further reverberations: music since 9/11

Please let me share my enthusiasm for the publication of Music in the Post-9/11 World (Routledge). It's a collection of essays on musical responses to the World Trade Center attacks and the changing cultural contexts shaped by our continued "war on terror". Subjects range from John Adams's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece "On the Transmigration of Souls" to Bruce Springsteen's "Rise Up" to, in the case of my chapter, expressions of Sufism through a Moroccan arts festival and the recent work of African singer Youssou N'Dour.

The year I spent at as a National Arts Journalism Program Fellow at Columbia University was transformative, not least because it began in September 2001: The World Trade Center attacks took place on the second day of the second week of the fall academic semester. My contribution to this book grew directly out of that experience and, not coincidentally, from my writing for two editors who are NAJP alumni. Here, I'm in the company of a distinguished list of scholars, who let me play in their sandbox despite my lack of obvious credentials.

It's a scholarly book -- $95 for the hardcover, $25 for the paperback. But I think the theme and particular subjects essayed are of broad and even popular appeal, footnotes notwithstanding.

Here's are some brief excerpts from my chapter, "Exploding Myths in Morocco and Senegal":

On my experiences in Morocco, and with the Fes Sacred Music Festival and Spirit of Fes tour:

I gained a more personal understanding of the efficacy of music as a tool to bridge cultural and religious rifts a year later, when I flew to Casablanca on my way to the 2003 Fes Sacred Music Festival, just three weeks after terrorist bombings shook Morocco. Everywhere were public-service billboards bearing the Hand of Fatima -- a symbol of protection for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Scholars and cab drivers alike told me that the slogan, in Arabic and French -- "Don't lay a hand on our country" -- was directed at terrorists and fundamentalist Muslims. In my hotel room on my first night back in Fez, I was startled awake by the 3 a.m. muezzin's call to prayer, issuing from mosque minarets in all directions. I realized that I'd heard this before, right down to the vocal embellishments, from the Sephardic cantor in my childhood Brooklyn synagogue....

Commodified though it may be in our culture, music convinces in ways that tuneless words and beatless ideas cannot. That is the spirit of Inayat Khan's epigraph, and it is an idea that is in some ways put to the test by an event like the "Spirit of Fes" tour: can music drawn from diverse spiritual traditions, performed in languages foreign to the audience, still hold the visceral power it enjoyed in its original contexts? And more provocative, is it possible that this music communicates its purpose better, in fact, because it is removed from specific reference? That was certainly my impression at the Coolidge Theater, where the closing number, sung in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, and English successively by all of the evening's performers, capped an evening of touching collaborations and virtuosic performance. The stage, hopelessly overcrowded, became a metaphor for tolerance in a world where religions vie dangerously for dominance.

"It's one thing to march in a protest," Meyer told me in an interview after the concert. "But we also need spiritual activists. One thing that Western audiences sometimes need to be reminded of is the fact that it is important to have art rooted in transformation and healing in addition to art rooted only in aesthetics. The people who write treaties in Geneva are usually disconnected from the local indigenous cultures. I hope we can reach people at the level that CNN cannot touch, a level that exists before and after thought."

And this, on Youssou N'Dour:

In the aftermath of 9/11, and of the American invasion of Iraq, N'Dour's messages -- bolder and more pointed than ever -- have grown in their precision and potency for his Western audience. It would be difficult to think of a contemporary musician who has blended the personal and the political, the secular and the sacred, with greater depth and sensitivity in the period following 9/11.

In the spring of 2003, N'Dour cancelled what would have been the most ambitious U.S. tour of his career, in protest of the impending American invasion of Iraq. The statement publicly issued from N'Dour's "head office" to the press was heartfelt and nuanced:

"It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations. As a matter of conscience I question the United States government's apparent intention to commence war in Iraq. I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world -- rightly or wrongly -- as support for this policy, and that, as a consequence, it is inappropriate to perform in the U.S. at this juncture.

"I know that I'm not Bruce Springsteen," N'Dour told me some months later during a telephone interview. "But it was a symbolic statement I wanted to make. I didn't make the decision simply because there was a war mounting against a Muslim country. I did it because the war that was mounting was unjust."

July 10, 2007 10:48 AM |


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