News / Middle East

Music Promoted as Peacemaker, Catalyst for Change in Middle East

Ronnie Malley (L) and George Lawler of the group Lamajamal performing at a recent seminar at the Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, DC
Ronnie Malley (L) and George Lawler of the group Lamajamal performing at a recent seminar at the Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, DC

Multimedia

Audio
David Byrd

Famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix once said “Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” And some say that music also played a role in this year’s so-called Arab Spring.

A group of educators and musicians gathered recently at the Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, D.C., for a seminar showing how music can help promote understanding between people of differing political views. The gathering, which focused on music in the Middle East, featured the Chicago-based group Lamajamal.

Lamajamal

Lamajamal - a contemporary group that performs Balkan, Arabic, North African and Gypsy music and whose name is a palindrome of the Arabic word for peace – features Palestinian-American Ronnie Malley on oud, guitar, accordion and vocals.  Percussionist George Lawlor plays a modified trap set made up of hand drums, and was a student of Tunisian master Najib Bahri.  Gary Kalar plays guitar, cümbüş - a Turkish mandolin - and percussion.  Bassist Joey Spilberg and wind instrument specialist Eve Monzingo are the remaining members.

Watch our mobile phone Quicktake of Lamajamal performing:

Music as a bridge

During the seminar, Malley explained that music has always been part of revolutions in the Middle East. He says famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, composer Mohamed Abdel-Waheb and Fairuz of Lebanon used music to promote political change in their times.

“People use it as a tool of expression to state that they are upset,” he said.

“But it can also easily be used as a bridge, because it has in the past, to bring people together.  Particularly in the case of Umm Kulthum when she went to establish better relations between Tunisia and Egypt at a time of a – she needed to create some reconciliation basically,” Malley said. 

“And because of the power of her music and the influence she had over the entire Middle East,” he said, “people just had to listen, they had to hear her out.”

Listen to David Byrd’s interview with Lamajamal’s Ronnie Malley:

Musical activism was also prevalent in this year’s Arab Spring, where singers like Mohamed Mounir and Ramy Essam played pivotal roles in giving voice to the protests.

Essam, who put the chants of Egyptians in Tahrir square to music, paid a price for his art.  He was arrested and beaten within hours of performing.  But he continued to sing.

Different cultures, same passion

During the Georgetown seminar, Malley and Lamajamal use three types of music – Arabic and North African, Klezmer music and Turkish music – to illustrate the similarities of the differing traditions. Ronnie Malley says music offers people who are politically at odds the opportunity to find something that brings them together.

“Because it’s not quite often that if I am holding the arm of an instrument as an arm, basically, it’s not often that I am going to be at odds with the person across from them because we are going to try to find a way to play music together,” he said. 

“If I was holding a gun, the only way to operate that gun is to shoot the other person. If I am holding an instrument, I strum a chord and I expect a reaction in the same way back from that. It’s the world of music. That’s how it goes, music is the universal language.”

Listen to “Sidi Habibi” by Lamajamal:

Guitarist Gary Kalar led the discussion on Turkish music. He said his music has opened many doors, and he has found many receptive audiences regardless of where the band is touring.

“I have never run into anybody from another culture who found anything I played insulting,” he said. 

“And they have never shown any sort of reaction that made me feel like ‘that was the wrong thing to do,’ or something like that which sometimes you worry about especially with civil wars or ethnic wars, things like that. It can get really personal really fast,” Kalar said. 

Unifying power

Malley and Kalar agree that music has the power to unify people, to bring about change, and to transform thinking. But traditions are also jealously guarded.  Kalar told VOA that when he runs into someone who says he can’t play their music because he is an American, he respects their passion even if he disagrees with their premise.

“So whenever I run into this type of attitude I usually just respectfully say “yeah, you’re right” or something like that. And that’s it. I don’t try to … I don’t try to change their mind.”

Arts - a necessity

With cuts slated for several federal arts programs in the United States – including the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities – school systems and arts organizations have to reorganize their priorities.

Zeina Azzam Seikaly is the Coordinator of Educational Outreach at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. She says that cutting arts programs is ill advised because the arts offer an avenue of communication that other methods do not.

“And it’s I think also really important to show how arts interact with culture and arts are a window to understand other cultures,” she said. 

“It’s nice to have this multidisciplinary perspective where we are combining the arts and social studies and history and language. And I think the arts are just such an important and integral aspect of the whole education of an individual,” she added.

Seikaly said responses to the seminar have been overwhelmingly positive. She says the Middle East is often looked at as a region of conflict, but bringing in music, culture, and the arts help give people a more comprehensive look at the region and the rich, diverse history and culture it holds. She stressed the musical interaction of the area helps illustrate that civilizations are not closed, discrete things, but that there is often a blending of cultures that can lead to better understanding.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

1 Billion People Used Facebook on Single Day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the accomplishment in a posting on the social media site More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs