Grammy-winning musicians showcase east-west alliance for the sake of Palestinian children
by Charmaine Seitz
RAMALLAH, occupied Palestinian territory, 14 February 2012 - The music that rolled out of the dimmed hall of the Ramallah cultural palace had the engine of a locomotive, its full-bodied rhythms like pistons fed by a coal-burning furnace.
Grammy award-winning artists John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain led the quintet, Remember Shakti, in a sold-out benefit concert Tuesday evening whose proceeds went to music therapy for Palestinian children.
Joining McLaughlin’s smooth jazz guitar to classical Indian drumbeats, the musicians wowed a mixed Palestinian and international audience with their humorous temperament and an infectious joy at sharing their art.
“It’s a dream to imagine that these musicians will give their time and their efforts to help Palestinian children,” UNICEF occupied Palestinian territory Special Representative Jean Gough said at a press conference welcoming the artists. “Their positive energy is a blessing for children and those working with them, because it reminds us that there is hope”, she added.
Palestinian children and their talents make up half of society in the occupied territories, Gough said, “but the children also face a lot of violence in the home and because of conflict. We have a duty to find resources to protect them.”
The benefit was in partnership with UNICEF, UNRWA and Palestinian NGO Al Mada. It was sponsored by the British Council, Movenpick Hotels and Resorts, Al Nasher, PADICO, Values restaurant and NGO Weltfriedensdienst.
That’s why the proceeds of the concert will go to Al-Mada Association for Arts Based Community Development, which seeks to heal children’s trauma through music therapy.
McLaughlin is a financial supporter of the organization and worked for several years to make the concert a reality, he said.
“The message is that we care. We have played in many countries and we wanted to play in Palestine,” McLaughlin told reporters. He said this was part of his “hippy philosophy that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was in attendance as the four musicians and singer held court, seated cross-legged on the floor on a slightly-raised platform.
They played for nearly two hours, the voice of Shankar Mahadevan meeting the tones of the mandolin played by U. Srinivas, creating a rich multi-dimensional sound that danced up and down the scale.
Later in the set, Hussain took over with a long tabla solo, his fingers moving so quickly over the surface of the squat drums that they became nearly invisible, before engaging in a friendly duet with drummer V. Selvaganesh. The audience cheered with appreciation. The music also brought smiles on the faces of a dozen children who had come from several refugee camps in the West Bank for the unusual event.
McLaughlin said he was partly inspired to make the trip by the work of conductor Daniel Barenboim, who partnered with Palestinian author Edward Said in founding the West-Eastern Divan orchestra where youth musicians from the region play together.
“Music is one of the first vibrations that the child responds to,” said Hussain, referring to studies that show unborn babies interact with music heard from inside the womb.
“Every morning when I get up to pray”, said the performer, who himself began touring at age 12, “the chanting is music. A lot of us have made it into vibrations of love, of positivity.”
McLauglin said he would like to make the band’s visit to the occupied Palestinian territory an annual one. The group started playing in the ‘70s but recently reformed and visited Ramallah as part of a tour of India, where most of its members originated.
He said he understood that the conflict was a difficult one that would not be solved by music alone. “The only thing that we can do is to let people feel solidarity from people outside.”