Music provides a bridge between cultures

Rebin Ali, a musician from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, holds an oud, a guitar-like instrument used in North African and Middle Eastern music.
Courtesy Photo

By Ashley Yeaman

Monday the Baylor and Waco communities will have the opportunity to listen to a performance of traditional Kurdish music by two Iraqi musicians as part of the program “American Voices: Art in Difficult Places.”

There will be a corresponding lecture on the power of cultural diplomacy and the work of the non-governmental organization American Voices, which has presented summer youth performing arts academies, workshops and concerts around the world for more than 16 years.

American Voices works in countries emerging from isolation or conflict, said John Ferguson, the founder of the organization.

“In many cases, we are the first Americans people have seen who are not diplomats or soldiers,” Ferguson said.

The organization travels to countries around the world, teaching classical, jazz and other types of music, usually instrumental, along with hip-hop dance, singing and theater performance.

Ferguson said this creates dialogue between the countries they visit and the United States.

“I think the most important thing cultural diplomacy and cultural engagement does is it helps to connect [people] on a human level, face to face, person to person, without questions of foreign policy,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he believes music helps the process.

“[It is] nonverbal communication, so it can transcend language barriers,” Ferguson said.

“It reminds people of the things that we have in common, the things we share, instead of focusing on the differences,” he continued

Dr. Bradley Bolen, a lecturer in piano, became involved with American Voices two years ago and has traveled to several countries, including Iraq, Syria and Jordan to teach piano. Bolen said he organized Monday’s event as a way to raise awareness about the American Voices program.

The organization not only creates cross-cultural bonds, but it also brings people of different backgrounds within a country together, Bolen said.

“From the perspective of the country itself, I think that’s a powerful way of inexpensively bringing people together and maybe creating understanding,” Bolen said.

Iraqi musicians Rebin Ali, a violinist, and Honar Ali, a cellist, will perform traditional Kurdish music on Monday.

They will also incorporate other instruments into their performance, including the drum and oud, a guitar-like instrument used in North African and Middle Eastern music.

Honar Ali said he is grateful to have the opportunity to pursue his passion for music and for the role American Voices has played in his life.

“I am here [in the United States] because of American Voices, first of all,” Honar said. “I worked with them for three years, first in Iraq. [The organization] has been really so helpful for me. It gave me a lot of opportunity.”

Honar and Rebin are studying in the United States on scholarships, which they received through help from individuals in American Voices.

Along with the musical performance on Monday, Ferguson and Bolen will be speaking along with Marc Thayer, a violinist with the St. Louis Symphony who also works with American Voices.

The lecture and recital will take place at 5 p.m. Monday at Recital Hall II in Waco Hall. The event is free and open to the public.