Weapons of Mass Sedition

Can a sacred music festival lure us away from violence and toward reason?

Commodified though it may be in our culture, music convinces in ways that tuneless words and beatless ideas cannot. That's how it felt at the Coolidge, where the closing number, sung in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, and English successively, capped an evening of touching collaborations and virtuosic performance. The full-house audience stood applauding heartily as production staffers showered performers with rose petals.

Meyer, an Argentine-born rabbi's son, opened the concert in duet with recent U.S. immigrant Yacoub Hussein, the Palestinian son of a Sufi sheikh. As the two interwove Hebrew and Arabic calls to prayer, Meyer passed his frame drum to Hussein, scarcely missing a beat. Atlan combined the strained intensity of Andalusian melismatics and the graceful purity of European plainsong through stunning renditions of 15th-century devotional songs. She was accompanied by Moroccan oud master Farid El Foulahi and Lebanese American percussionist Jamey Haddad. Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant, from a small village in southern Morocco, sat on a riser, singing folkloric wedding and funeral tunes while beating out complex patterns on small hand drums. After a short solo by Haddad, the Anointed Jackson Sisters, "just some country girls from North Carolina," demonstrated the dramatic range of African American spirituals, from the hushed "Feel Like Going Home" to the raucous "God Is in the Building."

"It's one thing to march in a protest," Meyer said in Washington. "But we need spiritual activists. 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."

Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant (in white) performing in Washington, D.C., March 6 with the Anointed Jackson Sisters (in black)
photo: Rick Reinhard
Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant (in white) performing in Washington, D.C., March 6 with the Anointed Jackson Sisters (in black)

The Spirit of Fez tour arrives at a moment of irony and challenge. "During the buildup to the Iraq invasion, the Library of Congress expressed interest in the show," recalls Jean-Jacques Cesbron, who booked the tour. "But they were concerned about the use of the word peace in the materials." Since September 11, it has been so difficult for Middle Eastern males to enter the U.S. that these concerts highlight women as voices of Islam.

Now terrorism threatens the tour's focus, with several Moroccans key suspects in the recent Madrid bombings. And as it rolls through 17 cities, the tour could lose its way, turning into a feel-good world-music rave-up or, worse, an advertisement for the World Bank and the Moroccan Tourism Board. But these musicians can prove that there is more than one Islam as they experience the multiplicity of American identities. Sacred songs, buoyed by Sufi spirit and democratic liberalism, might just drown out national anthems.

Fri, 3/26: New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, New Jersey. Concert at 7:30; panel at 6; 888-466-5722 for tickets (njpac.orgbardavon.org).

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