Muslim Voices Festival: On the Scene

[Disclosure statement: I am commissioned by the Muslim Voices Festival to provide academic background on some of the work on display. However, I retain full autonomy in reporting on each event I attend. My current work for the festival includes pieces on the controversy on music amongst Muslims, qawwali music and politics, and music in Muslim America.]

One of the most important ways we can understand and witness cultural interaction is through artistic exchanges, a point markedly absent from Pres. Obama’s recent Cairo speech. After 9/11, either coincidentally or purposefully, there were a series of events that introduced Muslim art forms to the US, or demonstrated the intimate relations Muslim and non-Muslim civilizations have by exploring cultural exchange. The Lincoln Center Festival in 2002 (NYT 1 and 2) and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Silk Road Project, are two notable events that happened very soon after 2001. More recently, there has been a resurgence, at least in New York, of festivals consciously showcasing the Muslim-majority world. In 2007, A Mystical Journey came and received some positive press. Starting on June 5, 2009, the Muslim Voices Festival runs for almost ten days, is a combination of musical performances, art exhibits, markets, and conferences. In addition, PBS will be broadcasting a wide variety of videos related to Muslims. I will be attending a series of events and reporting about the programming. Most of the my access is arranged by Anastasia Tsioulcas, who will also be reporting, as will David Adler.

These festivals all acknowledge that art, of any type, is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and because it crosses borders, it is a way to reach people in a way that lectures or readings will not do. Because the urge to create is part of human nature, the organizers do not delve into the theological issues surrounding the use of music, or representing the human form. I think that this approach is a wise educational decision. If the festival is about Muslims, then Muslim communities have decided that their various approaches and understanding to music are acceptable. Throughout the Muslim Voices Festival, there are a wide variety of performers who fall along a spectrum of performative arts, from no instrumentation to full bands. What makes this presentation even better is that not all the performers who eschew music do so for theological reasons, but for artistic ones. Implicit in this sort of festival structure is the idea that there is a debate amongst Muslims, but without being versed in the details, it’s not a discussion they want to have. Muslims make decisions, and the festivals job is to represent the multitude of Muslim voices on this topic.

One immediate shortcoming of the festival is the lack of representation from Europe or North America. There are large, vibrant communities of Muslims present throughout these places and some acknowledgement that Muslims are not “out there” would strengthen the overall message of the program to help erase barriers. Although there is some material on Muslim Americans on the website, it is relatively paltry. A festival undertaking of this size, set in New York, and involving three major organizations with input from a fourth, is a massive undertaking, and this criticism should not detract from the overall value added of festivals like this. However, as these programs mature, they must be more conscious of the breadth of Muslim communities.

The events scheduled for coverage are:


Sufi Music Ensembles


Richard III



In addition, any art exhibits and videos I see will receive a short write-up.

video from Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2002, licensing at source