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Artistic empowerment and the sounds of Arab lands

Fairouz Nishanova with New Sounds of the Arab Lands, a lecture and musical performance Feb. 15  in Piper Auditorium at the Graduate School of Design, focused on how the transmission of musical traditions contribute to cultural and urban development in the rapidly changing landscape of the Middle East. A panel discussion featured Fairouz Nischanova, the director of Aga Khan Music Initiative (under the Aga Khan Development Network), Theodore Levin, professor of music at Dartmouth College, and Kay Shelemay, professor of music and African American studies at Harvard. Their conversation explored the desire for a revival of traditional music and arts that would act as a catalyst for cultural development in countries of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Discussing the benefits of music as a vehicle for the transportation of tradition as well as a strengthener of community bonds, the panelists dealt with the question of how to empower local people in the preserving, memorializing and mediating of musical traditions in countries that politically and economically are consistently in flux.The highlight of the event was the musical performance that followed the charged discussion—featuring the New Sounds Ensemble, five musicians from Syria and Tunisia, the quintet comprised of a clarinet, saxophone, violin, percussion and qanun, a traditional Arabic string instrument resembling a zither. The musicians, associated with the Aga Khan Music Initiative, combined these Western instruments with traditional Arabic instruments to provide their own take on traditional music associated with the Middle East.

To me, what was so fulfilling about the musical performance and discussion was witnessing  the desire of these young musicians, in cooperation with an international nonprofit development agency such as Aga Khan, to revitalize cultural and artistic heritage, and to push toward the future by going back to ancient roots. The event demonstrated the inherent interconnectedness of the arts and urban, economic and social development, and positioned this connection as the path to true artistic empowerment.

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