US, Morocco concerts to connect religions through music

First time Genesis at the Crossroads has an ensemble that will tour around the world to promote diplomacy through the arts.

An ensemble of musicians separated by oceans and thousands of miles (kilometers) will perform together later this month for the first time, having composed music layer-by-layer with sound files exchanged over the Internet. Their goal: Show how the arts can bridge diverse cultures - even among people who have never met before coming together on stage. A singer and instrumentalist from Afghanistan, a guitarist from Iran, a bass player from Ethiopia and drummers from Morocco are all part of the ensemble. They will accompany American Jewish tenor Alberto Mizrahi, Moroccan singer Haj Youness, who is Muslim and serves as dean of the Casablanca Conservatory of Music, and renowned American keyboard and harmonica legend Howard Levy. Performances will be Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 in Chicago's Lincoln Park, Aug. 27 at the Kennedy Center in Washington and later this fall in Casablanca, Morocco. "It's just a delicious space of creativity," said Wendy Sternberg, an advocate of diplomacy through the arts who organized the events as director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Genesis at the Crossroads. "I'm very interested in not only showing that Arab and Jewish and Persian musicians can share the same stage but they can actually work together and create new art," she said. "In doing that, they make a statement that's really profound about how the world can be transformed through people collaborating." Some experts in conflict resolution advocate interfaith dialogue or political symposiums, but Sternberg says the arts have a unique power to connect with and inspire core human values. For the third year, Sternberg's organization is producing the outdoor food, art and music festival known as HAMSA-Fest in Chicago's Lincoln Park, named for an expression of luck from the Arabic root word for the number five (similar to the word "Hamesh" in Hebrew.) This is the first time Genesis at the Crossroads has an ensemble that will tour around the world to promote diplomacy through the arts. Performances in Washington and Morocco will follow the Chicago festival. The Casablanca performance will be broadcast internationally by public radio, XM Satellite Radio and by Arab television outlet Al-Jazeera. The performance in Morocco, originally scheduled Aug. 30, has been postponed, but organizers say they will announce a new date soon. "What we're trying to do really is to say in spite of our differences that our historical sameness and music itself is a binding force between peoples," Mizrahi said. "And once musicians sit down, there is no Arab and Jew and Christian or whatever. There's just musicians." As one of the lead performers, Mizrahi is promising a unique world sound, with the combined influences of a "jazz harmonica pianist," a Jewish cantor and jazz-influenced Middle Eastern music. At least six different languages will be heard, including Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and French. Each soloist will be given moments for improvisation, Mizrahi said. "All of a sudden you can be on a magic carpet, flying from New York from the Lower East Side to Morocco and then back over to Jerusalem and then out to jazz clubs out there in Chicago," he said. "It's going to be a travel experience in music." Iranian-American guitarist Shahin Shahida said the ensemble brings a fusion of sounds from the East and West. "I myself am a product of the East and West combined. When you see that, you realize there is an in-between," he said. "It's best to look for the best in all cultures, all forms of art and try to use that as opposed to dwelling on the negative." In the same spirit, the US State Department has been increasing its cultural diplomacy programs since 2001, most recently through partnerships with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Film Institute and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center program provides arts management and theater training to cultural institutions around the world, while AFI offers programs to link US and international filmmakers. Also in September, the American Association of Museums will announce its first grant recipients in a program to foster collaboration between museums in the United States and abroad. This program is also sponsored by the State Department. Still, Sternberg said the government could do more, such as assisting with travel and immigration restrictions for artists to help foster cultural exchanges. That's one reason why she wanted to bring the program to the Kennedy Center stage in Washington during a time of war. "I very much want the seat of our government to pay attention to the message," she said. "If there was ever a time to do this work, it's now." ___ On the Net: Genesis at the Crossroads: