Voices in the Wilderness

PETRA, Jordan - Only the view makes the descent to the Red Rock easier. Your feet hurt as they search for something to grab onto on the meandering road down. But your attention is not directed at them and their problems at all: At the foot of these chalk rocks with their heads in the sky, which nature has formed into incredible shapes and adorned with many colors, your eyes are always directed upward, and your attention is occupied by an attempt to take in the sights.

And now another sense is activated, your sense of hearing: The song of a choir suddenly echoes among the rocks, sacred Christian music. And a few minutes later, another choir, this time an adaptation of an Arabic song. By the last bend before the ancient Nabatean temple appears, they are all singing, each in turn: choirs from Baghdad, Damascus, East Jerusalem, Amman and Tripoli, Lebanon.

That is how the historic first festival of choirs from the Arab world, called Aswatuna, which means "Our Voices," reached one of its high points. And at the end, in a large area at the foot of the Red Rock, all the choirs gathered and sang together, realizing, in the blending of their voices, the festival's ideal.

First encounters

"Three years ago, we began to plan the convention and the festival, and it was a dream. Now it is coming true," said Andre de Quadros, the artistic director and moving spirit behind Aswatuna, which ended two weeks ago. De Quadros, a native of India who studied at the academy of music in Bombay, is a conductor, professor of music and director of the School of Music at Boston University.

"Our goal is social, consolidating the musical community in the Arab world by means of song, and we have begun here, in the Middle East," he said. "Jordan was a logical choice because today, it is the only place that everyone can reach overland."

And why in Petra of all places?

"Because it is an ancient historical site, a melting pot for the nations of the region, but also because the place is isolated, in the middle of the desert, like a monastery. Here there is no city to which one can escape for shopping or entertainment in the middle of the activity," he said with a smile.

And what motivated you personally to embark on such an initiative?

"As an Indian, I have a strong connection with the Arab world," said De Quadros. "But first of all, I really believe in building communities by means of singing together, and that a festival has the potential to be a breakthrough for that."

The power of music

A concerned note crept into the festive supper that opened the gathering: The Sharagan choir from Baghdad, conducted by Annie Melconian, had not yet arrived. Initial meetings among the participants, who were scattered randomly among the tables in order to break down barriers, took place in the shadow of this concern: 36 hours had already passed since the choir left the city, which is less than a 12-hour drive away, and it was still en route.

Nevertheless, the meal was cheerful, and its conclusion enabled the choirs to introduce themselves informally by singing among the tables. The last to sing were members of a guest choir, Voces Nordicae, from Sweden. Without even getting up from their seats, the choir's members amazed everyone with their clean, clear sound. Their singing defined an hierarchy that was maintained throughout the gathering: On one hand, the Arab choirs, whose level is high by any international criterion, but on the other hand, on an entirely different level, Voces Nordicae: a super-choir of 16 virtuoso soloists with no vocal or technical boundaries, which provided an educational model during the event by demonstrating what heights a chamber choir can achieve in terms of vocal ability and repertoire.

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, the Iraqi choir was already attending the festive reception that opened the day's events. De Quadros introduced the choir excitedly, and as its members described the trials they had experienced during the trip, the young conductor Melconian burst into tears. She is a graduate of Baghdad University, and during the two years that she has been conducting the choir - which has been more or less rehabilitated since the war and now performs on Christian holidays and at memorial events for the Armenian holocaust - she has had to survive difficult conditions in order to continue to lead the young singers.

De Quadros introduced the choirs and the conductors: Palestinian representative Hania Soudah-Sabbara of East Jerusalem, a graduate of the music academy in Jerusalem, and his Choir of the Custody of the Holy Land; conductor and executive director of the festival Shireen Abu Khader, who has a master's degree from the University of South Carolina and conducts the Jordanian choir, Dozan wa Awtar Singers; Viktor Babenko of Russia, winner of many awards, who has been teaching since 1992 at the High Institute of Music in Damascus and founded its chamber choir; and Lebanese-Armenian Barkev Taslakian, conductor of the Al Fayha choir from northern Lebanon.

"Each of those who helped to produce the convention devoted hundreds of hours over these years," said De Quadros to the hundreds of attendees, as he thanked the participants and supporters, including the International Festival for Choral Music (IFCM) and Sweden Concerts, the Swedish association for concert music. "Not in order to make music for fun, but out of thought for the long term - so that choirs will meet one another year after year, for a week of work and singing. We want to build the infrastructure for that together, and we believe in the power of music. What this week leaves within us will define the continuation."

The first Arab choral festival was underway.

Western influence

In the common perception, a mixed four-part choir of men and women is a foreign implant in the Arab cultural-musical world. The Arab vocal tradition is seen as based only on soloists accompanied by an instrument, and the singing is meant to arouse strong feelings by expressing profound sadness or great happiness. But the week of singing at the choral festival demonstrated totally different aspects of this culture.

The first hint of that appeared at a concert of the music institute choir from Damascus. The 40-minute performance excited the festival's participants, as they heard Western choral music, adaptations of Arab songs, a Ukrainian folk song and, for the finale, an Arab spoken song about a pretend quarrel between girls and boys, which brought the listeners to their feet. From jazz rhythms to Arab quarter tones - it had everything.

Religious, folkloristic and classical choral genres have always existed in the Arab musical world alongside solo performances. That was demonstrated by the head of the National Conservatory for Music in Amman, Kifah Fakhouri, who related the history of Arab group singing. People always sang together, he said - work songs, life cycle songs and religious songs. But the rise of radio, Egyptian films and the advent of missionaries from the West led to the emergence of the concept of the choir.

One after another, the choirs demonstrated a high level of technique, vocal production, work and choice of repertoire. But it turns out that this high level did not result from a comprehensive, nationwide musical education system in those countries. These choirs are isolated, localized phenomena, the fruit of the vision of people dedicated to the idea.

In Damascus, according to a Palestinian colleague who recently returned after living there for eight years (Syrians are forbidden to talk to Israelis, and at this festival, too, they strictly observed this prohibition), the music institute's choir is the only professional choir, and acceptance to the institute depends on one of two conditions: growing up in a family with a Western cultural bent that can afford to pay for music lessons for the children from an early age, or being exceptionally talented. Nevertheless, it is clear that the choirs at the festival reflect a process of awakening to concert music that is occurring in all the Arab countries.

The most hidden emotions

The feeling throughout the festival was that there was no time to waste. Organizers De Quadros and Abu Khader are totally devoted to the event, and the schedule was murderous: After the early breakfast, people immediately divided into working groups - separate vocal workshops for the male and female singers, lectures about music in the Arab world and choral music in general, a round-table discussion about the problems of conductors and musical directors of choirs in Arab countries and ways of solving them. At lunchtime, there were concerts by the choirs, and after the quick lunch, a joint rehearsal by all the choirs for the final concert.

The evening brought more workshops and individual rehearsals, or special events such as the journey to Petra, and at night came the opportunity for parties and meeting new people. And it was the same every day. Only on the last day, before the final concert at Little Petra, at the foot of one of the pinkish temples in the fissures of the rocks, was it possible to find the words "free time" in the schedule - two hours during which the hundreds of participants could breathe easy for a little while.

The concert by the Al Fayha choir from Lebanon was another high point, and as in other concerts, here, too, the special attitude of all the attendees to the Palestinians and their struggle was evident. The choir sang a refined repertoire of Arab music and Christian church music and ended with the song "Jerusalem" by Lebanese singer Fairuz, in which she integrated the calls of the muezzin and passages of Christian prayer with great virtuosity.

All eyes were on Hania Soudah-Sabbara, the conductor of the Palestinian choir. "I hope that next year, we will all be able to hold the festival in Jerusalem, that you will all be able to come to us," she said. "Jerusalem is yours just as it is mine. That is my prayer." And many had tears in their eyes.

"This is a short event, but the idea and the vision behind it are great: to bring together, for the first time, musicians and ensembles from the Arab world who have never heard one another," said Shireen Abu Khader. "This is a workshop for singing, but it is more than that - it is building a community infrastructure and making peace. Music can express our most hidden emotions, and through it, and through the connection that has been formed among us, we will be able to make this come true."