Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

Don't Keep Calm We’ve heard it (and probably said it) before:

It’s not my job.

They don’t pay me enough to do that.

I’m an ARTIST. I shouldn’t have to be involved in THAT.

That’s “their” problem.

While we are busy complaining about why we shouldn’t get involved in our own professional world (and watching news coverage of other events we are happy to be removed from) it is instructive to remember that some people are faced with a much different reality. For some, the choice of whether or not to get involved is a response beyond a personal need, and in fact produces far greater benefit.

Many of us seem to enjoy quibbling at the minutiae of our careers; things we can’t really do much about, like the temperature of the concert hall stage or less than ideal acoustics. We should remember, however, that we often do so from the comfort of our own complacency. Complaining about things and shifting blame is arguably human nature, but it also has become something we mindlessly aspire to in our comfortable lives. Actually doing something positive about a problem is an apparent rarity.

Kudos to the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop for doing something this past week. They took a step towards healing amidst a volatile situation in Baltimore. Alsop and the BSO provided an outdoor concert for the city, just a few days after the unrest began. They did something for the community. No telling how effective it was, but it certainly was a statement in the right direction: Things that truly matter will continue. The citizens responded with enthusiasm. (I might add, with better attendance than professional sports).

Baltimore Symphony Photo

Photo via Baltimore Symphony Facebook Page

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Photo via Time.com

We are fortunate that so few of us need take real risks to make an artistic statement. My colleague, Karim Wasfi, has been faced with the question of how to take action in his particular reality. Maestro Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and is a professional cellist. In the face of very real, life-threatening danger, Karim and others like him continue to make affirmations about what is truly worthy, thus insuring that the concepts of humanity and beauty remain a part of the conversation.

Perhaps Karim’s recent Facebook post will help bring us back to reality:

“I am stuck at home and imprisoned by the threat of three car bombs around mansur area, lost my Beethoven rehearsal with the symphony…”

Maestro Wasfi, not one to back away from the challenge of presenting classical music in a war-torn country, has made an effort to not be cowed by the threat. While he is undoubtedly careful, surely a survival trait in such a place, Wasfi does what every maestro and musician should do: insure beauty exists in the world. Whatever it takes.

“We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds. I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly. The Institute of Fine Arts lay disused for two years until we made it our home. We brought new life to the area so the entire neighborhood helps keep us safe.” –from a 1/19/2011 Wall Street Journal Interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703333504576080452174478650

Responding to conflict with music. History is seemingly repeating itself.

Recently, Karim Wasfi took his cello and visited areas recently bombed by terrorists. It’s reminiscent of Vedran Smailović, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played in bombed-out buildings during the Bosnian War.  Here is a video of Maestro Wasfi performing cello at the site of a recent car bomb attack:

Music as Action in Iraq. Music as Action in Baltimore. Now let us question why we are not doing the same in our relatively safer communities. The opportunity for leadership surely exists. As does the talent. And, I’ll wager, the need.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

For more info:

The following link is to the Washington Post story about Maestro Wasfi’s recent activities:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/after-car-bombs-an-iraqi-musician-shows-up-with-his-cello/2015/05/06/6daf256a-edf7-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html

NPR story regarding Iraqi artists’ roles in the fight against extremism:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/09/15/348760910/iraqs-artists-defy-extremists-with-bows-brushes-and-a-low-profile

And finally, a story about the Baltimore Symphony Concert amidst the conflicts in that city:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/after-turmoil-baltimore-symphony-plays-free-outdoor-concert/

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9 thoughts on “Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

  1. Artists will find the oddest things to complain about… I was fortunate enough to have the chance, between string methods and rehearsal, to go downtown that Wednesday and witness the BSO do exactly what it is we all want to do with music. It might not be much, but it is all we have as musicians, with all of the skill and love we’ve cultivated, to offer. It certainly was a stirring moment and it inspired me to find ways to become more involved with my city. I’m just one person, but I am at least one person. On the day of the event, this quote from Leonard Bernstein, whom Maestro Alsop studied with, showed up on the BSO’s announcements, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” And it will continue. Earlier this very day, small instrumental groups from the BSO were performing outside around the city. I am immensely proud of our orchestra and this city, thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Reblogged this on Ubuntu Narratives and commented:
    This reminds us of the power of music. At the bomb site of Mansour, Baghdad, where Karim Wasfi carried out an impromptu performance, policemen and random people gathered to listen. Everyone was emotionally touched. Policemen cried. Music brings people together. It is cathartic, a means of expression, and creates an environment of peace.

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