Music fest aiming to harmonize Jewish, Muslim cultures

Jews and Muslims are practically at war in the Middle East, straining relations between the two groups worldwide.

But for two weeks in March, the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Music Festival aims to transcend that tension — through music.

"I'm not naive about the political reality, or about how polarized Jews and Arabs have become," said singer and classical guitarist Gerard Edery, "but I believe music is a way to build bridges between these communities."

Edery, whose ensemble will perform a mosaic of Jewish, Muslim and Christian songs from the Golden Age of Spain on Sunday, March 10, put that theory in action while performing at the Festival of Sacred Music in his native Morocco five years ago.

Standing before a room full of Muslims, the Jewish musician launched into "a very Jewish song" in Hebrew about Elijah the prophet. Then, "without even thinking," he started teaching them the words.

"At first, I sensed a hesitation from the audience, but it didn't register why, so I persisted as I usually do," said Edery. "After a few measures I had 700 to 800 Muslims singing with me in Hebrew."

That "crossing of boundaries," as Edery calls it, is what the 17th annual Jewish Music Festival, which runs March 9 through 24, aims to achieve. Several of the seven featured musicians and groups represent a convergence of Jewish and Muslim cultural traditions.

"The overall vision of the festival is to basically use music as a vehicle of communication between peoples," explained Ellie Shapiro, festival co-director. Music, she said, "not only expresses universal emotions" but can also be used as "a tool for healing and reconciliation."

In addition to the Jewish-Muslim convergence, other festival performances include a community klezmer dance party, a German violinist playing Jewish music, a Balkan women's ensemble, and a neo-klezmer band.

Shapiro hopes the variety of acts will serve as a reminder of the Jewish people's history of interaction with other cultures.

"Our culture does not survive in a vacuum. It never has," she said. "It's important to remember and expand on that and to celebrate the richness of diaspora."

The repertoire of the opening act Shashmaqam, for instance, reflects the music of Central Asia. For that reason, Shapiro said she has increased festival outreach to the large Afghani community in southern Alameda County. So far, she has been "pleasantly surprised" by the positive reaction.

Shashmaqam's artists originate in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, a place where Jewish and Muslim musicians have long coexisted.

"Jewish people share music with the Muslim people of that region," said Shumiel Kuyanov, a member of Shashmaqam — a name that comes from the music the band performs, a classical Bukharan style that dates back centuries.

"When we used to play [for Muslims in Uzbekistan], they knew we are Jews, but they see us as Uzbekistan people" rather than as Jews, said Kuyanov, who immigrated to the United States in 1979. "Yes, there was lots of anti-Semitism, but the music [is] the same. Everything which is beautiful [in the music] we share together."

James Schlefer, a musicologist at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York, explained that the music of Central Asia is indeed all-encompassing, having been embraced by both the Jews and the Muslims.

Historically, aside from the more liturgical music based on Judaic texts, Bukharan Jews were commonly hired to play for Muslim royalty and at Muslim functions and parties, a bridging of gaps that continues today.

"It says something about the universal nature of music," said Schlefer, who will lecture on the musical fusion of Muslims and Jews in Central Asia on Thursday, March 7 in a talk at the San Francisco Public Library that is connected to the festival.

Edery, who was born in Casablanca before moving to Paris at age 4 and the United States at 8, agreed that music is universal. Like those of Central Asia, Jews and Muslims in pre-Inquisition Spain, the place of his maternal ancestry, "shared similar, musical, poetical and artistic" license.

"There was a tolerance and a cross-pollination," he said.

As for his father's side of the family, with deep roots in Morocco, Edery said his grandfather spoke only Arabic, a language he often incorporates in his own repertoire. It also was not uncommon for Jewish musicians in Morocco to adapt an Arabic tune for their own purposes, liturgical pieces included — and vice versa.

"There are tons of examples of Jewish melodies with Arab words or Arab melodies with Jewish words," said Edery, who serves as a freelance cantor for a synagogue in New York's West Village. While the two groups differed politically and religiously, when it came to music, he said, "the boundaries were not so clear cut."

However, while on tour in the United States following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Edery was surprised to find the boundaries redrawn in an unsettling way. On the tour, several of his sponsors from the American Jewish community asked him not to sing in Arabic; they thought it would upset the audience.

Edery found that preposterous, especially considering many Jews speak Arabic. "We have settled everywhere and have absorbed the language and the culture, so why are we so closed-minded?"

But he regrettably ended up caving in, and did not sing in Arabic.

"I'm not a politician or a scholar. I'm a musician. And I believe in doing what I can through music to build bridges," he said. "We should all delve into our past and embrace all our traditions, whether Jewish or Muslim. Let me sing to you in Arabic and you can sing to me in Hebrew and let's realize, very specifically, that we are Jews and Arabs are from the same soil."

Music, "the ultimate healer," added Shapiro, is the best way to embrace those traditions.

"When people begin to appreciate a people's music, it's laying the groundwork for an understanding of culture," she said. "And at a time when there is such tension between Jews and Muslims, it's healing to present music that shows that these cultures have something to say to each other."