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The International Writers Magazine:

A German musical journey to the Arab world
Ibtihal Ahmad

Music brings people together, says Helmut Burkard.  As a music teacher, whose career took him from Karlsruhe in Germany, Egypt, Jordan and now in blissful retirement in Germany, he developed a unique concept of cultures dialogue based on music, stressing this is the best way to cut through cultural walls built over the centuries and establish a dialogue between different civilisations.

His was a small venture lasting for the best part of 10 years through a systematic program based on exchanging student to play and savour the delights of music to audiences with different cultures, hearing tones and tastes; Although Arabs generally know some classical music, Germans certainly are not accustomed to listening to different forms of acoustics that may at first have appeared peculiar. However, over the years they did listen and they enjoyed, making Burkard's attempt worthwhile in narrowing the gap.

His recent musical foray as listener, contributor and coordinator, was the completion of the eight musical meeting of the dialogue of cultures involving bringing 36 youthful musicians with their large and full-blown equipments from Germany's Helmholtz—Gymnasium School in Karlsruhe all the way to Jordan and Syria to play music and to tune the ears and minds, continuing on the path to establish relations of a very different kind between West and East.

The trip between 24 October and 5 November was a meeting place between western classical music and Arabic traditional melodies, an experience in bringing people—young musicians and teachers—to exchange and play different types of music based on notations specific to one's cultures. "It shows people can raise above prejudices by attuning and enjoying the music of one another, as they play the music of different cultures while realizing such music can be enjoyed and played by all," says Burkard.

The visiting group, forming the German Orchestra of the Helmholtz—Gymnasium took its base at the Schneller School in Amman, played a concert at the Damascus Opera House, and then returned to Jordan performing at the Dead Sea and the Terra Sancta in Amman, with a special visit to the Rose-Red City of Petra before flying home to Germany.

"It was a very worthwhile experience, in Damascus people listened, appreciating what was being played and the same was likewise in Jordan, proving the ear is a very important instrument of building dialogue, we need to listen to one another more," he adds.

The concept of the musical dialogue was first started by Helmut Burkard in 1999 when he took the Jordan Youth Orchestra of the National Music Conservatory to Germany and jointly perform with the Bruchsal Youth Orchestra, thus establishing a sustained exchange program for in the following year, 2000, a group of young German musicians came to Jordan to perform in places such as the Dead Sea, Baptism Site and the Palace of Culture in Amman establishing a permanent musical exchange path.

At that time Burkard had been working as a teacher and musical conductor at the National Music Conservatory since 1996, having been sent to Jordan under the auspices of the Goethe-Institute to train music teachers which had recently been made compulsory in all schools from Grade 1 to 10.

Plus, it was thanks to him that a youth orchestra was established in Jordan. He was very familiar with the Arab world having been a musical teacher in Egypt in the 1970s and early 1980s, packing his stuff and relocating to the Arab world with his family, after spending much time teaching at the Helmholtz—Gymnasium School. Whilst in Egypt he learnt about the culture of the Arab world and Islam through his frequent travels to Jordan, Syria, and even Yemen, places he said he and his family enjoyed very much.

Such a relationship with the Arab world continued after 2003, when his contract with the NMC ended and he continued with the exchange program based on German and Jordanian students playing alternatively in one another's country.  It was sort of an ulterior mission with him stressing there must be bridges to be built between the Arab world and the west.

In a way, he was giving a very different meaning to globalization, away from the classical meaning of economics and trade exchange. His was the globalization of culture and music, of getting people to exchange feelings, attitudes and common basis of understandings, away from the traditional dogmatisms of racial perceptions and stereotypes.   

At the Terra Sancta, the German orchestra, and the Ahliyyah School Choir, played and sang harmoniously to a full house. While the program initially played impressive pieces to Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Vivaldi, the German orchestra then played old Arabic favourites to the sound of the choir singing to such compositions as the Prophet by the late Lebanese poet Jubran Khalil Jubran who established himself in the United States in the early part of the 20th century but was a ceaseless cultural builder between East and West. 

This has been the result of a cultural encounter that gained greater momentum after the 11th September bombings in New York and Washington which seemed to have widened the rift between East and West. But for Burkard music was able to overcome some of this by bringing to Jordan and the Arab world highly cultured musical pieces such as the "Dido and Aeneas" opera of Henry Purcell.

For their part as well, the NMC Youth Orchestra and the Choir of the Ahliyyah School played and sang in such prestigious places as the High Institute of Music in Karlsruhe and accompanied the Bruchsal Youth Orchestra and the Chamber Choir of the Helmholtz-Gymnasium.

In all these meetings, Helmut Burkard was a central part, and he says he will continue to be active and coordinate where ever he can until the very last minute, bearing in mind that at present he is in his late 70s and first came to Egypt in 1974 when he was in his early 40s.

* The writer is a full-time translator and a freelance contributor writer based in Jordan.
© Ibtihal Ahmad December 2009

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