Reasons to Stay Home, Reasons Not To

The breathtakingly coordinated terrorist attacks of September 11 have of course affected our lives in innumerable ways, small and large. But in this part of the paper we write about music–and live music in particular has taken a big hit in the past two weeks. Dozens of acts from outside the U.S. canceled or postponed tours, including Nick Cave, the Afro-Celt Sound System, Goldfrapp, and To Rococo Rot. Perhaps most symbolic, the third annual Chicago World Music Festival was eviscerated: 16 of the biggest names canceled their performances for a variety of reasons all connected to the attacks.

Some, like Italian folk rockers Spaccanapoli, Spanish flamenco singer Miguel Poveda, and Brazilian pop star Daniela Mercury, feared for their safety in the United States, wondering about the security of American carriers and anticipating violent repercussions of what appeared to be imminent retaliation by the U.S. “No one knows what will happen when America answers,” said Olov Johansson of the Swedish folk group Vasen, who also decided to stay home. “Will there be more terrorist attacks? I’m afraid of what might happen if there is war in Afghanistan.”

African groups like Benin’s Gangbe Brass Band and Zimbabwe’s Black Umfolosi gamely tried to make their gigs, but their visas were denied at the last minute because they could not prove that they had something “culturally unique” to offer in the United States. (The denial of visas to African artists has been an ongoing problem for local presenters this year: the Mahotella Queens and Boubacar Traore had to reapply after initial denials and missed chunks of their scheduled tours; Ballake Sissoko never made it into the country.)

United Airlines, which as an official sponsor had pledged free flights for artists, withdrew its support, wiping the Phoenix-based Native American pop band Clan/destine and New York-based Ethiopian singer Gigi off the schedule. The city’s cultural affairs department scrambled to arrange alternative transportation for other artists coming from U.S. cities, renting a tour bus for Haitian singer Emeline Michel and the reggae band Dr. Israel & Seven and buying new plane tickets for five Indian classical musicians and Palestinian oud and violin player Simon Shaheen and his ten-piece band Qantara. Festival organizer Mike Orlove doesn’t buy that the airline couldn’t afford the freebies. “We checked out five of those 15 flights,” he says, “and they all ran on or close to schedule, and at less than 50 percent capacity.” No United spokesperson had returned my call at press time.

One of the biggest planned events of the festival was the closing night concert with Algerian rai king Khaled and Egyptian shaabi star Hakim, who decided to call off their entire joint American tour. Their U.S. label, Ark 21, announced that the tour was postponed because the artists felt it was inappropriate to perform celebratory pop music under such grave circumstances. This sentiment was echoed by the local Arab-American community, according to Widad Al Bassam, director of the arts council at the local Arab-American Action Network. But with the rash of anti-Arab incidents–85 had been reported to the Arab advisory council of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations within a week of the attacks–these performers and their fans may have had other reasons. They would have doubtless faced intense scrutiny each time they boarded the domestic flights they were to have taken between gigs–if racial profiling wasn’t already widely practiced in airports, it certainly will be now.

One Arab artist, though, felt it was all the more important to play in light of the current situation: Simon Shaheen says he never hesitated for a moment. “I can’t see myself as a musician staying home and saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens,'” he told me from his home in Brooklyn last week. “I can’t wait. I should be a force out there who other people will look at and maybe be encouraged by, that they could go ahead with their own life.”

Last Saturday he gave a crowd-pleasing performance at Symphony Center with Qantara, who fuse elements of jazz improvisation, Latin American rhythm, and Western classical music to a scholarly mixture of Arabic and Turkish classical forms and North African rhythms. Shaheen, who was born the son of a music professor in Galilee in 1955, moved to New York in 1980 to continue his education at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. Since then, he’s performed plenty of undiluted Arabic music, but he’s also collaborated with musicians from a variety of backgrounds–including Indian classical guitarist V.M. Bhatt, Colombian pop singer Soraya, and producer Bill Laswell. Qantara is a project he designed specifically to introduce Arabic music to Western ears. “People can listen to certain instruments like the oud or certain modes that they are not used to in a context that will make it appealing to them.”

Shaheen grew up in Israel, where terrorism is a fact of daily life, and says he was as alarmed and saddened as anyone by the destruction and death in his adopted city. On September 16, he performed at a memorial service at the interdenominational Riverside Church in Manhattan, the lone Arab joining American classical musicians like Dawn Upshaw and Joshua Bell and Broadway singer Mandy Patinkin. But while he’s doing his part to help heal America’s wounds, like many Arabs and non-Arabs alike he’s also concerned about the circumstances that have inflamed contempt for this country in the Middle East.

Shaheen observes an ignorance in this country about the Middle East, which he blames partly on the American education system. “This issue is so important to me,” he says, “that it be part of the American fabric to learn about other countries, so Americans don’t feel secluded, that this is the only empire in the world, that we don’t need to speak other languages. When I came to this country the perception of the American people about Arabic music was that it was music for belly dancing in Hollywood films….In this context I look at…how this superficial treatment of the other side of the ocean is very arrogant and demeaning.” He bristles at the Bush administration’s unwillingness to distinguish between terrorists and the states in which they operate. “You can call a few individuals uncivilized, but you can’t call all of Egypt uncivilized,” he says. “It’s very dangerous. People will pick up on it and thrive on it.”

Shaheen hopes his advocacy of Arabic music here will help increase understanding between cultures. “One thing I must say is that the people in this country have a rare openness,” he says. “But how can we make people have the interest to learn about other cultures? It’s an educational issue.”

The World Music Festival and events like it are a good starting place. A late Sunday night set by DJ Red Lox at HotHouse will feature contemporary Middle Eastern dance music–but certainly that’s not the only culture we need to better understand. Other notable performers in the festival’s waning days are Mexican chanteuse Ely Guerra and the Latvian folk-rock group Ilgi. For more information, see the World Music Festival box on page 45.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.