the political debate over the death penalty. It forces us to face only the facts -- that while those sentenced to die are killers, they are also people; and, if we support the death penalty then we, too, are killers. We are nearly put in the skin of each character, including the guards and the executioner. We are compelled to ask and answer ourselves personally, not politically, if it can be right to kill.

The song "Face of Love" has a similar, but poetic and musical way of setting a familiar mood then telling an incredible story. Common instruments like acoustic guitar and an easy, though persistent rhythm sit firmly under the unbelievable vocal ranges of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder.

Indian instruments including the harmonium and tabla drum swell with stirring, reluctant emotion, just like the film's events unfolding. Sister Prejean reluctantly sees the humanity in a killer, the killer reluctantly faces his humility. They stare each into their own abyss of loneliness before admitting their common humanity.

The vocals more represent this full range of possible emotion, from Sister Prejean's plain but profound love for other people to the agony of everyone involved. If Sister Prejean or anyone else "just wanted to scream," then in "Face of Love" we hear that scream, too, right alongside earnestly intoned purpose. Given five minutes, Nusrat and Vedder seem to sing the whole range of what a person can feel.

If you think that description is lyrical, consider this from Rolling Stone Magazine in 1996:

Their uplifting harmonies fly like the freed human spirit over a gruesome and cruel scene here on earth. This song is unparalleled in its pure expression of raw spirituality.

Their effort was so widely applauded as a cross-cultural achievement, too that America.gov, a site produced by the United States to represent the U.S. internationally, features the story prominently more than ten years after their work and Nusrat's passing. From 2008:

This is a case where the well-meaning effort of artists to reach across cultural and musical boundaries does produce something like an aesthetic communion, a common purpose embodied in musical texture and poetry.

Director Tim Robbins described their collaboration and all the songs on the soundtrack:

Nusrat's going off in Qawwali and Vedder sings in English, but you don't need to understand what they're saying to feel the emotion.

All of these songwriters come from a base of honesty and have inspired me. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Eddie Vedder have introduced me to concepts and characters in their songs that have found their way into my acting and have given life to characters I've written. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Suzanne Vega, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Michelle Shocked all have inspired me with their compassion and unique strength.

And Johnny Cash...well, are there words? I'll try. Johnny Cash has been there. He knows the world of this movie. In his music, he stands up front for the dispossessed, the poor, the prisoner. Like all great songwriters on this CD, he's here forever, to remind us that we have hearts, we have compassion even for those that have fallen, that have hit bottom.

The version of the soundtrack to which I have linked is a special edition reissued in 2006, which also includes video of a "Not in Our Name" concert for relevant charities. Tim Robbins et al. continue to send some proceeds from album sales to two related organizations. Some proceeds go to Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, organized to end violence as an answer for violence.

Proceeds are also sent to Hope House in New Orleans, Sister Helen Prejean’s organization fighting racism, poverty, and all the root causes of violence. Their educational programs, food distribution, and other practical work are a model and inspiration for many organizations. Sister Prejean has a singular motivation for all her work:

I don't see capital punishment as a peripheral issue about some criminals at the edge of society that people want to execute. I see the death penalty connected to the three deepest wounds of our society: racism, poverty, and violence.

Hope House Director Don Everard was quoted by Robin Garr, a journalist who has visited over 500 grassroots programs in all 50 American states. He described their ethic:

Social workers go home at 5 p.m. We don't. This has made all the difference.

The same, practical morale is evident in Sister Prejean's words, from her blog recently:

The important thing is that when you come to understand something you act on it, no matter how small that act is. Eventually it will take you where you need to go.

The depth of spiritual guidance offered to us by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Eddie Vedder, and Sister Helen Prejean did not spring out of the mouths of babes. In their own searches for compassion and meaning, they had many experiences from which we can learn.

Nusrat was not often interviewed on such subjects in Western media, but in general, Sufi Muslims are less religious in their particular beliefs and more philosophical. They favor creativity and intuition over literal reference to the Koran and the Hadith. Nusrat often called his Western musical collaborations "experiments," and his mastery of vocal music opened possibilities for him to find common spiritual ground. He sang and smiled more than he spoke or wrote.

CompassionRise is sure to appeal to Eddie Vedder again. Though he is personally enigmatic and less interviewed than many rock stars, he has produced a significant body of meaningful music and art. His work includes lyrics from which we can derive many lessons. Consider these four, simple lines in "Face of Love" --

Look in the eyes
Of the face of love

Look in her eyes
Oh, there is peace

Vedder sees the personal, human connection between Sister Prejean and the condemned as the essence of compassion, and he sees compassion as the essence of peace. His words are also plain and practical -- we should look into each others' eyes -- yet their meaning could guide an entire life.

Nothing can be written with more expression than can be found in "Dead Man Walking," "Face of Love," or most of all, in taking action ourselves. Reach out to Sister Helen Prejean on her blog, or even on her Twitter. Reach out to the organizations above or act in your part of the world and in your own way.

Click to listen to "Face of Love" in your music player.

 

"Face Of Love"
by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Jeena kaisa Pyar bina (What is life without love)
Is Duniya Mein Aaye ho to (Now that you have come to this world)
Ek Duje se pyar karo (Love each other, one another)

Jeena kaisa Pyar bina (What is life without love)
Is Duniya Mein Aaye ho to (Now that you have come to this world)
Ek Duje se pyar karo (Love each other, one another)

Look in the eyes
Of the face of love
Look in her eyes
Oh, there is peace
No nothing dies
Within pure light
Only one hour
Of this pure love
To last a life
Of thirty years
Only one hour
So come and go

Jeena kaisa Pyar bina (What is life without love)
Is Duniya Mein Aaye ho to (Now that you have come to this world)
Ek Duje se pyar karo (Love each other, one another)

Jeena kaisa Pyar bina (What is life without love)
Is Duniya Mein Aaye ho to (Now that you have come to this world)
Ek Duje se pyar karo (Love each other, one another)

Look in the eyes
Of the face of love
Look in her eyes
Oh, there is peace
No nothing dies
Within pure light
Only one hour
Of this pure love
To last a life
Of thirty years
Only one hour
So come and go