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Musical Convergence: Past Traditions and Modern Realities

Published September 23, 2019 by Dunya Habash

Dunya Habash reflects on her research with the Caravan Orchestra and Choir at Yiddish Summer Weimar 2019.

Photo credit: Yiddish Summer Weimar 2019

As soon as I stepped into the orchestra's rehearsal space, two seemingly opposite, but deeply related connections converged—one professional, one personal. Performing with and studying the Caravan Orchestra and Choir this past summer not only challenged me musically, but also forced me to reflect on the concept of 'tradition', whether that is a religious tradition, musical tradition, or ethnic tradition. In 2019, its third year, the Caravan Orchestra and Choir came together as part of Yiddish Summer Weimar - a summer festival and series of workshops teaching Yiddish Klezmer music that has run yearly in Weimar, Germany, since 1999 - to explore new soundscapes, seeking new links between the apparently disparate religious and cultural worlds of Europe and the Middle East. Music students from Germany met Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians from Haifa to perform a blend of Yiddish and Arabic music as part of an intensive youth exchange project. I was invited to join the orchestra as a pianist by Dr Abigail Wood, the former Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Visiting Fellow at the Woolf Institute and co-founder of the Caravan Orchestra.

Photo credit: Kitty O'Lone

Not unlike the Living in Harmony project I am working on for the Woolf Institute, from its inception, the Caravan Orchestra sought to open a space to explore connections between a group of musical repertories that reflect centuries of musical interaction between diverse ethnic and religious communities in central and south-eastern Europe, Turkey and the Levant, but today are often framed within bounded identity discourses as 'heritage' musics (Wood 2018). The starting point was this: shared musical sensibilities between Klezmer and Arabic music point to historical connections through the long arc of the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps by performing this repertoire side by side, new connections can be (un)made between historical narratives and modern identities. And perhaps this can be an effective tool for cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue.

As for the personal convergence, a few days into rehearsals I found myself reflecting deeply about my own identity as a 'Syrian-American' both musically and personally. This reflection started with a simple question posed to me by one of the Arab musicians in the band: how are you originally from Damascus and yet only play Jazz and western classical music on the piano? 'Shame on you for not learning more 'eastern' tunes', he joked with me in Arabic. In that moment, I supressed the desire to tell him that I am not from Damascus, although it is a city and a seat of culture deeply rooted in my upbringing. I was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where it was difficult to find instruction in Arabic music. Moreover, my summers in Damascus were spent concentrating on Arabic language. I love music, though, so I pursued a degree in piano performance, in the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Schumann, Schubert and other European composers. And that never seemed a sacrifice or a betrayal.

I fell in love with 'western' classical music at a young age seeing that it was a natural part of the soundscape of my parents' new homeland, and by birth, my homeland. I studied it because I loved it, too. I loved it because it was beautiful. Therefore, what does it mean to be an Arab musician who doesn't play Arabic music? This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with eastern modes and Arabic music; I grew up listening to it at home as well. However, what does it mean that this young Arab man assumed that because I am a native speaker of Arabic and of Syrian heritage, I should play Arabic music?

In his formative book How Musical is Man?, ethnomusicologist John Blacking argued that since there is so much music in the world, 'it is reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion, is a species-specific trait of man' (1973: 8). Many claim that music is humanity's universal language, possibly even God's universal language, for it moves us in ways we still cannot explain by empirical, scientific means. All cultures, communities and societies create and store melodies - tunes that are passed down through the generations and become imprints of a community's 'essence' or 'character'. Documenting this character became the obsession of ethnomusicology during its early years; after all, the discipline was born out of growing romantic nationalism in Europe and the Americas during the latter half of the 19th century. Folk tunes, it was reasoned, had to be collected and categorised if we were to further understand the characteristics of a diverse human family.

Yet instead of differentiating branches of that family, Ilya Shneyveys, one of the orchestra's musical directors and Klezmer accordionist, explained that Yiddish Klezmer music is based on the same modal principles as Arabic music due to a strong interchange between musicians under the Ottoman Empire. Jewish and gypsy musicians traveling between eastern Europe and Ottoman Turkey met musicians there and carried these 'eastern' modes back to the north. In contemporary global culture, all of these connections are wider, more frequent, sometimes even forced upon us so that some romantic philosophical cultural idea of the late 19th century does not work anymore. What people see as a 'tradition' that characterises a people, a culture, a community is in fact transitory, conditional, made up of components from other civilisations. And when we look at musical traditions, we find that they are much broader than their surface repertoires, too.

Perhaps this is because 'tradition' is a construction; in reality, our traditions - religious practices, social behaviours, music - are always a mix of thoughts, sounds and rituals we collect from elsewhere and reinvent to make our own. We even have proof of this in linguistics: think about how languages adopt words from other languages they come into contact with over time. This was the premise for bringing together the Caravan Orchestra and Choir. However, because of our human need to be from somewhere, to be rooted in a community, religion or landscape, we often ignore the historical particularities that create our reified 'traditions', histories that always include contact with other populations, religions and cultures. The anthropologist James Clifford wrote that 'culture and identity are inventive and mobile… they need not take root in ancestral plots; they live by pollination, by (historical) transplanting, as inventive process or creolised "interculture"'. Reminding ourselves of just how interconnected we actually are without downplaying the dignity of difference could push us forward in mutual respect and understanding. I guess I should have told that young man that I am not from Damascus.

This article is written by Dunya Habash, a researcher at the Woolf Institute working on the Living in Harmony project which explores interfaith encounter in the Middle East through music.

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