Ignite the Light: The Jam Session

Imagine, it’s your first day meeting them. You remember the stories told in your childhood that taught you to never trust them. When passing in the street, you were strangers. While buying from the same grocery store, you were still strangers. From your birth in the same hospitals until this very moment, you were still strangers.

But here as youth, you both are finally in the same room face to face with only instruments and voices of all kinds in hand to distinguish one band member from another. No script is available. A count down of, “a one, a two; a one, two, three” signals it’s time to jump in. Sounds melt and mold together, soon to create a semblance of unified ideas. You improvise a line of music in the jam, and to your surprise, so can they, in fact, quite well. A smile appears on your face as you think to yourself, “Let’s see what else they can do. Let’s see what else we can do.”

Welcome back from the daydream! Though you were about to have the time of your life, alas I bring you back to reality to discuss further the power of: The Jam Session.

There is much significance in utilizing jam sessions as an exercise in music intervention programs. In my opinion, a “jam session” cannot be defined in one way, since every jam session holds its own purpose. A jam session could:

  • explore a certain sound, timbre, or feeling
  • search for the next section of a song
  • test the limits of an already established song
  • practice the technique of improvisation
  • challenge musicians by putting them “on edge” to produce new musical ideas on the spot
  • create a bonding experience to connect individuals

One could say that jamming has a place in the creation of most genres of music at least at some point. One genre in particular that places much importance in jam sessions is none other than jazz.

In late January, the importance of jam sessions was brought to light by the current “The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad” program’s resident musical group while on tour in Zimbabwe. Stated by drummer and band leader, Michael Raynor, of The Dennis Luxion + Michael Raynor Quartet,

“To a large extent, the greatest musicians in this music [jazz] learned how to play simply by playing with other great musicians, getting on the band stage and learning right on the spot, and being in there, the atmosphere, hearing players that maybe already know how to play and then stepping up and trying to play what you have learned so far, right in that setting.” (The Zimbabwean)

The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program is co-organized by the U.S. Department of State and Jazz at Lincoln Center “to share America’s unique contribution to the world of music and to promote cross-cultural understanding and exchange among nations worldwide.” (The Rhythm Road) Essentially, the U.S. State Department is employing music intervention techniques that empower youth and transform conflict as a diplomatic track.

Interestingly enough, this format of outreach combines several tracks of diplomacy. At the top level, there is Track I Diplomacy: government-to-government interaction. At the grassroots level, there is Track II diplomacy: informal interactions by unofficial actors of civil society. In this case, the U.S. State Department and Zimbabwean government of Track I diplomacy are supporting citizen diplomacy  by using The Dennis Luxion + Michael Raynor Quartet as “cultural ambassadors” of Track II diplomacy.

Why did The Dennis Luxion + Michael Raynor Quartet choose jam sessions, besides the inherent importance of jam sessions in jazz, for their workshops with Zimbabwean youth? What are the benefits of using jam sessions in a music intervention setting?

For a music intervention program to succeed, the youth participants must be “put on edge” to deliver an accountable product in front of their peers and family. This is why much emphasis is placed on the importance of providing frequent performance opportunities, besides the essential purpose of performance in music. Not only must youth participants feel challenged by the responsibility of producing an exhilarating outcome when placed in front of peers and family, but as well consider what is required to plan that success. Am I improving in my daily practicing? How can I implement the instruction from my teachers? Do I feel good about the sound I’m producing? What can I do to improve my ensemble while playing/singing/rapping? How do I feel about my fellow musicians? These questions must be identified and asked. Sometimes the answers are not fully discovered until the performance.

This is where jam sessions can serve the benefits of in-the-moment, interactive music making. In the same fashion as a performance, jam sessions will put youth participants “on edge” to produce an accountable product on the spot, while flexing their creativity.When applied in a setting of conflict transformation, the results are of high-potential  with the ability to ignite further engagement and reconciliation. Many youth involved in peace education who have participated in a jam session identify the experience as memorable, enlivening, meaningful, and of course, a whole lot of fun! They speak of an energy created immediately upon playing music together, and the surprise of how easy it is to musically interact with the “other”. By the end of the jam session, the conflict’s uneven plain dividing society is muted in comparison to an established space of equality. Subsequently, an individual is not initially recognized with the prescribed title of ‘Type A’ or ‘Type B’, but rather entrusted with the same inalienable humanistic needs for security and prosperity.

Want to know more about the Dennis Luxion + Michael Raynor Quartet and their travels? Check out their blog: http://michaelraynor.net/dlmr4/

1. “Commonly Used Terms.” Search for Common Ground. Search for Common Ground. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://www.sfcg.org/resources/resources_terms.html&gt;.

2. “Letter from Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad. Jazz at Lincoln Center. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. <http://jalc.org/theroad/about_letterfromjalc.asp&gt;.

3. Staff Reporter. “Jam Sessions a Big Part of Jazz Education: U.S. Jazz Quartet.” The Zimbabwean. Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwea, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/entertainment/music-and-dance/55912/jam-sessions-a-big-part.html?utm_source=thezim&utm_medium=homepage&utm_campaign=latestarticles&gt;.

Peace-building with Music for the Peace-builders

Peace-building is a transformative process that requires daily objectives met with long-term goals. Though the gun shots may have ceased, bitterness and distrust between communities in conflict can be a narrative just as strong as before. Those who dedicate their lives to peace-building search for ways through which a post-conflict atmosphere transforms into a sustainable, equitable future for all parties involved. Many times, peace education, community engagement, interfaith relations, economic incentives, etc., are all utilized to establish democracy, equality, and social justice in the adjusting society.

In case you are wondering, it is no easy job! As my good friend and peacemaker Aziz Abu Sarah always says (in summary), “You have to wake up every day and decide that you will continue to do this work.” His statement is not one of reluctance and dismay. No. His invigorated words are those of determination and hope.

It is true that peace-builders devote their lives to the improvement of society. Still, do peace-builders need to consider the importance of building peace introspectively? In light of the allegiance to altruism, how should peace-builders consider their needs and continue to be altruistic? Let me introduce you to Reverend Donald Reeves who utilizes the music of J.S. Bach to heal and alter the way he sees his world as a peace-builder in the Balkans.

“During ten years of peace-building in the Balkans, I have been nourished by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his organ music, which I perform. Playing his music is helping to change the ways in which I see the world. It redresses the balance from a bleak view of human affairs to a saner and more hopeful perspective.” Rev. Donald Reeves (“Peacebuilding and Bach”)

Rev. Reeves is a practitioner in a peace building initiative bringing together Orthodox Serbs in the monasteries  of Pec and Decani with Kosovo Albanians in the surrounding area to strengthen inter-religious, inter-ethnic, and inter-cultural understanding. He concludes that Bach’s music has assisted him during the course of his work. Beside the technical details of visiting the organ every practice session to work on advancing its production for performance and musicality with such concentration and emotional acuteness, Rev. Reeves relates to Bach’s life story.

” Bach’s life was punctuated by the devastation of death. Orphaned at the age of ten, thereafter one member of his family died after the other. So much of his music expresses a long­ing for death, as if his death were a way of escaping his grief and of being reunited with those he has loved. I can relate this to the longing and hope for peace, for union with God.” (“Peacebuilding and Bach”)

What is it about the practice and performance of music that is so meditative and cleansing to the mind and the soul? Beyond the feelings expressed, there is scientific evidence that proves music’s intoxicating effect.

Scholars at McGill University completed a study in 2011 stating, “our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”) Scientists tested subjects with MRI imaging while they listened to a song they loved that created ‘chills’ or ‘musical frission’ and as well, while they listened to a song of neutral response. Then by looking at the brain patterns created during the imaging, scientists “identified  dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains ‘at peak emotional arousal during music listening’.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”) Thus, the human brain reaches a musical high.

The participants, who answered an advertisement to undergo the study and were checked for mental illness before hand, were requested to also keep tract of: the number of chills, the intensity of chills, and level of pleasure they felt during certain passages. These observations were then matched to the brain patterns in the imaging. The writers of the study concluded,

“If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”)

In my personal experience as well, the listening, practice, and performance of music creates a space and intensity of feeling beyond the justice of words. I find certain genres and composers more stimulating at times than others, though as Rev. Reeves, I can always turn to Bach. One of my previous music teachers explained to me in a lesson that the little bit of space between Man’s finger reaching out to G-d’s finger in the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can be filled with Bach’s Chaconne.

There are many tough choices peacebuilders face every day that have nothing to do with their own well-being. Some burnout eventually. Others may continue, but do so unhealthily while resorting to releases that may not support their desired lifestyle or reflect their public image. It is a struggle we all face, no matter peacebuilder, community leader, music director, activist, etc. Undoubtedly, this includes music intervention practitioners,  affecting their success rate in teaching music, empowering youth, and transforming conflict.

Out of all the daily tough choices, the inclusion of oneself in the process of healing should not be withheld. My choice of healing is through the power of music.

  1. Lasar, Mathew. “Turns out That Music Really Is Intoxicating, after All.” Ars Technica. Conde Nast Digital, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/01/turns-out-that-music-really-is-intoxicating-after-all.ars&gt;.
  2. Reeves, Rev. Donald. “Peacebuilding and Bach.” Transconflict. Transconflict, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://www.transconflict.com/2012/01/peacebuilding-and-bach-231/&gt;.

A Language for the Unspeakable

In describing a situation of conflict, words detailing traumatic events can be hard to find. The thoughts and feelings evoked by the conflict may remain dormant for many years when no language of words exists to reflect upon the experience! How do we create a language for the unspeakable?

Professor John Paul Lederach of the University of Notre Dame explains how to create a language for the unspeakable, among other conflict transformation topics, in his recent radio interview  with NPR reporter with Krista Tippett, “The Art of Peace.”

To listen to the full podcast, please click here.

The highly praised work of Professor Lederach deserves a closer look for its encouraging contributions to music intervention theory that empowers youth and transforms conflict. This is apparent in his compelling interview.

After discussing the abstract of creative process in peacemaking, Lederach points to a very common human behavior that is within the realm of the familiar: habit. It is the shpilkes* of human behavior, where an individual constantly repeats a cycle of actions sans conscious decision. Routine may get a bad rap as signaling a lack of change or imagination, yet what if we alter our thinking of what constitutes routine? Ledearch gives an example in the interview of what he jokingly says to his colleagues about attending mass,

“Imagine for a moment if the funding agencies were coming here to Notre Dame and were inquiring about your behavior that they are noticing, which is that you keep doing mass, some of you every day, most of you at least once a week- is there something that is not effective about how you’re doing mass?

With this example, Lederach identifies a repetitious human action that is not linear with steps 1, 2, & 3. Rather, it is ritualistic and circular. Instead of thinking of a circular motion as inert going no where, he describes it as “a deepening.” Imagine a corkscrew. Its shape is circular but not static. Lederarch continues by stating that music or sound falls into this category of ritualistic, circular “deepening”. This is where we can find a language for the unspeakable.

There are many ways to define what music is on the basis of its multiple identities. One fact that musicians, educators, and theorists can agree upon is that when the sound is, as my mom calls it, pulled out from an instrument, the body of the instrument vibrates. In particular with string instruments, if you place the bow on the string (let’s say at the Frog which is at the bottom of the bow) and pull a long down-bow stroke rubbing against the string until the bow’s tip and then take the bow off the string, you can see the string vibrating in a circular motion. If a person placed their fingers on the backside of the instrument during the stroke of the bow, he/she would feel the instrument slightly vibrating. The vibrations give feeling.The repetition of doing this movement over and over again creates sounds of consonances and dissonances forming melodies and motifs in a piece of music.  The ritualistic practice of playing the instrument every day actualizes a circular pattern of action or habit.

Lederach claims that violence numbs an individual “destroying a person’s capacity to perceive themselves as an integrated part of a whole.” (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) Playing an instrument, singing, raping, humming, etc., creates a means of expression that can not only help a person awaken through feeling, but as well find a means to express experiences and emotions for which there are no words. Lederach calls it a “whole body experience” that “connects the mind and the heart” towards healing and reconciliation. (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) This holistic approach creates a language for the unspeakable.

You can guess what the next two books are on my reading list!

  1. The Moral Imagination– John Paul Lederach
  2. When Blood and Bones Cry Out– Angie Lederach & John Paul Lederach

“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Living. NPR. KUHF, Houston, Texas, 12 Jan. 2012. Radio.

*Shpilkes is a Yiddish word that describes the nervous movement that one does unconsciously when speaking in front of a crowd. For ex.: the unconscious swaying back in forth from one foot to the other while speaking in front of the classroom.

Beyond Closed Borders: The Power of Music Seeps Through

Our world is full of borders separating countries, cutting-off communities, and preventing the free movement of basic goods. How secure are these borders in a modern world? Rather than taking down borders and building bridges through dialogue and transforming initiatives, governments seem to focus more on developing advanced security systems, to their rationale, to protect and create a sense of safety.  With the advent of the Internet and its mass usage in creative ways, do borders and security systems still live to their purpose or have they grown archaic in our tech-run world?

Young Palestinian musicians in Gaza may have a word or two to say about this matter and through the Internet, their voices are heard.

Gaza, located next to the State of Israel and Egypt, is a 360 square mile densely populated area that is completely closed off to the rest of the world besides two border crossing at the Erez Crossing with the State of Israel in the north and the Rafah Crossing with Egypt in the south. Currently governed by the Islamist group, Hamas, Israel and Egypt have shared responsibility for enclosing the area since 2006. Besides the basic calorie by calorie necessities to live and so often celebrity politician visits, the siege on Gaza does not allow much to enter nor much to exit. Unemployment is high. Basic food items such as flour and water can be hard to come by. The sewage and electricity systems are in need of repair and not always fit for use creating public health concerns.

Despite all of these problems that instill fear and desperation in many, let’s listen to the voices of young Palestinians who are empowered by music education taught at The Gaza Music School.

It was damaged by an Israeli bomb – but the Gaza Music School is quickly becoming a symbol of resilience.
The Independent

It is late afternoon and in a room darkening by the minute because of an all-too-familiar power cut, Shaden Shabwan, just 10 and a study in concentration, plays a Czech folk tune on an upright Yamaha piano as her teacher wills her to avoid mistakes. It is test day for piano students at the Gaza Music School, where Shaden is in her second year. Across the corridor, her classmate Abdel Aziz Sharek, also 10, is just as focused. Accompanied on ouds and tabla, he dexterously picks out a mesmerising classical longa on the qanun, the zither-like instrument that has been central to Arab music for a millennium or more. Abdel Aziz takes his regular studies as seriously as he evidently does the music. “I want to be a doctor,” he explains. “But I will keep playing. I will be in a band at the same time.”

Back in the piano room, Sara Akel plays two études by the Austrian composer Carl Czerny and a Bach Polonaise, with such confidence that you would never guess, if you shut your eyes, that she was only 12. Sara prefers music to academic subjects at school. “I really love it here,” she says. “The teachers are so nice and talented. I’m really looking to be a professional musician.” In Gaza? “Why not?”

It’s a fair question. This centre of artistic excellence may conflict with Gaza’s popular image. But it is already nurturing a young musical generation worthy of its peers elsewhere. Each of the 52 boys and 73 girls come three times a week after school for two sessions of learning an instrument and one for theory. While many have never touched a musical instrument before, they have all passed competitive tests of ear and rhythm to get in.

Among several Gaza prizewinners who performed in the last national Palestinian music competition by video link – because students cannot leave the territory – a seven-year-old qanun player, Mahmoud Khail, came first in his age group. This April the school will become the fifth full branch of the Edward Said National Music Conservatory – the leading Palestinian music institution named after the nationalist writer and music lover who died in 2003.

But the school is also a powerful symbol of Gaza’s resilience. It was founded three years ago at Palestinian Red Crescent premises in Gaza City’s Tel el Hawa district with finance from the Qattan foundation and the Swedish government. The first crop of students gave their first concert on 23 December, 2008.

Four days later, Israel’s military onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza opened with an aerial bombardment which landed a direct hit on the Preventative Security HQ and damaged nearby buildings including the school. Director Ibrahim Najar, a music graduate from Cairo University and a maestro of the qanun, was in the building at the time. He suffered only cuts and bruises and came back two days later to store the instruments in the school’s innermost space, the bathroom.

But then on 14 January, Israeli troops entered Tel el Hawa. The PRCS building was hit, and the school and several of its instruments, including the precious piano, were destroyed. Thanks to the US NGO Anera, replacements were brought across the border despite the Israeli-imposed blockade, including two brand new pianos, and the school was up and running in new premises.

That the school offers European as well as Arab classical music is thanks to a group of musically qualified east European women among the sizeable number who married Gazan men travelling to the former Soviet bloc for study. Yelina Lidawi, a North Ossetian, graduated from Rostov Conservatory and taught music in Vladikavkaz before coming to Gaza with her husband in 1999. Yet, having no piano, like her pupils (unlike Abdel Aziz, who has a more transportable qanun) she depends at home on a digital keyboard. In all of Gaza, with its population of 1.5 million, she estimates there are probably only half a dozen pianos. Gracefully acknowledging the talents of her charges, she points out that “we make a very strong selection. Last year we had to choose 40 pupils out of 250 who applied”.

Although tuition is at present free, many pupils are middle-class by Gaza standards – often with professional or academic parents. But beside running a scholarship programme in its existing centres to ensure that no talented pupil is excluded by poverty, the Conservatory has a growing outreach to more deprived, or culturally conservative areas.

Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said Conservatory, tells of an encounter on a recent trip to Gaza. At a school in Bureij, chosen for one of the network of choirs the conservatory also runs in Palestinian refugee camps across the region, the headmaster told him about two 11-year-old boys whose behaviour and academic achievement was so poor they were on the point of expulsion. “They both happened to have nice voices and joined the choir,” Mr Khoury says. “The head said their personalities had changed; they had something to show for themselves. He said: ‘I want to thank you for that.’ That made my day.”

Musically speaking, Edward Said’s name is best known for the West-Eastern Divan orchestra he formed with Palestinian and Israeli musicians in 1999 with the conductor Daniel Barenboim. But the conservatory that bears his name doesn’t work with the orchestra, believing in a cultural boycott of Israel until the 44-year-old occupation ends. Acknowledging that he differs both from Mr Barenboim and the late Said about this, Mr Khoury asks: “What is this orchestra telling the world – that Palestinian and Israelis can play together? We know that.”

The stance did not stop the conservatory-run Palestine National Orchestra playing an inaugural concert in the mixed Israeli city of Haifa last January. The target audience was Israeli Arab but Jews – and Israeli TV – were welcome. Mr Khoury had declared: “Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state.” After all, Israel’s birth in 1948 came 12 years after the formation of the orchestra which became the Israel Philharmonic.

Back in the Gaza Music School, 20 or so young voices resonate from a lecture room this chilly winter afternoon, softening to near inaudibility before rising to a crescendo as they run through their scales. Ibrahim Najar is at the piano coaxing his solfège class to extend their vocal range. Afterwards the pupils talk music. “I used to like the piano but I preferred the qanun,” says Adnan al Ghalban, 11, from the southern city of Khan Yunis. “It talks better than the piano.”

Feras Adas, a café owner’s son, explains how he first started to play a cousin’s guitar. “I learned from him but I made lots of mistakes before. Now I want to be a big musician in guitar.” Asked if, with talk of a fresh Israeli invasion, he fears the music school could be bombarded again, he has his own nine-year-old take on the power of music to transcend borders and battle lines. “I think it will not be hit,” he says cheerfully. “The Jews like this kind of thing.”