Musical Instruments: The Transformative Power of Bridge Building

Musical instruments can be used spiritually to celebrate, to build community, to connect to G-d, and to express one's deepest yearnings. Through music one can experience deep religious transformation.
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I can recall a transformative evening in a small village in Ghana, Africa in the summer of 2003 where Dr. Max Klau, a great psychologist, activist and musician, led a soulful concert for the village. There was singing, dancing, bonding and healing. Hearing those melodies bring me back instantaneously to the feelings on those sacred sands. Music can be such a crucial spiritual tool to further our goals for social justice.

Musical instruments can be used spiritually to celebrate, to build community, to connect to G-d, and to express one's deepest yearnings. Through music one can experience deep religious transformation.

It is difficult to date the early history of music. Vocal music, undoubtedly the oldest form of music, was not notated for millennia and is difficult to trace. Perhaps the earliest depiction of vocal music can be viewed at the British Museum in London. The "Standard of Ur" (probably a modern misnomer, as it is a small wooden chest) was created by the Sumerians around 2600-2400 BCE, and includes two sides of ancient scenes of war and peace. In the peaceful banquet scene (at the upper right side of the chest), along with a musician playing a lyre, there appears to be a singer.

It is also difficult to trace the history of musical instruments, as most materials that early instruments would have been made from deteriorated long ago. For example, most hollowed bones that are found today, which many archaeologists and historians speculate may have been utilized as instruments, are crushed flat or cracked. Amazingly, In Jiahu, China, archaeologists uncovered what is perhaps the oldest playable musical instrument, a flute about 8 inches long, made of a hollowed out bone from a crane, that is believed to be more than 8,000 years old. Remarkably, it has seven evenly spaced holes bored in, and can still play the pentatonic-scale folk song, "The Little Cabbage." The actual sound of the flute can be heard here. This amazing discovery indicates that even 8,000 years ago, flutes were being made with a specific scale in mind, and that ancient musicians had the technical ability to create such instruments. While recently visiting the Musical Instrument Museum, I was incredibly surprised by the diversity of how instruments have been created and played, over time.

Over time, instruments used to create beautiful music have been also tragically been used to incite and promote violence and conflict. Consider the "Agbekor "of Togo's Ewe people which was originally a form of war drumming which was used to frighten opponents. Music has also commonly been used for latently competitive or nationalistic purposes. We can see examples of this in school songs, national anthems, battle hymns and military marches, to name a few.

However, music can also be used to help people or promote peace. For 13 years, New York City Opera mezzo-soprano Betty Allen (1927-2009) devoted her life to her students at the Harlem School of the Arts, sacrificing part of her career so that poor children could have a chance at a rewarding career in music. On a national scale, the Venezuelan model known as "El Sistema" (the system) is a program that has trained about half a million poor young Venezuelan youths in orchestral music. The children begin the program as early as age 2, and study intensely for years. Many of the youth take part in the numerous orchestras created by the program, and play music ranging from classical to folk. The most famous of these orchestras, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, has played in leading concert halls throughout the world, and is known for the incredible intensity and feeling of its performances, as the orchestra literally is often playing great pieces of music for the first time, in front of the audience. The orchestra's most noted conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, a product of El Sistema, is now the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having begun his tenure in 2009.

A more ambitious attempt to cure conflict through music is being undertaken in rather unusual circumstances. Daniel Barenboim, the noted Israeli-Argentinian conductor who has been controversial for his strong support of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine), has attempted to promote his political beliefs through music. Since 1999, his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has combined Israeli and Palestinian orchestra musicians for international concerts (including the Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2012). Barenboim is also planning to establish a conservatory for musicians throughout the Middle East to study together in Berlin. Through these efforts, he hopes that people from contrasting cultures and traditions will find a way to work together through music, as an orchestra must play as a unit to excel.

One of the most powerful aspects of musical experience is how transcendent it can be. Through music we can connect with people, their culture and their ideas beyond words. Powerful music can liberate us and connect us in a way that almost nothing else can. Through music, we can start to understand the pathos of a community by how they express their passion and sensuality. In Africa, for example, the body is more commonly brought into instrument playing and music making then other parts of the world. Observing and understanding these musical and physical expressions allows us to transcend our superficial differences and connect on a more spiritual and emotional level.

In the Bible, Yuval was the first human being to create an instrument to make music (Genesis 4:21) when he invented the harp and flute. The idea to use limited resources, not for basic needs, but to create music, must have been radical at the time. From those times to this day, music can and has offered intense rewards and moved people in extraordinary ways. The Chassidic masters taught that each person has her own niggun (melody) to discover and share with the world. May we always ensure that the transformative and transcendent power of music is employed for the benefit of our fellow human beings?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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