Giving ear

Violins, not violence: The Nazareth-based Polyphony venture fosters musical and cultural harmony.

Polyphony provides a platform for musicians from all backgrounds to come together (photo credit: PAUL FLANAGAN)
Polyphony provides a platform for musicians from all backgrounds to come together
(photo credit: PAUL FLANAGAN)
It has been mooted that the basic difference between discrimination and mutual acceptance is that, while in the former case, we see anyone different from us as inferior, possibly threatening and certainly unwanted, the latter entails the realization that, if someone is different from us, by the same token we are different from them.
Then again, there are always common denominators to be sought and found, and that can help to bridge discrepancies in cultural, religious and political lines of thought.
Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar certainly goes along with that ethos. Abboud-Ashkar is cofounder of Polyphony, which sprang into life in 2012 in Nazareth when he joined forces with Jewish American social entrepreneurs Craig and Deborah Cogut. The idea was, as the organization’s brochure has it: “to bring together Arab and Jewish youth in Israel by offering them equal opportunities in music.”
The venture moniker certainly fits the stated conceptual and artistic bill. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, for example, defines polyphony as “music that simultaneously combines several lines,” while the online font of vocabulary definitions,, describes polyphonic music as “having two or more voices or parts, each with an independent melody, but all harmonizing.”
That all sounds delightfully healthy and uplifting, and the project appears to be making waves across the upper echelons of the international music community.
The Polyphony Artistic Partners cross-disciplinary roster includes the names of such illustrious members of the global art world as conductors Zubin Mehta and Sir Andras Schiff, opera singer Renée Fleming, multimedia artist Yoko Ono, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza.
“We just had a wonderful [fund-raising] concert in Dallas with David,” Abboud- Ashkar notes. “He’s a supporter.”
Marsalis was recently in Nazareth himself, to help a bunch of budding Arab and Jewish musicians progress with their instruments and spread the musical word in general. Schiff was also here a month or so ago.
“Branford gave a workshop for the kids and a concert for the parents,” says Abboud- Ashkar. “That really helps.”
The professional supporter lineup is mightily impressive, and there appears to be an abundance of layman backing, too.
“There is great interest from the international musical community. There is also interest from the Jewish community in the US,” the director continues, “and there is, obviously, a strong interest in the Arab and Jewish communities of Israel for Polyphony to work.”
Interestingly, the venture’s musical substratum does not come from this part of the world; rather it is a European art form. While, to some, that may appear culturally incongruent, Abboud-Ashkar feels that engaging youth from different ethnic communities in a common sonic language, regardless of provenance, offers numerous benefits.
“How come [European] classical music has become so important in places like China, Japan, Korea and places that are geographically so far from the origin of classical music? The answer is the same for the question why it is so important here. I don’t think, at this point, that classical music belongs to one nation or another. It is one of the most incredible creations of humankind, and it is shared and appreciated by so many different people.”
Getting youngsters to play and enjoy classical music, says Abboud-Ashkar, offers added value for all, and not just in the Middle East.
“When you appreciate this kind of music, and are able to perform it, you immediately become part of a much larger and more international community.
Straightaway it makes you part of something much bigger than your immediate surroundings. So that, I think, makes Western classical music important for us. By us, I mean the Arab-Palestinian community of Israel, and Israeli society in general – both Arab and Jewish communities.”
The ostensibly extraneous nature of the art form, he feels, also helps to bridge cultural and personal gaps.
“Because it is not coming from one side or the other, classical music being so international, it is a wonderful means for bringing people together.”
There are all sorts of ways of conveying thoughts, ideas and feelings to people who do not speak the same language, but music is probably among the most efficient. Take, for example, a Hebrew-speaking 12-year-old boy from Ramat Aviv and an Arabic-speaking youngster the same age from Nazareth, give them each a trumpet, and in all likelihood they will soon find a way to communicate through their instruments.
Then there are the rewards to be gained from engaging in an activity that is not only creative but also requires the participants to cooperate and to listen to each other in order to reach a pleasurable and quality end result.
The Nazareth-based initiative is clearly managing to provide young Jews, Muslims and Christians here with a bridge spanning sociopolitical and ethnic gaps that can sometimes appear to be entrenched and permanently divisive.
“It is important to understand how Polyphony works and why we have been so successful in bringing both Arab and Jewish young people – and their families and the larger public – together,” says Abboud-Ashkar.
“Polyphony started as a small classical music school in Nazareth, with the purpose of bringing classical music to the Arab community in Israel, and to the residents of Nazareth,” he continues. That took place just over 10 years ago.
“It began very small, with only 25 six-year-old pupils. I moved from Germany, where I was studying, to start this project. The goal was really just to bring proper classical music training.”
The co-founder knew that was easier said than done, and that he had to go for broke from the word go.
“To achieve that I had to bring the best teachers from Tel Aviv, to get them to come to Nazareth. I was fully convinced that the talent is there, and the main reason why classical has not become a part of our culture is that it had never been introduced properly; there were never proper opportunities for classical music training. So we started with 25 students, three teachers from Tel Aviv and myself.”
Abboud-Ashkar, a violinist himself, says things took off in a pleasingly incremental manner.
“It didn’t take long for this to become one of the finest classical music conservatories in the country. Students started winning competitions within a couple of years, and there was increasing demand from young people to join our conservatory.”
However, it wasn’t just about getting kids enthralled with the idea of producing harmonious sounds from their instruments.
For the project to succeed, it needed the blessing and backing of the wider community, too.
“Parents have become more and more aware of the importance of what we are doing, and the importance of music education.”
Polyphony students began performing at venues around the country and even overseas, and also started looking for other parties from the classical world to join them on their artistic learning curve. Today Polyphony runs programs and holds classes and workshops at schools and other institutions throughout the country.
In Keshet Eilon, Abboud-Ashkar and his cohorts in the Nazareth-based program found a natural bedfellow.
“We founded Keshet Eilon [at Kibbutz Eilon in the Western Galilee] in 1990,” says general manager Gilad Sheba. “We called the program ‘keshet’ because of the bow of the violin, but also in the sense of a bridge between cultures and people. The topic of bonding through music was important to us from day one, a long time before I met Nabeel.”
Sheba says that the classical music institution he oversees has always opened its doors to all comers.
“We have had Muslim students and students from dozens of countries all over the world. But we are always aware of where we live and work – we are situated in the shadow of the Lebanese hills – and this subject [of cultural coexistence] has been a constant for us.”
There are wider-reaching rewards, too.
“When students come here from abroad they discover a different Israel from the one they see in the media,” Sheba adds. “They see the finer side of Israel – the culture and excellence. Don’t forget, we engage in people who chose a very competitive profession and one of our goals is to turn them into a family. Nabeel and Polyphony come into this context.”
Sheba is cognizant of the seeming cultural dissonance of, say, a Muslim child studying Western classical music.
“There are a lot of questions, such as whether a child who comes from an Arab village, and from an Eastern culture, should he play Eastern violin or Western violin? There are fierce debates about that in Arab society too – whether you should study the culture from which you come, or you should study Western music and later return to your own culture.”
There are pragmatic reasons for following the latter learning sequence.
“We discovered that there are simply no methodics for studying Eastern music,” Sheba notes. “The methodics for studying Eastern violin have to be developed, and they have to progress with that.”
That discourse is an ongoing matter.
Meanwhile, Polyphony continues to go about its educational and enlightening business, which takes in joint ensembles with Keshet Eilon.
Abboud-Ashkar is conscious of the need for spreading the word as far and wide as possible, in addition to enabling youngsters to acquire precious musical skills, and then helping them to raise their game. Mother Nature precludes the existence of anything in a vacuum, and that applies equally to the social environment.
Polyphony duly invests in generating the requisite support group context, to create a healthy and encouraging environment for the kids to follow their natural artistic bent.
“We run four programs,” Abboud-Ashkar notes. “We have a music appreciation program, which revolves around explained concerts that we provide. That makes classical music accessible to other people as well.”
In fact, Polyphony does delve into indigenous sounds too.
“Our curriculum largely provides classical music, but also Arabic and Israeli music to some extent.”
While it is important to get the community on your side and spread the word to a wider social hinterland, it is difficult to make significant headway without official sanctioning.
“In partnership with the Education Ministry and the Levinsky College [of Education] in Tel Aviv, we developed a curriculum around these explained concerts, and we train the teachers to apply this curriculum in kindergartens and elementary schools. Basically we are educating the future audience and people that appreciate fine music and artistic music,” Abboud-Ashkar declares.
“We do this in both Arab and Jewish kindergartens and schools.”
The program also performs a couple of concerts a year, for each group of students and their relatives and friends, which take place at Levinsky and also at a concert hall, to demonstrate the fruits of Polyphony’s ongoing labors. There are also mixed Jewish-Arab teacher classes and interethnic performances. The statistics make for impressive reading.
“Today the program reaches more than 10,000 students, all over the country,” says Abboud-Ashkar, “from kindergarten up to sixth grade, from Tarshiha in the north, Acre, Haifa, Zevulun [Regional Council near Haifa], Nazareth, many villages in the north, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and [southern Beduin village] Hura. We also train around 170 teachers, in different locations, to apply this curriculum.”
While one of the prerequisite aims of the program is to achieve as high a level of musical expertise as possible, Polyphony also devotes time and resources to looking at the initiative’s wider implications.
“We work with first-class scholars, who add another dimension to these encounters, and with them we discuss the role of music in society. We call the seminars Music and Society, or Music and Citizenship. We look at the role music has played through history in advancing society. The concerts are not just a set of beautiful tones, they are also an integral part of any social fabric and social development process throughout history.”
As he tries to push the musical education envelope here along with its sociopolitical agenda, Abboud-Ashkar has become aware of the wider picture and how Polyphony’s work fuses with the evolving zeitgeist.
“I think there is something interesting happening around the world today. Fine arts and classical music have been quite isolated from society in a way. They have been targeting a very exclusive group of people. But in recent years, for classical music to survive it has been adding dimensions to itself. Now there is a social agenda – without compromising the artistic agenda – that is very important and it is something that Polyphony is proud of.
“When we get together, it is always, first and foremost, about the music, and I think that is one of the reasons why Polyphony has been so successful and is growing. However, the social needs are always there, and they are increasingly urgent.”