For a World At Peace Give Art a Chance

Can music turn enemies into lovers? An Iranian chanteuse and an American soul singer cut an album that defies boundaries.Peace on Earth: three words that glow at night in city lights, rise on snowy rooftops, glisten on greeting cards and resound in the carols of the Christmas season.People find comfort in hearing those words, joy in sharing them, but what exactly do they celebrate? After all, in the thousands of years of recorded history, there has always been a battle raging somewhere, and for the “civilized” world peace has essentially just been the lulls between great wars.Perhaps we’re just reminding one another of the spiritual dimensions of peace, inner peace, peace with our creator, when we say those words, or maybe we’re just wishing one another well for the time being, like saying “Gesundheit” after a sneeze.But what if contained in those three simple words is a divine possibility, a hidden potential that awaits the world? What if there was some power that could actually bring world peace out of the heavenly ideal and into the Earthly realm?The most powerful tools of human society – politics, religion and science – have all been applied to this dream, but without any enduring success. This year two singers from opposite sides of the world and from cultures in heated, potentially explosive conflict have united to see if it’s possible to call down peace using that most colorful but insubstantial of mortal powers, the power of art.Mighty Sam McClain is a 67-year-old black man with Louisiana roots who resides on the New Hampshire Seacoast. His large and formidable presence harbors a gentle soul. He’s an accomplished and award-winning singer of soulful blues, a veteran of the music scene who broke away and started his own recording label, a restless spirit always pushing the boundaries set before him both creatively and socially. Raised in the church, Sam is a deeply Christian man who can grumble curses like a sailor and croon like a love-lorn nightingale.Mahsa Vahdat is an ethereal presence, a beautiful 37-year-old singer of classic improvisational Persian music. Her soaring vocal performances are enjoyed in many countries of the world, but not in her homeland of Iran. The restrictions on artists after the Islamic Revolution there in 1979 (when Mahsa was 6) closed music schools for a decade and forbade public singing by women for anything but all-female audiences. Her choice to remain in Iran along with her refusal to compromise her art have aroused anger and pressure from the ruling mullahs. This summer she was given the international Freemuse Award for Freedom of Expression for her “courage and bold resistance.”Apart from a spirit of freedom, these two singers could not be much more different. They were brought together by Erik Hillestad, a Norwegian music producer and poet who was looking for just such a contrast of worlds and voices to convey the lyrics he had planned for a musical project – an album of songs he called “Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations.”The goal was ambitious, but clearly one of peacemaking. “The growing antagonism between Iran and the West, particularly the U.S., we hoped to breach that with music,” says Hillestad.Rather than composing lyrics about peace, Hillestad’s lyrics are passionately romantic. While written in the Persian tradition of Sufi poets like Rumi, they evoke the ecstatic love language of the Song of Solomon. Each one is a cry of an almost physical longing, the kind of verse you’d expect from lovers separated by time and space, not warring clans. The two vocalists perform in a series of calls and responses, him in deep southern American tones, her in lilting Farsi trills and crescendos.The instrumental tracks were recorded in Oslo, but Vahdat was flown into New Hampshire to sing with McClain. They recorded their vocals from separate booths at Gerry Putnam’s Cedarhouse Sound and Mastering in Sutton.Putnam, who has recorded dozens of successful acts over the past two decades, said this was different in any number of ways. “There were these music beds that were something neither of them would have performed in their own worlds. Sam is used to singing rhythm and blues with a 12-piece horn band. She’s used to performing with musical instruments with names I can’t pronounce,” he says. “But they were both singing into this lovely pop, new age sound that was a level playing field. And they both really rose to the occasion.”As soon as the vocal tracks were laid, Mahsa flew home to find that the Iranian protests of the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which came to be known as the Green Wave, had exploded into violence. “Just 48 hours after leaving Sutton she was in Tehran where people were being shot in the streets,” says Putnam.McClain says Vahdat knew of the unrest and explained it to him. “She said the people there know change is coming. They could wait for it to come after they die, but they don’t want to wait,” he says.They stayed in close touch after recording together and Vahdat sent McClain reports from Tehran, including a photo of a pregnant woman protestor who had been shot through her stomach, killing both her and her baby. About the same time, the whole world took note when a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan, a bystander to the protests, was shot in the chest and died as video cameras captured the event, frame by frame. The video was posted to the Internet and is now thought to be the most widely witnessed death in history. Ironically, the name Neda is Persian for “voice” and “divine message.”Although many artists have fled Iran – Vahdat’s sister, also an artist, lives and performs freely in Germany – she refuses to cave to political pressure and fear. In spite of the oppression of women and the drumbeats of war, she is hopeful of the prospect of change, believing that the gift of song she possesses is not just a tool of entertainment.”I think one of the most important things that can create a more peaceful world is art,” says Vahdat. “Because it rises from the heart and it penetrates easily and without any barrier … it can impress people and it can change and elevate people’s minds and hearts. I think the fear that governments, mostly dictators, have for art and especially music is because of this quick penetration.”McClain agrees. “I believe in this music with all my heart,” he says. “We both know it’s bigger than both of us.””There’s a silent song in the prison of my secretsnever sleeping, always waiting to be heardlooking for a moment to be born and nursed like a child.”-From “Silent Song” by Erik Hillestad and Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari (For Neda and Sohrab, who were killed during the demonstrations in Tehran in 2009 and dedicated to all Nedas and Sohrabs in Iran.)Give Art a Chance?When asked of his inspirations for the “Scent of Reunion” album, producer Hillestad credits the grand history of Persian literature, now largely unknown to the West, but he acknowledges a more familiar source, as well. “I am drawn to the art of rock and what John Lennon did in the pop era in Europe. I am a child of that same tribe.”Seventy years ago this October, John Lennon was born in the working-class community of Liverpool, England. Forty years ago this month, at the height of his fame as a Beatle, he was spending two weeks in bed in Montreal and Amsterdam with his new bride, Yoko Ono. The Vietnam War raged and the couple were conducting the strange affair as a work of performance art to promote peace. They invited the leaders of the press and world cultural and political figures to come and hang out with them. Among those who took him up on the invitation was Al Capp, the world-famous conservative curmudgeon and creator of the Lil’ Abner cartoon series.The ever-ascerbic Capp, a kind of Bill O’Reilly of his day, accused Lennon and Ono of staging the event for some profit motive. Lennon replied he wasn’t making any money staying in bed, and could be making quite a bit if he was writing songs instead. Capp was not convinced. In fact, one song did emerge from the Bed-in, going on to become the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”Did Lennon’s stunt or his song have any influence on the course of the war? There’s no indication it did since the conflict endured until 1975, trailing into a bloody aftermath.In both war and peace, life is a finite quantity. Al Capp died of emphysema in his Hampton, N.H., home in 1979. John Lennon died in New York City in 1980 with four bullets in his back, the victim of a fan with delusions of grandeur.Will a love song between civilizations initiate an intimate connection between Iran and America that will diffuse the hostility and unite our cultures? Who knows? But after thousands of years of war fought with science and presided over by politics and religion, what do we have to lose by giving art a chance?The “Scent of Reunion” project evolved into a popular international concert tour over the summer that will resume in the new year, but CD sales in the U.S. have been unremarkable, and press attention to the album and its mission has been much less than might be expected considering the times.In Iran the story is different. “There’s no way to know the depth of it, but it has been received very well,” says Hillestad, who has been to Tehran 10 times in recent years. “It’s spreading through sharing and downloading in non-legal ways,” he says, chagrined. “We could have protested, but because of the importance we’ve allowed it.”With tens of thousand of copies in circulation, the music could be reaching hundreds of thousands of listeners. Only a drop in the bucket in a country of 70 million people, but it’s a start.”It’s a very difficult period in Iran, where the hardliners are strangling more and more of the society,” says Hillestad. “At the very least, this project is a kind of comfort for them.”And maybe “comfort,” shared in words and deeds and passed from one person to another, is the truest definition of Peace on Earth. nhEarth!If this love strong and trueIs too heavy for you,Too heavy for you to carry,then a blue butterflythat quickly passed my lover’s eyeis more eternal than you.From “Earth” by Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari and Erik HillestadOther Artists Without BordersRachel LehrCreating international markets for local goodsRachel Lehr may be an artist, but she’s also a realist. “Peace is such an abstract concept,” she says. “What the people I deal with need is some money to feed their families. That, to them, is peace.” As promoters of what she calls “social entrepreneurship,” Lehr and her organization, Rubia Inc., encourage Afghan women to produce local stitching and fabric art and then help them find markets for their work. This has spawned collaborations with some Portsmouth-area artists and craftsmen, forging bonds between Afghanistan and America and providing the first taste of self-reliance for the women. Lehr is a successful textile artist in her own right, working for years with the N.H. State Council on the Arts and the Arts Alliance of Northern N.H. Although fabric art is the mainstay of Rubia, Lehr’s artistic vision has veered more toward photography lately, inspired in no small part by her time in Afghanistan. www.rubiahandwork.orgRichard “Dobbs” HartshorneSharing beauty with a univeral language”I do absolutely believe that music has the power to change and heal people,” says bearded, bear-like, bass-playing Richard Hartshorne – known to everyone as simply “Dobbs.” After 30 years playing classic music with the Apple Hill Chamber Players of Sullivan, Dobbs left the group to start his own musical adventure called Bach with Verse. He now travels to prisons in California, refugee camps in Palestine and music schools in Iraq to play Bach solo suites, “the most beautiful and introspective music I know,” he says. And whatever language his audience happens to speak – Arabic, Kurdish, Azari, Mandarin, Hebrew or Greek – Dobbs tells them stories in their own native tongue. He accomplishes this apparent miracle by having his stories translated into the language by a native speaker, then meticulously memorizing them phonetically. Asked if his work can help bring peace, Dobbs says he doubts it.: “The places I’ve chosen to play are often so dark and hopeless that you know you just can’t do it. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some organizations that do have an effect, so if I can contribute to that or highlight some of their efforts, it has some carry over.” www.bachwithverse.orgThomas KearneySeeking reconciliation across dividesThomas Kearney is a freelance videographer from Concord who put his professional work on hold to journey to the island nation of Sri Lanka, assisting a youth reconciliation group in chronicling a Future Leaders Conference. The group, Sri Lanka Unites, has its work cut out for it. The country only recently ended a bloody 25-year-long civil war with religious divides (Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem) and disputes over a colonial legacy and languages. Numerous human rights violations were cited by all sides and many of the 300,000 people displaced by the fighting are still without permanent homes. Kearney says the conference and retreat conducted by the group was effective, but limited in its reach. He was able to document the events and to follow up with the students who participated creating a first draft of a film that could spread the message of reconciliation to all parts of Sri Lanka. He’s now at work on a final edited version that will soon be ready to deliver. And the time is ripe. “The pangs of war still exist and the hostility is still alive in a country filled with misunderstanding and ethnic division,” says Kearney. “The country has to move forward or somewhere down the road war or genocide or who knows what can happen.”

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