Soulbird hopes to build a safe nest for Iraqi artists - 10/20/2009

Atlanta musician goes to Kurdistan to make music amid chaos

R. Timothy Brady is a soft-spoken young man whose immersion in the arts and sense of moral imperative has taken him on a mission to Iraq. Last Saturday, the composer/activist left Atlanta for Erbil, the capital of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, to establish an English-language academy where he will teach music, all under the auspices of the nonprofit Soulbird Inc., of which Brady is founder and executive director.

One minor problem: Performing music in Iraq can get you killed.

"It's been reported that 80 percent of Iraqi singers have left the country, because now all artists are targeted by terrorists and extremists for torture and murder," says Brady. "So what Soulbird is doing is opening an academy in the relatively safer Kurdistan region of Iraq, in the city of Erbil, to provide a place for artists from all over Iraq to develop and study their craft in a safe and welcoming environment."

Brady's been there before. In the summer of ’08, he went to Erbil, where he taught 20th- and 21st-century classical music in a 10-day workshop. The new Soulbird American Academy of Kurdistan is an outgrowth of that experience, planned over the past year by a seven-person Soulbird team with members in both Kurdistan and the U.S.

The Kurds in Iraq suffered for years under Saddam Hussein, says Brady, but following the entry of American armed forces in 2003, ensuing social chaos set the stage for assaults by religious terrorists on musicians and artists of all kinds throughout Iraq.

"Extremism breeds in places of extreme disorder, chaos and lack of structure," says Brady. "So it's easy for these extreme religious leaders to pop up, and in the midst of chaos demand order and structure. They look at art, maybe, as chaotic. It's threatening to them because it invokes a sense of personal freedom."

At least 100 artists have been reported killed since January of this year alone, according to the U.S.-based Iraqi Artists Association. Many others have fled the country and are now refugees.

One who did not leave is "Ehab," a 25-year-old Arab pianist from Mosul, one of the most volatile cities in Iraq and a solid stronghold for al-Qaida and other terrorists. Ehab was one of Brady's students in Erbil last year, but he did not perform in the final concert for fear that terrorists in Mosul might recognize and execute him. Instead, he sent a recorded message in Arabic, which said in part: "For how long will the pitch remain in our hearts like a prisoner? ... How much I would love to hear you tonight, creators of music. However, now I will stand backstage and change my instrument from piano to paper, pitch to word. My voice will read it, not my fingers." Ehab is now afraid to even practice piano at home.

Brady got into activism at an early age. His mother was an activist and community volunteer, who pushed young Tim into artistic and social endeavors. From around the age of 8 onward, he studied piano, theater and dance, and became an advocate of animal rights. In his teens, he graduated to human rights causes, founding a proactive, gay-straight alliance while at Brookwood High School in Gwinnett County.

But another seminal event took place while Brady was a junior in high school: the bombing of the World Trade Center. It brought the Middle East, and terrorism, into his consciousness. "But it's a generational thing as well," says Brady. "9/11 happened when I was 16, and we invaded Iraq in my senior year of high school. It's been in my immediate sphere of influence. Growing up in a post-9/11 world, the Bush war on terror — basically that's where it started, initially, for everybody in my generation. It entered our consciousness."

While he did not have a specific plan for his life, both his music and social activism continued to develop in college. Brady studied composition at Emory University with John Anthony Lennon, while performing with the former local band One Hand Loves the Other. He also developed a mentoring relationship in human rights with his Italian-language professor, Delia Nisbet.

While studying overseas in Italy during 2005, Brady heard news of the public hanging of two gay men in Tehran, an incident that became the subject of his senior thesis, the one-act opera Edalat Square. After its 2007 premiere at Emory, Edalat Square went on to share first prize in a competition hosted by Houston's innovative Opera Vista. Last May, it was the opening production in the 2009 Opera Vista Festival. These experiences cemented Brady's interest in the Middle East.

After graduating from Emory in 2007, Brady founded the Atlanta-based Soulbird because he "realized the need for art to leave its insular circles and to begin amplifying causes that address directly the plight of struggling and marginalized people around the world." Soulbird quickly became engaged in multiple arts projects internationally.

Brady hopes the new academy in Kurdistan can also address what he views as the cultural isolation of the Kurdish populace from other countries. By fostering creativity and offering a safe haven for Iraqi artists, the academy intends to open a wider door for international dialogue of all kinds.

"I will be teaching music, primarily," says Brady. "But, partly, we are teaching English because it is in huge demand. They want to communicate with other people outside of Kurdistan, but almost nobody speaks Kurdish and very few people in the West speak Arabic. They want to be able to get their story out, and, I guess, increase their economic value. If you speak English, you have a greater chance of succeeding economically in this globalized world."

While Brady is aware of the tremendous personal risk he's taking to do this, "It's not something I'm most concerned about," he says. "It's a small price to pay for doing this kind of work."

For more information on the Soulbird American Academy of Kurdistan, visit soulbird.org/projects/saak/.

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