Dick Cheney is having a hard time letting go, but cowboy diplomacy is on the wane here in the United States—ask President Obama. Nevertheless, the Muslim culture and faith remains misunderstood, at best, and demonized, at worst, by many Americans, so to counter some of those uncertainties and misperceptions, BAM, the Asia Society, and NYU’s Center for Dialogues are presenting “Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas,” an extensive festival running June 5 to 14.
The program includes music, film, and theater by more than 100 Muslim artists from as far away as Indonesia and as nearby as Brooklyn. Highlights include a live performance by Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour (arguably Africa’s biggest music star), who’ll be represented by a new, award-winning documentary as well. There will also be Sufi music from Morocco’s Aissawa Ensemble and France’s Al Taybah Ensemble, Persian classical from Iranian singer Parissa, and maqam from Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran.
“Muslim Voices” will also provide a litmus test as to how things have changed within a government bureaucracy now serving an administration more interested in dialogue with its global neighbors. In the past, the Office of Homeland Security has been particularly stingy in granting performance visas to male artists from the Middle East, Africa, and Cuba. As of press time, though, all artists for this fest have been cleared. “My inviting these artists to New York City, there has been nothing but positive-ness,” says BAM executive producer Joseph V. Melillo. “It’s amazing how it’s gone in the opposite direction so quickly—from the extraordinary negativity in the Bush administration to this openness and positive-ness about what is possible through art and culture.”
Artists feel that transformation, too. In 2003, N’Dour cancelled a U.S. tour in protest over the Iraq invasion. “At that time, canceling the tour was the only thing in my head to protest,” N’Dour explains, recently speaking on the phone from Senegal. “This war was not good for the United States or the rest of the world. What I appreciate is that, since then, people are now more open and more appreciative.”
While N’Dour (who’s toured the States since) is famous for his highly danceable brand of music called mbalax, his 2004 album Egypt paired lyrics addressing his Sufi strain of the Muslim faith with the sounds of a distinctly Arabic orchestra. His Senegalese fans were not happy about their biggest pop star talking about the Koran and celebrating religious figures, but the album was universally acclaimed abroad and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album, a predicament and success story explored in Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent new film I Bring What I Love, which will be screened as part of “Muslim Voices.”
“The time is now to show the face of everything, but really the face of Islam,” says N’Dour, hoping the film shows audiences who he is as both a Muslim and an artist. “A long time ago, I thought something like that wasn’t going to happen in the United States, but in the last six years, I was thinking that we need to use what we have to promote something that is really important.”
The concept of intercultural dialogue is further tested on June 13, when Qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and his ensemble join Craig Adams & the Voices of New Orleans on BAM’s stage for a touring project called the Gospel Qawwali Creation. “I think it’s going to be controversial, because whenever you deal with two religions together, it’s going to be controversial,” says Adams. “But music is something that everybody understands. Whether its Qawwali or gospel, it’s geared toward touching people with peace, joy, love, and happiness.”
It’s altogether appropriate that this festival is happening in a city once victimized by terrorism. We’ve seen the worst from the extremists; now it’s time to experience the best from the artists. “The depth of the artistry and their own personal aesthetic is going to be a great discovery to New York City,” promises Melillo. “This is one of the great cultural reservoirs that has not been researched.”
For a complete ‘Muslim Voices’ schedule and other info, visit muslimvoicesfestival.org