Baghdad and Beyond: Musical Missions of Peace to the Middle East

April 18th, 2003: carrying my oud (Middle-Eastern lute) in its recognizable black case, Kristina and I venture out into the streets of downtown Baghdad. Pillars of black smoke are rising from half a dozen nearby high-rise office buildings.

"Aiwa, ana a'azif a'oud," (Yes, I play the oud,) I respond to the question asked by one of a group of men on the sidewalk. I take the oud out of its bag and begin to play and sing a "mawal" in Iraqi style.

"Lamma ana huwa qobail el sobah..." I begin... Certain men begin to sing along as I progress into this well-known stylized introduction made popular by Sabah Fakri. I see eyes closing and heads and necks swaying as the musical flow develops. Halfway through the introduction an Iraqi man lovingly brushes my eyebrows back into place while I sing. We reach the beginning of the melody: "foq' nahel fo-o-o-o-oq' yaba..." Others join in the singing. More people gather. The crowd grows larger. Dancing begins to happen. Polite applause ensues.

"Where are you from?" we are asked by someone in the Iraqi crowd. "

"From America."

"We need to see more people like you!" we are told.

Several months earlier, in the fall of 2002, I suddenly realized that we, the people, had to take international relations into our own hands because the governments seemed headed on hopelessly downward spirals. I have, between my endless cycles of working and raising kids, done a considerable amount of travel in my life. And I have, since my early twenties, always enjoyed learning and performing popular music from other nations. In the early '70's I was part of the only Andean band performing in Boulder, Colorado. I had spent eight years making trips to Peru and Bolivia. Not satisfied with being an itinerant mountaineer, I milked American linguistics departments in Boulder, Berkeley and Cornell for knowledge of the Inca language.

I immersed myself in Andean village life and found myself becoming fluent in both the language and the music. In fact, I soon realized, it was the music which gave me a cultural passport with which I felt welcomed into village life. As the first foreigner to walk into a remote Inca village three-days-walk from the nearest road back in 1968, my distinct appearance alone had caused the villagers to hide. After fifteen minutes of singing Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" on my cheap marketplace guitar, the whole population was back, we were having a party and the Indians eagerly invited me into their huts. I stayed there for weeks and returned many times over the next eight years. And soon I learned to sing their songs with them! And I did the other obviously neighborly thing: I learned, as best as I could, to speak their language!

I then explored Greece with my new Greek girlfriend and immersed myself in Athenian bouzouki styles. Back in Colorado a year later, I created or joined a string of Boulder-based bands: The Silk Route, The Boulder Bouzouki Band, Solspice, Sherefe, and expanded my musical repertoire to include additional Balkan, Mexican and finally, at the request of my Belly Dancer friends for whom I played in local Greek restaurants, Arabic and Turkish styles. The maqam (modal musical scales) teachings I acquired from Middle Eastern Music Camp in Mendocino and Arabic Music Retreat in Holyoke gave me the tools I needed to learn this music.

How then, did I end up here in Baghdad? And how did my new partner Kristina come to be here as well? I do not exaggerate when I tell you that, as I said, last fall I suddenly realized with an absolute electrifying certainty that our governments, on a world-wide basis, were failing at representing the vast majority of humanity who seek nothing more than peaceful survival and co-existence. I had spent enough time in Latin America, the Balkans and the Arab world to know that we, the people, were not being represented. I knew that our leaders were pulling us into a fear-ridden morass of falsehoods which would only create one ugly disaster after the next. We, the people, the ordinary citizens of planet earth, must take matters back into our own hands and act in accordance with the best faith from our hearts to build bridges of communication in spite of our governments' policies of tearing them down. I'm not kidding.

Kristina, who has a degree in music from Naropa University, had become my partner in music and in life two years earlier and was hungry to explore the roots of the Arabic music she had been embracing and learning to sing. We followed our own "urgent travel advisory": and bought tickets to the Arab world! I felt so ashamed that our government was not in any way representing the musicians' and dancers' path: to enter into an endless love affair with all humanity by learning each others' music and language…

And so we spent November and December in Jordan and the West Bank, singing night and day with whichever Arab-speaking peoples we encountered. We had huge songfests in parks in downtown Amman; we sang from the back seats of Palestinian taxis to passing audiences on our way to Ramallah; we became famous in Aqaba almost overnight for singing in the butchers' markets down by the Red Sea… We were invited by an Iraqi musicians' association to perform in Baghdad, but Saddam's government refused our request for visas.

Desperately hoping war could still be avoided, we bought tickets to return to Egypt and Jordan in March and April of this year. We did not expect to be singing in Baghdad, but when we sang for the Jordanian authorities who could issue visas to pass their border into Iraq, they supported our mission to represent a peace-loving America so strongly that we could not help but follow our hearts to the capitol of Iraq, nine days after the U.S. Marines had entered the city…

So here we were singing with a group of Iraqis on the streets of downtown Baghdad.

"He also plays!" several men point out a certain man to whom I pass the oud. Another song: I don't know this one, but everyone else does... Then another one... Then it's our turn again. Kristina takes the vocal lead in a song called "Daret el Ayam" made famous by the Egyptian all-time ultra-singer-Goddess Um Kolthoum.

Down the street the U.S. Marines are clustered around the journalists holed up in the Palestine Hotel.

One Iraqi man, middle-aged with sunglasses, after listening appreciatively to our music, approached us and asked us to take a message from him to President Bush: "Tell him to fix everything he destroyed and to take his Marines out of here!"

Another middle-aged Iraqi man disagreed: "No, no, Bush and Blair must be thanked for ridding us of Saddam!"

But most of the conversation continued about the music: "I want you to come to my music school," a young student told us, "and meet my oud teacher! He wrote a book about Iraqi maqamat (musical modes)!"

We wander through the streets past debris remaining from the bombing and the shooting and the looting... Small boys are playing soccer in the alleyways, oblivious to the thick smoke.

We walk down towards the Tigris river but are turned away by a Marine guard. He tells us that the banks of the river are cordoned off and being used as a Marine campground. "I wouldn't be out here," he cautioned, "we've got snipers on all the rooftops."

"Did he mean Iraqi snipers or Marine snipers?" I later asked Kristina. We weren't sure what he had meant. He seemed to be referring to another reality that we had chosen not to share.

Soon a passing car stopped and a large man emerged, again excited to see us carrying the oud. Another songfest followed, this time right across from the square where the Marine tank had pulled a huge statue of Saddam off its pedestal.

It seemed so odd. We were living inside our musical reality. We felt completely welcomed on every street corner. We received invitations to visit peoples' homes. Why are the governments struggling so hard to convince the people that we should all live in fear?

We made no effort to deny that we were Americans. Yet not far away the Marines, most of them younger than our own kids, were struggling with a very different reality. I showed one of them my oud. "Wow, cool!" he said. "Kind of like a bass, huh?" I felt intensely sorry for him. He was trapped in his uniform and in his role as a soldier.

Our reception, as Americans who sing popular Arabic songs, had been the same everywhere: Cairo, Aqaba, Amman, Ramallah, Baghdad. "Welcome!" we were constantly greeted and then treated to flurries of personal invitations to meet and eat and sing and play with families in their homes... in parks, theaters and restaurants... The Arab thirst for this musical connection went on and on. I don't recall feeling unwelcome anywhere.

In Cairo we held our own songfest demonstration of solidarity with Egyptians in Tahrir Square while the bombing in Baghdad was at its height. Tahrir Square is where 100,000 Egyptians had amassed two weeks earlier in a vast anti-American protest. When we spoke of Iraq with the Egyptians, we could frequently see tears run down their cheeks. But when we began to sing the popular music of their country we were surrounded by a smiling, laughing crowd. The young women and men were clapping and dancing to our songs. A 3-year-old boy did a fantastic solo dance.

In Aqaba, down by the shore of the Red Sea at the southern end of Jordan, we became the stars of several large outdoor song and dance fests. Free tea was served. We were adopted by a Bedouin family who took us, at their expense, on a two-day journey into the desert canyons where we danced and sang and absorbed their poetry, songs and tales.

In Ramallah, we became the entertainment in a local restaurant where the young Palestinian women locked souls and voices with Kristina as she sang Lebanese music written for Fairuz.

What is this fear and hatred driving the rift between America and the Arab world? What is in our national psyche which is causing us to project the shadow sides of our own culture onto the Arab world?

I had proposed, before President Bush gave the order to begin the attack on Baghdad, that we develop a new branch of the State Department devoted to teaching 3 popular Arabic tunes to 100,000 young Americans. This musical battalion could then have been deployed around the Arab world. They could have formed friendships... America could have won the hearts of every nation... An approach to diplomacy appropriate for the last surviving superpower as we enter the new millennium could have been established. There's even a chance Saddam could have become that good guy he had always really wanted to be...

So Kristina and I became musical ambassadors. As we traveled, we received hundreds of expressions of support from fellow Americans by e-mail. We are truly representing millions of Americans.

And everywhere in the Arab world, especially in Baghdad, we were creating new openings for friendship and trust between our peoples. I felt support from all sides: left-wingers, right-wingers... everyone seemed to light up with enthusiasm for what we were doing.

Oddly, during over a month in Jordan last November and December, we never encountered a single other American!... except for one peace activist, Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, whom we met in a hotel in Amman…

Kristina and I have been invited to sing in Cairo this coming October at a 5-day fund-raiser for the construction of a new Children's Cancer Research Hospital which will be the finest in all the Middle East and Africa. That is our next goal, as we travel across America now, presenting the music, photos and stories from our recent trips.

As I write, we have given our presentation of music, images and stories called "Baghdad and Beyond," in Boulder, Denver, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Santa Cruz. We are scheduled during the next few days in Ashland, Berkeley, Oakland, Bolinas and Santa Barbara again...

Most of those who come to see our presentation feel that their eyes are opened to new realities... We get comments such as this: "I've seen Cameron and Kristina's magnificent show. I give it a 15 out of a possible 10. Being a musician myself and actively building bridges of understanding, their message really hit home with me. Knowing the power of music, hearing Cameron and Kristina's stories brought tears of joy to my eyes. They are really using music for what it needs to be used for. Not only are they active and articulate musical ambassadors between America and the Middle East, in my mind they are National Heroes!! Tell everyone you know who may not have seen them that this is a must see!!!"

We are committed to continuing our travels in the Arab world and in America. We need help producing and promoting our presentations. They can be held in libraries, peace conferences, theaters, private homes, virtually anywhere. Churches have so far been the most pro-active in promoting our presentations so that word gets out and significant numbers of people show up. We travel in a van with a trailer attached in which we live. So we need a place to park! That's all.

These feel like dark times, but thanks to all the millions of young folks out there on the internet, the truth about the inherent friendliness of people, when they are not backed into a corner by someone's army, will become more and more known. The leaders who depend on the propagation of fear to justify their own political survival will someday appear as the absurd characters they are, and we will be able to get on with our manifestly musical human destiny in relative peace! I have a Jewish Israeli friend using my CD's and my printed lyrics in Arabic: "I will approach the Palestinians now, as you and Kristina do, in their own language and singing their own music!" she has decided.

Meanwhile, we are happy to build whatever bridges we can from the Arab world to America and from America to the Arab world. The music opens a non-verbal space, for feelings of joy and love to blossom! The beat goes on.

A non-profit organization has recently taken us under their "umbrella." Our website, www.musicalmissions.com, also provides information and avenues for offering donations, subscriptions, purchasing our music CD's, etc. Communication with us is easy through e-mail: cameron@rmi.net or kristinsophia@yahoo.com, or by cell phone: Cameron: 303-898-6125, Kristina: 303-618-6404. Let us know if you would like to have a presentation of "Baghdad & Beyond" in your community.