Sunday, April 9, 2017

GIVING EAR - Co-Existence Project


BY BARRY DAVIS   MARCH 16, 2017

 Violins, not violence: The Nazareth-based Polyphony venture fosters musical and cultural harmony.

It has been mooted that the basic difference between discrimination and mutual acceptance is that, while in the former case, we see anyone different from us as inferior, possibly threatening and certainly unwanted, the latter entails the realization that, if someone is different from us, by the same token we are different from them.

Then again, there are always common denominators to be sought and found, and that can help to bridge discrepancies in cultural, religious and political lines of thought.

Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar certainly goes along with that ethos. Abboud-Ashkar is cofounder of Polyphony, which sprang into life in 2012 in Nazareth when he joined forces with Jewish American social entrepreneurs Craig and Deborah Cogut. The idea was, as the organization’s brochure has it: “to bring together Arab and Jewish youth in Israel by offering them equal opportunities in music.”

The venture title certainly fits the stated conceptual and artistic bill. The online font of vocabulary definitions, dictionary.com, describes polyphonic music as “having two or more voices or parts, each with an independent melody, but all harmonizing.”

That all sounds delightfully healthy and uplifting, and the project appears to be making waves across the upper echelons of the international music community.

The Polyphony Artistic Partners cross-disciplinary roster includes the names of such illustrious members of the global art world as conductors Zubin Mehta and Sir Andras Schiff, opera singer Renée Fleming, multimedia artist Yoko Ono, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza.

Marsalis was recently in Nazareth himself, to help a bunch of budding Arab and Jewish musicians progress with their instruments and spread the musical word in general. Schiff was also here a month or so ago. “Branford gave a workshop for the kids and a concert for the parents,” says Abboud- Ashkar. “That really helps.”

The professional supporter lineup is mightily impressive, and there appears to be an abundance of layman backing, too.

“There is great interest from the international musical community. There is also interest from the Jewish community in the US,” the director continues, “and there is, obviously, a strong interest in the Arab and Jewish communities of Israel for Polyphony to work.”

Getting youngsters to play and enjoy classical music, says Abboud-Ashkar, offers added value for all, and not just in the Middle East. “When you appreciate this kind of music, and are able to perform it, you immediately become part of a much larger and more international community.

Straightaway it makes you part of something much bigger than your immediate surroundings. So that, I think, makes Western classical music important for us. By us, I mean the Arab-Palestinian community of Israel, and Israeli society in general – both Arab and Jewish communities.”

The ostensibly extraneous nature of the art form, he feels, also helps to bridge cultural and personal gaps. “Because it is not coming from one side or the other, classical music being so international, it is a wonderful means for bringing people together.”

Then there are the rewards to be gained from engaging in an activity that is not only creative but also requires the participants to cooperate and to listen to each other in order to reach a pleasurable and quality end result.

The Nazareth-based initiative is clearly managing to provide young Jews, Muslims and Christians here with a bridge spanning sociopolitical and ethnic gaps that can sometimes appear to be entrenched and permanently divisive.

However, it wasn’t just about getting kids enthralled with the idea of producing harmonious sounds from their instruments. For the project to succeed, it needed the blessing and backing of the wider community, too. “Parents have become more and more aware of the importance of what we are doing, and the importance of music education.”

In Keshet Eilon, Abboud-Ashkar and his cohorts in the Nazareth-based program found a natural bedfellow. “We founded Keshet Eilon [at Kibbutz Eilon in the Western Galilee] in 1990,” says general manager Gilad Sheba. “We called the program ‘keshet’ because of the bow of the violin, but also in the sense of a bridge between cultures and people.

There are wider-reaching rewards. “When students come here from abroad they discover a different Israel from the one they see in the media,” Sheba adds. “They see the finer side of Israel – the culture and excellence. Don’t forget, we engage in people who chose a very competitive profession and one of our goals is to turn them into a family. Nabeel and Polyphony come into this context.”

Polyphony continues to go about its educational and enlightening business, which takes in joint ensembles with Keshet Eilon.

Abboud-Ashkar is conscious of the need for spreading the word as far and wide as possible, in addition to enabling youngsters to acquire precious musical skills, and then helping them to raise their game. Mother Nature precludes the existence of anything in a vacuum, and that applies equally to the social environment.

Polyphony duly invests in generating the requisite support group context, to create a healthy and encouraging environment for the kids to follow their natural artistic bent.

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