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Musicians from East and West Spread Message of Tolerance

Zade Dirani believes in the power of music to change the way people think and behave.

"It's a universal language that doesn't understand any political or religious boundaries," he says. So, the 26-year-old Jordanian pianist and composer put together a multi-cultural concert tour, "Roads to You: Celebration of One World." "We're trying to create a network of like-minded musicians who sincerely believe in the power of music to bring people together," he says.

Dirani auditioned music students from around the world who are studying and performing in the United States. The 38 members of his symphony come from 18 countries: from Tunisia and Turkey, to Spain and the Dominican Republic, to China and Korea. They were selected not only for their musical excellence, but their leadership skills as well. "Each of them is considered an ambassador from their respective region," he says. "And beyond the musical performance they are also engaged in inter-faith dialogue, seminars, conflict resolution sessions, leadership forums to discuss how we can collectively move forward international peace and understanding as musicians and also as potential future community leaders. For instance, one evening we'll be talking about conflict resolution in the Middle East or India and Pakistan, or tying micro credit projects to music or developing music appreciation programs throughout the developing world."

Twenty-three-year old cellist Xiaodan Zheng was born in China, raised in Russia, and is studying music in California. She says audiences seemed to appreciate both aspects of the One World tour. "We were received very well by the audience," she says. "As performers, we're used to being applauded for our talents. But I felt that - for the first time - I wasn't just received as a musician, not a musician alone, but also people come to watch us for our mission of bringing world cultures together. That's something that even non-musicians can understand."

Ali Bekhradi agrees. He plays the traditional Iranian santur, a type of dulcimer. "Santur is a Persian hammer dulcimer," he says. "It's a bit smaller than the American hammer dulcimer. It is trapezoid shaped and has nine sets of strings in each side. It has three octaves. I'm playing it with two little hammers hitting the strings. It has an amazing sound, and believe it or not, it fits very well with this orchestra."

Like the other musicians, Bekhradi has visited local schools, to play concerts and hold discussions. He says those are the performances he likes the most. "The best thing is communicating with your audience - a young audience," he says. "They are asking questions. We're also required to give some presentations about our countries and cultures. Obviously I'm doing mine about Iran. I'm just hoping I can educate more people about my country and how people look, how the country looks, different cultural habits."

Turkish drummer Engin Gunaydin enjoys the opportunity to talk to people about his instrument, the dumbeck or tabla. "This is my first time where I'm professionally playing tabla in a tour," he says. "I've been playing Middle Eastern music all my life, but I've never played it with a symphony orchestra, like some classical background or pop sounds. We had a concert the other day, and what really made me happy was people asking about dumbeck: How do you play that? Where is it coming from, its roots, so forth, which is great."

Malaysian harp player Lisa Lim, says she finds it interesting that their unusual collection of instruments blends so well. "It's amazing to have the Middle Eastern musicians on one side of the stage together with the harp, which is from Europe, and the rest of the traditional western music instruments, playing all together."

At every stop on the tour, each orchestra member stays with a local host family. Ramzi Rihani, who hosted Zade Dirani here in Washington, appreciates the chance to continue the intercultural dialogue. "It's a pleasure to do that," he says. "It's something you either like it or dislike it. We happen to like it at home, to promote the exchange of art between west and east. That's what we do whole-heartedly and we enjoy it."

"Roads to You: Celebration of One World" is supported by Jordon's Queen Noor, Berklee College of Music and Seeds of Peace, along with dozens of local organizations and individuals around the country. The musicians wrap up their tour, in June, in Los Angeles.

But this is not a one-time event. Zade Dirani is developing a 5-year plan, looking ahead to similar tours all around the world.