Harmony Beat

William Harvey's thoughts about cultural diplomacy and news about Cultures in Harmony, the non-profit he founded in 2005.

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Location: San Juan, Argentina

violinist, violist, educator, composer, conductor, arranger, cultural diplomat

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Video from Iguazu

I have a lot of catch-up to do on this blog...I am now in Buenos Aires, having just returned from Peru. This morning I was thrilled to receive video of me conducting hundreds of students, including my former students from Afghanistan National Institute of Music, at Iguazu en Concierto, that magical music festival here in Argentina that brings together young musicians from around the world to perform for an audience of thousands next to the widest waterfall in the world. The performance of "Shakoko Jan," an Afghan folk song I originally arranged for performance during ANIM's historic US tour in February 2013, takes place 22 minutes into this video. The concert took place on June 1 of this year. Fundecua did a superb job of organizing the festival, and I hope it continues to grow. I consider it one of the very finest examples of cultural dialogue I've experienced.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bach for Buddha

Yesterday, the festival musicians and some of the supporters climbed all over large pagodas with dozens of other tourists in Bagan, Myanmar. While the experience was incredible, the large crowds of camera-toting fellow foreigners made it difficult to apprehend the sense of spirituality and mystery which one would expect from this land dotted with hundreds of pagodas, some of which date back a thousand years. So today, Kirsty Griffiths (the festival's mezzo soprano and choral conductor) agreed to join me in a more interesting quest. This time, we would go alone to the smaller pagodas, and I would carry my violin.

This proved to be a much more rewarding way to experience the timelessness of the pagodas. We left the beaten path and soon explored pagodas overgrown by brambles, neglected, or just too simple or too small to merit interest from most tourists. The sense of spiritual peace conveyed by the Buddha images in these smaller pagodas was much more palpable. Soon, I found one where I felt like Bach's E Major Loure was just the thing to play. In another pagoda, hearing only the sounds of birds and the very distant chanting of monks, I decided to improvise a short composition that would incorporate these sounds. A second pagoda, topped by bells tinkling in the breeze and featuring a joyful Buddha image, inspired a second prelude, but I didn't play it until I entered yet another pagoda, where the loving expression on the Buddha's face inspired yet a third prelude. There, I played the second and third prelude, but I didn't feel quite right about playing the second prelude in a pagoda other than the one that inspired it. Sure enough, through some mystical process, I remember nearly all of the first and third preludes, since those were played in the pagodas that inspired them, but have forgotten most of the second!

In another pagoda, the way was blocked by brambles, and as we tried to enter, a thorny branch tore on my shirt and entered my skin. When finally inside, little light penetrated. I started to play some Bach when I noticed that red paint had dripped from the Buddha's lips, making it look like blood coming out of his mouth. The combination of the thorns and the strong impression of blood, visible even in the thin light that entered through a high narrow aperture in the stone, made me stop playing. "I don't think this Buddha wants to be disturbed," I told Kirsty, and we left soon after.

Eventually, we made our way to the mammoth Dhammayangyi Temple, built during the rein of King Narathu (1167-1170). I didn't know if I would be allowed to play inside, so I played a little bit outside.

Fortunately, one of the Burmese men looking after the temple said I could play inside. First, I walked around a bit, enjoying the breeze playing through the centuries-old corridors. A particular Buddha image bathed in light seemed the perfect place, so I got out my violin and played the entire Bach C Major Sonata. The work begins with a very meditative first movement, in which a simple motive that evokes the archetype of a wave gently falls onto the shores of our consciousness, over and over, growing in beauty. The fugue is the most wondrous and majestic of all Bach violin fugues, reaching extraordinary heights as the subject is expressed in so many different ways, a fitting subject for meditation. The third movement is heart breaking in its gentle quality of loving-kindness ("metta" in Buddhism). The fourth movement is an exuberant dance, and could be seen as the joy of Buddha. After playing, there was silence. I bowed to my audience, a stone Buddha who had sat in that chamber for half a millennium before Bach was even born.

A few tourists came by, having heard the music resonate throughout the large temple. While I would not feel comfortable filming the C Major Sonata, which had been intended only as an offering to Buddha and a gesture of respect for Buddhists worldwide, I asked Kirsty to film me playing the Loure again. I am happy to share that video with you. May it bring you as much peace as playing it brought me. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Performance for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

The past week in Myanmar as a guest musician of the Myanmar Music Festival has been very intense and merits a more detailed blog entry at a later time. This is just a quick update to report on one of the greatest honors of my life: performing and speaking for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before a meeting of her political party in Naypitaw. Thank you to the festival organizers for arranging this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform a woman I consider one of the greatest human beings now alive. A couple take-aways: Muslims around the world like to criticize her for her alleged failure to speak out about the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Her speech was a magisterial indication of her consummate understanding of Burmese culture, her aspirations for a free, peaceful, and inclusive society, and her awareness of music's ability to contribute towards that goal. Any intelligent listener would have realized how without being explicit, she made it very clear that all cultures of Myanmar should feel included and valued. She is far too intelligent to speak out in a way that would be counterproductive, and does not deserve any of the criticism that has been leveled at her over this issue. 

Second, in my brief conversation with her, somehow it came up that I have not read the novel "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling. She smiled and said, "You are a disgrace." Given that musicians frequently begin their biographies with blurbs from important sources, my biography should now begin: "Hailed as 'a disgrace' by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi..." Please watch this video of my performance for her.

Here is the speech I gave before performing:

Mingalaba kamya. Tooyatah wontabadeh kamya. On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman violin student at The Juilliard School in New York City. The lesson I learned from that tragic day was that each of us—politicians, business people, and even musicians—must do more to build a world characterized by mutual respect, understanding, and trust.

In 2005, I founded Cultures in Harmony, a cultural diplomacy organization that has since conducted over 20 projects in over a dozen countries, bringing people together through music. 

In 2010, I joined the faculty of Afghanistan National Institute of Music. During my four years at the school, I taught violin and conducted the school’s orchestra, bringing them to New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2013.

Two months ago, I moved to Argentina, where I am concertmaster of the orchestra in San Juan.

Throughout my travels, I have never lost sight of the lesson I learned thirteen years ago on America’s darkest day, and my faith in music’s ability to bring us together has increased. Music’s status as the universal language revolves around a paradox: music simultaneously celebrates our unity and our diversity. It speaks to each of us, even if we speak different languages, and yet, the way it differs from one culture to another allows us to appreciate our differences. 

Here in Myanmar, I have been very impressed with Myanmar musicians’ ability to excel in a wide variety of music: their own traditional music as well as the music of Argentina, Afghanistan, Europe, and the US. This ability to excel in different kinds of music can help unify and strengthen Myanmar while celebrating the diversity and importance of all the cultures that together comprise this fascinating and beautiful nation. 

Anywhere in this country, every time a singer sings the Nagani song, every time an a-nyeint troupe performs, they contribute to both the unity and diversity of Myanmar. In this spirit of unity and diversity, I would like to perform two selections.

First, I’ll play the Bach E Major Prelude, which I have performed in many countries throughout the world. Its joyful appeal is universal. Second, I will play a beautiful and elegiac song from Afghanistan, “Bia ke birim ba Mazar.” Afghanistan, like Myanmar, searches for a way to build unity while celebrating diversity. I was honored to work for and with those Afghans who saw music as an essential part of this quest, and I hope that here in Myanmar, the people of this extraordinary nation find that the power of music, art, and culture helps build the path towards prosperity, liberty, and peace. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Longest journey ever taken

The woman came over and listened as I practiced. I had gone to a corner of the small airport to avoid disturbing anyone, but she wanted to listen. "Music is the water of life," she told me in Spanish, smiling. "It flows from one person to another."

I was at the airport in San Juan, Argentina, about to embark on the longest journey of my life last Thursday. Just ten days earlier, I had returned to San Juan after an incredible experience at Iguazu en Concierto conducting students from my former school, Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and an orchestra of hundreds of students from around the world (including one of my students from San Juan, Argentina), in the Afghan folk song "Shakoko Jan," which the ANIM students had last performed in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in February 2013. It was wonderfully moving to see my ANIM director Dr. Sarmast and ANIM students on the other side of the world, and the experience of conducting Afghan music in Argentina, in view of the world's widest waterfall and for an audience of thousands, was exhilarating.

I was so elated that I hardly felt exhausted by the itinerary: I took the last flight from Iguazu to Buenos Aires after the concert, and then the first flight to San Juan the next morning, giving me just 6 hours in Buenos Aires in the middle of the night, during which I had pizza and wine with friends and slept a couple hours (we joked that it would be a siesta, but in the middle of the night).

I recovered quickly, returning to my work as concertmaster for a program on Friday, June 6, and preparing a program of Piazzolla music with the excellent bandoneon player Esteban Calderon and three colleagues from the orchestra. We played the program twice at San Juan's lovely museum, and the day after the second concert last Wednesday, I headed off to participate in the Myanmar Music Festival, the artistic director of which is Cultures in Harmony Deputy Director Kimball Gallagher.

This journey would make every other trip I've taken look like a jaunt across the street for a cheese sandwich. By the numbers, here are some statistics about the journey from San Juan, Argentina, to Yangon, Myanmar:

  • 5 flights
  • 26 hours, 10 minutes in the air
  • 5 calendar days of travel
  • 20,324 kilometers of flights
  • 52-degree (Fahrenheit) temperature difference between San Juan and Dubai (hub where I stopped for a bit to rest)

I'm now writing from the Bangkok airport, with just 1 flight left to go. The journey has been interesting so far, including a colossal mistake in Dubai, where I thought I could walk from the exit of the Dubai Marina stop on the metro to the marina itself (when I told that to a Kenyan friend who lives in Dubai, he described walking any distance at that time of day as "suicide"). I enjoyed Bangkok more and was very happy to meet up with John Ferguson and Marc Thayer of American Voices; John has been a generous, kind, and helpful mentor to me personally and Cultures in Harmony generally.

The festival in Myanmar, like Iguazu, promises to be both very intense and very fulfilling; please keep following this blog for updates. I am sure that in Myanmar, as occurred at the San Juan airport and has occurred in many places in my life so far, music will flow like water and connect us to one another.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Concert from Iguazu live online!

Please watch me conduct an orchestra of hundreds of kids from around the world in the Afghan song Shakoko Jan, featuring students from Afghanistan National Institute of Music, during the final concert of Iguazu en Concierto at the Sheraton Hotel next to Iguazu Falls in Argentina. You can watch live at 10:00 p.m. Argentina time on Sunday, June 1, 2014, at this link. That is the same as 9:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (USA) or 5:30 a.m. on Monday, June 2, in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The magic of Iguazú

Which is more awe-inspiring: thousands of cubic meters of water tumbling over 80-meter cliffs every second, forming the widest waterfall in the world, or a thousand young musicians from every country from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, making music together? Need one choose? After viewing the magnificence of Iguazu Falls, it occurred to me that no festival other than what Andrea Merenzon and her team at Fundecua have so admirably conceived and implemented here would be worthy of the setting. 

I first learned of Iguazu en Concierto when I was still working at Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), and the Young Traditional Ensemble received an invitation to perform there. By coincidence, my next job came as concertmaster of the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Universidad Nacional de San Juan (UNSJ), so Andrea, ANIM’s Dr. Sarmast, and UNSJ’s Adriana Fernandez agreed that I would travel across Argentina, now representing UNSJ, to conduct my former students—who had traveled across the world—along with an international orchestra of 170 students in “Shakoko Jan,” an Afghan folk song I arranged and which ANIM performed during our historic tour to the USA in February 2013. 

I was just as thrilled and amazed to see my beloved ANIM students and colleagues as I had imagined. Here were men and boys I had been used to seeing in the dusty hubbub of Kabul, with its barbed wire, mosques, automatic weapons, rice flavored with carrots and raisins, hospitality, and heartache. Now, suddenly, they appeared in the middle of the jungle, first glimpsed through heavy foliage obscuring the door to the hotel. I had traveled with ANIM to the US in February 2013 and to Oman in February 2014, but to see them appear with such seeming ease on the other side of the world, when I had not traveled the thousands of miles with them, was jolting in a most wonderful way. 

The experience of Iguazú—both the waterfalls and the music festival—is so overwhelming as to defy description. At the national park devoted to the waterfalls, the ANIM group and I walked through jungle to take a train to a platform, where we walked for a kilometer on a bridge over portions of the Iguazu River. Eventually, we arrived at Devil’s Throat: an incomprehensibly large waterfall that sends a cloud of steam so high in the air that it’s visible from the plane upon your approach to the airport. We rushed around to take pictures, of course, but even the tourist’s obsession with documenting everything with technology could not detract from the majesty in front of us. Next to such a sight, one thinks: why do we tiny humans fight and argue with each other? These mighty waters raced over these cliffs long before we arrived on this planet and will continue to do so long after we're gone, heedless of our passing.

Only after seeing the waterfalls did I fully appreciate the rationale behind organizing a festival of international youth orchestras that includes a concert by a massive orchestra and choir of 1,000 people. On Sunday, when I first saw the rehearsal room, teeming with teenagers from everywhere from Mexico to South Korea to Switzerland, my jaw dropped. But the waterfalls showed me that only such a mammoth ensemble, its very composition an insistent argument for peace and understanding, is worthy of the falls. How else could a Russian and Ukrainian perform side by side? Where else would a young Afghan musician applaud a young Israeli singer after he finishes his rehearsal?

It is hard to do justice to the size of Andrea’s vision, but a few tidbits stand out so far. A marimba orchestra traveled even longer than I will travel to Myanmar next month: Zimbabwe to South Africa to Dubai (thousands of miles in the wrong direction) to Buenos Aires to Iguazu. Perhaps they were unable to book the South African Airways flight to South America. By coincidence, they are from a small city in Zimbabwe that I visited in 2006: Marondera! They were thrilled when I spoke a few words of Shona. When they rehearsed with the mega orchestra, the South Americans had no problem coming with their own motions to match the exuberance of the music: as different as Colombia and Zimbabwe may be, music in both cultures releases all inhibitions, establishing a direct connection between those experiencing it and the divine joy of existing. 


There are dozens of orchestras and young soloists: a pint-sized flutist who came with her parents from Singapore. South American youth orchestras that play music by South American composers in national outfits with yarn decorations dangling from the cello scrolls. Incredibly, they play while doing various choreographed motions and smiling the whole time. Some times they put down their instruments and sing. Sometimes they throw their violins in the air or hit their bows together. 


For me, it has been thrilling to conduct the “chamber orchestra” (a reduced group of merely 170 young players) in my arrangement of Salim Sarmast’s “Shakoko Jan,” which I originally prepared for ANIM’s US tour. On that tour, a few young musicians from the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra joined us for the Kennedy Center Concert, and a few from the Scarsdale High School Orchestra joined us for the Carnegie Concert. Since the size of the orchestra was manageable, I was able to help the combined forces perform without conductor, but here, that wouldn’t be possible. 

Occasionally, the Afghan rhythms were unfamiliar for the orchestra, so I had them chant, “Ar-gen-tin-a” to master the accents of the 7-beat rhythm (long-short-long-long). A passage where the rhythm changes to something even more complex was mastered soon after I asked them to chant “Iguazu, Iguazu, Festival!” However, I have to be careful to remember to use the microphone Fundecua thoughtfully provided. Some times I forgot, and the strain that produced on my voice, as well as the morning when I ran around to help coach sectional rehearsals, each of which contained between 10 and 50 musicians, resulted in severely swollen vocal cords!

Yesterday afternoon, Ustad Rameen (rubab), Samim (tabla), and Ahmadullah (dhol) joined me for a workshop in which we taught the Afghan rhythm of mughuli to all the percussion students. It was fascinating for them to learn about new instruments and rhythms and get to try the tabla. It was a challenge for me to translate between Spanish and Dari...sometimes I would address one of the groups in the wrong language!

Last night, ANIM’s Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble performed at Espacio Takuapu, a huge and high-quality tent capable of holding an audience of 2,000 people. While our students were waiting to perform, students from an orchestra in Colombia that had performed the previous night taught the ANIM students some Spanish, smiling the whole time, while the ANIM students did their best to teach them some Dari. 

The ANIM performance met with a standing ovation, and afterwards, a conductor from Peru approached Dr. Sarmast and asked me to translate. “Your work inspires me to do more,” he said with fervor, barely controlling his emotions. That is the magic of Iguazu: that just as many small rivulets and streams combine to form the mighty waterfalls, musicians from cultures that may seem to share almost nothing in common can come together and form a powerful reminder that united, we are more beautiful and more powerful than we can ever be apart. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

From a counterterrorism forum in Abu Dhabi to Argentine bureaucracy in 12 hours or less

I was honored to give a presentation yesterday in Abu Dhabi at a closed expert meeting organized by Hedayah entitled “Countering Violent Extremism: What role for sports, arts and cultural programs?” How did I give a presentation in Abu Dhabi from the comfort of my apartment in San Juan, Argentina? The miracle of Skype, naturally. The timing was less than optimal: I started speaking at 2:15 a.m., Argentina time, and the Q & A session finished at 3 a.m.!  

The answer to the question posed by the title of the meeting is that culture can play a major role in countering violent extremism. I gave examples from my experience with Cultures in Harmony and Afghanistan National Institute of Music, beginning with the young Egyptian violist whose interactions with Cultures in Harmony, starting in 2009, convinced him to leave a Facebook group entitled “Hitler lovers” and to decide not to join an extremist movement. 

Violent extremism can have numerous driving factors, and exposure to the arts can be particularly helpful in addressing the cultural and economic aspects. I cited ANIM’s sponsorship program, initiated by ANIM Founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, in which orphans and street-working children study music to improve their economic prospects. 

I urged the assembled audience to remember that while arts education has inherent value on its own, it should be combined with a cultural diplomacy component in order to best combat the urge towards violent extremism. The arts allow us to celebrate our differences while reminding us of the more essential qualities that we share. In other words, that Egyptian violist rejected extremism not just because he was a violist, but because music enabled him to connect with an American agnostic violinist of Jewish ancestry. 

One question came about the failures I have experienced, and of course, I had many examples to offer! Another question was about sustainability, and I shared my belief that for cultural diplomacy, the commodity to be sustained is the relationship itself, which is why repeated exchanges, both in person and online, are so important. Another question concerned the structural theory underpinning my work. Although I have read and appreciated some of the major literature on cultural diplomacy, such as Arndt’s The First Resort of Kings (which I reviewed here), I didn’t know how to answer her and will need to do more research.

It was an honor to participate, but at 3 a.m., I needed to go to sleep. I woke up in about 4 hours for an intense morning of promoting the orchestra’s concert today in San Juan. I did the standard PR circuit of radio and TV interviews, but the five hours I had spent in line at ANSES a few weeks ago prompted a far more innovative promotion. ANSES is an institution of the Argentine government where people must go to get all kinds of official documents. The day I had to go there in order to get a number needed to work in Argentina, I had been warned of the long lines, so arrived at 6:30 a.m., thinking that I would avoid the line, since ANSES doesn’t open until 7:30 a.m. When I arrived, there were already about 200 people in line! Some of the ones at the beginning of the line must have slept on the street. It was incredible...I’ve never seen such lines at a government institution in either Afghanistan or the USA.

My first-hand experience of that line showed me how mind-numbingly boring and stressful it is, so I thought: why not promote the orchestra concert by playing for the people waiting in line at ANSES? With an affable colleague from the bass section on hand to distribute flyers, I arrived at 10 a.m. Even though we were not trying to retrieve a document, it was very difficult just to get in the door, where a mass of people push each other and yell to try to get the attention of the policeman on duty in hopes of persuading him to let them avoid the unbelievably long line snaking around the block. Eventually, we were able to get inside the main room, a huge area with more than forty computer terminals staffed by ANSES employees attending to the hundred or so people at the front of the line who are lucky enough to wait inside after many hours of waiting on the street. 

With violin in hand, I started playing “Oblivion” by Astor Piazzolla, threading my way to the front of the crowd waiting in blue chairs, their faces frozen in bleak expressions of Kafka-esque despair. People perked up at the sound of one of the most beautiful and popular songs of Argentina. At the front of the rows of chairs seemed a natural place to start the performance. By the time I arrived there, I had finished Oblivion, to a smattering of applause. I then performed the entire Bach E Major Partita. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see people begin to smile and relax. The room became noticeably quieter. I continued with “Meditation from Thais,” during which time people’s gratitude—for experiencing the pleasure of live music on a day when they were expecting only a dehumanizing, soul-sucking wait on the streets and then in an office building with glaring lights—was so palpable that I was powerfully reminded of my experience performing for soldiers after they returned from a long day of rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero in New York on September 16, 2001. It was hard for me to contain my own emotions while playing as I realized that only music could have relieved the tedium of their hours of waiting, and that there was nothing else I would rather do, no performance I would rather give, no place I’d rather be than in that office, adding the color of music to the gray of bureaucracy that these people would have otherwise experienced.

After Paganini 24th Caprice, I introduced myself. By this point, everyone was smiling. I urged them all to come support their orchestra, and then closed by playing “Oblivion” one more time. An ANSES official thanked me and my colleague profusely, saying that people frequently come to ANSES so tense after their hours of waiting in the street that fights can break out, but that today, people calmed down, and it was easier for the ANSES employees to get their work done. The orchestra will return to ANSES again to promote our concerts and provide the joy of live music to people at a moment when they need it desperately.

It was an extraordinary 12 hours, capped off by my colleague inviting me to a lunch at which he prepared delicious pizzas. A counterterrorism forum in Abu Dhabi and a government agency in Argentina might seem to share little, but a violinist can bring a fresh perspective to both. When music can accomplish so much within the parameters of “entertainment” society assigns to it, why not see what else musicians can accomplish? If violence persists in our world, if bureaucracy continues to sap our energy and hope, let us expand our willingness to look to music for a solution. 

I often quote Pablo Casals, who said, “Perhaps it is music that will save the world,” and then, I respectfully disagree with him. Why the skepticism, Pablo? Why the “perhaps”?