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- Published on Monday, 23 January 2012 00:00
- Category: Artist Profile
Last week, Washington DC's Kennedy Center hosted the US premiere of “Hannibal Barca,” a symphony by Jaloul Ayed that pays homage to the famed, eponymous military figure of yore. This reference to an epic past marked the one year anniversary of the successful Tunisian revolution, which continues to have repercussions in the Mideast region; as such, the event was more than just a musical recital.
And, Ayed is an unlikely composer, better known around the world as the former Finance Minister for Tunisia's post-Ben Ali interim government. And while he characterized himself as a "humble, modest, and amateur" composer, the stunning performance of “Hannibal Barca” on January 9 belied any notion that the work of a novice was on display. Aslan Media attended the event, where the symphony, performed by 25 Tunisian musicians and the Kennedy Center's house orchestra, did not disappoint.
Throughout the three movements of “Hannibal Barca”, titled The Pride of Carthage, The Long Crossing, and The Glorious March, Ayed’s compositional skills not only enchanted audiences with the story of Barca himself, but also with the story of Tunisian renewal. Planning the evening around a symphonic piece that retraces the victories of Carthaginian military commander Hannibal Barca was no diplomatic accident. Barca, who was born in modern-day Tunisia, and often regarded as the greatest military strategist and negotiator in European history, not only fought numerous successful battles against the Roman Empire, but his tactics against Roman occupation have been carried forward by numerous military commanders in the modern era. To present this symphony in his name also sends a message about the impact of the Tunisian revolution as well as its rippling effects on surrounding countries.
“Hannibal Barca’s” presentation as an act of cultural diplomacy was cemented with remarks by both Ayed as well as the Tunisian Ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Saleh Tekaya, before the start of the performance. Tekaya mentioned that presenting ”Hannibal Barca” in D.C. was no accident, but a deliberate expression of friendship by Tunisia to the US. The composer himself also spoke to this point when he reminded the crowd of roughly 2,000 that the amicable relationship between Tunisia and the US has been sustained for over two centuries [with a brief interruption during 1980s and '90s over PLO and Gulf War-related issues]. Indeed, the American Friendship Treaty with Tunisia was signed in 1799.
The night was also filled with references to the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution. Ayed described the joy he (and other Tunisians, by his account) felt when President Obama, in a speech delivered last year to the State Department, compared the Tunisia's revolution to America's own revolution more than 200 years ago:
Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor's act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.
Ayed also maintained that “Hannibal Barca,” in addition to being a celebration of Ayed's "childhood hero," was also a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the now-famous young fruit vendor who set himself on fire in public, serving as the catalyst for the first revolution of the Arab Spring. This is clearly a post hoc connection to Ayed's symphony, as “Hannibal Barca” first premiered in Casablanca in 2009, well before Bouazizi's momentous self-immolation in December 2010. Nonetheless, comparisons can be made between the two men. After all, as Ayed pointed out,
Both have marked human history. Both come from the same country: Tunisia.
For a revolution that was fueled by music, especially by Hip Hop artists such as El General, commemorating its anniversary with a concert not only reflects on the part music plays in Tunisian culture, but also on the call to action that music provided in the Tunisian revolution. To separate the Arab Spring from the music it generated is almost impossible, because protest songs served as more than just a soundtrack: they broke silences long established by fear. Music, for many, was not only extreme in comparison to decades of censorship, it was the definitive way of protest.
Yet for all the passion that music brings to a revolution, very rarely has it been recognized as having just as active a role in reform as political policy. “Music is badly financed and finance is badly inspired,” Ayed remarked, “so investing in both is how I keep a balanced portfolio.”
As Arts funding rapidly decreases in the United States, concerts such as this one represent to Americans the critical importance of cultural diplomacy in forging cross-cultural connections where politics, and often its baggage, often just can’t forge that necessary bridge.By Nathan Patin, Aslan Media Contributer