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Free Exchange

Lebanese And American Musicians Look To Re-Establish A Cultural Connection That Bombing Threatened To Thwart

Christine Sehnaoui
Gene Coleman
Raed Yassin
Ziad El Ahmadie
Mazen Kerbaj

By Jess Harvell | Posted 2/14/2007

The Tabadol Project

Carriage House Feb. 21

Music becomes extraneous when bombs start crisscrossing overhead and the formerly ordered world around you suddenly bursts into flames. Last July, a group of Lebanese musicians and improvisers, some of whom had been participants in the local High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music organized by the Red Room Collective, were excited to pack up their instruments, board planes, and hit several American cities, including Baltimore, for a collaborative project with a diverse range of musicians. "It was literally two days before they were supposed to arrive when the war broke out," says bass clarinetist and composer Gene Coleman over the phone from his home in Philadelphia; he initially put the tour together. "And that scuttled everything. There was a month of a lot of tension because a few of the people we had invited we couldn't even get a hold of."

The conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel that led to the "July War," as with most aspects of conflict in the Middle East, are too loaded with history, too fraught with social and religious complexities, to relate in the space of a music story without trivializing them. But when the firefight finally supposedly cleared in September, after much attention from the world press and the United Nations being gently urged to help put a kibosh on it, over 1,200 Lebanese (and several hundred Israelis) were dead, hundreds of thousands more were sent fleeing from whatever ruin was left of their homes and cities, which were full of leftover bombs and hollowed-out shells of buildings on the verge of collapse.

"As human beings we're all caught in a web of events that we didn't create and can't control, all the time, and we try and distract ourselves from that," says John Berndt of the High Zero Foundation, which was set to host the Baltimore stop of the tour last July. "And in the West we sometimes have more of an ability to do it than in other places. These [musicians] are very much like citizens of the world, and yet they live in a country and they're subject to what happens in that country, and we're very lucky that they survived."

Now, eight months later, the tour is finally about begin. On Valentine's Day, the Tabadol Project, its concise-yet-apt title drawn from the Arabic for "exchange," starts its journey across the U.S., stopping in Baltimore Feb. 21, at the Carriage House, a new Lower Charles Village location where High Zero plans to host shows too large to fit comfortably into the collective's typical venues at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records. Four Lebanese musicians--alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, bassist Raed Yassin, and oudist Ziad el Ahmadie--will be joined by locals Neil Feather on his famed self-made instruments, Paul Neidhardt on drums, and Stewart Mostofsky on electronics, along with Coleman.

At a time when we all threaten to develop an immunity to the ongoing value of such seemingly routinized ideas as Marshall McLuhan's "global village," Tabadol--set, for better or worse, against the past year's violence and displacement and the still simmering neighborly hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel--is a reaffirmation of the importance of international hookups between musicians. Both Coleman and Berndt see these musicians and the project as a nonviolent strike against a world where borders are figuratively, and sometimes literally, becoming ever more tightly patrolled by cultural and political partisans. "This is one way in which we can engage in some dialogue that's not inherently political or politicized," Coleman says.

"There's so much focus on globalization, which is sort of the negative side of modernity, in some ways, because of all of its exploitative aspects, and largely because globalization means already wealthy companies are able to more easily cross borders," Berndt says. "But there's this other aspect of things that's always existed where you have people who are sort of naturally cosmopolitan, and their interests carry them into other cultures because of who they are."

Coleman, whose avant-garde music collective Sound Field is frequently involved with arranging concerts with international musicians, believes that the American arts community needs to set its gaze to other shores as a general rule. "If you look at the grant opportunities that are available in most states, funding opportunities for artists, there's very little money that's earmarked for international exchange," he says. "And most of our leading cultural foundations have little or no funding or even a policy for supporting cultural exchange."

With Tabadol's kind of total improvisation, it's impossible to know in advance how the events of the last eight months will play out in the music itself, but it's safe to say that the July War will be somewhere in the players' minds, even if only as people who have, in Berndt's words, "been through some pretty serious shit."

"Mazen Kerbaj has fashioned a lot of his artistic reality off of these war experiences that he's had," Coleman says. "And I think that's very important for American audiences to learn about, because most of us have no understanding of what life must be like to try and go about your normal day while things are being blown up around you or you're trying to do your shopping."

Kerbaj, who also draws wistful cartoons in playful, blocky pen and ink overlaid with pale watercolors, runs a web site ( where his fragmented, lower-case ruminations on his new home in a demilitarized zone capture a mood somewhere between bemused whimsy and resigned determination. In a perverse and poignant moment of inspiration during one night last July, he began playing his soft, expansive improvisations with the hiss and rumble and boom of the bombers themselves as his duet partner. The result, "Starry Night," is an unnerving recording, yet also oddly beautiful, with an almost erotically spacious quality that captures both an ideologically distant and intimate, just-down-the-street destruction and is available to download on his blog.

"It's just symbolically intense that these people who are in a way trying to disaffiliate themselves with the norms of human culture are suddenly subjected to it in the worst possible way," Berndt says. "It's a dark humor. And also that they were able to recognize that humor in real time, as it was happening to them, sort of bodes well, I think, for sentience."

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