Mid-East Scales Provoke Western Fears

The Afro-Semitic Experience is a multicultural jazz band that performs a mix of gospel, klezmer, spirituals and Jewish and African-American liturgical song. Our group played at a museum in Connecticut just days after the attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and we thought this event could be a setting in which we would share our music as an act of reflection and healing.

As we performed an arrangement of “Shalom Aleichem,” a traditional Sabbath melody based upon Ahavah Rabo, an ancient synagogue scale, I noticed a number of people walking by and shaking their heads in disapproval. A few people came by and started to speak with the band members while we were still playing. As the piece ended, the museum director and an assistant approached me. They told me that they had received complaints about the “inappropriateness” of our music. A few audience members felt that we shouldn’t be playing music that sounded like “that” and that in doing so we showed disrespect. I came to understand that “that” was the Arabic sound produced by the Ahavah Rabo scale.

I asked the museum officials if they wanted us to stop. They said that if we wanted to continue they would support us; they suggested that I speak to the crowd and try to explain our music to them. I realized that we were at something of a cross-roads: whatever I said would either get us run out of town on a rail or save us from such a fate.

I tried to convey the spirit behind our music. I spoke about my grandmother who had escaped the pogroms of Poland and come to America where she could live freely as a Jew. I spoke about the messages and traditions behind the melodies. I tried to explain that our music celebrated peace and humanity. Yes, I got a bit righteous—but it was one of those moments where I had to lay it on the line.

We continued playing and still got flack.

During our break one man came up to me and said, “Look buddy, this may sound harsh, but this is not a good week to be talking about brotherhood.” He told me that we should stop playing. Troubled, I gathered the band for the second set. We received still more complaints when we played the klezmer standard “Ma Yofus,” another piece with the distinctive Ahavah Rabo scale. I decided to pull a chart that some of the band had never seen before, an Israeli song, “Shir LaShalom (Song for Peace),” a song, not incidentally, sung by Yitzhak Rabin only moments before he was assassinated. Before we played I read a translation of the lyrics as loudly, slowly and clearly as I could over the PA system:

Let the sun rise and give the morning light,
The purest prayer will not bring us back.
He whose candle was snuffed out and buried in the dust,
A bitter cry won’t wake him, won’t bring him back.
Nobody will return us from the dead dark pit.
Here, neither the joy of victory nor songs of praise will help.
So sing only a song for peace, don’t whisper a prayer,
It’s better to sing a song for peace with a big shout…

We then played the song, and I’ve never heard the band sound better. The challenge of a difficult audience, along with the challenge of interpreting a song that some of us had never played before, brought us to a new level. We played this piece in a way that goes beyond description. It’s why I am a jazz musician: to be able to connect with other players and with at least some of the audience in this transcendent manner.

For the remainder of our performance, I knew that there were people who were not into what they were hearing, but they knew better; they kept quiet. But after the concert we were well received. There was an audience who wanted to hear us and wanted us to keep going.

What occurred at this event exemplifies the fear that is present all over America. There is a fear of anything that is remotely Middle Eastern in nature, be it Arabic or Jewish. What happened to our band was relatively benign, but it left me worried. I worry about my Arab friends and I worry about the return of anti-Semitism and racism in America.

If discrimination takes place in the U.S.A., then those responsible for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have succeeded in their mission. Patriotism and fear are understandable and natural responses to these attacks. But there are people who allow patriotism to become bigotry, and that leaves me worried.

Originally published in December 2001

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