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Middle Eastern musicians to cross culture lines for UCLA event
By Kiran Puri
Daily Bruin (UCLA)
05/18/2007

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES — Much of the news regarding the Middle East these days is negative, dealing with war, economic struggles, corruption and so on. But this Sunday, various religious, ethnic and artistic groups from the University of California-Los Angeles are coming together to sponsor “At the Crossroads: Music and Culture of the Middle East” to offer an alternative, even if it’s just for an afternoon.

“We wanted to do an event that captured the multicultural fabric of the Middle East and really takes note of and celebrates the rich, overlapping cultural strands of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in the Middle East,” said David Myers, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies and a history professor.

The Yuval Ron Ensemble, led by revered composer and world music producer Yuval Ron and featuring vocalist Najwa Gibran, will spearhead the event beginning with a series of interactive workshops. These workshops will teach students about such practices as Hebrew prayers, Sufi prayer mediation, and traditional Armenian church chants. The program kicks off at 1 p.m. in the Northwest Campus Auditorium, with the concert itself beginning at 7:30 p.m..

All of the activities scheduled aim to reach out to students of all backgrounds and personal histories to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the region’s differing but connected cultures.

“The average UCLA student wouldn’t know much about (the music or culture), which is why I think it’s such a great event,” said Pouneh Behin, a fourth-year French and Middle Eastern studies student. Behin is the Students for Justice in Palestine representative for the event.

“All the UCLA students will be able to go out and learn about the music of the Middle East and learn about not only its history but how it’s played, the different instruments, the different beats, the different dances that go along with the songs,” Behin said.

The Yuval Ron Ensemble, a nine-person group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians, physically represents the unification and cooperation between these religious groups in addition to teaching students about it through music.

“(Yuval Ron) represents the very spirit of ecumenical cultural interactions that we are trying to bring to the stage on Sunday in that he is an Israeli Jew but very much open to and framed by different musical traditions and is very much committed to bringing them together in harmony,” Myers said. “In a certain sense, he and his colleagues are going to perform that cultural boundary-crossing that we really hope to see translated into student boundary-crossing.”

The event will embrace the spirit of interactive learning and entertaining with a jam session following the workshops and a concert later in the evening featuring various Middle Eastern songs, prayers and church chants. Daniela Karlin, a fourth-year Jewish studies and political science student and vice president of Bruins for Israel, a cosponsor of the event, hopes that the lessons of the various musical heritages will instill a sense of optimism into the pursuit of peace between the groups.

“(The majority of the student body only gets) a little sliver of what’s going on in the news or advocacy groups from either side,” Karlin said. “This event is trying to go beyond all that and look for hope … and a base of trust that can be utilized to generate understanding, which I think is the first thing needed for real dialogue.”

Both Behin and Karlin have established a sense of affability and trust behind the scenes by reaching out to a broad range of religious, cultural and departmental groups on campus for support with the project.

“There’s been a little bit of worry among the Jewish population not about the event itself but about Palestine Awareness Week which follows, which in the past has had an extremely anti-Israel theme to it,” Karlin said. “So there’s a little apprehension there, but otherwise for this event itself I think the concept of peace is something everyone can rally behind, even if there are political differences.”

The event is conscientiously centered on the art and cultural practices that emerged from these regions, all of which came from similar roots. While the political overtones of these practices cannot be ignored, those involved with the event hope to call attention to this often-overlooked strand of similarity in order to positively influence the political polarization.

“The reason why we’re sponsoring this event is because it’s nonpolitical and it can bring everyone together on something everyone can get involved with, like music and dance,” Behin said. “I don’t believe that political aspects should come up or will be discussed. … But as far as people coming out of it and talking about it afterward, I think yes, it will bring up political issues.”

Aiming to develop a touchstone of dialogue and understanding, the directors and sponsors of “At the Crossroads” hope that diplomacy and peace can infiltrate political discussions in the future.

“Political discussions are unavoidable because passions are so high, but we really want to focus upon cultural commonalities and not political differences and see this as an opportunity to recall those commonalities from the past and maybe remember that they can exist in the present as well,” Myers said.

Copyright ©2007 Daily Bruin via UWire