In the middle of the jungle in Papua New Guinea in August 2008, a drunk staggered down the path, slashing at the foliage with a machete. The man stopped at the sight of three strangers and shouted in pidgin: “White man! You have come to take away our culture! I am going to come back and kill you!”
He could be forgiven his threat. For over a century, white men had come to his country to tell him that his culture and religion were wrong. He did not know that those three strangers were a percussionist, a soprano, and a violinist. He did not know that they had come to Papua New Guinea not to take away his culture, but to learn from it, to celebrate it, and to forge the bonds of friendship between Papua New Guinea and the United States. I was the violinist.
His threat is a symptom of the gravest problem facing our global community: a lack of trust. The pace of globalization has exceeded the growth of our capacity for tolerance, and it can be difficult for all of us to believe that people from other cultures care about our interests.
A week after my freshman orientation at New York’s Juilliard School, I lived through a horrific manifestation of that lack of trust. The tragedy of September 11, 2001, left the students feeling shattered and useless. Doctors and engineers were rushing to Ground Zero. What could musicians, actors, and dancers do?
One student got the idea of sending us around the city to perform. On September 16, 2001, I played at the 69th Regiment Armory as soldiers returned from rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero. An e-mail I wrote about the experience soon was forwarded around the internet, garnering tremendous attention from strangers. The experience changed my life and resonated with many people. I had to explore music’s capacity to transform society, but I didn’t know how to begin.
In the spring of 2002, I called the U.S. State Department and told them I wanted to play concerts in Afghanistan. They said, “There’s a war going on, we don’t really send musicians around the world anymore, and even if we did, you’re a student, so we wouldn’t fund you. Goodbye!” So I put my idealism on hold until December 2004, when I met a man who works for the World Health Organization. He helped me craft the first project of Cultures in Harmony* in Moldova and Tunisia.
Since then, our 19 projects in 11 countries have shown that if a lack of trust is the gravest problem facing our global community, music is part of the solution. Here are three reasons why, illustrated with examples.
Music reveals our common humanity, rendering irrelevant all identity markers except for “human.” The gender, race, and religion of performers and audience fade away as each must trust that they have something in common. When Cultures in Harmony traveled to Turkey in 2007, we were eager to accompany the sema (whirling dervish ceremony) in Konya, where it originated seven centuries ago. We arrived to learn that it would be canceled because two in our group were women—women had never accompanied the ceremony in public there. I would not accept this. For two days I negotiated, and Cultures in Harmony’s two female musicians became the first in history to accompany the sema in the city of its birth. Afterward, I asked the all-male audience if they had minded, and immediately they said no. They had just seen and heard that the spirituality of the ceremony spoke to them as powerfully as it always had.
Musicians can point the way toward an emotion, but the listener must walk there on her own. This sharing of the experience of music builds trust. In Tunisia in 2008, we played Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the English Language Village in Nabeul. Since the piece is America's unofficial national funeral music, I decided not to say anything about it. After the performance, a Muslim woman in a headscarf came up to each of us and said that the music helped her imagine a young woman who had been hurt and had crawled off into a corner to cry in order to heal herself. The performers and this listener had established the trust necessary to have a cathartic experience.
The pianist Ferrucio Busoni said that music is “sonorous air.” It imbues the air with a vibrant quality that wasn’t there before, and it also brings something new to human relationships. That connection may take the form of trust, understanding, respect, or love. We started a project in Pakistan to bring something new to the dysfunctional Pakistani-American relationship. Playing Pakistani music alongside local musicians, we performed outreach concerts in schools run by The Citizens Foundation; in Karachi, we played at the National Academy of Performing Arts. A student there urged us to return—I said we would. Perhaps he was unconvinced, for he continued: “Don’t just make a link. Build a relationship. You are feeding an entire nation.” His words indicate his desire to trust in us—a desire music kindled in him. In turn, I must trust that Cultures in Harmony’s donors will not let him down.
In March, eight years after the State Department rejected my attempt to go to Afghanistan, I will move to Kabul to teach violin for the Afghanistan Ministry of Education. Donations to Cultures in Harmony, a nonprofit organization, have always gone directly to our projects. , Therefore, since 2005, in addition to my work for the organization, I have needed a job to support myself. I’m thrilled to take a position that is congruent with CiH’s mission of building trust with music.
Music is a part of the solution, but not the whole solution. Music did not disarm the fellow with the machete, but it did unite scared Americans and the Yoro tribe of Papua New Guinea in celebration afterwards. Music can only point the way towards a global community graced by understanding. We must walk there on our own.
Adapted from a speech given at the Fourth Universalist Society, New York City, January 31, 2010. Published on February 21, 2010.
All photos by William Harvey
*Cultures in Harmony is a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. For more information, please visit www.culturesinharmony.org.