Musical Missions of Peace spreads understanding through music

By Cara Pesek Free Press Staff Writer

Nine days after the Marines entered Baghdad, so did Kristina Sophia and Cameron Powers.

They carried no weapons. They had no fear. Instead, they stood in parks and streets, flanked by bombed out buildings, by shells of cars and shops. Powers played popular Arabic songs on an instrument called an oud as Sophia sang.

By doing so, they showed Iraqis that two Americans found their music beautiful enough to learn to play it for themselves. They showed residents of a devastated city that they wanted to understand a misunderstood culture and wanted to befriend a nation many Americans feared.

And they were met with gratitude.

People they had never met before invited Sophia and Powers into their homes. They shared meals and music. And Sophia and Powers gained a greater understanding of Middle Eastern culture, as Middle Easterners gained a better understanding of theirs. That understanding, Powers said, is the first step toward peace. Powers and Sophia, who together make up Musical Missions of Peace, will give a concert tonight at the Religious Science Spiritual Center at 1622 Glenwood Ave. The concert is part of the group's effort to spread understanding of at least one aspect of Middle Eastern culture.

"It's just a tiny percentage of people who are militant," Sophia said in a phone interview from her home in Boulder. "Most are very welcoming. We want to show that side of the Arab world."

Powers and Sophia have been trying to show that side since Sept. 11, 2001. Prior to then, the two performed Middle Eastern music across the United States. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, though, fewer and fewer people wanted to listen to music that many associated with terrorism. That's when the two decided to take their music, which Powers described as sensual, feminine and beautiful, to the place it originated. That seemed like a natural step for Powers, who has found music as a way to cross cultural boundaries his entire life.

When he was a teenager in Missouri, he played the blues with his black neighbors. In his 20s, he traveled to Peru. He had studied the language of the Inca Indians when he was in college, but found it was his knowledge of Peruvian music that really helped him to establish trust and friendships. Playing Middle Eastern music in the Middle East might accomplish the same thing, he thought. And it did.

In addition to playing in Iraq, he and Sophia have played in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt in the past two years, Powers said, also in a telephone interview. And everywhere, the reaction has been the same. Taxi cab drivers invited the musicians into their homes. Crowds clustered as the two performed and sang and danced along. When the two were in Jordan, a man declared after hearing their music that they weren't just tourists they were family. He went so far as to invite Powers and Sophia on a camping trip an offer they gladly accepted.

And each time they return to the States, Powers and Sophia are left wondering why more Americans aren't visiting these countries.

So when they're in the United States, they give performances they hope will inspire other Americans to learn a few words in Arabic or other languages and then put what they've learned to use.

Performances like tonight's.

"People need to be taking it upon themselves to buy plane tickets to travel to other parts of the world, especially those we're afraid of," Powers said. "We have to be getting out there. There is another way to approach international relations," he said.

Photos by Chris Froese/Free Press