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(photo credit: AP)
At Georgetown University, Aaron Shneyer put together a Jewish-Arab band and falafel dinners to help students from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide find common ground. Now he is heading to Jerusalem where he will use pop and hip-hop music to promote peace.
The 23-year-old guitar and bass player with one album under his belt is one of the first four recipients of a new Fulbright fellowship designed to recognize the potential for music to advance cross-cultural understanding. The fellowship was created by the State Department's bureau of educational and cultural affairs and mtvU, MTV's college network.
The other scholars include a Harvard University grad who will travel to South Africa to create a documentary film on marching bands comprised of underprivileged youth, and two students whose musical studies are tied to their different heritages - Jamaican and Cambodian.
Shneyer, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland, has been working for years with Seeds of Peace, a group that fosters communication between youth from cultures that are in conflict. Most recently, he spent five months after his 2005 graduation working with Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem and will head to the organization's camp in Maine this summer.
For his fellowship project, Shneyer plans to select five Israeli and five Palestinian students in Jerusalem to compose and study music together and possibly perform.
"I believe that when it comes down to it, everyone wants the same thing," Shneyer said, adding that he thinks music can be a way to express this common desire for peace.
MtvU will help Shneyer and the other fellows communicate with American students by posting videos, blogs or podcasts online. Shneyer says he hopes it can educate his peers about a region that "all of the news we hear about is very negative."
Larnies Bowen, another recipient, hopes her project will "increase awareness that there are people of African descent in Latin America and that they are a thriving group." Although Bowen, 22, is not a musician, she has sung in both gospel and classical choirs for years. A recent graduate of New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Bowen plans to research Panamanian contributions to reggae music as a path to understanding the dual identities of West Indians living in Spanish-speaking countries.
"I want to use music as a way of telling their stories that aren't being included in mainstream culture," Bowen said in a phone interview. She also plans to create a compact disc or Web site with audio clips of Panamanian musicians narrating the history of their culture, which could be used in Panamanian schools.
Bowen, of Jamaican descent, said she grew up listening to reggae in Washington, where her father was involved in the musical community. Similarly, Phally Chroy, a graduate film student at Temple University, received a fellowship to study music from his Cambodian heritage.
Chroy, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and later came to the United States with his family, said he grew up wondering, "Am I American or am I Cambodian?"
"One thing that really helped me a lot was the music. It helped me make a lot of sense about how my mom and dad act toward me and the community," the 25-year-old said in a phone interview from the airport before leaving for a pre-fellowship trip to Cambodia - his first visit back to his native country.
Chroy plans to document the musical culture he said was nearly pushed out during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge.
"This music is part of a community of people who almost lost their identity," Chroy said.
James Collins, 23, also plans to document a musical movement by shooting a film about a South African organization, the Field Band Foundation, which teaches young people how to play and perform in a marching band. His goal is to teach percussion for half the day and spend the other portion filming the lessons.
His film will likely follow foundation bands around the country preparing to face each other in an annual competition, with a focus on four groups outside Johannesburg, Collins said.
He learned about the foundation during his tenure as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, in which he played percussion for four years. He wanted the orchestra to travel to South Africa, but was unable to raise the funds. Nevertheless, Collins stayed in touch with the foundation and planned to work with them after graduating from Harvard this spring.
"I just saw the way that we, the orchestra, used music to make people happy," Collins said in a phone interview from his family's apartment in New York City. "I wanted to be able to do that on an even larger scale." Representatives from both the State Department and mtvU said they plan to continue the program.
The first four recipients will begin their fellowships in the fall. Applications for the next round are now open and will be accepted until Oct. 19. (AP)