A group of 15 Jewish and Arab youth from Northern Israel recently had a unique opportunity to be the first musicians in the world to perform on steelpans at Vienna’s Musikverein, one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. The concert was part of Austria’s 500th anniversary celebration of the Lutheran Reformation.
The young pannists are participants in “The Peace Drums Project,” a unique interfaith initiative that promotes peace between Arab and Jewish youth in Israel/Palestine by introducing reconciliation and harmony through the shared activity of a dynamic steel drum band.
The Peace Drums Project was founded by clergy of the Delaware Churches for Middle East Peace and four Delaware rabbis from the Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish denominations, who met in 2011 to exchange views regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and explore how they might collaborate to promote peace in their shared Holy Land. Their vision was to develop a peace-making project involving Israeli and Palestinian youth, and they enthusiastically adopted a model created by University of Delaware Associate Professor of Percussion Harvey Price.
A communal instrument that neither group can claim as its own
Harvey Price’s program brings Arab Christian, Muslim, and Jewish middle and high school students together through an instrument that is part of neither the Jewish nor the Arab cultures. It is also free of local cultural baggage and is something brand new for all the students, that none can claim as their own.
The steel pan can trace its earliest origins from the musical expression of African slaves of Trinidad and Tobago and their descendants. It evolved from traditional hand drumming, to tunable sticks made of bamboo wood (Tamboo Bamboo) and biscuit tins, to steel instruments made from car parts, paint pots, dustbins, oil drums, brake drums and spoons. By the 1940s, 55-gallon oil drums discarded by U.S. forces stationed on the islands during World War II provided an ideal, tunable metal for the modern-day musical instrument.
Through the efforts of the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band Association in the late 1940s and 1950s, the steel pan was transformed from its role in the bloody turf battles of Trinidad’s poorest neighborhoods. The Association redirected the pannists from fighting to pursuing common interests as highly respected world-class musicians.
An instrument born out of oppression and conflict, the steel pan has developed into a communal instrument that fosters harmony between people. Playing the steel pans is not a competitive activity, it is a social activity that builds community among players – it turns its participants into lifelong learners, creators and innovators who generate a sound that resonates with people throughout the world.
Briele Scott, MA in Music (Percussion Performance) is a native of Trinidad and Tobego, and works on-site in Israel teaching steel drums and helping coordinate performances and tours. "It is a privilege not only to teach the kids how to read, write and play music together,” she stated, “but also to expose them to a culture outside of their own. Music transcends all barriers of language, cultural differences, creed and race. Through the Peace Drum Project, we educate the kids on the true value of life and that music has the power to generate love, unity and peace."
Bringing music and a vision of Middle East peace to audiences worldwide
In addition to ongoing local and regional performances, Harvey Price has coordinated two extraordinary international tours for the Peace Drums players. During their first U.S. tour in April 2016, they played concerts throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, including a Gala performance at Delaware’s Cab Calloway School of the Arts with accomplished jazz and steelpan musicians. They also met with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and were featured on Good Morning Philadelphia which was covered by all major news networks, reaching a TV audience in the millions.
The group’s recent visit to Austria was due in part to the efforts of Dr. Hanns Stekel, Director of the Johann Sebastian Bach Musikschule. Dr. Stekel’s music conservatory students hosted the Jewish and Arab steelpan players and performed with them in front of a captive audience of 1,500 at the extraordinary Musikverein concert, which was attended by the President of Austria and broadcast on Austrian national television.
Every international tour includes meetings with school and community groups. These meetings dispel many myths about Israeli and Palestinian youth and have a particularly strong impact on people who have never witnessed Arab-Jewish collaboration nor met Israelis and/or Palestinians in person.
Including youth in the peacebuilding process
This first group of young musicians reside in Haifa and the nearby town of I’billin, and more groups are being planned for the Northern Galilee, East and West Jerusalem, and Ramallah. Even in the Haifa region, which is known for its diversity and good interethnic relations, Arab and Jewish children rarely have opportunities to engage in ongoing contact.
The Peace Drums Project directly addresses a major problem facing all youth in Israel and Palestine – their futures stand to be drastically altered by the Arab-Israeli conflict but they are excluded from the political process and from most aspects of peacebuilding. This is a crucial time for them – they are at an age where they are beginning to see outside the confines of their families and their schools. For many, it is the first time they ask themselves: “What kind of person do I want to be?” and “What kind of place do I want the world to be?” The Peace Drums Project teaches them to make positive choices that integrate non-violent community-building into their daily lives, and has led to more than one close friendship between the Jewish and Arab participants and their families.
In a country where divisions are highly publicized, Harvey Price has created a program that provides an excellent opportunity to show these kids a better path, and to display to the international community a successful example of Arab-Jewish collaboration.