There are but a few universal languages, having little to do with the spoken word and relating more to the senses. Choose any international airport in the world, and it will be a warm smile from a stranger that lets you know you’re seen and welcomed. A gentle handshake in any culture indicates friendship and understanding.
The smells of home cooking wafting into the streets on a summer evening or the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal are often the basis of fond memories. But one sense reigns above even those powerful sense experiences—that is the gift of sound—and, more importantly, the power of music.
It's easy to forget the differences between two or more cultures when they are brought together in the name of art. On April 10, Ithaca College of Music and Department of Jewish Studies collaborated on a celebration concert of Mediterranean Encounters: Judeo-Islamic Soundscapes.
Attendees feasted on songs in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino. The oud, a fretless, eleven-string instrument from the lute family, was combined with the violin strings of Jeremy Brown, the percussions of Jeremy Smith, and the voice of Samuel Torjman Thomas.
While the oud originated in Spain in the 9th century, it is used widely throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa. The sounds are often joined to bring Arabic music and Hebrew lyrics together in songs that link us to our shared humanity.
The magic of music is that it serves to unite far more than divide. “The relationship between Jewish and Islamic societies is quite synergistic,” says Torjman Thomas. "When people think of Jews and Muslims, they are thinking about some [conflicted] narrative, as if that's all it's about…But it's not the greater story. The music tells a greater story of the relationship between these groups.”
Having shared history that stems from centuries-old claims to land and cultural traditions, the opportunities for learning about, and growing with, an assumed adversary in an often-embattled region seem like positive steps toward understanding—something the region and the world can never have too much of.
The more we set aside our differences, the more we find just how similar we are.
As Peter Silberman, concert organizer, associate professor and chair in the Department of Music Theory, History and Composition and member of the Jewish Studies Committee, put it, “No matter who you are, everybody likes music. Everybody responds …”
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