Entertainment

Music series fights division with an ‘Axis of Love’

Riyaaz Qawwali, a Houston-based ensemble whose South Asian members come from a variety of faiths and countries, perform on March 12.
Riyaaz Qawwali, a Houston-based ensemble whose South Asian members come from a variety of faiths and countries, perform on March 12.

The phrase Axis of Love brings a number of contradictory associations to mind. One, of course, is “Axis of Evil,” the term used by former President George W. Bush for countries he accused of fostering terrorism. The Axis was also the name for the fascist forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, whom the United States fought in World War II.

But when Rhythm Foundation artistic director Laura Quinlan and her collaborators came up with the title of the concert series that kicks off this Sunday at the North Beach Bandshell, they wanted to flip the notion of malevolent forces. As political and religious division, fear of or anger at immigrants and refugees, racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism rise, that effort seems more important than ever to the longtime world music presenter.

“We’re going to resist with a love army,” Quinlan says. “At the start of our current political cycle there was an element of nationalism and racism, but it was fringe. Oh we’re going to build a wall, ha ha ha. It was funny. Now it’s not funny. And it’s not how we think of ourselves as committed practitioners of shared experiences embracing multi-culturalism. This series was a chance to ... nourish our core values and open ourselves up to all the people who feel the same way. And hope that we can be a beacon of positivity into the world.”

The three-part series features artists from the Middle East and North Africa who play quiet, meditative and spiritual music. The aim is to expose cultures that seem fearfully foreign to many in the West.

“These are countries you hear about for war and violence and terrorism,” Quinlan says. “In fact the musicians and artists in these countries have suffered as much as anybody at the hands of fundamentalists. ... Music and women’s rights, you can’t have those.”

This Sunday features the duo of Ballaké Sissoko, a master of the kora, a harp-like instrument from his native Mali, and French cellist Vincent Segal, who play a haunting mix of traditional and contemporary music. The March 12 concert is by Riyaaz Qawwali, a Texas-based ensemble of musicians from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who play qawwali, a 700-year-old Sufi spiritual music. The final show, on March 26, is with Egyptians Tarek Abdallah and Adel Shams El Din, virtuosos on the oud, a lute-like Middle Eastern instrument, and the riq, a kind of tambourine.

Sonny, the leader of Riyaaz Qawwali, says he and his compatriots started the group to expose their cultures and an ancient music based on an intimate connection to God, in the country they call home. Like the rest of the ensemble, who are immigrants and sons of immigrants, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic and atheist, he does not give his last name, because it would provide crucial clues to their national origin and faith to other South Asians.

“In our communities it puts us in a box,” says Sonny, pointing to a history of sometimes violent divisions between Hindus and Muslims and India and Pakistan. “From the outside it adds to perceptions you already have.”

Instead Riyaaz Qawwali, which has performed at New York festivals and the Getty Museum in L.A. and been featured on NPR, emphasizes its common humanity. Although Texas is a politically conservative state, Houston, where the group is based, is one of the most diverse cities in the country, with many South Asian and Asian immigrants as well as those from Latin America.

“When I take the stage I sing in the languages of South Asia, but in the context of I’m American, and America now includes this brownness,” Sonny says. “Wherever we are we need to start making our presence known.”

He says this is crucial at a moment when racially motivated violence and xenophobic incidents, like the recent case where a Kansas man shot two Indian men in a bar, killing one, are on the rise. The shooter, who is white, is reported to have believed the men were Iranian and to have told them to “get out of my country.”

“When I take the stage I sing in the languages of South Asia, but in the context of I’m American, and America now includes this brownness,” Sonny says. “We’re all American and we all need to contribute to that fabric.”

He says this is crucial at a moment when racially motivated violence and xenophobic incidents, like the recent case where a Kansas man shot two Indian men in a bar, killing one, are on the rise. The shooter, who is white, is reported to have said he believed the men were Iranian and to have told them to “get out of my country.”

“It is more important than ever before to talk about similarities today, and more important to talk about the differences than ever before,” Sonny says. “I’m human — that’s where we need to start.”

Qawwali music, whose most famous exponent was late world music star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, emphasizes a personal, direct connection to God, Sonny says. The songs often emphasize love and longing, which could be for a spouse or lover, for a spiritual teacher, or for God.

“There’s a continual double meaning in the word beloved,” Sonny says. “We want that ambiguity.”

Their concert, like the others in the series, will have the group sitting in a circle with their audience, following what Quinlan says is a tradition in the Middle East.

“A lot of this music is for people sitting in a home or a temple or a mosque sharing an experience,” she says. “So we want to create an axis of love inside the bandshell, too.”

If You Go

What: Axis of Love concert series

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

7 p.m. March 12, Riyaaz Qawwali

7 p.m. March 26, Tarek Abdallah and Adel Shams El Din

Where: North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

Info: $24.60 at rhythmfoundation.com

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