Mideast musicians mix peace scenarios, scholar says

If peace were to break out between the Arabs and the Jews, what would it sound like?

Both groups might discover novel answers to that question at "Sounds Like Peace: Jews & Arabs Mix Music in Israel." U.C. Berkeley ethnomusicologist Ben Brinner will discuss Arab and Jewish musical collaborations on Wednesday, March 8 at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. The Berkeley event is part of the 15th annual Jewish Music Festival.

Brinner, who for more than a decade has conducted research focused primarily on Arab musicians in Israel, describes his presentation as "a talk interjected with a lot of recordings"- examples of some of the most exciting music coming out of Israel today.

"The concept," he said, "is that music provides a unique meeting ground for Jews and Arabs to find common ground, and to [create] new musical mixtures that by necessity take them outside the box that both Jews and Arabs find themselves in in Israel."

Musicians, he added, have myriad reasons for collaborating. Some want to make an overtly political statement, others see it as a way to better integrate Israel into the culture of the Middle East and for still others, the intent is purely artistic.

"Some of the Jewish musicians have been attracted to Middle Eastern music and are looking for 'authentic' purveyors, and some of the Arab musicians were feeling artistically frustrated by the taste limitations of their strictly Arab audiences, and were looking to branch out," Brinner said.

"For some of these groups," he added, "the message is peace and coexistence and bringing Jews and Arabs together, either by emphasizing the common heritage or the possible future."

He said one group uses a name that translates as "The Olive Leaf," a symbol of peace. Another uses a name that means "Garden of Abraham," which "stresses the common ancestry and the possibility of cultivating a garden we can grow together."

Several positive consequences have begun to emerge from this exploration and mingling of the music and musicians of East and West.

"These are Arabs, both Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians, playing alongside Israeli Jews, both sabras and immigrants, both Sephardic and Ashkenaz," he said. "Some of the musicians have extensive training in Western classical music, while others do not. And not only are the musicians involved finding the collaborations enriching, they are, in turn, demonstrating to their audiences the possibilities of other collaborations.

"You can't successfully make music together without trusting the person you're making music with, and continued working together serves to make trust and respect grow."

An additional bonus is the creation of some entirely new forms of music.

"They are creating a new musical language," Brinner said. "Some are taking explicitly Jewish music and combining it with Arab music, and some take aspects of Arab music, and blend it with other Middle Eastern music. And in many cases, they're coming up with something different, and possibly greater, than the sum of its parts."

For example, "Ladino music, which is traditionally unaccompanied or accompanied only by guitar, takes on an entirely different flavor with Arab drums, violin and oud. The whole color and texture of the song changes." In addition, a group might take Middle Eastern strains and add "some elements of jazz, creating something that transcends the category of Arab music."

By collaborating, the musicians may be doing more than simply making music. "By staying in Israel and doing this," he said, "they're really addressing the problems head-on."

In his lecture, Brinner will discuss some of the personal musical journeys taken by several of the musicians involved in cross-cultural collaboration.

"I see what these people are doing as what I think peaceful coexistence might be like, or can be like," said Brinner, "This is what peace could sound like — mutual trust, respect and enrichment."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."