A Case For The Arts: What Does Music Have To Do With Important Issues Facing Our Planet And Our Societies?

Anne Elise Thomas, Ph.D.  Legacy International – Board Member with Purpose

Dr Anne Elise Thomas R with friend mentor and musical collaborator Dr Anne Rasmussen L

Music is my passion. It animates and inspires me, and I love to observe how music can make connections between people of different cultures. In my professional life I am a musician, an academic and an educator. I also serve on Legacy International’s Board of Directors because the organization’s values and mission align so clearly with my approach.  Legacy International works globally to address critical issues by training, supporting, and inspiring catalytic leaders who align themselves according to universal values of compassion, justice, and equity. My field is ethnomusicology – a field which considers music as a human activity, practiced by people across the globe. In our field we consider music not just as a text or a performance but as a practice that is embedded within social life. We embrace the term “musicking,” (Christopher Small: Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998.) a verb that encompasses all manner of interacting with music – performing, listening, dancing, talking about and even just thinking about music. Broadening our lens in this way lets us see how participation in music addresses intersecting human needs of identity, connection with others, sense of community and belonging, spirituality, emotional regulation and release, physical movement, and healing, as well as creative self-expression.

As a musician and an ethnomusicologist, I’m a firm believer in the power of the arts to build bridges and channel energies toward addressing complex issues. In 1994, I began my decades-long involvement in Middle Eastern music as an undergraduate music student of Dr. Anne Rasmussen at William and Mary. Since that time I have continued this musical journey studying music performance on qanun (78-stringed lap harp) with teachers internationally and completing my Ph.D. on Arab music history, performance and pedagogy. I currently direct Itraab Arabic music ensemble at Virginia Tech, which brings together students, faculty, and community members of both Arab and non-Arab descent to learn and perform Arab music. My research examines how arts participation can combat negative stereotypes and open a space for students (and others) to learn about other cultures. Throughout my work I am regularly reminded that playing this music and engaging with communities is more than just musical performance – it is an act of solidarity with and advocacy for people whose cultural identity is too often vilified in post-9/11 America.

Even as I’ve chosen for myself a path of teaching, performance, and scholarship, I care deeply about urgent issues facing humanity: the climate crisis, social justice movements, global conflict and the unprecedented increase in forcibly displaced populations, strengthening democracy and improving public health throughout the world. While dialogue is crucial, I feel that these issues cannot be addressed entirely within a framework of discussion and analysis. These activities often fail to fully develop or utilize overlooked qualities of affirmation, empathy, entrainment and co-creation – strengths that are fostered throughout the arts.

Legacy International takes a holistic approach to addressing the needs of individuals and societies. Legacy’s approach to building capacity recognizes that creating positive change begins with individuals affirming the values they share and making a commitment to action consistent with those values. 

For me, musical collaboration consistently offers a space in which differences are expressed and overcome through shared focus on a common goal. Engagement with the arts offers a model for collaboration that invites everyone’s best ideas and insights and yields results that are so much greater than the sum total of each individual’s strengths. I witness this same character of collaboration throughout Legacy’s work that I’ve observed over the last 20 years: from connecting professionals from the MENA region with counterparts in Washington, DC, to coaching young people from groups in conflict to enter into dialogue with one another, to training entrepreneurs as they envision creative ways to address high youth unemployment and the acute needs of people displaced by conflict or disaster.

But the potential of this collaborative, synergistic approach to address challenges goes well beyond the symbolic. Around the globe, persistent “othering” of members of one group by another group causes people to distrust one another. The effects of this “othering” are most acute for members of marginalized groups – minorities, refugees, impoverished or displaced people. This dangerous impulse threatens to unravel the very connections by which societies cohere. 

The antidote to this “othering” impulse, in my view, is for individuals to actively seek out and cultivate relationships across imagined boundaries of nation, class, religion and culture. While cultural differences may be worth discussion, the most productive starting point for that discussion is to recognize the values and priorities that people hold in common – the universal values that are the lynchpin of Legacy International’s unique methodology.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been called to think creatively to coordinate with others virtually and in separate locations. Not having a playbook for how to get things done in a pandemic has made improvisers out of us all. In these challenging times are opportunities for all of us to develop the skills and habits to reach beyond our usual spheres and cultivate the relationships, attitudes and values that will allow us to improvise, imagine and create a more just and sustainable world.  

Enjoy a video of Itraab Arabic Music Ensemble performing an Egyptian folk song as a “virtual ensemble,” created after the pandemic confined us to our houses: