Answered by Mohammed Nazam
1- What are the principles of the band?
The aims of the band are to make good music! But also, through the music and the songs, to encourage non-violence, peaceful coexistence, dialogue between people of differing faiths; to raise awareness of common roots of the three main monotheistic faiths and the celebration of diversity. The real aim though, is to draw audiences from the three faiths so that Jews, Muslims and Christians can sit with each other and enjoy a cultural event and maybe even strike up a conversation. Who knows what could happen then? Some of them might realise that the images they had of the other may have been slightly ill-advised and might actually start talking to each other! Having said that I have to make it clear that Berakah can be enjoyed, and is relevant to, people of faith, people of little faith and those of no faith whatsoever!
2- How did you form?
I first had the idea a couple of years ago but, due to touring and composing commitments, I didn’t really have the chance to put my idea of a multi-faith (as opposed to a multi-ethnic) band into action. Then, late last year I decided the time had come to put this idea into action and I started looking for musicians. Having known and played with some of the best musicians in the UK, I’d already decided to approach some band members whom I’d worked with previously; but I was looking specifically for a Middle eastern percussionist and a Jewish violinist, because these instruments had deep ties to the cultures, so in a way , exemplified certain aspects of that culture and it’s relationship to music. I made some calls, saw some people play and now have a band made up of wonderful players and great people.
3- Why did you choose inter-faith and not inter-cultural?
There are plenty of multi-ethnic bands around. I play in about 3 or 4 myself! So the diversity of races and nationalities in the UK is part of our landscape now, although obviously not without it’s challenges. However, I realised that one thing noticeably absent from discussions of race or ethnicity was the faith or religious heritage. And I also noticed that this was a new frontier of questions, attitudes and challenges opening up, with the advent of Islamophobia and continuing anti-Semitic attacks all against a backdrop of a nominally Christian society. So that’s where I saw the tensions arising and I wanted to do something to ease them, or at least open some minds. Music has always had a “consciousness-broadening” capability so I figured that the way that I could make some kind of positive contribution to the issue was to form a band where we all come from the three monotheistic “sister” religions. I have to say that actually being “practising” was not a pre-requisite for playing in the band. Just to be in touch with your roots and heritage, and to be a great player, was enough.
4- Where are the musicians from?
Most of us are from London, although Abdelkader Saadoun, our master percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, is from Algeria. I was born in Pakistan and came here with my parents when I was about a year old.
5- What do they play, what is their religion?
I play guitar and I have a jazz and contemporary music background. Blues, soul and rock, that kinda thing. Serena Leader is our violinist. She has a classical background and is Jewish. Abdelkader, who plays percussion and oud, is from Algeria and he’s another Muslim, whilst Rex Horan our bassist is from Australia and comes from a Catholic family. Mark Hinton Stewart plays piano and he’s good ol’ English through and through and finally Chantelle Duncan is from Scotland and is also from a Christian background.
6- Why was the band put together?
Simply because I felt it was time for me to do something positive for the community at large. I’d been working closely with the Prince’s Trust on residential music courses with very disadvantaged young people and I saw how music really can change lives. It can cut through right to the heart and, if the music has a positive message, the heart and spirit feel totally uplifted. And, being Muslim, I wanted to help create positive images of our community which, like any new immigrant community, can be mis-understood. We’ve only been here 40 years or soÉnot long..
7-There is a strong Mind-Body-Spirit element, where did it come from?
Well, I mentioned that being a practising member of any faith was not a requirement for being in the band. I can’t speak for the other members but in my case I’d say that I’m certainly not an orthodox Muslim. That said, I believe in and adhere to what I perceive as Universal Principles, such as treat others as you’d like to be treated, do your best to avoid situations with negative consequences, a non-violent approach to life is a positive aspiration, get lot’s of sleep and eat five portions of fruit a day. I think these things are self-evident. And choosing band members who understood these ideas and were at least sympathetic to them was vital.
8- What kind of music do you play?
I guess you’d call it World Music. It has elements of jazz and classical music, but also a very strong Middle Eastern sound both in the rhythms and the melodies. I write most of the tunes so it’s a combination of much of my influences, which range from Indian music to Jimi Hendrix to Rai.
9- Do you just play? What is the scope of the project?
At the moment we’re concentrating on playing but in the near future I’d like to branch out into music workshops in schools and colleges. I see this as a vital component of our objectives, especially when it comes to single faith schools. For instance, I’d love to take a band of Muslims and Jews into a Jewish school, where the chances are very good that some of the pupils may not have ever met a real life Muslim before. Similarly, I’d love to take Berakah into a school full of Bengali kids in the East End, most of whom I’d be willing to bet, have never met a Jewish person. Meeting certain people who you may have only heard about in the news, or have heard your parents talking about in, let’s be honest, probably less than positive terms, can really help to dispel stereotypes and humanise a sector of the community who may have become demonised by other members of the community.
10- Where do you see the band heading?/ Where would you like to take it?
Good question. Right now, I’d like to play in all the regions of the UK, especially in the North, especially in more ethnically mixed areas. We’re very lucky here in London. For all it’s problems, and there are many, I still think it’s diverse, cosmopolitan and for the most part, very accepting. I think this is not the story in other parts of the country, and I can see Berakah addressing that in a positive way. Ultimately, somewhere far far in the future, I’d love Berakah to play in Jerusalem. Can you imagine what kind of message that would send out? It would be amazing.
11- Why are only Judaism, Christianity and Islam represented in your band, where are the other monotheistic religions and non-monotheistic?
Well, I’m Muslim and I live in a secular Christian country and that has raised certain tensions in the minds of both the Christian culture we live in and the Muslim world itself. Also, since the latter half of the 20th century the situation in the Middle East has raised tensions between the Muslim world and the Jewish community, and these are all things that I find regrettable because all three faiths come from a common ancestry and actually have more in common with each other than various religious dogmatists would dare to admit. We’re basically cousins, descending from Abraham, especially the Muslims and the Jews! So that’s why I chose these three to be the focus. However, that’s not to say that I’m ignoring our extended family! In the future I’d love Berakah to feature musicians of other faiths or collaborate with them and fully intend to do so, but take a look at the world right now and tell me where the immediate clash lies.
12- How have you been received by your audiences so far?
So far both the message of Berakah and the music have been received with great enthusiasm. In the world right now, I feel that a line has to be drawn and people of peace have to stand behind that line together. We can’t let those who promote hatred, war and aggression to gain the upper hand, and it has to be accepted that such people exist in every nation, every faith and every race. The good news is that so do those whose very existence is based in peace, love and the language of the heart. I really urge everyone who can relate to this message to come and listen to some good music and share the space with like minded people!