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Youssou N'Dour entertains the crowd at the opening concert for Muslims Voices in New York.
Youssou N'Dour entertains the crowd at the opening concert for Muslims Voices in New York.
Youssou N'Dour entertains the crowd at the opening concert for Muslims Voices in New York.

The arts of diplomacy

New York's Muslim Voices festival celebrates Islamic performers and artists from around the world.

There are collegiate hipsters, women in brightly coloured West African dresses, craggy elderly gents, broad-shouldered young men in baggy jeans and professorial types. All are dancing to the Senegalese pop music of Youssou N'Dour, and as one section of the audience in the music hall pops up, another breaks loose from the seats. A few audience members are allowed to get on stage with N'Dour, showing off with fluid swooping movements of African dance. "That's what 'As-sallam-u aleykum' means," says N'Dour. "Not just peace for Muslims, but peace for everyone."

N'Dour is headlining Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a New York City-wide festival celebrating the intellectual and artistic vibrancy of Muslims throughout the world, which runs in New York until next week. The festival's three main partners - Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Asia Society and the Center for Dialogues at New York University - co-ordinated nine days of nearly 30 events, including initiatives ranging from an international relations policy conference to an evening of Sufi chanting. Muslim Voices is a veritable who's who of Islamic artistic and intellectual circles with a line-up as diverse as the crowd at N'Dour's show.

Abu Dhabi residents have already had the chance to enjoy some of the performances included in Muslim Voices. N'Dour performed at Womad-Abu Dhabi in April, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage presented the play Richard III: An Arab Traged in March and the film Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta debuted in the UAE last spring. "The intention is to show the great diversity and great humanity that is the Islamic faith, to demonstrate the great beauty and artistry of these genres that all of New York City gets to experience," says Joseph Melillo, BAM's executive producer and lead curator. "Whether it is visual arts, literary, musical [arts], there is some avenue to understanding."

Nearly four years ago, Mustapha Tlilli, the director of the Center for Dialogue, and Karen Brooks Hopkins, BAM's president, dreamt up the idea for Muslim Voices over a casual lunch during a conference Tlilli's centre had organised in Kuala Lumpur. The Asia Society, with its broad experience collecting and curating art from Islamic countries, was invited to co-organise the festival and the next few years were spent developing the programme, raising funds and creating Islamic community, cultural and academic committees to advise the curators on what to include and whom to invite. There is also an honorary committee, made up of current and former heads-of-state [the surprise guest and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand to address the crowd on opening night], diplomats and religious leaders, all bestowing their approval on the festival as a whole.

As word spread about BAM, Asia Society and the Center for Dialogues' plans, other institutions asked to join the roster by hosting or sponsoring associated events. Now, A-listers such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seven other groups have attached extra elements to the festival. The result is a citywide celebration, unique in both programming and in the fact that it brought together so many disparate institutions to reach a common goal: that of education and understanding.

One of the key goals was to showcase artists and intellectuals who are both internationally recognised and are either Muslims themselves or have worked extensively in Muslim communities. The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and the Iranian American author Reza Aslan are scheduled to speak, and the Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz will perform alongside the gospel troupe Craig Adams and the Voices of New Orleans. There is also an outdoor souq and a chaikhana (teahouse) night.

Back at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, N'Dour's crisp, curling vibrato resounds around the domed ceiling and the audience reacts by spontaneously jumping up from their velveteen theatre chairs and dancing in the aisles. "Islam is about joy, also," says the singer, clothed in a regal ice blue silk djellaba accessorised with yellow slippers. The audience, which the organisers estimate could be up to 50,000, knows N'Dour better than the other performers in the festival. Isadora Olshanky, 28, brought two of her friends to his opening concert. Beyond knowing N'Dour from his collaborations with western pop musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry, Olshanky admitted she was unfamiliar with the other artists appearing in the festival -but planned to attend Richard III: An Arab Tragedy purely out of personal interest. "This is typically New York - there are all kinds of different people interested in a lot of different things," she said about the concert's eclectic crowd. "I think everybody just shares a love for the music."

The upbeat nature of N'Dour's set will contrast with the solemnity of the Sardono Dance Theatre's performance this coming Saturday at the Asia Society's auditorium. The troupe is helmed by Sardono Kusumo, a celebrated Indonesian choreographer. Sardono is a deeply tanned man in his mid-Sixties with an easy smile and a bohemian mane of grey hair. He says that this is the first time his opera-dance piece, Diponegoro, will be performed outside of Indonesia. The story follows the exploits of Diponegoro, a real-life Javanese prince and devout Muslim who left behind a diary detailing the rebellion he led against the Dutch colonial occupation 200 years ago.

Inspired by this prince's ability to contest colonial rule through his writing as well as his deeds, Sardono created a multilayered piece incorporating traditional Javanese singing, poetic verse, court dance and music by an Indonesian percussion ensemble. The eight dancers received intensive vocal training in order to sing Diponegoro's libretto in addition to dancing the required steps. The original text is very dense, so Sardono says he has edited the performance down to only the most integral and profound scenes from this history. Indonesian court dancing is subtle - the movement of the eye, the tip of the finger, the point of the toe all have meaning to the overall choreography - and it is significantly harder than it looks.

"This is the one [event] that I find most surprising and I am personally most excited about because it is this kind of all-encompassing performance," says Rachel Cooper, the Director for Cultural Programs and Performing Arts at Asia Society and one of the Muslim Voices curators. "It includes visual arts, it includes this poetic text, it includes dance at such a high level and it is very powerful." Cooper adds that many people in the West do not think of Indonesia as part of the Muslim world, though Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country.

"[The audience] will get the sense that there are different ideas of culture in the Muslim religion," says Sardono. "Hopefully it gives the sense that they [Indonesians] are Muslims and 200 years ago they were already talking about anti-colonialism but in a different way and perspective." Ed Grazda's photography show presents yet another perspective, one that shows Islam being practised in America. Titled New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York City, the 15 chosen photos comprise the only two-dimensional visual arts exhibit in the festival. With so many of the festival's artists coming from abroad, Grazda's photography provides some perspective on the way Islam is woven into the fabric of New York. "There is one picture of a mosque that is just a few blocks away [from BAM]," says Grazda. "I think that's interesting to bring it home to the audience who still may not be aware of the mosques."

The photos are part of a larger, eight-year project that Grazda, a seasoned photojournalist who has worked in Afghanistan extensively for the last 25 years, began in 1993 in tandem with a professor of architecture. Trolling around New York's neighbourhoods, Grazda came across small repurposed structures that were used for Islamic worship by different ethnic communities and began photographing them.

The last photos from the project were taken right after September 11 and Grazda feels pleased he was able to capture what he calls "storefront mosques" while they were in the process of being converted from stores, workspaces or homes into houses of prayer. "After September 11, every photographer in New York was rushing to a mosque, but I have pictures of them before and during the transition," he says. "It's interesting [because] you can see how these mosques developed."

Images from New York Masjid have travelled overseas for shows in Oman, Bahrain, Dubai and Lebanon. Grazda is proud that his work has made him into a cultural ambassador of sorts. "It's great publicity for the US because people think we're all Christians in America or they don't realise that there are so many mosques, or they think that there's no freedom of religion," he says. "So it works on both sides - it works here and it works in the Middle East."

"There's nothing better than a cultural experience to connect people and to channel emotion," adds BAM's Hopkins. "When you do that, you can really break down barriers. Cultural diplomacy is the best diplomacy." Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas Festival runs until June 14 in locations throughout New York City. Visit www.muslimvoicesfestival.org

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