It began six days after the September 11th terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center towers. Violinist William Harvey, then a freshman at Julliard, performed solo violin for soldiers who were returning to the 69th Regiment Armory after an emotionally grueling day of digging at Ground Zero. William’s performance penetrated the soldiers’ deep, empty hole of grief and filled it with the beautiful sounds of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Paganini during his two plus hours of non-stop playing.
William sent an email to his friends and family explaining how his interaction with the soldiers at the Armory had become a life altering experience, and it went viral – regional, national and international publications talked about it. Four years later, William created Cultures in Harmony, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the healing power of music to the world.
I recently met William during an interview he requested regarding inclusion of the Philadelphia World Heritage City Project in his current documentary project where he is spending one week each in 50 states to answer the question “What is American Culture?”
It wasn’t long into our initial introduction and conversation that we realized that I needed to turn the interview on William Harvey.
Following is my interview with this amazing man who is on a mission to prove that music is the answer for peace and healing. William’s vision of a world “connected, not divided; sympathetic, not suspicious; lit by love, not darkened by hatred,” are words to live by.
G: What is your biggest challenge while traveling the world on your cultural diplomacy projects?
W: The pace of globalization has exceeded our capacity as a species to grow in understanding. Music is the perfect way to embrace an apparent paradox: both our differences and our shared humanity are cause for celebration. Music speaks to each of us, thereby affirming a common core to the human experience, but just as languages and experiences differ from culture to culture, so does music. The challenge is that too often, people ignore this incredibly powerful message of music, or don’t take it seriously. Funding for cultural diplomacy remains inadequate, and if critics believe that it has not been effective in fostering real change, I would argue that it has not yet been tried at a large enough scale where it might be effective. If you truly listen to music, it is difficult to ignore its message of universality, its radical call to empathy.
G: What is one of your biggest rewards?
W: Those moments in cultural diplomacy that achieve genuine connection represent the greatest reward. In Zimbabwe last summer, Cultures in Harmony facilitated the first ever performance by the Musicamp Orchestra of black Zimbabwean music when Oliver Mtukudzi joined us for my arrangements of three of his songs. Some of the white teenagers were not previously that familiar with Mtukudzi, who is a national hero for black Zimbabweans, but by the end of the rehearsal process, they were taking selfies with him and were proud of the collaboration. Conducting the Afghan Youth Orchestra in sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in February 2013 was another thrill. For many thousands of Americans who experienced our US concerts and the publicity surrounding them, the fact of Afghan girls and boys performing side by side proved that progress has been made in Afghanistan, and served as a powerful reminder that girls and boys everywhere share similar aspirations: to express themselves, to be educated, to excel.
G: While living in Afghanistan how did you remain safe? Americans have this notion of Middle Eastern people living in extreme oppression – music is banned by the Taliban and women are denied an education. How did you manage to teach music to women?
W: In Afghanistan, I benefited from working very closely with my boss, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of Afghanistan National Institute of Music. He is the one who deserves primary credit for these advances. I supported his efforts through my own dedication and artistry, and I believe that our relationship offers an alternative model for how the relationship between our countries can look: trust brilliant, dedicated, honest, and visionary Afghans to manage their country’s reconstruction, and where necessary, play a supporting role.
I felt very fortunate to be embraced by most members of the Afghan public, who became familiar with me when I served as a guest judge on Afghan Star (equivalent to American Idol) and subsequently saw me conduct the Afghan Youth Orchestra frequently on Afghan national television. I learned Dari and frequently performed Afghan music in public. A middle-aged Afghan friend once described me as follows: “This is the greatest man that America has sent to Afghanistan. We need more people like him: musicians, not men with guns.”
His kind words affirm what those of us engaged in cultural diplomacy have always known: whether in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, in New York, Jacksonville, or Philadelphia, cultural exchange points the way towards a future illumined by greater understanding and respect.
G: How is your search for the answer to “What is American Culture?” going thus far?
W: With the American culture project, Cultures in Harmony seeks to catalyze a national conversation. The project will succeed only if and when millions of Americans start to share their own definition of American culture on social media with the hashtag #americancultureis; when we start to schedule concerts, exhibits, and events affirming and celebrating the open-ended nature of this question; and when we start to accept that we may never arrive at a single definition of our cultural, social, or political life. That acceptance, that willingness to agree to disagree, is disappearing and may soon be past the point where it will be possible to recover. This project seeks to do what our international projects seek to achieve: bringing people together. In this case, we bring people together around a commitment to validating diverse interpretations of our culture. America must remain a welcoming home to those who speak Spanish or English or another language; who are Christian or Muslim or another religion or secular; who are conservative, liberal, centrist, or any combination thereof. Your identity, your values, or your interests need not define you in this country: you are human, and American, and that should be enough.
My own search is not the point of this project. To the extent that people feel that the project is only about a violinist from Indiana getting to see the country, it is a failure. To the extent that the project inspires people to contribute their own definition of American culture or consider a definition that differs from their own, it is a success.
G: What are your feelings about Philadelphia as a cultural destination?
W: As a classical musician, I grew up with the highest respect for Philadelphia as the location of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute. During the American culture project, I discovered how much more Philadelphia has to offer. It is both the home of the Liberty Bell and of a powerful new museum honoring George Washington’s slaves. It is home to both the famous cheesesteak…and the sandwich at DiNic’s named best sandwich in the US. It remains a proudly multicultural city, and I greatly enjoyed climbing the greasy pole at the Italian Market Festival. Philadelphia’s status as the first-ever American city to be named a World Heritage City highlights its claim to be the birthplace of the USA, but it remains so much more than that. Given that few cities capture so much of our country’s unique characteristics as well as Philadelphia, it was an outstanding choice to represent America’s contribution to world heritage.
Click here to see video and interview with Zabeth Teelucksingh, Executive Director, Global Philadelphia Association (GPA) and John Smith, Board Chairman.
For more information on Cultures in Harmony visit www.culturesinharmony.org