The Key to Interfaith Collaboration in the Middle East? Steel Drums

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

The Key to Interfaith Collaboration in the Middle East? Steel Drums

Harvey Price, Founder and Executive Director, Peace Drums


Peace Drums rehearsal, right before the shutdown during the May war with Gaza. Photo: Peace Drums.

It has been 20 years since the idea of Peace Drums first came to me. The U.S. military had just invaded Afghanistan and was about to enter Iraq. As part of the eventually failed “nation-building” enterprise that would eventually destroy so many human lives, someone in the U.S. State Department decided we needed to do some “good” work as well. An RFP was issued for Conflict Resolution in Predominantly Muslim Countries through the Arts.

I was not anxious to go to either Afghanistan or Iraq. Most recently, I had been working in Israel, but had to abandon my teaching there due to the Second Intifada. I was also directing several university and secondary school steel bands at home and was impressed with how quickly the students learned, formed close bonds, and enjoyed themselves in that setting.

It hit me: What if I could start an Arab/Israeli youth music ensemble in Israel using a musical instrument that did not belong to any of the cultures in the Middle East—one that was itself born out of conflict in Trinidad and Tobago almost 70 years ago? I thought that Arab/Israeli youth steel bands could foster healing and understanding.

Skeptical? So was the State Department—they did not approve my grant. But the idea stayed with me for the next 12 years, until an organization called Delaware Churches for Mid-East Peace approached me about doing a project in Israel with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish youth to counter the BDS movement that was taking hold. In 2012, that project became known as Peace Drums.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Peace Drums served 150 students each week through steel band rehearsals at four different schools, about 15 concerts a year in Israel, and international tours every other year. We also used a shared-writing program, “Writers Matter,” to encourage students to express themselves in their mother tongues. Through different surveys, we have tried to measure how students feel toward one another. Are the interactions between Arabic and Jewish children more positive or less positive? Are their families interacting on a regular basis? Are they learning about musical concepts and theory? Are they enjoying themselves? The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, which made the COVID shutdown all the more painful.

The author leads a Peace Drums rehearsal. Photo: Peace Drums.

It wasn’t easy getting Peace Drums up and running. But two key observations, made in the first few years, led to our success. The first focused on teacher training. Initially, we tried teaching local music teachers to play steel drums. We knew that few (if any) local teachers had steel drumming experience, but hoped they could learn and teach simultaneously. That hope lasted through two years and two teachers. In each instance, the students quickly surpassed their teacher as players.

Our solution was to bring in a teaching artist from Trinidad—a top player, teacher, and arranger. Our first teacher, my former student Briele Scott, came for three months and stayed for three years; she was followed by equally great teachers Stefon West and Nicholas Joseph. There are many benefits to having great steel drummers who can also teach and arrange, but we are most excited about expanding the students’ cultural knowledge by teaching them about a Caribbean culture they wouldn’t otherwise experience.

Our second key observation was that music-making alone wouldn’t be enough to get students to interact. During breaks, we watched as the Jewish youth moved to one corner and the Arab youth to another. Recognizing that these young people needed another way to communicate, we introduced the Writers Matter curriculum. They write about their family, lives, personal dreams, and frustrations in their mother tongues, and then their writings are translated and shared with the group. This has facilitated many non-musical interactions that help students see they are more alike than different.

Peace Drums, in white shirts, performing at the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Peace Drums.

I’ve witnessed many moments of connection, but one in particular will stay with me forever.

We had just finished a concert at a facility in Zurich, Switzerland that housed older Jewish residents. Some of our audience members were Holocaust survivors; some were longtime residents from other European countries. Many were over 90 years old. These residents wanted to meet our young people, so students began circulating among them to speak. One of our Arab/Muslim students, Shada Ayoub, headed for the frailest, least mobile woman in the room and started to engage with her. After a few minutes, the woman took Shada’s hand, and Shada cupped her other hand around the woman’s, looking as if she were speaking with her own great-grandmother. They spoke for a few minutes—in what language, I’m not sure. The sight of a young Arab/Muslim girl sharing respect and love with a frail Jewish woman brought tears to my eyes.

During this past year, during the Gaza-Israel Crisis, our students spoke about how much they missed one another—both groups sharing their disappointment that violence had interrupted their music-making. Isolated by a violent conflict—during a pandemic—our students chose empathy for one another.

Even before I embarked on my Peace Drums journey, I knew that the language of music was a powerful tool for bringing people together. But using music for social change was something I simply did not consider until a few years in. The results have been thrilling and humbling. We are looking forward to getting back to in-person rehearsals when the COVID protocols are lifted. In the meantime, Peace Drums is exploring crossing into the West Bank and starting steel bands in three different schools. This presents a different set of challenges, but we are ready to face them—with empathy, with honesty, and with music.