How do music and dance defy borders? What happens when a master of the Arab qanun sits down with an old-time fretless banjo player? To explore these questions, New York University has created Translucent Borders, a working group of artists from the U.S., Cuba, Italy, Ghana, and the Middle East, in a tapestry of collaborations spanning cultural and geographic boundaries. New music and dance, developed in dialogue across oceans via Skype, will come to fruition when the master musicians with whom we have been building relationships come together for a free performance at the Atrium on Thursday, June 28.
Our project began in 2016 in the refugee camps on the island of Lesbos, and have continued in Ghanaian drum circles, in dance rehearsals in Ramallah, with Bedouin musicians on the Israeli border with Egypt, and in Cuban rumba sessions. In our site visits, we are trusting in a set of keys that open locked gates, perhaps beginning with a violin, a drum, and a few dance steps. We have also brought a camera, creating a film record of interviews, jam sessions, and song and dance swaps.
Each of our performers embodies their own sense of multiplicity and genre-crossing. Amal Murkus, renowned Palestinian singer, feminist, and anti-war activist, has sung with Joan Baez and is also an award-winning television and film actress. Marco Ambrosini, an Italian conductor and violinist, is a virtuoso on the Swedish nyckelharpa, a bowed instrument with mechanical keys. Yair Dalal, who composed the song Zaman el Salaam ("Time for Peace") for the 1994 ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Perez, and Yitzhak Rabin, incorporates jazz and Bedouin influences for both the oud and violin. Meirigah Abubakari, who conjures new lyrics each time he plays his one-stringed fiddle (gonje) based on "listening to the room," and drummer Sulley Imoro are both consummate movers, leaders in the Ghana dance world. Muhammad Mugrabi and Neta Weiner, of the hip-hop band System Ali, combine Russian, Arabic, and Hebrew in their rap poetry, and Native American musician Valerie Naranjo, percussionist with the Saturday Night Live house band and The Lion King, is the first female master of the African marimba (gyil).
In the rarified ether of music and dance, the deepest aspects of identity become shareable. What can a creative approach teach us about global encounter? Around the world, people seem eager to tell us stories about traveling, carrying on their traditions, and the layers of identity they embody. It always begins with a musical exchange. You play me a tune; it will remind me of something I can play for you.
The gist is so elementary that every child knows it: fascinated by the ways we're different, we want to play the game of show and tell in our shared language of music and movement. When this happens, our art may change in ways we can't predict. Something is lightly touched in the DNA of our cultural identities.
It may be that artists are uniquely qualified to float, ghostlike, across lines. Dancers and musicians are trained to observe, listen, and collaborate. In today's political climate of increasing xenophobia and divisiveness, Translucent Borders brings artists together to make the contrary argument: that we are especially wired to exult in finding points of confluence with strangers.
Composer, performer, and producer Andy Teirstein writes music for the concert hall, film, theater, and dance. He is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Composers Forum, among others.