May, 2009 Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East:
Musicians for Peace
Article by Anthony Ham describes work of Musical Missions of Peace in Arab World
Musicians for Peace
It’s not every American musician who can claim to have learned to play the oud (Middle Eastern lute) like an Iraqi, mastered the complexity of the maqam scale system and played love songs on a Baghdad street in the dangerous aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. But then Cameron Powers is not your ordinary musician.
Together with his partner, singer Kristina Sophia, Powers was seriously disillusioned with his country’s response to the terrorist attack on 11 September 2001. When we caught up with them in Lattakia, Syria, in May 2008 on their fifth visit to the region, Powers and Sophia spoke of how they performed with a Palestinian musician in Boulder, Colorado two weeks after the attacks, a concert that only went ahead when the word “Palestinian” was removed from the promotional material. Experiences such as these prompted the couple to make their first trip to the Middle East in November 2002, hoping to build bridges between Western and Arab cultures through what they call “the warmth, beauty and sensuality of Arab music.”
The welcome they received from ordinary Arabs convinced them to return. In Spring 2003, impromptu performances for the Iraqi visa-issuing authorities and border officials saw Powers and Sophia granted permission to enter Iraq - “music is an instant passport” is his explanation. Unable to find any functioning concert venues in post-invasion Baghdad, they simply began performing on the streets. “The fact that we were on the streets of Baghdad singing Iraqi love songs, showed the Iraqi people that Americans could also invade with music,” Powers told us. He later wrote a book Singing in Baghdad (available from www.gldesignpub.com) about the experience. A performance before 60,000 people in Cairo followed the same year.
Struck by the warmth of the welcome they received in the Middle East, the couple realized that American audiences needed to hear an alternative vision of the Middle East as much as ordinary Arabs needed to feel their solidarity. Since then, the couple has covered more than 60,000km and performed at over 200 presentations in universities, schools and churches across the US. Nonetheless, they still find themselves confronted with the suspicions of post-9/11 America: “We encounter fear first and then openness to the music. It used to be the other way around.” To learn more about their work and travels, visit their website, www.musicalmissions.com.
Not content with the power of performance, Powers and Sophia have set up a secular NGO, Musical Missions of Peace (www.musicalmissionsofpeace.org) which is based around the premise that “People who have learned and sung each others' popular love songs together are less likely to war with one another than those who have not. The NGO provides support to Iraqi musicians and refugees in exile in Jordan and Syria and promotes education and performance of international music in the US.