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

Friday, February 25, 2011

Afghan Star

As the jeep pulled up to the low-lying, fenced-in building, bumping over the unpaved road, a shiver went up my spine as I saw the crowd of laughing young men, eager to be part of the studio audience of Afghan Star. A road much longer than that bumpy alley had taken me here: soon after I received the July 4, 2009, e-mail informing me that I would be the Violin and Viola Teacher at Afghanistan National Institute of Music, I watched the documentary about the TV show with a good friend of mine. I learned that it is the most popular show in Afghanistan, watched by 11 million people then and 15 million people now (about half the population). I learned that despite its popularity, it is controversial, due to the modern showcase it provides for young singers, men and women, less than a decade after the collapse of the only government to ban music.

A couple days ago, I came to the set of the show as the guest judge. “Don’t be like Simon Cowell,” my friends had joked. “Don’t worry,” I would respond. “I only know enough Dari to be positive.”

Technical crew and audience members milled about the side door, as one man took the entrance cards (which apparently fetch quite a price on the black market) and men busied themselves with set-up. I was shown to the make-up room, where I met one of the co-presenters, Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the very popular Afghan singer and talk-show host who has performed for President Obama and who Time Magazine called “Afghanistan’s Oprah.” After changing clothes and going through the rundown of the show with the producer, I sat down for my make-up. I winced as the lovely young woman applied something to my eyelids and then my lips. In Dari, I joked, “I don’t do this every day; just once a week.” She smiled and said in English, “Your face is already beautiful.”

Finally, it was time to go on. A member of the crew ushered me the long way around the set. Mozhdah and the other co-presenter, Omaid Nizami, introduced me to sustained applause. I played my mournful, contemplative rendition of the popular Afghan folk song “Bia ke Birim ba Mazar,” which the audience twice interrupted with applause. Afterwards, Mozhdah interviewed me in Dari, which went fine except when I didn’t understand a question and simply said, “Tashakor” (Thank you) and the audience laughed.

I crossed the slick white stage with a star on the center, sitting in a comfy red armchair just to the side, finally able to absorb my surroundings. Bright points of light shone from a dark canopy covering the wall, suggesting the galaxy of stars the contestants aspired to join. A broad cross-section of Afghan society, from young men having a good time to proper young women to older men to a tiny little girl about 3 years old who clapped along with every song, packed the studio to capacity. In front of the circular stage, the three regular judges sat behind an imposing table with the Afghan Star logo and logo of Roshan, the wireless company that is one of the sponsors. Ustad Gulzaman, the famous Pashto singer, ANIM faculty member, and frequent collaborator of mine, looked resplendent in his chapan. Qasem Rameshgar, whom I know from various dinners and meetings, looked relaxed and vigorous. The one regular judge I didn’t know already was Ahmad Fanoos.

The four contestants came out one at a time to sing a song, and then came back to sing another. All four were young men, showing various degrees of nervousness and rapport with the audience. I wanted to be the encouraging judge, so since I can’t speak much Dari, I came up with a few simple compliments that I used at the right moments: “az diletan da dilem raft” (it went from your heart to mine). “Da chauqi raks kardam” (I danced in the chair). “Khana-e concert masle khana-e shoma ast” (The home of the concert is like your home). Hopefully that one sounded better in Dari!

I was surprised that they wanted me to play on the final number, an Afghan song involving all the contestants, when I didn’t know it and had not rehearsed it, but I was so excited to be there that I jumped in and did it. Fortunately, the harmonies weren’t too hard to find, so I improvised a few musical asides that were perhaps more Argentinian than Afghan.

After the taping finished, the technicians took the set down with remarkable speed. I wanted to linger, to talk to the audience, take some pictures, exchange cards. I felt like I had just been in a movie, and indeed, I had been: a movie that started when I got a job in Afghanistan a year and a half ago and reacted by taking a friend of mine to a documentary about some televised singing contest that was creating a sensation in that faraway country. Just as the singer who is eventually declared the Afghan Star will hopefully see his dreams fulfilled, one of mine came true tonight as I watched the show broadcast on Tolo TV.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ICD Conference

I nodded in agreement as His Excellency András Simonyi, former Ambassador of Hungary to the USA, declared that “the West has failed in Egypt and Tunisia because they never wielded their soft power.” Indeed, much of this past week’s conference entitled The Language of Art and Music, held at the immaculate, spacious, and modern offices of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in Berlin’s posh Kurfürstendamm district, involved interesting and distinguished guests preaching to the choir. And yet, the audience at each session of the conference mainly comprised outstanding, dedicated young people who are tomorrow’s leaders. Attending this conference and appreciating the value of cultural diplomacy will enable them to more effectively conduct international relations when they are the one’s holding the world’s reins of power.

Of all the speakers, Amb. Simonyi was one of the most charismatic and effective advocates for cultural diplomacy, which he employed brilliantly during his tenure in Washington by making a guest appearance as a rock guitarist on the Colbert Report. For many Americans, this was their first introduction to Hungary, and his office was deluged with e-mails from Colbert Report fans who said they had never heard of Hungary and were now planning to vacation there. Even President Bush asked him, “How’s the band?” As Amb. Simonyi self-deprecatingly indicated, it’s amazing any time the President of the United States asks the Hungarian Ambassador a question about anything.

Dr. Timothy Emlyn Jones, Dean of the Burren College of Art in Ireland, also did a brilliant job describing the political power of art through many mind-bending metaphors and examples. He cited the scene in Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” in which two angels are conversing in the no-man’s-land between the inner and outer sections of the Berlin Wall. He says that the guards can’t see them because they are invisible. If we don’t accept dualities or binary ways of seeing the world, what else could we see? He also amusingly pointed out that everyone thinks ghosts can pass through walls, whether or not they believe in ghosts. Art is the same way in its ability to pass through walls regardless of the tiresome binary question of whether we believe it can or not.

Yet such idealism was rightly tempered with reality. Dr. Jones reminded us that one man’s cultural diplomacy is another man’s cultural imperialism. Colin Tweedy, Chief Executive of Arts and Business UK, observed that the British Museum, with its many artifacts forcibly removed from countries where they would be national treasures, is a monument to theft and power.

Amb. Simonyi was asked if rock-and-roll would have been as effective in helping bring down the Iron Curtain in Hungary if the genre had been a state-promoted effort of the US government. He replied that when Bruce Springsteen had such a seismic impact in Hungary, he had come under the auspices of Amnesty International. “Government involvement should not degenerate into propaganda,” Amb. Simonyi declared.

Indeed, many speakers concurred that government involvement in cultural diplomacy or even just in culture can be problematic. Dr. Jones cited the Irish government promotion of such titans of Irish culture as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who were at one time or another banned in Ireland. Beckett had to leave his native land and so is regarded as French in France. Many made reference to the complicated relationship between jazz and official US cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, when Uncle Sam sent great black musicians on tours abroad to represent a country where blacks and whites did not yet enjoy equal rights.

Amb. Simonyi recalled one of the most chilling instances of the co-mingling of art and politics. A film from Berlin at the end of World War II shows Joseph Goebbels shaking the hand of Wilhelm Furtwangler after the great conductor led the Berlin Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth. Amb. Simonyi spotted that for a brief second after the handshake, it is possible to see Furtwangler reach into his pocket for a handkerchief, with which he then wipes off his hand.

The way many artists had to wipe the shame of collaboration with the Nazis off their hands reminds all of us to be wary of the too-close marriage of art and politics. His Excellency Karl-Erik Normann, former Swedish Ambassador and Secretary-General of the European Cultural Parliament, told us: “You are not automatically good because you are in the arts.”

Such nuance was not always sufficiently present when the topic turned to multiculturalism, which could fill many ICD conferences on its own. ICD director Mark Donfried casually observed that the French government handled the headscarf issue well because the various religious symbols that it banned were equal. In truth, many Muslim women believe that they must wear the hijab, but few if any Christians believe that wearing a large cross is essential to their being religious.

Erna Hennicot-Schoepges asserted that “in Europe we succeeded in tearing down our borders but we still have them in our heads.” As a Member of the European Parliament and former Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs of Luxembourg, it is understandable that she would be a staunch supporter of the new European order, but many of us feel that tearing down those borders was not such a great idea in the first place. The Hon. Dr. Rocco Buttiglione, Vice President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, former Italian Minister of Culture, and former Italian Minister of European Politics, better captured my personal ambivalence : “One problem of multiculturalism is that it tries to sever culture from space.” He formulated a brilliant metaphor: “A house without walls is as ineffective as a house without doors or windows. We must have the same attitude towards multiculturalism.”

To represent practitioners of musical diplomacy, Mark Donfried invited my friend John Ferguson, Founder and Director of American Voices, and myself in my capacity as Founder and Director of Cultures in Harmony. John presented American Voices’ fantastic work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Thailand, and elsewhere, correctly noting that “we cannot Facebook and Twitter our way to better relations. Nothing replaces face-to-face interaction.” He shares my belief that good projects must be recreated annually, which contrasts sharply with the State Department preference for funding something once and then moving on, in order to showcase a variety of American cultural media.

He also offered some unusual and revealing anecdotes. “Where in the world?” was a great photo segment in which we had to guess where the photos came from, the point being that culture connects us so thoroughly that it can be hard to hold on to old stereotypes. At a time when Syria is generally distancing itself from the US, the Syrian Minister of Culture requested the expansion of the American Voices YES Academy there, proving the value of cultural engagement. CNN declined a story about their Iraq project, with the producer saying: “We want to show car bombs.” This shows that perhaps most of our diplomatic work should be focused at the American media, which perpetuates the stereotypes our engagement efforts work so assiduously to challenge.

On a panel discussion about graffiti, I discussed my friend Adil Omar, the most famous rapper in Pakistan. I noted the irony of the “F*** ADIL OMAR” graffiti that has become prevalent in big cities, since presumably the graffiti artist is condemning Adil’s decision to rap in English, yet is writing the graffito in English. I suggested that perhaps seemingly senseless, vulgar, empty graffiti may emerge if there is no political space for other, more important debate. For instance, the graffito wrongly attacking my friend Adil may be a plea for less Western influence (represented by English) in Pakistan. I also noted that the infamous crosshairs map propagated by Sarah Palin is another example of political art that emerge from marginalized extremists, particularly given that it would have been perfectly acceptable to employ another visual to highlight the congressional districts the artist wanted to emphasize. For instance, districts in which the artist hoped the incumbent would be defeated could have been circled.

The highlight of my own lecture, “The Role Music Should Play In America’s Cultural Diplomacy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan,” was undoubtedly the three games with which I began it. First, I played a rhythm and then asked the audience to clap it back to me. Second, a volunteer invented a rhythm to which I responded on my violin. Third, I said, “Now, I would like all of you to leave the room. I’ll invite Mark Donfried to the stage, teach him how to play violin, and when you come back in fifteen minutes, he will be able to play Paganini’s 24th Caprice, one of the most difficult pieces for the instrument. OK, I’m joking, you don’t really have to leave. This third kind of dialogue is what the US government has been doing in Muslim majority countries for years.” The audience burst into laughter and applause.

The audience also enjoyed the recommendations I had solicited from the friends of Cultures in Harmony in those three countries: decentralize, go to rural areas, engage with the people, stay far away from politics. As a Tunisian kanun player and medical student noted: “Don’t come now to give us lessons in democracy; we were doing it while you were supporting Ben Ali.”

John and I united in a concert focusing on four areas in which the fields of music and diplomacy intersect: the Muslim world in general, Iran in particular, Eastern Europe, and musical representation of the United States. For the first section, I played “Fantazy El Mansora,” by the Egyptian composer Attia Sharara, and my own arrangement of the Afghan folk song “Bia ke Birim ba Mazar” and the Sindhi folk song “Mor Tor Tillay Rana,” basing the latter arrangement on the exuberant version by Abida Parveen.

For the second section, the beautiful and extraordinary Iranian pianist, composer, and flutist of poetic sensitivity, Nazanin Piri-Niri, joined in. With her on flute, we played a couple Iranian pieces, one of which was by her. She played two of her lovely solo piano pieces, and then John and I did the last movement of Henry Cowell’s “Homage to Iran,” which the American composer created after a Rockefeller grant enabled him to study the music of that country, and which was premiered in the Shah’s Palace in Tehran on July 3, 1959.

For the third section, I spoke of the different ways composers behind the Iron Curtain protested against enforced proletarian ideals. The Lithuanian composer Vytautas Barkauskas twisted folk elements into a dark statement in his solo violin Partita from 1967, and Arvo Pärt pursued a subtly religious inspiration in his hypnotic Fratres from 1980.

I introduced the final section by noting that both John and I represent American culture through its music. John did a brilliant job with Zez Confrey’s aptly named “Dizzy Fingers” before he and I played “Mother and Child” by the great African-American composer William Grant Still, then closed the concert with three Gershwin numbers from “Porgy and Bess.”

One of my favorite speakers was the noted film critic Meenakshi Shedde, who gave a stunning, hilarious, and charismatic lecture about Bollywood’s global impact without any notes, and as though she were effortlessly chatting with a friend. Her lecture persuaded me that I haven’t seen enough Bollywood films, though that may not necessarily have been her point. Indeed, her tremendous personal presence was a reminder that the best diplomacy is a function of personality.

She was also one of many instances in which the conference reflected that it was scheduled at the same time as the Berlinale. I saw some extraordinary and devastating films and also learned much from the lecture about Wajda’s film about the massacre of Polish soldiers at Katyn by the Soviets during World War II. The final scene, in which bulldozers slowly shovel earth over the Polish corpses while the terrifying music of Penderecki screeches and grates in the background, had an impact at once shocking and cathartic.

Mohammed Reza Farzad also made a film about a massacre: the September 8, 1978 killing of protesters by the forces of the Shah of Iran. He focuses the viewer's attention on the people killed as individuals, making it impossible to view them as statistics. Voiceover ruminations speculatively comparing specific victims in faded, grainy footage of the killings to photos of happy Iranians in daily life accomplish this feat, made difficult by the paucity of detailed information about who those individuals actually were.

“Tales of the Defeated,” an Israeli short documentary by Yael Reuveny, movingly dealt with her discovery that her grandmother’s brother had not actually died in World War Two but had converted away from Judaism and settled right outside the concentration camp where he had been interred. That he married the sister-in-law of a Wehrmacht soldier was to her unthinkable, and a particularly powerful scene shows her struggling to control her emotions when the giggly and gregarious widow of that soldier shows her the family album containing her husband and the filmmaker’s grandfather, men who were mortal enemies in 1944 but friends by 1950.

Yet the most personally affecting film screening for me was our group attendance at an official screening at the Berlinale of the new film by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. “Under the Hawthorn Tree” reminded me of an earlier moment in the conference in which Dr. Jones cited Rillke’s poem about a sculpture of Apollo in which Rillke concludes that the message of the sculpture is that “You must change your life.” Dr. Jones then said that, “A passive engagement with art will change nothing.” The goodness and purity of Zhang Yimou’s male protagonist in this romantic story of doomed love have led me to conduct a re-examination of my own life more thorough than what any lecture could have prompted.

The power of art to speak to the profound and the mundane also emerged through the conference's various local and social connections to Berlin; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better city in which Mark Donfried could have placed the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, given that Berlin was for so long a city divided by an actual wall, parts of which are now covered with actual art. Yet somehow the high-flying metaphors about art soaring over walls, and experiences such as the Zhang Yimou film, remain more powerful than striding quickly past outdoor art painted on a remnant of the wall at the East Side Gallery, given that the extreme cold prevented much artistic enjoyment of the experience.

Also, my attempt to enjoy the Checkpoint Charlie museum became rather surreal when just I was about to buy my ticket, the ticket taker took a phone call and said, “Mr. Hasselhoff, it’s for you.” Suddenly I noted a camera crew, and the Baywatch star David Hasselhoff emerged to be filmed receiving a call at the museum’s ticket desk. After he gave me his autograph, he said in his overgrown surfer’s patois, “Yeah, man, this museum is really important, the widow of the founder is like a friend of mine, and we’re gonna do a concert to save the museum. This is important stuff, man.”

Quiet, delightful dinners at exquisite restaurants with friends old and new offered a better way to enjoy Berlin.

As I told Mark Donfried, I really enjoyed the entire experience of the conference, though I expressed the hope that future events at ICD can do more to engage Berlin’s vibrant world music communities as well as the ethnic constituencies most relevant to its mission. The German Turkish community has turned out for conferences at ICD specifically about Turkish issues, but I would have enjoyed seeing them turn out for the intriguing talks by Dr. Tomur Atagok, Professor and Dean of the Art and Design Faculty at Yildiz University in Turkey.

Mr. Tweedy summarized the spirit of the conference when he said, “When we understand each other better through art, we understand each other better through politics.” Yet perhaps the best aspect of the conference was the humility and nuance frequently offered by its speakers. All diplomats, from foreign ministers to citizen diplomats engaging populations through the arts, must remember the wise words of Amb. Simonyi: “It’s important as we discuss all this to know that we don’t have the answers.”

Let us continue to pose the questions and keep the dialogue going, creating the climate for that mutual understanding and respect towards which we all aspire.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter Academy

The Afghanistan Winter Music Academy is now finished, and I regret that I was so busy, I never had time to write my personal impressions. Suffice it to say that I think that all of us at Afghanistan National Institute of Music were successful in our ambition to make this a prestigious, highly beneficial music festival like Aspen, but in Afghanistan in the winter time! Please read the report about the final concert that is now the main item on the front page of the ANIM site. The eight weeks of eighteen world-class guest artists teaching and performing at ANIM culminated in this unforgettable, standing-room-only event.

For me personally, the highlight was arranging, preparing, and conducting The Four Seasons of Afghanistan at the gala. And if I had to pick one highlight of that immensely rewarding and complex process, it would be working with the young boy who ended up playing the beautiful slow movement of Winter on the ghichak.

He's a teeny tiny little boy with bright red hair and a mile-wide grin. He's 10 years old but looks about 6. He's so excited about music that as soon as he gets his instrument, he runs to the practicing room, grinning the whole time. Oh, and he's far and away the greatest prodigy I've met.

Only obstacle to him becoming world famous? The instrument at which he is so astonishing is the ghichak, little-known outside the region. I hope he will do for the ghichak what Ravi Shankar did for the sitar, Zakir Hussain for the tabla, and Kayhan Kalhor for the kemencheh.

He studies with Ustad Murad, our kindly ghichak teacher who plays the solo ghichak part in the Four Seasons. Ustad Murad is one of the most inquisitive ghichak players I've heard: while other ones I've heard stay firmly within the tradition, Murad experiments with making his own ghichaks, adding more efficient pegs, using different bows, and even making one with four strings instead of the traditional two.

So I'm not surprised he produced a student like this little fellow. One day a couple weeks ago, Murad came to practice the Four Seasons with me. At the end of last week's practice, this tiny student came in. Murad smiled and passed him the ghichak. He played the first two lines of the slow movement of Winter perfectly.

My jaw dropped. At that moment, Dr. Sarmast came in, and the boy repeated the feat. Dr. Sarmast was equally impressed and asked Murad in Dari when his student had started the piece. "This morning," came the answer. If my jaw could have dropped further, it would have!

This is a kid who started playing ghichak just a few months ago. Before he came to our school, he was working on the streets, living a desperately poor life. And here he is, effortlessly learning music from Western notation, something few if any ghichak players in history have done. Murad said that if we could get the boy ready for the gala concert on February 9, he could play the big ghichak solo!

So every morning, long before the other students arrived, this sweet little boy pokes his head in my door, grins, and asks to get his ghichak. Then we work. In one week, he learned the entire thing. How many years had I been playing before I could do the slow movement of Winter? Around seven years? And that was a piece from my culture, where reading music is common.

He asks for whole sheets of heart stickers: why? He covers his ghichak with them. It's the cutest thing you've ever seen: the whole instrument has bright yellow, orange, and blue hearts places in symmetrical patterns. One time, he held his hands behind his back and said he had a present for me. "Where are your keys?" he said urgently in Dari. I held them out. With a big smile, he thrust his hand at me. He was holding a small teddy bear key chain. It looks a little raggedy, but meant the world to me.

Finally, the day of the concert arrived. He was a little nervous, but Dr. Sarmast did a brilliant job calming him down. The whole concert was a deeply moving, tremendous success for all the performers, but I didn't tear up until the very end when this young man (and he has earned the right to be called a young man with his disciplined behavior) played the slow movement of Winter with such beauty and dedication. The reaction of one audience member was typical: "I still can hardly speak without crying."

Thank you so much to everyone who made the Winter Academy, the Gala Concert on Wednesday, and the Four Seasons happen, particularly the Goethe Institute, Embassy of Finland, Embassy of USA, and French Institute of Afghanistan. On a personal level, thank you above all to Dr. Sarmast for his extraordinary work; to my amazing colleagues and students at ANIM; and to the red-headed boy, small in stature but large in spirit, who made an unforgettable impression in the hearts of everyone in the audience last Wednesday, reminding them never to forget to have hope.

Today, I leave for Berlin, where I will represent Cultures in Harmony at this conference sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. Soon I will write here with a report about the conference.