Harmony Beat

Violinist from Indiana traveling to all 50 states in 2016, asking: "What is American culture?"

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Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States

violinist, violist, teacher, composer, conductor, writer, cultural diplomat, traveler

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What is American culture in North Dakota

Known for its vastness, North Dakota has both a vibrant cultural scene and an extraordinary number of practitioners of vanishing art forms, women and men who still tend small flickering flames.

Fargo is, as I note in the video above, "more than just the wood chipper" from the Coen brothers movie that made the city internationally famous. Thank you to Charley Johnson of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau for speaking with me and letting me pretend to feed my violin into the wood chipper (viewable in the video above). In the background at the beginning of the above video, I'm playing my arrangement of Carter Burwell's theme from the movie named after the city.

The day I left, Fargo began to host its own TedX, organized by Emerging Prairie. Based on the opening event, it felt like a tremendous assemblage of smart, energetic, thoughtful young people committed to TedX's motto: ideas worth spreading. Thank you to Marisa Jackels for speaking with me.

The Plains Art Museum, directed by Andy Maus, does an outstanding job showcasing both contemporary and traditional Native American art, featuring pieces by Keith BraveHeart, David Bradley, Robert Nelsen, Walter Piehl, and others, pieces that will occasion much thought about the contemporary American West and the evolving set of issues facing Native American communities there.

The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra offers imaginative programming (such as an academic-themed concert including Cho-Liang Lin playing the Bach Double with a former student, as well as the Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Academic Festival Overture) and thoughtful community outreach. Thank you to the symphony's executive director, Linda Boyd, for meeting with me.

Given the national conversation about policing, I interviewed Fargo police chief David Todd. Watch that interview here.

Also in Fargo, I enjoyed performing on Radio KFGO's "Unplugged with Dayna Del Val," who also wrote this kind blog entry about my visit. In Fargo, I also stopped in on Gary Paulsen to view his Norwegian troll carvings, emblematic of the region's Scandinavian heritage.

After the radio interview

During the North Dakota week (July 18-24) of our "What is American culture?" project, I also visited five smaller communities in this huge state.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

While at the reservation, I interviewed renowned storyteller and historian Mary Louise Defender Wilson, as well as a Lakota friend of hers, who shared with me this heart-breaking insight about the current election.


I found myself in Underwood somewhat by accident: I did not look too carefully at Airbnb's recommendations for a place to stay in Bismarck, and the place, an abandoned nursing home, turned out to be an hour north of Bismarck in the town of Underwood, population 775. Determined to find what Underwood has to offer, I learned that there is one restaurant in town: a very enjoyable, all-American establishment called the Rusted Rail (Underwood used to be a railway town).

With the owner, Landon, I arranged to play violin there: on Saturday, July 23, I performed the National Anthem (everyone stood up), Love Me Tender, the Bach Ciaccona, Rhapsody by Jessie Montgomery, Caprice #5 by Mark O'Connor, Blues by David Baker, Amazing Grace, and Yankee Doodle Variations by Vieuxtemps. People loved it and interesting conversations about American culture ensued: with a fellow who drives a Kress coal truck with a 300-ton capacity, with the vice president of an oil union, with the owner of an agronomy business, and with a smart and ambitious medical administrator.

With the audience after the performance

In addition to the Rusted Rail, Underwood has a saloon, because of course it does. I went there on my first night and found a big, unsmiling, muscular guy at the bar, with many tattoos, a ring on every finger, long gray hair, and tough leather skin turned red from too much sun. He's on a job resurfacing Highway 83. "I'm the first guy out there at 5 a.m., the last to leave at 9:30 p.m. It's my job to keep everyone safe." He told me he has to fight to expand the zone where you have to slow down before the work zone actually starts: the bigger the zone, the safer the workers will be. But as he places the signs indicating the initial slowdown, his work carries considerable risk.

I complimented him on the great new surface of the portion I drove over from Bismarck to Underwood. He sniffed the sniff a Juilliard student would sniff on being told that actually, Yanni was pretty good. "It looks like shit," he said succinctly. He went on to explain that in places where the road curves, the resurfacing should curve also, but instead, on this job they had created sloppy curves by just paving straight and then paving straight in another direction. I recognized his professionalism, his disdain, similar to what I feel when violinists don't even try Paganini's original bowing in the 5th caprice. #americancultureis learning to see yourself in others, even and especially when their lived experiences differ from yours.


I interviewed acclaimed singer, songwriter, and farmer Chuck Suchy.


The German-Russian community is struggling to hold onto its identity. 92-year-old John Gross still speaks German and sings the old songs. If you ever pass through Napoleon, you can get a good lunch at the Napoleon Livestock barn on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but they don't advertise that at all.


I was grateful for the kind hospitality of artists Don and Theresa Paul. Incredibly, the 80-year-old Don met Henry Ford as a young boy, because he attended the school Ford started. The couple attends art shows by traveling in a 1928 Reo van that they have meticulously restored.

In his 1928 REO, Don Paul holds his 1941 telegram from Henry Ford 
and a picture of Ford with the class at the school the auto magnate started.

Finally, I'd like to thank Beth Klingenstein and Troyd Geist of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and Dayna Del Val and MeLissa Kossick of the Arts Partnership, for their kind assistance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

American culture: protestors and police

How do people protesting police violence define American culture? How do the police define it? What about their definitions may surprise you? What common ground can we find?

In Minnesota, I interviewed Black Lives Matter protestors outside Gov. Dayton's mansion. In North Dakota, I interviewed the chief of police in Fargo. In the spirit of this project, please listen to both perspectives with an open mind.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Lakota woman's thought on the election

Q: When you see a politician saying stuff like “Let’s take our country back,” what goes through your mind?
A: I think to myself, “Why didn’t we say that?” This great country was ours: from east to west coast, it was ours. And now, they put us on reservations. They thought that we’d probably shrivel up and die, but we didn’t. We were strong. We withstood the reservation life. I can’t fully understand when they say “Let’s take our country back.” We are the ones who should be saying that, but we never say that, and no one notices us, no one ever says about the natives, “Oh, they owned this country at one time. We owe them. From the 1868 treaty, we still owe them tons of money for their land. We never paid them.”
Don’t you think *we* should say, “We should take our country back?” That’s what I would say.
—Excerpt from an interview with an 80-year-old Lakota woman, July 22, 2016, Prairie Knights Casino, Standing Rock Sioux reservation, as part of the North Dakota week of our "What is American culture?" project

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What is American culture in Minnesota?

Philando Castile

The Minnesota week (July 12-19) of Cultures in Harmony's "What is American culture?" project coincided with the protests against the tragic police killing of Philando Castile. I went to the street in front of the governor's mansion to interview protestors, asking them what the spate of police-involved shootings of black men tells us about American culture:

On July 14, I attended Mr. Castile's funeral at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Nearly 3,000 people packed the beautiful cathedral to pay their respects. While the service was well done, for me the most moving part came after. The family insisted on offering a repass, even though they must have known that many hundreds of people who never knew Mr. Castile would come. "It's Mr. Phil's last meal," they said.

At the school where Mr. Castile had worked as nutrition services supervisor, tables had been set up, and when an announcement was made, the huge crowds formed lines. When it came my turn to pick up a hamburger, the white woman serving me said that she worked in a similar position to Mr. Castile's at the cafeteria of another school in the city.

"I considered him a colleague," she said.

I choked up. Why can't we more clearly see the connections that bind us together than the differences that appear to divide us?

Somali community

Increasingly, the Twin Cities are known as a center for the Somali expatriate community. Since my visit coincided with Somali Week, I made this video about the ways in which Somalis view American culture. Given that immigration is a hot topic this election year, let's listen to what the people I interviewed have to say:

One of the people I interviewed was the brilliant, courageous, and visionary community leader Abdirizak Bihi, who was profiled in the Washington Post in 2011. His work fighting radicalism and creating opportunity for the community is very admirable.

Four hours' drive northwest, in Moorhead, I spoke with Fowzia Adde, the director of the Immigrant Development Center. When she first got to the area, she met with the police chief in West Fargo (across the border in North Dakota) because people were harassing her in her neighborhood. “I want you to help me understand why my neighbors are pushing me away,” she pleaded. “Fowzia, I will give you an answer next week,” he responded.

The chief's deputy knocked on every door in the neighborhood, asking each family, “What did this Fowzia's family do to you? Did the children give you a hard time?” None of the families could give the officer a clear answer, so the officer asked them to stop bothering the new Somali immigrants.

At this point in the story, Fowzia beamed and said, “Now, my neighborhood is the best beautiful neighborhood you could ever live in.”

Given the killing of Mr. Castile, the kindness of the police chief Fowzia approached offers a refreshing counterpoint.

Scandinavian Heritage

Historically, Minnesota has been known as a destination for people emigrating from Scandinavia to the US. On July 19 at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, I performed Jessie Montgomery's Rhapsody at the opening of "Touchable: Celebrate the Senses," an exhibit of art designed to be enjoyable by the visually impaired. The addition of music seemed appropriate and people seemed to enjoy it. The Hjemkomst Center's most prominent permanent exhibits are a full-scale replica of a 12th-century Norwegian stave church and a working replica of a Viking ship used to sail from Duluth, Minnesota, to Norway in 1982.

In Minneapolis, the American Swedish Institute offers a superb immersion in the area's heritage. The Swedish food at Fika, their cafe, is absolutely first-rate; no wonder it was named "best lunch in Minnesota." The center seamlessly integrates modern architecture with the 1908 mansion built by Swedish immigrants.

I interviewed a docent who told me that the Twin Cities remain so tied in to their heritage that more lutefisk is consumed here than in Sweden during the Christmas season. I asked her which other elements of Swedish culture have been preserved here, and most of her answers had to do with food or Christmas, such as the straw ornaments placed on trees. There are travel companies based in the Twin Cities that specialize in Scandinavian travel. Also, Volvo is a Swedish company, and their cars tend to be more popular here than elsewhere.

Her own grandparents came over around 1900 from Smöland. She's not sure how many more generations will keep the Scandinavian cultures alive, but for the time being, the Mindekirken Church still has a service in Norwegian.


It was an honor to be interviewed by Brenda Bell Brown on KFAI: listen to the podcast here!

Thank you

Thank you to my uncle and aunt, Paul & Judi Harvey, and my cousins Ben, Sam, and Ann, as well as my other cousin Nora Paoli (my mom's sister's daughter) and her husband Mike Boyd for their hospitality. Thank you to Greg Lindsay and Merrie Benasuti for connecting me to Abdirizak Bihi, who became my friend and primary partner in the Somali community.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Cultures in Harmony returns to Tunisia

In a time darkened by hate, what can you do to release more light into the world? When so many shrink away in fear, how can you reach out in love?

Every year since 2005, Cultures in Harmony has sent musicians to Tunisia. Thanks to the Atlas Music Academy (our outstanding partners there) and the hard work of Deputy Director Kimball Gallagher, we have been able to sustain this commitment through turmoil and troubles. Our unwavering presence in Tunisia, year after year, symbolizes the eternal possibility of friendship, respect, understanding, and peace. It’s there, if only we work for it, build upon it, and sustain it.

Starting this coming Wednesday, our musicians will partner with Atlas to teach 36 young musicians for 10 days in the idyllic mountain town of Beni Mtir. Please take a moment to read about our outstanding faculty:
Kimball Gallagher, piano and song writing
Anya Yermakova, piano and dance
Brace Negron, voice
Vova Kuperman, guitar

How will the young students receive what these teachers have to offer? Fortunately, we already have some idea. After one camp, a 16-year-old violinist named Amal wrote: “It was terrific to meet you and I hope that I will see you again next year and I’m awfully happy to know and to meet you. Besides, you’ve changed the image that I had about Americans because you’re completely different. You’re nice, kind, friendly, generous, awesome, beautiful.”

Help our musicians inspire similar reactions while training the next generation of Tunisia’s outstanding young musicians by donating to Cultures in Harmony today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Sikh perspective on American culture

On June 17 in Milwaukee, as part of the Wisconsin week of our "What is American culture?" project, I spoke with Rahul Dubey of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin about culture, religion, tolerance, and mass shootings. Rahul and I met at the interfaith memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando, and he lost his godfather in the shooting at his temple four years ago. The conversation was transcribed by Alice St. Clair, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

WH: How do Sikhs find a balance between Punjabi culture and American culture?

RD: I have been raised in the Punjabi culture, where you live in a family with solid parenting. We have seen, over here in American culture, that parenting gets missed somewhere. When we go out on the north side of the city, in Milwaukee, when we meet with impoverished kids, sometimes you see that either one parent is incarcerated, or drug or sexual abuse might be a factor. This is not the Indian culture, because Indian culture is all about family. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about love. Anyway, here, love seems superficial sometimes. That’s what I feel. I am not saying it is a deliberate effort by everyone. It sometimes happens inadvertently, because a lot of people have to make money for paying the bills over here. They have to find solace about American culture and that is where the problem comes, when you don’t give time to your family. That is what I sometimes miss over here: spending time with family. In Punjabi culture, there’s a lot of important priority given to family.

WH: How has Sikhism changed in America? Is there now an American Sikhism?

RD: I don’t think so, because when a religion starts evolving as a kind of a region then it loses its essence. We should not lose that essence. Whether it’s India, whether it’s U.S., whether it’s England, whether it’s Middle Eastern countries, Africa, wherever you go, in Sikhism the underlying foundation is the same. Some people might think, hey you’re Americanized or whatever, but there is no such word like this. But there is improvement as an individual in every way, and as you improve yourself, you’re improving the religion also. Religion has already been written out there, it’s for you to follow.

WH: Has more flexibility evolved in the approach to the religion here or is it also flexible in India? We were talking earlier about the difference between how some men choose to style their hair.

RD: In India also, some people don’t have turbans. It’s their choice. I am fully supportive of that. It goes back to the history where everyone had turbans and everyone had long beards as well. It’s by choice. First of all the word Sikh means “to learn”. And Guru Nanuk, he said that a person is a true Sikh if he follows three principles which are: hard work, meditation, and giving back to the community. These three are the principles which make a person a true Sikh. All the 9 gurus follow that. The 10th guru, when he came, he said that a person has to have his own identity too. So, he said let’s take a step forward and baptize those people. And that’s what makes us Khalsa. Khalsa means pure. When a person becomes a Khalsa, he or she has to follow the 5 K’s:
  1. Kesh: long hair.
  2. Kangha: keep it neat and tidy.
  3. Kara: a metal bracelet.
  4. Kachera: long under pants.
  5. Kirpan: the small dagger usually Sikhs have that.
Kara is usually worn on the prominent hand, which I am wearing. It reminds me that whenever my hand is raised, it is raised for justice. Because iron is pure, metal is pure, right? A Kirpan is not just for self defense: it is raised for when you see someone else suffering from injustice. Guru Singh said that first you have to keep on trying to go the route of peace. When peace fails then only one route is left which is war: you have to seek justice. Coming back to your point, yes, Sikhs wear turbans, yes, but there is a choice until you become a Khalsa.

WH: This project investigates what is American culture. Unfortunately one of the tragic aspects of American culture is the mass shootings, like we just had in Orlando and very tragically at your temple 4 years ago. Since then, in the last 4 years, have the public perception of the Sikh community has it changed and how has the Sikh community's perception of American culture changed?

RD: When I think about all the mass shootings, like the one that happened in our temple where my godfather was shot along with five beautiful souls, I think about the Constitution: Everybody has the freedom to live over here. Everybody has the freedom to practice their religion. Everybody IS welcome over here as an immigrant. Because this is the land of immigrants. Everybody is an immigrant over here, except the Native Americans. And we know from our history what have we done to them.

When the shooter came out of the Sikh temple and he said that you guys are not welcome over here in our country. That’s not right either. That was a hate crime, because of that sentence: “you are not welcome in this country.” This is the world we are living in over here. I am so much astonished and surprised that we are calling this America a beautiful country. It’s a democracy over here, right? But look what we are doing to each other.

Coming back to the mass shooting that happened on June 12th in Orlando, that was again a hate crime: saying that hey, you guys are LGBT people, you are not welcome. That person had a whole connotation that this is against the Islamic faith, but it’s not! Islam is never like that. Islam is a pure religion, if you take it the right way. I’m an open advocate of LGBT people. I am a great ally, because everybody has a right to live in this country. In this world, actually!

When it happened, I was like, why did this happen? Why? You look that and look at that perspective and where is this American culture going? Are we only talking about guns here? I am a proponent of gun responsibility. You have to be responsible for what you are carrying, because it’s not a toy. When you go outside, it kills people.

We can make this a beautiful country. It is a beautiful country. But with all these mass shootings happening around? We have to take a few steps and look it from a higher angle. What are we doing from this? What do we want our American culture to be?

We had a whole discussion about ignorance. What happened at the Sikh temple shooting, people were coming back and saying that hey you guys were misidentified as Muslims right? And this is where my mind boggles: what’s wrong with Muslims? Extremists are in every faith. I was reading somewhere that you guys are relating ISIS to Islam. How about the KKK? They talk all about religion also. They are manipulating their faiths, because of their personal motives.

There is a lot of ignorance. Even about Sikhism, right? Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia got kicked off a plane because he was wearing a turban. They said that “oh, we can not let a person with a turban inside because of security reasons.”Are you kidding me? Really?

The turban is part of the faith, you cannot touch the turban. It’s a sense of respect. It’s similar to the hijab: you cannot remove it! Women who have been baptized, they also wear the turban in a different way. And then they chose to, there is no restriction on that, right. But people who become Khalsa, yes, they keep long hair inside turbans.

When you walk in the door people start judging you. That person, he might be white, he might be black, he might be Asian, from their looks you are going to start putting people in their silos. So, when you stop doing that, you look at a person as a person. I’m looking at you as a person right now, although my mind might be saying a lot of things. You are looking at me as a person, and your mind might be saying a lot of things. When you have silenced those other voices, and just think from the heart, that’s how we avoid conflict. It's hard for me as well: I have been practicing for a while. It takes a long time.

There is a lot of education to do. And education cannot happen if we are in our own silos. We’ve got to break out of those silos. We’ve got to get out of the box and think positive.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Philando Castile protest video

This video explores what #americancultureis, according to people protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the governor's mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota. What they say may surprise you, and the community of love they've built while protesting injustice will inspire you: