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, November 25, 2011

The Friendship Bell

Bo-o-o-o-o-nnnnng. The log swayed crazily on its chains long after I had pulled it back and released it, so that it could strike this soft but powerfully resonant note on the mammoth bell. Beneath the elegant wooden pavilion, deeply green grass banked down towards a meandering creek. In the middle distance, a jogging path wove past a few low-lying trees. All was at peace.

The disconnect between the setting of the Friendship Bell and the reason it was built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, can be jarring at first. Oak Ridge did not exist until it was built as part of the Manhattan Project. The town was a Secret City, built to refine materials that were then shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they were made into the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Friendship Bell attempts to establish friendship between the country of Japan and the city where its defeat in 1945 was assured.

I pulled the log back again. The ring of the bell is somber and a bit foreboding, like a warning not to forget. But what should be remembered? I decided that it is right and good that the bell remembers the tragedies of the Second World War in such an idyllic setting, to symbolize hope for a better future. How is it doing? What are people remembering, and what are they forgetting?

The panels of the bell beautifully depict American and Japanese nature scenes. The architecture of the pavilion housing the bell evokes Japanese and Midwestern American characteristics. Clearly, the bell wants to remind us to reach out, to seek to understanding. The bell is architecture, art, and one long, sad musical note as cultural diplomacy, just as Cultures in Harmony explores music’s ability to promote understanding.

And yet, over the past couple years, the words “of Japan” had been quite deliberately scratched out on the metal plate affixed to the log. In spite of more than six decades of friendship and peace, some vandals did not want Japan remembered.

I was in Oak Ridge on annual leave from my job at Afghanistan National Institute of Music. My old friend Dan Allcott had invited me to perform the Ranjbaran Concerto with the Oak Ridge Symhony and to give a recital with pianist Paul Thurmond at Tennessee Tech University. I had a great time playing those concerts and enjoying wonderful Tennessee hospitality. Since this is my one vacation this year, I was thrilled that my parents could join me, and that we had time to explore beautiful parts of the USA, such as Burgess Falls State Park.

I performed another recital with Dr. Elena Cholakova, live on WFMT Chicago. And before that, I spent a week in New York City seeing friends and holding meetings related to Cultures in Harmony and to my job in Afghanistan. A highlight of my time in New York was attending a benefit concert given by American Voices, a leading American cultural diplomacy organization. Its director, John Ferguson, has been a wonderful mentor and friend to me during the six years I have worked to build Cultures in Harmony.

At the benefit, I was blown away by the quality of the Iraqi musicians that American Voices has worked with in Kurdistan at their annual YES Academy. American Voices has brought some of these extraordinary musicians to study in St. Louis. These Kurdish violinists from Iraq have superb bow control, stage presence, and a passionate commitment to their music. I hope that they can perform in every city in the United States, so that Americans would remember the common love of music we share with Iraqis, and forget the stereotypes they harbor about what it means to be from a country like Iraq.

The following week in Oak Ridge, the Oak Ridge Symphony kindly organized a benefit event for Cultures in Harmony. The lessons I learned at the American Voices benefit were fresh in my mind, so I selected my anecdotes with care. I related one that I don’t always tell when making a presentation about Cultures in Harmony.

In 2007, Cultures in Harmony flew to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines to create compositions with teenagers from the Tala-Andig tribes, located in the remote village of Miarayon, where clouds beard the mountains and magic moves through every verdant valley. At the beginning of the workshops, I noticed a young girl off by herself, squatting on the ground, picking at the dirt beneath the pines with a short twig.

“Why don’t you join your group?” I asked her.

After a while, she glumly explained in halting English that some other girls had made fun of her outfit. I leaned over and said, “Well, when I was your age, the other kids called me ‘Fancy Pants.’ I was upset too, but I turned out OK. Why don’t you re-join the group?” She smiled slightly, and went back to her small group.

Two years later, we were happy to help our partner organization, the Cartwheel Foundation, with a gala concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, in celebration of their tenth anniversary. They brought the various indigenous groups with which we had worked in 2007, 2008, and 2009 to Manila for the performance. A girl from Miarayon passed me a small blue note, which she said was from another girl who was sorry that she was unable to come.

I saw that the letter was dated June 15, 2009, and at the bottom, I read the words: “By the way Sir, maybe you don’t know who am I or who I am writing to you.., I’m the girl who was lonely and then you came to me and you let me convince to smile?”

Two years later, and she had not forgotten.

Perhaps I chose this story because like the Friendship Bell, I believe we have the power to choose what to remember and what to forget. In Indianapolis today, the day after a Thanksgiving where I gave thanks that my brother could travel 768 miles from Dallas and I could travel 7,069 miles from Kabul to be with our parents, I went on a walk through the wooded yard of the house where our family has lived since 1987.

The walk was too brief, too cluttered with dead leaves and childhood memories for me to have the time to wade through it all. Here was the pine tree, now twice my height, that I once transplanted with a friend. Was it beneath that other tree that we built our forts? Where did I build tiny bridges across the drainage ditch, bridges which I would then proudly show my parents? Ah, here is the leaf pile I would jump into.

Tomorrow I head to New York City, then Dubai, then Kabul. The note sounded by the Friendship Bell in Oak Ridge will stay with me. As individuals, we can choose how we remember both childhood play and schoolyard taunts. As nations, we can choose how we remember the conflicts that divided us from one another. Music, architecture, and art urge us never to forget the lessons we learn from tragedy, but to give preference in our remembrance to pain past, rather than saddling our memories with a throbbing, ever-present pain that we will not allow to dissipate. Only this too-well-remembered pain could have found immature expression in that vandalism that obliterated “of Japan” from the Friendship Bell’s ringer.

The notes bells sound soon fade. May our thirst for forgiveness, understanding, peace, and love never be allowed to do so.