The arts profoundly reach our common core, transcend cultural barriers and link us together for a greater good. These are the reasons why Genesis at the Crossroads, a Chicago-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to bridging cultures through the arts, created The Saffron Caravan Quartet, a musical ensemble that performed on 13 April at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC for a standing-room only audience.
Bringing together musicians from Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, Canada and the United States, Saffron Caravan Quartet is comprised of: Humayun Khan, an Afghan vocalist and harmonium musician; Kiu Haghighi, an Iranian santour (stringed musical instrument) virtuoso; Jean-Christophe Leroy, an American-Canadian percussionist; and Grammy-award winner Howard Levy, a piano and diatonic harmonica prodigy from Chicago who is also the quartet’s musical director.
When the quartet performed in Washington, DC, it was joined by guest artist Haroon Alam, a native of Pakistan who played the tabla, a popular percussion instrument from South Asia. Additionally, audiences were introduced to music inspired by a collection of poems by Rahi, a contemporary Iranian poet, as well as Bedil, a contemporary Indian poet with Persian roots, both exploring love and its complexities and the metaphor of springtime.
The Caravan’s musicians engage in cross-cultural dialogue through the arts with one another and foreign guest artists wherever the ensemble travels. They collaboratively create new music while exploring the sacred and mystical traditions in Arab, Jewish and Persian music and their expansive repertoire spans multiple keys and seven languages. The musicians’ evocative melodies are infused with sub-Saharan roots of blues and jazz, including ethnic African, Sufi, Gnaoua – a mixture of sub-Saharan African, Arabic and Berber religious songs and rhythms – and Rai music, a form of folk music that is mixed with Spanish, French, African and Arabic musical forms.
It’s where jazz harmonica and piano meets the Persian santour, spiced with Afro-Caribbean percussion.
On the evening of the performance in Washington, DC, an audience member said, “Thank you for your important and inspirational work. The music and your eclectic repertoire are stunningly beautiful.”
As the ensemble travels, Genesis at the Crossroads also offers arts-education master classes, speaking engagements, community partnerships, cross-cultural exchanges and humanitarian work as a new integrated model to sustain the conversations and the cross-cultural messages of their performances.
For example, “Arm Them with Instruments”, one of the organisation’s flagship humanitarian programmes, encourages adults and children from the United States to donate musical instruments to children around the world living in conflict zones or who are dealing with challenging circumstances, and who have had few opportunities to be exposed to music and the arts. Local partnership organisations also donate music lessons to the beneficiary children through Genesis at the Crossroads. And 90 per cent of the proceeds from the ensemble’s CD sales will help underwrite Saffron Caravan’s performances around the world and facilitate the distribution of these musical instruments.
Since its establishment in 1999, Genesis at the Crossroads has paired artists from disparate communities and cultural backgrounds in a series of artistic, educational and humanitarian programmes. It has produced over 100 cross-cultural collaborations, including the pairing of a Jewish Moroccan and a Muslim Moroccan musician and the celebrated Israeli-Palestinian cross-cultural performance that became an integral part of the United Nations’ 60th anniversary celebration in 2005.
The music serves as an enduring reflection of the mission of the organisation, which is to connect people of all faiths and all backgrounds through the neutral and creative space of art, allowing them to set aside their differences with the goal of healing our fractured world.
* Wendy Sternberg, MD is Founder and Executive Director of Genesis at the Crossroads (www.gatc.org). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).