Estes Park Trail-Gazette

March 12, 2004

Fighting Fear with Music

In the United States, people fear Arabs, associating them with movie depictions of terrorists and oil sheiks or silent, veiled women, and, most detrimentally, 9/11. According to Kristina Sophia and Cameron Powers, Arabs are nothing like what most Americans think.

“There is a big fear campaign against Arabic culture,” Powers explained. The American media floods United States citizens with images of angry, militant Muslims, who are always fighting, suicide attacking or throwing bombs.

However, added Sophia, Arabs “are humans like us. They want to take care of their lives and educate their children.” Through their musical efforts, Sophia and Powers are trying to dispel these myths. On Friday, March 19, they will be showing slides, telling stories and playing traditional Arabic instruments and singing songs from the Middle East at the Park Village Playhouse, starting at 7 p.m.

Powers sings and plays the guitar and the “oud,” a short-necked, half pear-shaped, plucked lute of the Arab world, the direct ancestor of the European lute. Oud’s name derives from al-oud — Arabic for a branch of wood. Sophia sings, and additional musicians that sometimes travel with Powers and Sophia play instruments such as the “rigg” a tambourine-like percussion instrument and “darabukkah,” an hourglass-shaped drum. When in the United States, the couple plays with Sherefe, a boulder-based group that plays popular dance and folk music from the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Lebanon.

On their travels, Sophia and Powers don’t attempt to make a political statement, but rather to build bridges between two cultures. “We go over to represent the America that appreciates the Arabic-speaking world — their music, their language, their culture and their ancient wisdom,” explained Sophia. The couple then brings their message back to the United States, where in the past year they’ve done nearly 80 shows at which they encourage people to visit Arabic countries.

“If no one goes, the media can continue to perpetuate the myth of dangers,” Sophia explained. American media messages are simply untrue, the couple agrees. “It’s just a tiny percentage of people who are militant,” Sophia said. In fact, the couple agrees that in many cases they feel freer and safer when they leave the United States. “America has the highest crime rate,” Powers explained. And, added Sophia, “Even in Cairo or Damascus, crime rates are very low. Rape and murder are almost unheard of.”

Additionally, the couple says, Arabs have welcomed them into their homes and restaurants, and they have played with crowds on the street regularly. Music is the ultimate icebreaker, the couple says. Although Powers speaks Arabic and Sophia is learning, the music “comes on a heart level” which everyone understands; words aren’t even necessary.

“Singing, talking and having a good time; that’s the world that has opened up to us because we’ve opened our hearts,” she said. “Any American who goes to the Arab world is welcome.” Powers added, “people say ‘we need to see more people like you.’ They drink in the fact that Americans are willing to share rather than telling them what to do. If you’re not wearing a uniform, people totally welcome you.”

Sophia added, “If you travel as we have, you discover the world is at peace. Ninety-nine percent of people are peaceful, and the more you travel the less you become fearful. Once it sinks into your soul, you can breathe and live in peace.”

Sophia and Powers have played music with people in Syria, Jordan and Iraq, and they’ve even played in front of thousands of people at the Cairo Stadium in Egypt in order to raise money for an Egyptian children’s cancer hospital.

“We go over to represent the America that appreciates the Arabic-speaking world, their language, their music, their culture and their ancient wisdom,” explained Sophia. “It’s about building bridges between America and the Arab world.”

For more information on Musical Missions, see www.musicalmissions.com.

Duo masters musical missions

By Lizzy Scully

Cameron Powers first discovered his interest in foreign peoples while on a visit to Andean Villages in Peru in the 1960s and 1970s. Early on he discovered he could build friendships and trust through learning to play their music.

Through the 1970s, Powers received a BA in anthropology and linguistics, took a two-month intensive immersion program in Quechua (the language of indigenous peoples in Peru and Bolivia), learned Tibetan, studied in Greece and created musical instruments, learned Spanish and, all the while, raised his children.

With his band “Sherefe,” Powers began playing and performing Middle Eastern and Balkan music in Boulder. He’s studied with numerous well-known Middle Eastern musicians, and has traveled to Morocco, Turkey and Egypt for more musical education.

In 2000, Kristina Sophia joined forces with Powers and began to sing along with him in his national and international journeys. Sophia has a BA in interarts and music from Naropa Institute, and is a master practitioner of neuro linguistic programming. She has led various vocal workshops and teaches singing and sound healing.

After 9/11, Powers and Sophia noticed that people began to cancel Sherefe’s gigs, associating anything Arab with terrorism. “After 9/11 we noticed we were getting censored,” Powers explained. “So, we took a year to figure out how to re-approach being musicians that played Arabic music.”

Thus was born a renewed interest in continuing with their “musical missions.” November and December 2002, Powers and his partner Kristina Sophia journeyed through the cities and deserts of Jordan, where they played in city parks for locals. They visited Cairo, Baghdad and Amman, where they spoke with refugees and locals. After they finish their most recent travels around the United States, sharing what they have learned, the couple will return to the Middle East.