This week, I was fortunate enough to interview Judith Eissenberg (MUS) about her MusicUnitesUS program as well as this Saturday, March 7’s event, which will feature Fargana Qasimova, a resident in MusicUnitesUS.
The Brandeis Hoot: What is the MusicUnitesUS program? What is its aim, and why was it started?
Judith Eissenberg: I founded MUUS in 2003. In the wake of the events of 9/11, I needed to find some way—as a musician—that I could work toward a more peaceful world. I felt that one of the “aftershocks” of 9/11 was to heighten the division between “us” and “them” … and I felt the need to understand “them” from “their” perspective and also feel more clearly our shared humanity. Music has the potential to meet both of these needs. Understanding the Other requires at some point that we listen to the Other’s perspective, listen deeply. Music is a universal genre that expresses identity, reveals history and expresses cultural, social and personal values. I also have found that at the heart of all music, if you go far enough back, and far enough inward, is the desire to touch the divine, to know beauty and to understand who we are as humans. I know that is a big statement, and of course, but I do believe that all music, in some way, references those things. So the mission statement of MusicUnitesUS is to further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music. We believe that music is a common medium that can help to unite diverse cultures in our own neighborhoods and transcend boundaries in the global community.
How this happens at Brandeis: We invite musicians from around the world to campus for a week. The musicians visit classes from across campus, including anthropology, International and Global Studies, gender studies, studio art, music and others. In every class, we hear from the musicians, first through the language of music, and then in discussions which are pretty far-ranging. There is an outreach program to the public schools with a lesson plan that connects the music to the social studies curriculum—a sort of mini-version of what happens in the classes at the university level. The week is capped by a Saturday evening concert. Typically, these sell out—filled with Brandeis students and audience from the greater Boston area. I am particularly interested in focusing on musicians in conflict areas, but that isn’t always the case. Over the years, we’ve had musicians from Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Iran, Israel, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, India, North Africa, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, China, Korea … I’m sure I’ve left some out … We have a treasured, ongoing relationship with the Aga Khan Music Initiative, who partners with MUUS to bring outstanding musicians from the Middle East, South Asia, Central and West Africa. AKMI is helping us bring Fargana Qasimov and her ensemble to campus this week.
BH: Who is Fargana Qasimova, and what makes her an ideal person for the residency?
JE: Fargana is one of the most highly regarded singers in Azerbaijan, singing a repertoire from the Ashiq (folk-troubadour) tradition, and from the Sufi-inspired mugham tradition. She is of the younger generation, and, as a woman, she is forging new territory in what she does and how she does it. She is the daughter and disciple of Alim Qasimov, a world-renowned vocalist. The New York Times called him one of the five top singers from any genre in the world performing today. She learned everything from him, and yet has created her own distinct style. We had both Alim and Fargana back in 2010. They visited 12 classes on campus, and their final concert was sold out. The music was stunning, the conversations deeply compelling. On that visit, Alim did most of the talking. But the few times we heard from Fargana, we knew we wanted to hear more. We wanted to hear her breathtaking artistry and we simply wanted to get to know her better, for all kinds of reasons. I should add, she is accompanied by traditional musicians who are virtuosic and deeply expressive in their own right.
BH: What will she do at Brandeis?
JE: She will begin the residency in Chandler Rosenberger’s (IGS/LGLS/SOC) Intro to International and Global Studies class. She and the ensemble will perform music from both her folk and classical repertoire. Each class receives an explanation, given by the residency curator, musicologist Aida Huseynova, who also will translate for Qasimova. Every event will have its own slant; for example, my world music class will be looking at the changing role for Azerbaijani women musicians over the years and Fargana’s place in that. We’ll also be exploring the meaning of “hal,” a word that relates to the Sufi influence, a deep connection to the Divine. There is an improv workshop, a visit to a studio art class. Students from the new Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation class will come to a performance. There was an informal demonstration in the Mandel Atrium at noon on Wednesday. But of course, the final event is the world music concert, Saturday night. I should add, I take great pride in our receptions after the concert. We’re planning Persian food for this one, celebrating the Persian origins of mugham!
BH: What kind of music will be performed at the event this coming Saturday? What types of other musicians will be present?
JE: Fargana and the ensemble will perform a bardic repertoire of the ashiq tradition (love songs, heroic songs) and classical, Sufi-inspired mugham. The instruments are: tar (a long-necked lute), kamanche (a spike, bowed fiddle), balaban (a woody, soulful oboe-like instrument) and naghara (a drum). Fargana will sometimes play the daf, a hand drum. The concert will be preceded by a talk, given by residency curator, Huseynova, who will give some historical context on Azerbaijan, on the music and on the ever-developing tradition the musicians are bringing. The music that follows will take you on a journey that you will think and feel about for a long time to come. Don’t miss it. Get your tickets now!