Al Firdaus – Noticia 2

Stockton Art Scene: Al Firdaus Ensemble fills the air with joyous sound

The Al Firdaus Ensemble Concert was an event I wanted to attend because my husband loves world music and because it was something I had never experienced. The Sacred Songs Of Love Concert last Thursday was held at Morris Chapel at the University of the Pacific. The ensemble concluded their U.S. tour in Stockton. After introductions of special guests, including Richard Soto who is opening a Chicano Research Center, the ensemble took the stage.

Al Firdaus consisted of four members — Mohammed Dominguez from Venezuela on percussion, Salma Vives from Spain playing the cello and lute, Abdesselam Naiti from Morocco playing kanun (strings) and ney (flute) and Ali Keeler, the ensemble’s founder from England, playing the violin and singing vocals. Songs drew from sufi music as well as Celtic and Flamenco traditions. Incorporating Arabic instruments and prefaced by Arabic poetry, songs had an underlying drum rhythm layered with the sounds of string instruments and flute. Many songs expressed a lively tempo and lyrical quality enhanced by Keeler’s lilting voice.


Morris Chapel came alive with rhythmic clapping from the audience. The mood was joyous. The visual of the concert was equally stunning with light illuminating the colorful stained glass window behind the ensemble. Ali expressed, ”It was a privilege to perform in this beautiful chapel in the oldest university in California in front of such a distinguished and diverse audience.” During the concert, speakers mentioned that these are the dark times full of mistrust and anti-Muslim sentiment. Imam Zaid Shakir gave a stirring address noting that, “the arts are the light in our hearts.”


The Al Firdaus Ensemble of Granada, Spain, practices for their Sacred Songs Of Love Concert at Morris Chapel at University of the Pacific.The Al Firdaus Ensemble of Granada, Spain, practices for their Sacred Songs Of Love Concert at Morris Chapel at University of the Pacific.


The Al Firdaus Ensemble brought the people of Stockton together in positivity, uniting our hearts in celebration. When I asked why the ensemble came to Stockton, Shakir said that, “Both the Muslim and wider communities deserve to be exposed to such programs, which have spiritual, social and cultural benefit.” When asked how he sees Stockton benefitting from such a program he responded, “I think a program that was so uplifting, while also highlighting one of the great gems of Stockton … is a harbinger of better times for the city.”


About the Chicano Research Center

I had heard of Richard Soto’s plan to open a Chicano Research Center. His mother encouraged him to read by reading to him and his siblings and having them take turns reading to each other. Soto developed a strong desire to read and learn more. He was put in honors English and experienced discrimination in school and Viet Nam. When he attended San Joaquin Delta College he was surprised to find few books about Mexicans and wanted to learn why Mexicans were mistreated.

Richard became disappointed in the lopsided presentation of minorities. He states that, “There is a need to give credit and respect to all people.” The Chicano movement opened the doors to higher education and a wealth of new information. After Soto retired as a school counselor, his passion for collecting Chicano/Mexican books grew and he specialized in tracking down hard to find items.

The Chicano Research Center is located at 2182 E. Main Street in the Barrio Chivo neighborhood near the Fair Oaks Library location where there are low reading scores. This is an exciting location since this area is underserved. Soto looks forward to reaching school children, seniors and veterans. The main room has 9-foot tall bookcases that he built with sections organized around people, time periods and events (women, veterans, Native Americans and Maya, Inca and Aztecs).

Raoul Mora, a founding member of the Mexican Heritage Center, gave generous book donations. There is a children’s room with a board to draw on and a table for puzzles to develop spatial relationships. Part of the library will be devoted to Mexican music books and movies. Soto hopes to make curriculum available for teachers and have students bring in their transcripts for review.

The Chicano Research Center is scheduled to open in late March bringing greater understanding to all of Stockton.


— Joy Neas is an arts advocate and coordinator for ArtSplash. Contact her at