At a rehearsal by the Aswat Ensemble and guests, 2016. (Photo: Najib Joe Hakim)
With President Trump's determined attempts to restrict travel from six Muslim-majority countries, several concerts in cities around the United States have presented music from those regions. Some of them are accidental tributes to resilience, like the 2017 Kronos Festival at the SFJAZZ Center with music from Iranian-born Sahba Aminikia, who fled his home country for its violent persecution of his Baha'i faith.
And then there's Notes Against the Ban, a concert on March 25 by the Aswat Ensemble and guests at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, in Oakland. Presenting music from Libya, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, the concert serves dual roles as ambassadorial outreach and as a healing salve.
In advance of Notes Against the Ban, we asked organizer Nabila Mango about the intent and outcome of such a concert under this administration.
Why did you decide to undertake this concert?
The idea came to me while I was in the MRI machine on Feb. 6, getting my six-month cancer tests, which cleared me for the next six months! I was lying in the machine and humming some music to kill the time, and it happened that I was humming some Sudanese tunes. It got me thinking about the state of this country and the repercussions of this executive order, which reinforces the ideas of "otherness" at a time when the world seems smaller and more connected than ever.
I thought that since music is the universal language that we all understand and love, why not put together a show to celebrate the beauty of "the others," those who are being dehumanized and collectively punished for no obvious reason? And what better way to resist and show solidarity than for the Aswat Ensemble (Aswat means "voices" in Arabic) to lend their voice to celebrate the cultural heritage of those who have been affected by the ban?
I am convinced that by experiencing aspects of other people's culture, we become less inclined to stereotype based on false media narratives, and perhaps would even be moved and inspired to learn more about these rich cultures. Aswat is no stranger to hosting concerts that celebrate people's struggles for justice: in 2011 at the beginning of the uprisings in the Arab world, Aswat members put together a two-hour concert, with a mere one week of preparations, to celebrate and show solidarity with the people in these countries. This is what Arts are about, and music might be one of the most powerful and subtly far-reaching of the arts.
What does the evening's programming look like — which composers and performers do you have lined up for the concert?
The program takes people on a short musical journey across the seven countries. We will mostly be presenting songs, as well as a couple of instrumental pieces, one of which is composed by an Iraqi Aswat instrumentalist, as well as a poetry reading by Eman, a Somali youth, and a folk dance from Yemen. In addition to the Aswat musicians, we are hosting three guest Sudanese performers, a Yemeni singer, and a few Iranian musicians from the South Bay. The music program was chosen very organically by our own Aswat members and guest artists. The songs range from folk to classical repertoire to modern hits from the seven countries, with no particular theme: love, longing for home, sacred music, etc. For the music nerd and the lay music lover, this will be a very rich musical experience, spanning different rhythmic structures, scales and tonal modes that are unique to each region/country.
What do you hope to convey to the audience at this concert?
We want this concert to be an evening of healing, of reasserting our humanity by celebrating what makes us both similar and unique. Most importantly, we want to bring our diverse community together. We are convinced that once one has experienced the artistic richness of another culture, they are much less likely to dehumanize them by seeing them through media-propagated stereotypes. We also want to convey a sense of hope, to reinvigorate our community to continue resisting, and to remind everyone what is at stake if we become complacent.
Do you see this concert as an act of defiance? Of not, is it an act of empathy?
We see this concert as both, but more as an act of resistance than defiance. Defiance is more reactionary, while resistance is more grounded, organic, and longer-lasting. We are resisting through music, and reaffirming our beliefs in diversity and basic human rights, as well as the rights of people to move and seek refuge. There is no denying that we are facing growing Islamophobia in this country, and that institutionalized anti-Muslim rhetoric is fueling these sentiments, and pervasive ignorance about Islam and Muslims is enabling these attitudes to become normalized. We believe that discriminatory sentiments and attitudes serve to impoverish us in our humanity; whereas sharing across cultures enriches us all. This concert is therefore also an act of empathy toward those whose circumstances have prevented them from experiencing the beauty of diversity in the world. If someone wishes to get a glimpse into the cultures and faces behind the countries on the ban list, this show is for them as well.
On this particular issue, what can music express that words cannot?
Music is a microcosm of a culture: it is the element that accompanies most rituals and rites. Its rhythmic structures are the pulse, its tonal/melodic structures are the soul, and its poetry is the language of the heart and mind.
'Notes Against the Ban' takes place Saturday, March 25, at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. 1433 Madison Street, Oakland. 7pm. Free; registration required. More details here.