Musicians to jam together, transcend political differences

When klezmer mixes with Arabic music, a funky “Hava Negillah” follows a rocked-out Muslim call to prayer and Punjabi ballads unite with American rock, it can only mean one thing: UnityJam 2011.

Salman Ahmad, a legendary Pakistani rock ’n’ roller and guitarist in the band Junoon, will perform in Palo Alto with klezmer musicians Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz as part of the Jan. 16 benefit concert for Abraham’s Vision and the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative.

Salman Ahmad

“UnityJam gives people an understanding and a taste of what life could be like between Jews and Muslims,” said Aaron Hahn Tapper, a professor at University of San Francisco and founder of Abraham’s Vision. “All too often we get trapped in our cynical bubbles and forget that there are a lot of good things happening. UnityJam embodies this idea about the world’s potential.”

Abraham’s Vision, based in Redwood City, seeks to encourage dialogue and build relationships among Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian high school and college students. The Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative also focuses on interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue, in addition to helping Pakistan’s roughly 3 million impoverished, internally displaced people.

Ahmad’s band is considered a pioneer of Sufi rock music in Pakistan. As a U.N. goodwill ambassador, he has used his music and celebrity to bring attention to humanitarian causes worldwide.

“Salman is a devout Muslim who holds onto his identity, but not at the expense of belief and commitment to humanity,” Tapper said. “He’s a rock star, the real deal.”

Schwartz, Strom and Ahmed often perform together as Common Chords, which blends music with Jewish and Muslim roots. The two traditions are more similar than one might think, say the band members.

“Forget the words,” said Strom, an artist-in-residence at San Diego State University’s Jewish studies program and Schwartz’s partner. “The similarities between the melodic lines make people say wow. They see that while it moves me to move my feet and hum along like anyone else, all ethnicities can do the same.”

Strom noted his opportunity to jam backstage at a recent U.N. concert with an Iraqi Muslim hip-hop artist who used some of the same scales in his music. The duo riffed off each other, and Strom left inspired to continue his work.

“If we can all sit together in a concert hall, play music and recite poetry, why can’t we live next door to each other?” Strom said. “I know there are many reasons why, but sometimes things should be simple instead of complicated in our attempt to get along.”

Added Schwartz: “When you see a human sitting in the chair next to you, coming to the same concert, it makes it harder to rely on your stereotypes and see a nation, as opposed to individuals who make up that nation.”

Between the UnityJam acts, Muslim and Jewish high school and university students who have participated in Abraham’s Vision conflict transformation programs will speak about world unity.

Last year’s event attracted more than 300 people; Tapper hopes to triple that number in an effort to “jam the hall.”

“In the audience, you had people from all walks of life,” Tapper said. “You had religious and secular people in [Muslim and Jewish] communities, kippah-wearing Jews, female Muslims wearing head coverings, college students rocking out in the aisles and adults who formed a conga line.”

Added Tapper: “I do this work regularly, and I was taken by the evening. There’s something about music that has the power to transcend words alone.”

Schwartz and Strom compared their participation in the concert to helping out at a marathon.

“It’s a long race to the finish for Israelis and Palestinians,” Strom said. “The whole world is waiting for them to reach a solution, and we’re there to help in whatever small way we can. Through our music and our words, we hope to push them that much faster to the finish line.”

UnityJam 2011 is at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Spangenberg Theatre, Gunn High School, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto.  $12.50 and up. Information: www.abrahamsvision.org