Saudi band uses show to bridge cultures in Vermont

In a period of tension in U.S.-Middle East relations, a Saudi artist works to dispel misconceptions of Muslim culture.

The Vermont Council on World Affairs hosted an event for musical and cultural sharing April 4 at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center.

The event, “The Fusion Factor in Independent Arab Music,” featured Saudi Arabian musicians Diya Azzony and Abdullah Filfilan in collaboration with local music group Grup Anwar.

According to the event’s website, Azzony is known for his band Al Farabi, which mixes poetry spoken in classical Fusha Arabic with Western jazz and rock influences.

For the purposes of this tour, said Azzony, he and Filfilan are performing under the name Hejazz, a musical pun on the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia where both members live.

Hejazz looks to promote a full cultural experience for artists around the world, said Abdullah Raed. Raed is a representative from the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture which sponsored the tour in conjunction with the Middle East Institute.

Azzony displays understands the importance of his Arabic musical fusion project in a time when the U.S. would sooner divide than fuse with the Middle East.

Like millions of others, Azzony had seen Aziz Ansari’s opening monologue on SNL following November’s election, which attributed some of the America’s islamophobia to the “scary ass music from homeland.”

“Music influences our feelings . . . it’s a language that carries different emotions, and different energies as well,” Azzony said.

Unlike Ansari, Azzony does not see Arabic music as a tool used against Muslims, but as a potential bridge between two cultures.

“Our music reflects the positive side of Islam,” Azzony said. “Music is a language that connects us to God.”

The importance of both music and language as forms of communication came up repeatedly through the night; Azzony often acted as translator between the audience and musicians.

During one of the Hejazz-Grup Anwar collaborations, some audience members were surprised to hear Anwar, originally from Syria, sing the word “Vermont” amidst a flurry of Arabic lyrics.

“The song [usually] says ‘take me back home,’” Azzony said to the audience after the song was over. “But Mr. Anwar said ‘take me to Vermont.’” The audience erupted in applause.