America at a Crossroads presents Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West

Sun, 11/02/2008 - 11:00pm

Beirut-based artist Kodeih (a.k.a. Rayess Bek), performing at the Roxy in Los Angeles, California.

Courtesy Firstars

Can the answer to peace and understanding between the West and Middle East be found in music? America at a Crossroads presents Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West, airing Sunday, November 2 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1) and 11 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11), a new documentary about forging ties between the West and Middle East through contemporary music. Directed and produced by Jonathan Brandeis, the 60-minute film follows legendary music impresario Miles Copeland as he visits different countries in the Middle East and meets with musicians, singers, and producers who discuss their feelings about the West, and how the political situations and wars in their countries have shaped their music and careers.  Copeland then brings them to the U.S. to collaborate with high-profile Western artists and present their music to U.S. audiences.

“The impetus for this project was to show how the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that Westerners and Middle Easterners have of each other, particularly post-9/11, can be overcome through the common ground we share in music,” said Copeland. “I am very excited that people in the Middle East and America will have a chance to see it around the same time and hopefully gain an understanding of the other’s culture that they may not have had before.”

Copeland, who has managed The Police and Sting, developed an interest in Arabic music and culture while growing up in the Middle East, where his father worked for the CIA.

Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West focuses on five Middle Eastern artists who represent a wide range of musical genres. They include:

Ilham Al Madfai, an Iraqi singer and songwriter who is a legend in the Middle East, known for his groundbreaking introduction of Western instruments into traditional Arabic music — he fled Iraq to escape pressure by Saddam Hussein’s regime to give up names of musicians suspected of being disloyal to the government; Wael Kodeih (a.k.a. Rayess Bek), a Beirut-based artist who was the first to record hip-hop music in the Middle East; Tania Saleh, a Lebanese singer whose music reflects her feelings about growing up in a chronically war-torn society  — each member of her band represents a faction involved in the Lebanese Civil War; Saad El Soghayar, an Egyptian superstar whose music reflects the everyday lives of the poor in Egypt, who make up 80% of the population; and Tareq Al Nassar, a Jordanian composer and musician who has pioneered a new movement of Arabic music that combines Eastern and Western influences.

Through the course of filming, Copeland and Brandeis faced numerous challenges in bringing the artists to the U.S.; obtaining work visas for Arabic citizens is a difficult and lengthy process, and they were prevented from traveling to Beirut to sign Kodeih and Saleh when war broke out between Lebanon and Israel.

Eventually Copeland and Brandeis succeeded in bringing the artists to Los Angeles to meet and collaborate with Western musicians and composers, including Nile Rodgers, Jack Blades, Ken Mazur, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Gos and Academy Award -winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), among others, and perform their work before an audience at the legendary Roxy nightclub. 

“America has thrived on absorbing cultural contributions from all over the world, and I don’t see any reason why this can’t be the case with Arabic music. And the more we’re exposed to Arabic music and culture, the harder it is for us to paint the Arab world as alien and hostile,” said Copeland. “That is the key to breaking down the supposed barriers that divide us.”