What if one day I would see, you could have been me?

These are the lyrics to a new music video "What If" featuring IJ artist and humanitarian Farah Siraj. The video was commissioned in honor of the United Nations initiative International Day of Peace 2014.  The lyrics are a powerful reminder of the duty we all share to be peace builders in our own communities.

What if one day I would see,

You could have been me?

Then you wouldn't be so far,

Then I wouldn't stand for this war.

Brava to Farah Siraj and our friends at Peace Day Philly for a fantastic video! If you haven't already seen the video, click on the link below to view it.

Interview with Farah Siraj

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Intercultural Journeys' October concert artist, Farah Siraj. Farah has performed as an IJ artist before, but her concert on October 10 marks her first performance with her band, the Farah Siraj Band. We met at a new cafe on Rittenhouse Square, P.S. and Co. Sipping through quite a few cups of tea, we chatted about her roots, her upcoming concert, and her personal mission as a musician.

Aside from being one of the loveliest people with whom you could share a cup of tea, Farah had this to say about her responsibility as an artist:

"Artists can be admired and if you have someone you admire voicing something that’s important to them, you’re more likely to listen.  I firmly believe that is part of our role.  It’s a responsibility that comes with the job.  We’re not just here to entertain.  Our talent is a gift, and it’s to be shared, to uplift the human spirit, and also to help and provide a voice to people who need to be heard."

You can read read the full interview here. Make sure to check out Farah on her website, and in our inaugural concert at International House Philadelphia on October 10. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling the International House box office at 215.387.5125.

Philadelphia Arts Advocacy Day

Tuesday, April 22 marked the first Philadelphia Arts Advocacy Day taking place at historic City Hall. IJ was one of the many arts groups that descended on City Hall for an hour of impromptu arts concerts. Our collective goal was to remind Philadelphia City Council that not only are the arts everywhere, but that organizations like IJ contribute to the city's overall vitality.

IJ is one of the many organizations that receives general operating support from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF), the city's public arts funding. Funding from PCF provides city arts and culture organizations with much-needed general operating funds. PCF allocations from City Council reached a high of $3.2 million in 2009. Since 2010 however, PCF funds have fallen to $1.84 million, which is not nearly enough for the nearly 273 organizations that receive grants each year.

IJ's own Hanna Khoury performed on the fifth floor of City Hall, just down the hall from fellow Philadelphia Cultural Fund grantees Project Capoeira, Sounds of Liberty Barbershop Quartet, and AMLA (Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos). Hanna performed for both arts supporters and many fascinated government employees.

There was even a jam session between Hanna and young violin students with Musicopia, a city arts education organization.


The following video, created by NewsWorks, features a portion of Hanna Khoury's special performance and shows many other performances and artists who were with us at City Hall.

March Madness at Intercultural Journeys

Here at IJ we recently had our own form of March Madness--  we had four concerts in row from the middle of March through early April. Our first concert was a performance with the immensely talented choral group, Cantigas. Cantigas is Washington, D.C.'s premier Latino chorale, and they hosted us for a special, snowy concert at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD on March 16. The snow started almost as soon as the concert did, but that didn't stop nearly 200 patrons from attending the concert. The concert was a unique blend of Arabic, Latin, and Jewish musical traditions and themes, and featured both Cantigas and IJ in separate performances and joint works.

IJ was represented by the talented and diverse trio of co-founder and cellist Udi Bar-David, percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos, and violinist Dr. Riad Abdel-Gawad. Here's a live sample from our concert with Cantigas. This is "Lammaa Badaa Yatathannaa," and features the IJ trio with the haunting vocals of Cantigas. Video courtesy of Cantigas, Nomad Recording Studio, and David Gradin Productions.

The IJ trio also performed several additional concerts, including a feature on the closing night of One Book, One Philadelphia, and a special performance at the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia's Dare to Understand 10th Anniversary celebration.

We ended our madness with a concert for First Friday! at the Barnes Foundation on April 4. The nearly 700 people registered for the event had no idea the history they were about to witness on stage: this concert marked the first time that Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, cellist Udi Bar-David, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos performed together in Philadelphia since 2008.

Cuba: An Intercultural Journey, Days 6 through 8

On Saturday, February 15, we bid farewell to Udi, who returned to the United States, and departed in the morning for a long trip to Santa Clara and Cienfuegos in the eastern part of Cuba. As we left Havana, the landscape of the country changed quite quickly and drastically. Havana is a bustling and exciting city, but on the four-hour trip to Cienfuegos, we rode mostly through rural farmland, much of it out of use.

A little over an hour after departing, we stopped at the equivalent of an interstate rest area (pictures 1 and 2).  Many of our group members chose to refresh themselves with a beverage.  One of the perks in Cuba is that all of the sodas contain sugar, as opposed to the American substitute high-fructose corn syrup.  Quite a few group members chose to imbibe with a Cuban coffee, complete with a piece of sugar cane to both stir and flavor the beverage.  A true Cuban coffee is much smaller than our usual Americanos. It has a flavor and size comparable to an espresso.

A short while later the rural roads and communities gave way to our next town, Santa Clara (picture 3).  Our first stop in Santa Clara was for lunch, which we took in at a local paladar and hostel (picture 4)  The owners of the bed and breakfast were so generous with our group’s lunch- they served lobster tails, ropa vieja (beef that has been slow-cooked so that it falls apart, hence the name ropa vieja, which translates to “old clothes), fish, and pork, in addition to giving each of us an individual salad, and plenty of seasoned rice and beans to share. We dined in the open-air portion of the bed and breakfast.  Our location also housed numerous old-fashioned product signs, including some Coca-Cola signs, all of which were in Spanish (pictures 5 and 6).

After lunch, we toured through Santa Clara (pictures 7 through 10), making our way to a community center where we serenaded with a special performance from Melodias Antillanas, a music group that utilizes traditional brass instruments from the 1800s.  Several members from an elderly community center joined us to display traditional Cuban dances (picture 11).  Naturally, our group joined them in the dancing!

Before leaving Santa Clara, we had a meeting with members from the Jewish community in Santa Clara. This community was much smaller than the one in Havana; they counted approximately twenty-one people in their entire congregation.  Despite its size, the community is very active.  Half-way through the talk, we were joined by a traveling Rabbi Elhanan Schnitzer, who works with an American organization, the Cuban-American Jewish Mission.  Rabbi Sunny (which is what he goes by) explained to us that he has been working with the Cuban-American Jewish Mission for many years and makes yearly visits to Jewish communities in Cuba.  As we learned with our visit to the Jewish community in Havana, many of the communities in Cuba do not have a Rabbi and they rely on visits from people like Rabbi Sunny in order to perform marriage ceremonies, and other special events that only a Rabbi has the authority to supervise (picture 12).

We left Santa Clara and drove for about an hour to our final destination: Cienfuegos.  We arrived in the town square as the sun was setting (pictures 13 through 15).  After a short walk around the square we made our way to the town museum, where we witnessed a phenomenal performance by the Cienfuegos Choir, a group of wonderfully talented singers from across the whole island.  The Choir receives some government funding, but majority of the singers supplement their incomes by teaching, many of them worked at the local university.  We found out that the Choir is beginning to plan a tour to the U.S. East Coast in 2015 (picture 16). We’re hopeful that we can have a hand in presenting the group in Philadelphia!  Road-weary we dropped off our luggage and proceeded to dinner at a restaurant next to our hotel, and then some much needed rest.

We awoke on Sunday morning to find that our hotel is actually on the water in Cienfuegos.  As I made my way to breakfast, I opened my hotel door to find the most breathtaking view of the Bahía de Cienfuegos, Cienfuegos Bay (picture 17).  

Our first trip of the day involved a visit to the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden (pictures 18 and 19).  There we engaged in a discussion with the staff on the current preservation projects and were given a short tour of the Gardens. The Gardens were initially founded by a gentleman named Edward F. Atkins and his wife.  Mr. Atkins had ties to Harvard University and established a research station in the gardens for the university.

After the botanical gardens, we drove a little over an hour to the colonial town, Trinidad.  We had lunch at a nice restaurant at the top of a hill lined with local vendors, many of whom sold beautiful textiles and clothes.  At lunch we were treated to another impromptu performance, this one from Emilio Gravagno, who jumped on a bass the local band provided (picture 20).  

After lunch, we drove to the town square, where we wandered around historic Trinidad. The streets are all cobblestone and the colonial Spanish influence is evident in many of the beautiful buildings. I felt like I was stepping back in time as I wandered the streets examining everything (pictures 21 through 24).

When we rode back to the hotel, we all changed for dinner, which was a short walk from the hotel and also on the waterfront. Our dinner was filled with much laughter and chatter, no doubt as we were all eager to return to the U.S. and reflecting on our tremendous experiences in Cuba!

We awoke on Monday morning, packed up, and set off to the airport in Cienfuegos. We rode through some of the main streets in downtown Cienfuegos and had enough time to wander through the Monday morning crowds. We saw many markets where citizens go to receive their rations from the government. After this, we arrived at the airport, where we checked in and went through Cuban customs. The process was not nearly as lengthy as we expected and so we had plenty of time to relax in the airport waiting lounge. We took our final group photo and boarded the plane back to Miami (picture 25).

Our experience in Cuba was really interesting, and even transformative in some ways. This was my first trip to Cuba so I don’t have anything to compare it to (aside from my knowledge of U.S. relations with the country, historically. Despite that, I feel like the country is different or at least it felt different then what I had been expecting. While we were there, it felt like the country was on a precipice of some sort; that we were witnessing a country that is changing much quicker now than it ever has in the past. I look forward to visiting the country again, perhaps after diplomatic relations between our two countries has warmed.