Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Crashing Down the Clash of Civilizations

Last year, the Internet advocacy group Avaaz created the video “Stop the Clash of Civilizations” to complement a petition by the same name. Avaaz, “Talk is rising of a ‘clash of civilizations’. But the problem isn’t culture, it’s politics – from 9/11 to Guantanamo, Iraq to Iran. This clash is not inevitable, and we don’t want it.” An important part of the video is the music, a mashup put together by trip-hop artist DJ Spooky. He combined “Western” electronica and Arabic-sounding instrumentals with political soundbites to provide a backdrop for the activist message Avaaz’s video presents.

Avaaz isn’t the first to use music to seek to heal or disprove the “clash of civilizations.” In 2003, Norwegian music producer Erik Hillestad released the album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil. The title alone made me immediately check out a copy from the library. Hillestad’s goal in making the CD was to learn more about the people within the countries deemed enemies of the United States. As he told the Washington Post, “I chose to use lullabies because they are the most opposite kind of rhetoric to the words of power that Mr. Bush and his colleagues use.” Hillestad’s point resonates. It’s impossible to listen to the solemn, gentle lullabies and think of “evil.”

The album goes beyond Bush’s specified “Axis of Evil” nations and includes music from Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Cuba, and North Korea. The a cappella lullabies were recorded alone and later remixed with instrumentals and combined with vocals by a non-“Axis” singer singing the same lyrics in English. This approach has been criticized by some Amazon reviewers for making the songs not “ethnic” enough, but I’d disagree — the English translation of the lyrics is essential. It makes the music more accessible to the Western listener and literally speaks for the singers whose native-language message would otherwise be lost. The accessibility makes the project more powerful. One of my favorite tracks is “Peace Song,” sung by Halla Bassam of Iraq and Sevara Nazarkhan of Uzbekistan. Nazarkhan sings the English words: “Peace to the world / Peace to my country, my love / Peace to your dreams / Peace to your children / Underneath the whispering trees / Where our sons and daughters are free.”

In collecting the lullabies, Hillestad specifically sought out female voices. He explained that this was not to subscribe to the stereotype that only women sing lullabies, but because “the male voices are far too dominant in the world today, speaking the words of power and warfare.”

Hillestad is not the only one to choose women as the carrier of his message. The video by Avaaz uses black-ink pictures of two women: one with a ponytail, to symbolize the United States, and the other in a chador, to symbolize the Muslim Middle East (shown right). Although I’m glad that women aren’t pushed to the sidelines, I’m not sure how to take this. Does it mean that women symbolize peace and cultural healing or that women should be a part of politics today?

Not all musical attempts are saturated with politics. Azam Ali is an Iranian-born, Indian-raised musician who moved to the United States in 1985. Ali is a key member of the group Niyaz (pictured below), which combines the traditional music of the Middle East and Southwest Asia with modern electronica. The group has been classified as an “East Meets West project,” but Ali does not see it that way. In an interview she said, “That is purely the marketing department’s doing. From a musician’s standpoint I can honestly say that it is very natural to blend music from different cultures because you are dealing with an element that transcends all specifications.” Niyaz has been noted for the Islamic, specifically Sufi, influence in its music. Lyrics are borrowed from figures such as the poet Rumi, as well as folk songs from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Blogger Ali Eteraz praised the group for showing a beautiful, life-affirming Islam. Eteraz writes, “In Niyaz, the serenity of Islamic mysticism exists even if the words were to disappear and only the voice were to remain.”

In her first solo album, Portals of Grace (2002), Ali looks to medieval Europe. The range of songs includes Latin chants from the 12th century, Judeo-Spanish songs, and Arabic melodies from the Byzantine era. In the CD liner notes, Ali explains that she hopes to explore “the correlation between the music of medieval Europe and the music of the Arab world.” Listening to the vocal pieces, it’s easy to hear the common elements in traditional European music and traditional Arabic music and realize the two are not worlds apart. Ali includes music associated with the three major Abrahamic traditions. Although not explicitly of any specific religion, the album has a distinctly spiritual feel. Ali says, “For me, singing and prayer are one and the same.” Throughout the pieces there is a meditative feeling of solemnity. Ali sees her interaction with music as an “ongoing dialogue and a longing in our quest for the divine.”

What all of these musical efforts do is make the (presumably Western) listener see the other “clashing civilization” — in this case, the Middle East — not as a faceless force of evil but as just as real and human as the listener him or herself. In the words of the Avaaz video, “Are we that different?” Obviously, the United States’ relationship with the Middle East is fraught with issues more complicated than music can solve. But music speaks not to governments but to everyday people. Pointing out similarities is the first step to wiping away the image of irreconcilable differences.

Note: Ten percent of the profits of Lullabies from the Axis of Evil will go to the organization Worldview Rights; a portion of the profits of Portals of Grace will go to women’s rights organization RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan).