Artistic cultural ties that bind


The American Embassy in Abuja recently hosted a screening of Grammy-nominated film, The Music of Strangers. There were over 100 people gathered – Nigerian filmmakers, professionals in both the public and private sector, and a selection of expats from other countries. Also in attendance, was the American editor of the film, Doug Blush, who made Nigeria, his primary stop on his first trip to the African continent. The music documentary, initially released in 2015 is slowly making its way around the globe.

The story follows the music ensemble, The Silk Road, a collection of musicians from around the world brought together through the initiative of Chinese-American classical cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. Audiences watch as international composers, musicians, and storytellers share pieces of music and slips of narrative from and about their countries and cultures. We visit places like Syria and Iran and hear firsthand about how war and conflict forced members of the ensemble to flee their countries or to choose to speak up despite threats. We visit small local communities in Spain and learn how traditional music and dance is part of what helps keep a people unified and intent on saving their cultural heritage and identity. We visit China and learn how music was the way one member endured the cultural revolution and then learns to come to terms with the home she carries within her as she builds a new home in another country. We witness how despite differences these talented musicians unite in their love of music and their appreciation for their unique traditions. The soundtrack is enchanting and beautiful. The personal narratives are moving and powerful. The delight and enthusiasm shown for their craft is infectious and contagious.

But there are deep universal themes running like long fragile threads through the story of the Silk Road ensemble. As members share about their various homelands, the struggles and challenges familiar to them and the role their music has played in their lives, the audience learns that it is also a movie about loss and displacement, about identity and belonging, about notions of home and about the power of art to unify and heal and perhaps at times to even be salvific. It was an interesting and beautiful choice of film to screen in a country like Nigeria, where there are more than 250 ethnic groups and just as many traditions and cultural differences.

After the film there was time for discussion and it was clear that ‘The Music of Strangers’ had had an effect on everyone in some way. People commented on how moved they were to consider what it would be like to replicate this effort in Nigeria. What conversations and understandings could arise if Nigerian musicians from different cultures came together to share about their musical traditions but also about the narratives of their people and unique culture? This in turn led to conversations about the power of art and the need to encourage even more artistic expression in Nigerian public life. What is the role of the artist in telling a country and a people’s story? What is the role of the arts (dance, music, performance, storytelling) in specific traditions to teach and strengthen identities? How could the arts play a role in healing and reconciliation after national conflicts?

In the movie, someone said, “The arts are about opening yourself up to possibilities and that opens us up to hope.” And we all need hope. “We are not our political identities…. and our cultural identities shape our decisions all the time.” Can music or dance or storytelling or visual arts be a vehicle for crossing cultural boundaries and building new bridges for dialogue, tolerance, respect and collaboration?

FESTAC ‘77 was before my time but I know that one goal it had was to promote unity amongst black people in the continent (and globally) via the unifying power of the arts. But there hasn’t been anything similar since. The question on the night of the screening of The Music of Strangers was simply, ‘what if Nigeria tried this, not for the whole continent, just for us. What would it reveal? What would it heal?’

At one point another person in the movie said, “There is always a fight in each one of us, between believing in the power of the human spirit and dreading the human spirit. Home is the place where you feel you want to contribute without having to justify it.” How can the arts help bend the scale towards believing in the power of the human spirit? How can the arts broaden our sense of home collectively as Nigerians, encouraging us to contribute not just to the building up of our own tribes, ethnic groups and regions, but for Nigeria as a whole?” These are questions we’ll have to answer.

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