America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series Episode 4
Aswat, San Francisco’s Voices of Passion
BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer
When an organization is founded by one individual, a highly motivated and passionate person, the passion comes through all its work. The principle applies to the wealthiest companies in the world, Microsoft’s Bill Gates or Apple’s Steve Jobs, to a local community ensemble. In 2000, a Palestinian hyper-activist, known to her San Francisco peninsula community as a force of nature, gathered friends who like to sing traditional Arabic songs and started an ensemble called Aswat, or voices. It took off beyond their expectations for many reasons: the need to fill an artistic niche in the area, the talent of the singers and orchestra that was built around them, and the sense of inclusion of all community members willing to rehearse and make a contribution.
But the primary reason for the group’s longevity and success is the tenacity and grit of and passionate founder. Nabila Mango emigrated in the mid 1960s and earned several graduate degrees and worked in many different fields including being a Librarian at Harvard University before settling as a family therapist in the Bay Area.
If any community organization wanted a role model for how to do it right, Aswat would be the model. After the ensemble’s initial success, Nabila founded a home non-profit organization called Zawaya, Arabic for corners, to surround the ensemble from all corners – – a zawiya (singular) is also an old name for a house of Sufi music and spiritual practice. A dedicated board enabled the group to prosper, tour in others states, and branch out with other ensembles such a women’s vocal group, a youth ensemble, a spiritual music group, and percussion group, and a band of only oud performers.
The former Arabic teacher, music collector and historian, as well as political zealot, had many innovative leadership techniques. One of them is not having a permanent artistic director but making that role a rotating short residency program. The director had to be an established expert and excellent teacher in music. World-class directors from the Arab World apply on regular basis to what has become a highly prestigious assignment. This model could be a lesson to the State Department. The people-to-people contacts and artist exchange programs that highly paid consultants propose as part of the national foreign policy can benefit by quantum leaps from Nabila Mango’s idea if applied at a larger scale.
Zawaya has been programming Aswat’s concerts in themes in recent years. They have covered the music of Sayyid Darwish, Abd al-Halim, and music of Aleppo, among other themes. The Bay Area’s premier Arabic music ensemble with a large multi-ethnic following has also become a teaching tool. Audiences learn about Arab culture via music more than any political organization fighting bias and hate crimes can accomplish; the power of the arts. As expected, non-Arab members of the group become the foundation of the bridge connecting the two-cultures and prevent such group from being closed on itself or falling in the trap of serving Arab immigrants only. Zawaya’s leadership has the foresight to provide the right corner for a safe place where everybody, regardless of background, can enjoy the beauty of this musical heritage.
As observed with every group addressed in this series, the successful artists find themselves as leaders for social justice even if they had planned for such a role. In this environment of rough politics, the artists, not the politicians, become the role models for the better way of functioning as harmonious communities. By performing at large prestigious venues, universities and museums, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Aswat serve as voices of ambassadors of good will. The cancer survivor founder and leader who has been honored by local governments and many foundations, Nabila knows well what we have all experienced. Americans can be judgmental, understandably, if you talk to them about politics or religion but are a lot more open and supportive when you speak to them with music. To win somebody over to our beautiful culture, we need to continue use the tools of the culture and we have plenty of arts, literature, and food to reach out with passion.