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Musical diplomacy at work

Arab, Jewish and Persian musicians team up for performances in Chicago, Washington and Casablanca.

August 11, 2007|Brett Zongker | Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- An ensemble of musicians usually separated by oceans and thousands of miles will perform together later this month for the first time, having until now composed music layer by layer, with sound files exchanged over the Internet.

Their goal: Show how the arts can bridge diverse cultures -- even among people who have never met in person before coming together on stage.

A singer and instrumentalist from Afghanistan, a guitarist from Iran, a bass player from Ethiopia and drummers from Morocco are all part of the ensemble. They will accompany American Jewish tenor Alberto Mizrahi; Moroccan singer Haj Youness, who is Muslim and serves as dean of the Casablanca Conservatory of Music; and American keyboard and harmonica legend Howard Levy.

Performances are scheduled for Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 in Chicago's Lincoln Park, Aug. 27 at the Kennedy Center in Washington and later this fall in Casablanca, Morocco.

"It's just a delicious space of creativity," said Wendy Sternberg, an advocate of diplomacy through arts who organized the events as director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Genesis at the Crossroads.

"I'm very interested in not only showing that Arab and Jewish and Persian musicians can share the same stage but they can actually work together and create new art," she said. "In doing that, they make a statement that's really profound about how the world can be transformed through people collaborating."

Some experts in conflict resolution advocate interfaith dialogue or political symposiums, but Sternberg says the arts have a unique power to connect with and inspire core human values.

For the third year, Sternberg's organization is producing the outdoor food, art and music festival known as Hamsa-Fest in Chicago's Lincoln Park, named for an expression of luck from the Arabic root word for the number five (similar to the word "Hamesh" in Hebrew.)

This is the first time Genesis at the Crossroads has an ensemble that will tour around the world to promote diplomacy through the arts. The Casablanca show, still awaiting a specific date, is slated to be broadcast internationally by public radio, XM Satellite Radio and by Arab TV outlet Al Jazeera.

"What we're trying to do really is to say, in spite of our differences, that our historical sameness and music itself is a binding force between peoples," Mizrahi said. "And once musicians sit down, there is no Arab and Jew and Christian or whatever. There's just musicians."

As one of the lead performers, Mizrahi is promising a unique world sound, with the combined influences of a "jazz harmonica pianist," a Jewish cantor and jazz-influenced Middle Eastern music.

At least six different languages will be heard, including Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and French.

Each soloist will be given moments for improvisation, Mizrahi said.

"All of a sudden you can be on a magic carpet, flying from New York from the Lower East Side to Morocco and then back over to Jerusalem and then out to jazz clubs out there in Chicago," he said. "It's going to be a travel experience in music."

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