As a volunteer in The Arab-Jewish Community Center in Yaffo I have come to appreciate the place as a home to an amazing group of diverse young people who have come together to create a groundbreaking choir known as the Voices of Peace. The members of this choir hail from Arab, Christian and Jewish families and have united with one goal: to sing in the name of peace. And boy can they sing.
It is difficult to listen to the Voices of Peace choir and not come away inspired. They are unburdened by the political chaos that surrounds them and use their voices to pass on a message of peace and hope. “We all want peace between Israel and the Arab countries,” said Lana, a young Arab girl whose solo performances take your breath away. “Singing is how we make our contribution.”
My volunteer work includes writing about and promoting their efforts and I am very inspired by what I see and hear. Voices of Peace is comprised of a small group of male and female vocalists ranging from twelve to nineteen years of age. They sing in Arabic, English and Hebrew. Their primary instructor and resident musician is Idan Tolednao, and their voice instructor is Dorit Lubrani. Dorit expertly coaches the choir on the technical aspects of the performance while Idan helps by offering his own bits of advice and inspiration.
Voices of Peace has performed at numerous events including the memorial ceremony for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Duet in Jaffo festival, various television programs, the Feast of Feasts Carnival, the Peres Center for Peace Ten Year Gala Event, functions in France, Belgium and England, as well as Foreign Ministry offices. They even performed in front of the pope and worked on an original song called “Don’t Laugh at Me” with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. “At first, we had no idea who he was” said Pilar, a fifteen year old Christian Arab girl about Mr. Yarrow. “But our parents did and we do now. “Don’t Laugh at Me” is now my favorite song.” When asked what her favorite performance thus far was, Pilar’s friend Lana responded with a grin “all of them, I just like being on stage.”
The choir meets a few days a week at the AJCC where they socialize and practice for their next performance. On the day I visited them, their rehearsal started with excited chit-chat as the kids shared stories about their day at school, laughing about the Justin Bieber concert they attended and the new episode of Glee. Many of the Muslim and Christian students attend English speaking schools in Jaffo so along with Arabic, and a little Hebrew, fluent English can be heard amongst the chatter.
Once they settled down from the excitement of seeing one another they began with a few voice warm-ups led by Dorit. Their immense talent shines through even during basic warm-up drills. A simple octave slide to begin the day sounds like the opening notes of a professional performance. They even did a number of Qi-Gong exercises under Dorit’s tutelage to get their energy flowing.
Once they finished their warm-ups, they began to practice for their performance. The songs they perform all share the same themes of peace, love and understanding. They are drawn from various styles, regions and artists but all carry the same unifying message.
On this day, they started with a song called “Shalom/Salaam.” It began with a number of pitch-perfect solos and harmonies before building up to a rousing chorus where all members of the choir belt out their lyrics and clap along. Their voices sound wonderful together, each person hitting their pitch expertly, but it is not until you think about who these youth are, where they are from and what they are singing about, that you are aware of how special this choir is. If any of this sounds like hyperbole, I assure you that seeing this group perform in person would give even the biggest pessimist reason to hope. If these young people can come together and put all their religious, political and social differences aside in the name of music then how difficult can peace really be? Of course we know that the reality is more complicated than that, but while listening to the Choir of Peace it truly does not feel that way.
The beginning of the second song sounded like a slow, moody klezmer tune but was sung in Arabic by a Muslim boy. This created a sort of amalgamation of emotion and style and his sad Arabic words coupled with the melancholy klezmer jazz seemed to carry the pain of two people’s history entwined. The next song they practiced, “Makom Ba Lev” (A Place in the Heart) may have been the most beautiful of all. The verses, performed as solos, were in Hebrew and Arabic, and their voices united for the Hebrew refrain: “a place in your heart.” At one point during the third verse a girl had been singing her solo wonderfully before her voice slipped into a pitchy squeak as she tried to hit a difficult high note. Everyone in the room giggled and she giggled along, and then Idan, after waiting for the giggles to subside, picked up the piano music from the moment before her mistake. She picked it up effortlessly, this time hitting the note spot on.
The fourth song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, was sung in all three languages. Towards the end of the third verse the choir broke into A Capella and snapped along while repeating the last line in a Hebrew-Arabic harmony: “the answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”
After watching them practice and seeing some videos of their performances it is clear that Voices of Peace can perform masterfully. It is also clear that these kids believe in the power of what they are doing. They are as typical as teenagers can be, flirting with each other, laughing about whether or not Justin Bieber is cute, but, unlike most people their age, have chosen to engage in a project to improve their community. A project whose goal is to help create peace and understanding in a region of the world that is woefully lacking in those areas.
It is a shame that Voices for Peace does not have more recognition. They do not yet have a CD recorded because they cannot afford the basic production costs. The public is hardly aware of them in Israel, not to mention the rest of the world. This could all change with some well placed PR and an humble amount of financial aid for travel and organization costs.
Their performance is fun, energetic and captivating. But most of all it is inspirational. Not only because of what it stands for but because of the individual members of the choir themselves, because of the innocence and optimism and love that is clear in their voices. A Voices of Peace performance gives us the chance to see a group of wonderful, talented youth perform, but more importantly, it gives us a chance to hope.
For more information about the Voices of Peace choir please visit their homepage and their many videos on YouTube. Here’s a sample: