by Daniel Leon Rodriguez in Calgary

Jose Duque, an immigrant from Venezuela, is using music to keep children in band practice and out of trouble on the streets.

In his native country, Duque participated in the El Sistema program, for over 16 years as an orchestra player, music teacher, and later, as a regional co-ordinator.

The program, which is run in countries around the world, gives children from diverse backgrounds a safe and fun place that fosters discipline, increased self-esteem and a sense of community.

When Duque immigrated to Calgary 10 years ago, he thought there were no children living in poverty in the city.

“I thought Canada was paradise,” says Duque, adding he imagined no one in Calgary would need a program like El Sistema.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Duque soon started to see the cracks in his new homeland.[/quote]

The opportunity to dream

However, Duque soon started to see the cracks in his new homeland – Canada wasn’t the perfect paradise he imagined.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, he met many low-income families who had difficulties keeping their children away from drugs, gangs and isolation.

“I wanted to offer disadvantaged children the opportunity to dream,” says Duque.

That is why five years ago, he decided to start a free after school music program at the church.

Now, with the support of International Avenue Arts and Culture Centre (IAACC), Duque’s small initiative has grown into the Calgary Multicultural Orchestra (CMO) – a full-time program with three professors and 60 students based on the El Sistema program model.

The program operates in Calgary's Forest Lawn area, which has double the percentage of low-income households than the rest of the city, according to Statistics Canada. IAACC funding provides children with free musical instruments and music lessons every weekday from 4 to 6 p.m.

Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema youth orchestra system in Venezuela, shares the story behind the program.

Diverting children and youth from the streets

Duque says CMO will create positive outcomes similar to other El Sistema projects around the world – a decrease in juvenile crime and school drop-out rates. However, to achieve his dream he requires more participation from the community.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some people believe that orchestral music is something exclusive, but it isn't true.”[/quote]

“If we could get 1,000 children from Forest Lawn and other communities in the northeast we could create a real change,” says Duque. 

According to a study by the Inter American Development Bank for every dollar invested in the El Sistema program in Venezuela, it reaped about $1.68 in social dividends – with benefits such as a decline in juvenile delinquency and improvement in school attendance.

The biggest rate of juvenile delinquency occurs between 4 and 7 p.m., explains Duque, which is the timeframe when children spend more time alone after school and before their parents return from work in the evening.

“We are giving a space to these kids to do something special,” he says. “We are taking them away from the streets, the drugs and the gangs.”

Putting a focus on inclusivity and tolerance

Amédée Waters, program administrator for the CMO, says the program aims to bring together children from all incomes, races and religions. 

“The idea is to create a sense of inclusivity, tolerance and community,” says Waters. “Some people believe that orchestral music is something exclusive, but it isn't true.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[T]he program makes children and parents focus on what we have in common instead of what makes us different.”[/quote]

Mark Lobnowcs, whose 11-year-old child participates in the CMO, agrees that the program creates more tolerance. 

“I think it is marvellous that the program makes children and parents focus on what we have in common instead of what makes us different,” says Lobnowcs.

He also says the program is a great opportunity to learn music from top professional musicians. “It is amazing that someone with Jose’s qualifications is doing something like this for free.”

Hikmat Kafi, whose seven-year-old daughter has been with the CMO for over two years, says that the program has helped her daughter to open up to other children.

Kafi arrived to Canada from North Sudan 10 years ago. She says that her daughter’s participation in the CMO has had a positive influence on her two brothers. “If you see your child happy, then all the family is happy too,” she shares.

The program costs IAACC over $2,300 per child per year, and funding can be an issue, according to Waters.

Right now the program has a waiting list of over 30 children, but it doesn’t have the funds to pay for teachers and instruments.

“It is always a struggle to find the funds,” says Waters. As a result, the program is always looking for volunteers and used musical instruments.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Arts & Culture
Monday, 21 December 2015 00:15

Winter Solstice Rituals Break New Ground

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

As a Vancouverite, I have always been particularly obsessed with winter solstice. I blame this on Seasonal Affective Disorder and the fact that, in addition to our incredibly short winter days (we are at a higher latitude than Toronto), we also suffer from a profound lack of sunshine this time of year.

It often requires Herculean efforts to just get out of bed in December, and its a time of year when I feel a profound kinship with the black bears of British Columbia, who, unlike working humans, have long surrendered to winter hibernation, dreaming of spring time berries.

I have witnessed solstice rituals around the world. My favourite was in IrelandNewgrange (the seat of the Fairy Kingdom) where every year on the solstice, a shaft of light illuminates an underground chamber with unfailing accuracy.

Happily, it seems that locally there is a new movement afoot to reinterpret rituals about the coming of the light, from many different cultural communities. While some  like the Goh Ballet’s Nutcracker or Early Music Vancouvers recreation of 17th Century German Yuletide  celebrate established traditions, others are breaking new ground.

Deep listening

My first encounter was with Music on Mains concert, entitled Music for the Winter Solstice. While firmly based in a Western contemporary classical music tradition featuring culturally Christian composers, the evening was a secular exploration of the meaning of Solstice.

The emphasis was on a sense of meditative stillness and contemplation – something that came quite naturally to the event where a group of music lovers forsook shopping mall chaos to sit together in an intimate space and practice the art of deep listening. Composer in residence, Caroline Shaw, even offered a simple carol for the assembled audience to sing together.

Poetry by the late Robin Blaser as well as Colin Browne was offset by seven compositions ranging from Schubert to Alfredo Santa Ana (whose A Short Song for the Longest Night of the Year was a highlight).  Couloir Duo Ariel Barnes (on cello) and Heidi Krutzen (on harp) playing (with pre-programmed electroacoustics) James Maxwells Serere offered a compelling musical exploration of seasonal sentiment that took listeners on a contemplative journey from darkness to light and back again.

If the concert celebrated the sacred art of slowing down, the serenity of the evening prepared me well for the sparkle of an inter-faith Hanukkah party two days later.

Organized by local Reform Rabbi David Mivasair, it was held at a Palestinian restaurant called Tamams, whose owner hails from Jerusalem, but has been battling Israeli courts to keep her residency. The party was partly a fundraiser for her legal costs, but was mainly a lovely celebration of the Hanukkah traditions of miraculous light in the midst of darkness, not to mention Canadian multiculturalism.

Inter-faith connections

I arrived to find a packed restaurant of celebrants  including Palestinian Christians, Pakistani Muslims and Israelis – listening to Rabbi Mivasair sing Hanukkah songs, illuminated by dozens of candles and menorahs in the window of Tamams.

I found some space at a table and sat down to a Palestinian feast that included a delicious kind of Arabized latke. My dining companions included a South Asian Sufi professor of classical Arabic and a Jewish musician, who as it turned out, were both from Chicago.

The whole event had an appropriate air of Levantine cosmopolitanism, as befits a region where separation walls are an historical anomaly, and where a mercantile culture meant many interfaith social connections.

I remembered stories from my great-grandparents village in the Bekkah Valley of how holiday rituals were shared by Muslims and Christians alike  from midnight mass to Eid-il-Fitr. I remembered, too, stories from Palestine of friends in Gaza with Jewish grandmothers, of pre-1948 inter-marriage and of current movements like the Jerusalem Peacemakers who pray and celebrate holidays together.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]...how wonderful it was that this kind of gathering was so effortless and so possible in Canada – a place with no checkpoints or occupying soldiers or religion stamped into ones passport.[/quote]

When I lived in Jerusalems old city in 1994, writing for the first post Oslo accord joint Israeli/Palestinian monthly magazine (the New Middle East), I always took a three-day weekend, listening to the hypnotic Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, accepting offers of Shabbat dinners, and going to mass on Sundays.  With a mixed faith, mixed race background, Ive never liked to limit my options. So this Hanukkah party was perfect.

Small rituals

Before I had a chance to count my blessings and to consider how wonderful it was that this kind of gathering was so effortless and so possible in Canada – a place with no checkpoints or occupying soldiers or religion stamped into ones passport  I was swept up in the celebration.

I sang some songs with the Jewish musician from Chicago –  La Vie En Rose  pour la francophonie  Besame Mucho  just because  and eventually lead the room in a rousing rendition of Hava Nagila. Next on the program was a little group belly dancing to the music of Marcel Khalife.

In a slightly surreal moment, I ended up doing Arabic arabesques with a gay Israeli/English couple (Shai and Nigel) who entertained me with stories of a recent trip to Tokyo for a square dancing convention (yes, it is big in Japan!)

The evening ended with a traditional game of dreidel (which Tamam won!)

I was lucky to receive a special Hanukkah blessing from Rabbi Mivasair  a prayer in Hebrew and one in English – keep your light going strong, even when darkness surrounds you.

It is comforting to know that in these dark days of winter, and even darker days of global violence, there are small rituals we can enact together that still have the power to illuminate from within.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, was a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from Africa and the Middle East for two decades. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Arts & Culture
Tuesday, 21 July 2015 20:30

Folk Fest Magic: An Eid to Remember

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver, British Columbia

A special three-day ritual unfolds every year in my hometown.

It’s called the Vancouver Folk Music Festival or, as it’s lovingly referred to by regulars and locals, Folk Fest.

Now in its 38th year, the festival has grown from an earnest hippie-inspired gathering to a world music lollapalooza.

Every year, Jericho Beach Park is transformed into a utopian folkie Disneyland – a magic kingdom where anything is possible and cultures collide in informal but marvelous ways.  Think “It’s a Small World After All”meets Woodstock and you’re halfway there.

But like any worthy cultural happening, Folk Fest is much more than the sum of its parts. At its best, it’s a kind of weltseele gestalt – a Romantic musical adventure that breaks down barriers with a strong dose of tie-dye and patchouli oil.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The next day, the Folk Fest, with its steaming porta-potties, extreme heat and dust, and thousands of exhausted folkfesters, began to resemble more of a refugee camp than a festival, albeit a peaceful one with a beer garden located in one of the most expensive real-estate enclaves in North America.[/quote]

But in one of the most racially segregated cities in North America, and in a world where 60 million people are displaced by war, conflict or persecution, it provides a needed respite from the harsh realities of the world as it is, and points the way to more peaceful possibilities.

Marking Eid

This year, the festival coincided with Eid al-Fitr– the three-day ritual of feasting and forgiveness that marks the end of 28 days of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. With my own mixed-faith background and years spent working in the Middle East, I was very aware of the timing and wondered what spending three days of Eid – kind of like a Muslim Christmas celebrated by a billion people around the world – at the Folk Fest would be like.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and met Musqueam storyteller Henry Charles, fresh from a ceremony on the main stage where he welcomed everyone to his ancestral land. I introduced him to my friend Rabbi David Mivasair, who would soon be leading the Shabbat prayer – a Folk Fest tradition for many years – in a circle under a tree, just north of the main stage.

I confessed to David that I was feeling a bit like an “Eid orphan” and hoped to somehow mark the holiday while being at the festival. We decided that, after the traditional prayers in Hebrew, I would say the al-Fatihah (the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer) in the spirit of peace and reconciliation embodied by Eid al-Fitr.

As sunset neared, we gathered together and, in spite of a strong wind, David lit the Shabbat candles. After the traditional Hebrew prayers were recited, David explained to everyone that it was the first day of Eid, and introduced me.

I began to chant the al-Fatihah just as a rather loud Irish band started to play, but somehow it all worked; a nice Canadian interfaith Eid/Shabbat. Many people thanked me for saying the prayer and wished there could be more similar opportunities. Afterwards, some of us sat and chatted, eating challah and sipping kosher wine. Later, I took the leftover challah in my pocket and distributed it to friends as I danced to the Melbourne Ska Orchestra.

Friends across cultures

The next day, I received an email out of the blue from a New York–based Palestinian couple who had connected with me online after reading an Al Jazeera article I wrote on Iraqi women. Ahmed, originally from Hebron, was in Vancouver accompanying his wife Nabila (originally from Jaffa – a fact that would make their marriage illegal in Israel today), a professor of public health at Columbia, who was in town for an AIDS conference. They decided to surprise me and show up at the festival.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I noticed that the wire fence surrounding the festival seemed less of a barrier than it had at the beginning. Friends and family were chatting, holding hands and even hoisting patio chairs over its edges.[/quote]

Over lamb donairs served by smiling blondes, we met and exchanged ancestral stories. When Rabbi David rang, I told him I had some friends he’d like to meet and before long, David and Nabila were chatting about Jaffa like old chums. And as Montreal’s Cécile Doo-Kingué played African-inspired blues, Ahmed invited me to his cousin’s wedding in Hebron.

As we all walked through the crowd of thousands toward the main stage to listen to South Africa’s Bongezwie Mabandla, Israeli guitarist Itamar Erez – who plays with American-Turkish Sufi musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek and who had just returned to Vancouver after a decade – came to greet me with some Israeli friends. I introduced them to Ahmed and Nabila, who were beginning to wonder why I seemed to know so many Israelis. After hailing a cab at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, I assured them I was not a Mossad agent.

“Differences can bring us together”

The next day, the Folk Fest, with its steaming porta-potties, extreme heat and dust, and thousands of exhausted folkfesters, began to resemble more of a refugee camp than a festival, albeit a peaceful one with a beer garden located in one of the most expensive real-estate enclaves in North America.

But as I took in a band from Mali, a psychedelic trio from Venezuela and a group from Nunavut who mixed alt-country with reggae and Inuit throat singing, I noticed that the wire fence surrounding the festival seemed less of a barrier than it had at the beginning. Friends and family were chatting, holding hands and even hoisting patio chairs over its edges.

As I listened to Angelique Kidjo, the formidable closing act and UNICEF ambassador, sing “Malaika,” the Swahili love song made famous by South African anti-apartheid activist and singing star Miriam Makeba, I ran into Cape Town–born Themba Tana. He reminded me that Makeba sang the song of thwarted love when she was married to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, a union that resulted in the cancellation of her American tours and record deals – and that discrimination against Africans from neighbouring countries was alive and well in his homeland.

Still, we all danced to the diva, and Angelique’s hopeful words about how “our differences can bring us together” rang into the night. And they stayed with me the next day, after the Folk Fest had disappeared like Brigadoon.

Happily, it will return again next July for three very special days. Eid Mubarak, indeed.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, was a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from Africa and the Middle East for two decades. Hadani is also a musician who believes that world music can be a powerful vehicle for peace.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Arts & Culture
Sunday, 28 June 2015 09:41

Sing Your Way to Punjabi

Preet Sandhu Dhillon has taken what kids and babies naturally do and made it a teaching tool. 

“Singing to babies and children comes naturally. We all do it. Children also love music and it’s a very powerful tool for language exposure,” says Dhillon, who has three children.

She and her team of producers and musicians put together catchy and easy to sing-along tunes to expose children to Punjabi numbers, colours, animals and body parts in their first children’s album Punj Nikkay Bandar.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“This is going to be a very powerful tool in helping to preserve the Punjabi language.” - Preet Sandhu Dhillon[/quote]

Dillion looked for professionally performed Punjabi songs with a good beat; she found the quality of songs available was lacking, too religiously based or not developmentally appropriate for preschool aged children. That inspired her to create her own album that kids and parents could sing along. 

“This is going to be a very powerful tool in helping to preserve the Punjabi language,” says Dillion. 

Punj Nikkay Bandar is a children’s music playlist with tunes that are familiar and catchy, and will introduce the Punjabi language to all listeners.

Tracks include: "Baabay Budday Da Si Khait" ("Old Macdonald Had a Farm"), "Angootha Kithay Ah?" ("Where is Thumbkin?"), "Jay Kushi Hundi Ah Gidha Pao" ("If You’re Happy and You Know It") and many more.

Punj Nikkay Bandar can be purchased on iTunes and on Amazon.

Published in Partnership with South Asian Post.

Published in South Asia

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in London, England

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi’s video of his musical improvisations at the site of last month’s bombing in Baghdad became an online sensation – with over 47,000 collective hits on YouTube and various content sharing platforms.

I admit to being as moved as the thousands of others who watched worldwide as he played his cello on a blasted sidewalk in Mansour – the neighbourhood named after the Abbasid Caliph who championed arts and culture. And Wasfi continues to play at the site of bombings all over his city, performing this week in beleaguered Karrada, where several blasts have rocked the neighbourhood in recent weeks, and today in Adhamiya, at the site of a violent sectarian attack.

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeJAPc8_tS8[/youtube]

Video Source: YouTube/News House

But Wasfi's story is not new to me.

In fact, I first met Karim in 2000, when Baghdad was enduring a different kind of siege: not car bombs, militias and ISIS at its gates, but rather a crippling embargo exacerbated by a dying police state and the growing strength of a criminal smuggling culture.

Inspired by his penchant for playing the cello under bombardment, I ended up dedicating two chapters to Karim – one bearing his name – in my 2005 book Dancing in the No Fly Zone that documented Iraqi culture pre and post invasion. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I remember [Karim] practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.[/quote]

When my US dollars ran out, I stayed with him and his sisters in their apartment across from the old Press Centre, seemingly under the radar of the ubiquitous “minders” ('guides' assigned by the old Ministry of Information who were in reality spying on journalists). I remember him practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.

We even staged a fundraising concert for a children’s charity in the garden of an art gallery that was later bombed, performing Gounoud’s “Ave Maria” and some Leonard Cohen songs as rather desperate incantations.

Channeling a Musical Heartbeat

Indeed after my first trip to Iraq in 1997, to report on the state of sanctions-era health care for the NY Times, I discovered that Iraqi culture was far more seductive than interviewing beleaguered doctors and overwhelmed UN workers and compiling depressing statistics.

I remember spending three days in a private hospital run by a tough Iraqi nun – Sister Marie, who had to barter for black market penicillin –hearing the stories of patients who came here from all over Iraq, as the once shining example of public health care in the region that bore the ravages of sanctions.

A doctor, who had studied in California in the 1960s, offered me his practice as a “day in the life of” venue. Just when I could not bear to hear another story of a cancer patient with no access to proper pharmaceuticals, or a child stunted by malnutrition, a lady in her 80s wandered in.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]There in the hospital full of dying children, [the once famous Iraqi singer] offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.[/quote]

She seemed arrested in another era; her dyed black bob and dark eye make up giving her the appearance of a ’30s Hollywood screen siren. As it turned out, she was a once famous Iraqi singer, who had been the mistress of Abdul Karim Qassim (who was deposed by a CIA backed Baathist coup when he got too cozy with the Russians and nationalized foreign oil interests).

She lived in a once swanky area, but like so many others drinking tainted water, and with chlorine blocked at the border, she was suffering from dysentery. Before long she and the doctor were chatting like old friends, an introduction was made and soon she began to sing.

There in the hospital full of dying children, she offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.

In a similar moment, I had wandered accidentally into the al-Rashid theatre, strung out after a frustrating day talking to people who would lapse into Baathist platitudes as soon as they saw my “minder”, drawn in by the soothing sound of strings.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days . . . Lance’s story never went “viral.”[/quote]

I happened upon the rehearsal of a new orchestral piece called “Heartbeat of Baghdad” by a young composer named Lance Conway (whose improbable name came from his Anglo/Indian/Irish grandfather, part of the British occupation) that celebrated, he told me, “Baghdad’s history of resistance – from the Mongols to today.” 

Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days, and apart from a story in U.K. newspaper, The Independent, that I wrote about the orchestra, and a few paragraphs in my book, Lance’s story never went “viral.”

Making a Difference

Now Lance, a Christian, lives in Erbil, having fled the post invasion violence of the capital. Like so many of my friends in war zones, we reconnected recently via Facebook.

I mentioned the odd phenomenon of having former minders “friend me” at a recent evening at London’s Frontline Club – attended, as it turned out by Tony Borden, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, whose colleague Ammar Al Shabandar – a supporter of Wasfi’s efforts – had been killed two days earlier by a car bomb in Karrada.

In London, a city with thousands of Iraqi refugees and exiled artists – who keep their culture alive at venues like the Iraqi Cultural Centre on Shepherd’s Bush, which currently features an exhibition of paintings inspired by the ISIS Camp Speicher massacre – Janine di Giovanni read a poignant piece she’d written on Iraq for the latest Granta publication.

With Karim’s moving video having gone viral, and so much technology at our fingertips, I asked, would this ‘make a difference’ as they say, to the situation?

Sadly not, she replied, noting a distinct sense of ‘compassion fatigue’ in the West.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.[/quote]

And yet acts of cultural defiance, I would argue – implicit in the title of my first book Dancing in the No Fly Zone, which was inspired by a lively chobi I encountered at a wedding in Baghdad the day after Clinton’s Desert Fox bombing campaign – are as important now as ever.

While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still its enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.

I hope that Karim’s video will indeed make a difference. But predictably, as he posted on Facebook the other day, he is now under threat from a militia opposed to his performances.

I watch his Mansour video again now, as he plays next to a barefoot man in a wheel chair, and light a candle for Iraq. Inshallah el salam, I pray, and may music continue to heal the country’s many wounds.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. She will be performing some Andalucian songs at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London at 6:30 p.m. on May 16, in solidarity with Iraqi people and artists. 

{module NCM Blurb} 

Published in Commentary
Monday, 26 January 2015 13:55

OPartheeb: In Search of Roots

by Sharif Hasan (@sharifhasan80) in Ottawa

Kicked out of the house where they held jamming sessions because neighbours complained of too much noise. No place to practise. No car to carry the modest number of instruments they had. But none of that could stand in their way.

They are five young musicians, who make up the Ottawa-based Bengali musical band, OPartheeb, and their come-up story is one of passion and perseverance. It drove them to find their roots through music.

Asfin Haidar, one of the band’s vocalists says music has greatly connected them, not only with each other, but also a wider group of Bangladeshi Canadians.

“For me it’s a rediscovery of myself. I don’t want a name, fame or money. It gives me a certain meaning to my life,” she shares.

To date, the band members have not received any payments from any shows, nor have they been able to produce their own album yet, though they are working on one.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Our spirit was renewed by the Shahbag Movement that took place back home in February last year. ... We are now more committed to doing music that upholds our culture and history.” - Salehin Chowdhury[/quote]

One of their tracks, “Roktorin”, has been included on a mixed album titled Songs from Shahbag, which features patriotic songs from Bangladeshi artists and bands residing all over the world. The album’s songs are reflective of The Shahbag Movement, a non-partisan movement carried out by pro-liberation online activists, student bodies and members of the Bangladesh civil society who demand capital punishment for the war criminals of the country’s War of Independence in 1971. Keeping with this theme, Opartheeb’s track, the title meaning “blood debt”, urges the Bangladeshis to wake up once again and fight until the war criminals are annihilated.

“Our spirit was renewed by the Shahbag Movement that took place back home in February last year,” says Salehin Chowdhury, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. “We were so moved and shaken by the phenomenon. We are now more committed to doing music that upholds our culture and history.”

Connections through music

OPartheeb’s band members all met while studying at Carleton University, though they were each in different programs. Three of them came to Canada as international students, while the other two came here with their parents as young kids and grew up in Ottawa.

“Music brought us together,” says Syed Ahsan Ali, the band’s bass guitarist, whose younger brother Syed Adnan Ali plays the drums. “I didn’t know them quite well. I saw them on campus occasionally, but we never hung out. One day we talked about music and that changed everything.”

During a cultural event organized by the Carleton University Bangladeshi Students Association in 2008, Ahsan Ali  and Aad-Yean Faisal, another fellow Bangladeshi student, met Chowdhury, who came to Carleton to do his Masters in Statistics; he learned music back home. When Chowdhury first arrived in Canada, he was homesick and discouraged, but music helped change that.

Watch OPartheeb perform at a culture show hosted by Carleton University Bangladeshi Students Association:

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VKKbSUgtDg&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

After realizing their like-minded interests in music, the three students decided to form a group. Soon after Adnan Ali joined them.

“We started, but we had nothing,” explains Adnan Ali. “We saved every penny to buy a guitar, a drum set or a piece of equipment. We had to take bus to practice in the basements of our houses. People complained about the noise and we had to shift our locations. It [was] a lot of struggle.”

In addition to their music, they had to juggle the demands of part-time jobs to support themselves and their schoolwork. But they didn’t give up, thanks to their love for music, their language and culture.

“I did night shifts at a gas station and saved money for buying a keyboard for the band,” says Faisal, who is a keyboardist and vocalist. “And it’s paid off. Members of our community want us to play, they want us to promote our culture within the community and beyond.”

Breaking new ground

Today, OPartheeb plays all kinds of Bengali music ranging from folk songs to Tagores to modern day band music, along with the band’s original compositions.

The group took to the stage for the first time in February 2009. The performance at the Bangladesh Student Association’s annual program was a huge hit.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I can’t stop imagining it – playing in front of a crowd of 20,000 people in Dhaka or Chittagong.” - Salehin Chowdhury[/quote]

Since then OPartheeb has done 14 shows, including shows at Carleton and ones organized by various local Bangladeshi social and cultural organizations. The band members agree their appearance at Ottawa’s South Asian Cultural Festival in 2012 has been the biggest break so far.

OPartheeb plans to tour and perform for Bangladeshi communities in major cities across Canada, but it is a shared dream of all the members to be able to perform in Bangladesh one day: “I can’t stop imagining it –,” says Chowdhury, his eyes lighting up as he speaks, “… playing in front of a crowd of 20,000 people in Dhaka or Chittagong.”

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Arts & Culture

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