LifestyleVolume 12 Issue # 23

Bridging cultural gaps with music

While most media coverage around Islam focuses on wars or terrorism, two female singers, Falguni Shah and Emel Aykanat, are using music to show a fuller picture.They do not know each other — one lives in the United States, the other in Switzerland — but for years they have each used Oriental instruments and rhythms to speak out against racism and try to overcome prejudices.“If there is anything that brings together people and not divide them, it is music,” said Mrs. Shah, who goes by the name Falu. “When people of different backgrounds become united by valuing the same ideas, I think it is very easy to fight anything. Radicalism and racism can be fought with a message of peace through beautiful music and inspiring lyrics.”

She was born in India and raised a Hindu, but early in life she encountered Islam through a Muslim, Sultan Khan, who taught her classical Indian music. Mr. Khan not only influenced her music, he introduced Falu to her husband, an oncologist, who also studied music and is now a member of her band. Halfway through a recent interview at her New York apartment, the singer stooped to pick up her 11-month-old son Nishaad, planting a kiss on his cheek.“Bringing a child into this world also increases your responsibility to save the best things on the planet,” she said, saying that had inspired a recent song, “A Prayer for the Planet.”

She and her band mix Hindustani classical — a fusion of Arabic and South Indian music — with pop and Oriental styles. It is East and West, ancient and modern. Falu said she often collaborated with Arabic musicians, absorbing Islamic culture as she went. Increasingly well known in India and America, she performed at the White House in 2009. New York’s openness and multiculturalism made the city her chosen home, although she professed shock at certain moments: for example, the protests last year against building an Islamic community center and mosque near the World Trade Center. “I thought this was driven by a lack of knowledge, and by generalizations that can be countered through education,” she said. “I am planning to write a song about it.”

Half a world away in Switzerland, where in November 2009 voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets for mosques, Emel Aykanat spoke — in German with a Swiss accent — of her feeling that the country where she was born was becoming openly anti-Muslim.“I remember how I was marching, advanced in pregnancy, against the ban,” she said. Her boyfriend, who is also the father of her 22-month-old daughter, Ayleen, was even more active in fighting the minaret ban, she said. He is half-Jewish, halfChristian. Ms. Aykanat is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and grew up in a mainly immigrant neighborhood in Zurich with workers from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Arab countries.

Her mother taught her prayers, and she attended Koran school; her family welcomed friends of all cultural backgrounds. “I was also influenced by Christianity since I grew up with many Christians. For all of us, it is clear there is one god, and it is the same god for all monotheist religions. And all human people have been made by god.” In the 1990s, she performed with the musicians Xavier Naidoo and Sabrina Setlur and the band FettesBrot, wellknown in German-speaking countries. She hopes to reach the finals to represent Swizerland in a European song contest.In the late 1990s, she moved to Los Angeles with her then husband, Ashley Ingram, a black musician who played bass in a band, Imagination. She said it was Mr. Ingram who had inspired her to include more Turkish and Arabic culture in her music. Today, she sings mainly in English; her themes are political and social.

In one new song, “She,” Ms. Aykanat explores so-called honor killings, addressing directly the mother, father and brother of the victim. “People who are from the same culture very often keep silent, and I had the feeling that people in the West think we would agree to it,” she said, pausing and looking at her daughter. “It was important to me, as a Turkish woman, to show people how I would talk to the family of the victim.”Like Mrs. Shah, Ms. Aykanat believes that music is one of the best ways to fight prejudices. “If I write a song as a Muslim woman, which the people like, I think it is much more complicated for people to hate a culture or a group, if they already know someone they like.”Both singers say it would be important to have more role models and people who can build bridges between cultures. “As a child, I was always looking for female Muslim role models,” Ms. Aykanat said. “People who have made it, even though it was a hard road.”

Mrs. Shah sees a need for cultural ambassadors as the gaps between cultures and religions deepen. “Music is an important tool, but it is also important who is singing, speaking or writing,” she said. “If you got the right people, you can build bridges and translate the fears and problems of the other side.”Ms. Aykanat remembered a Swiss woman who came to her to complain about her Moroccan neighbors, who were taking the fresh mint from her garden to make tea. “I told her, go and tell them I have cursed the mint — if you eat it, you will have seven years’ bad luck. The woman called me later and said it worked,” she laughed.