A Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian Walk into a Concert Hall…
by Vicki Garlock
“What people don’t see on stage is that our three lifestyles – as men with families, as artists, and as people deeply committed to our individual faith traditions – have come together to embody mutual respect and admiration.”
– Dawud Wharnsby, Canadian writer, artisan, and musician
It all started in 2010 when Ontario, Canada-based Dawud Wharnsby was contacted by David LaMotte, who was working on peace and justice issues with the North Carolina Council of Churches. Anti-Muslim sentiment was on the rise in the Raleigh-Durham area, and David wanted to jump-start a counter-movement. “I was looking to start with university students,” David said, “which meant there had to be music.” The beauty of that first concert was palpable as Dawud Wharnsby (a Muslim), David LaMotte (a Christian), and Dan Nichols (a Jew), shared the stage with one another to promote interfaith harmony and inter-religious dialogue.
A few years later, the band Abraham Jam, now with Billy Jonas (replacing Dan Nichols), was formed. But they are no longer simply sharing the stage with one another; they are merging their individual talents to create a unique sound that highlights the distinctive beauty of interfaith bridge-building. They released their first CD a few days ago, just a week after performing at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. But the bigger message is how the members of Abraham Jam – all accomplished musicians and artists in their own right – honor the beauty of both their commonalities and their differences.
Over the years, Abraham Jam has continued to build a following that includes people of all ages and people of all faiths and no faith. That first concert at Duke University led to the Sacred Music Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan and a handful of other gigs. Then, Abraham Jam performed at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, which led to more concerts, including one at a Lutheran Synod gathering in Pennsylvania and a return to the 2018 Toronto Parliament.
Through it all, they’ve remained committed to their initial vision of actually creating music together – moving beyond the simpler, but much less rewarding, notion of three solo artists who rotate back-up duties. Dawud expressed this sentiment beautifully on Northern Spirit Radio, which featured Abraham Jam in last summer’s June 2nd broadcast. One of the songs the group now sings is Rhythm of Surrender, a song Dawud used to sing as a soloist. “For me to take an old song of mine, like Rhythm of Surrender, and bring it new life with David and Billy, is really exciting. It’s a new rhythm! After so many years of singing the song one way, I now find it brand new again because of the joy we’re able to share.”
Click here to hear Abraham Jam’s version of Tala’al Badru Alayna (White Moon), an Islamic chant that is over 1400 years old.
Over the past 15 months, Abraham Jam finds itself increasingly busy as people from around the world feel called to lift up unity and connection over hostility and divisiveness. As Billy said, “We were starting to get calls about gigs, and we didn’t even have a complete web site or press kit yet.” “People just loved the idea of it,” added David. In August 2017, they played a concert in Asheville, North Carolina. In the spring of 2018, there was a mini-tour in the Washington DC metro area. In June, they started a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $48,000 from over 550 donors from around the world.
Those Kickstarter earnings helped fund the release of their live CD based on the Asheville concert. Even that event seemed to reverberate with divine intervention. The trio hired a photographer, signed a videographer, set up two separate sound systems, and hoped for the best. As David said, “Our initial plan was to get an EP [more than single but less than a full album] out of it.” But, after spending a week in the studio before the concert, which “lit this eternal flame of togetherness,” as Billy put it, they ended up with a full set of soundtracks. That same Kickstarter campaign will also help fund their first studio CD, scheduled for release in the spring of 2019.
Another highlight for Abraham Jam was this year’s MuslimFest, held just outside Toronto. The festival, which celebrates Muslim art, culture, and entertainment, hosts over 25,000 people annually and is one of the three largest festivals in Toronto. As Dawud said, “It’s a real testament to the interfaith movement in Canada that they asked us, a multi-faith band, to play on the main stage.” Billy quickly added, “We were even the lead story on Al Jazeera TV.”
An added benefit for the Abraham Jam trio is that they, themselves, are able to grow both as multi-faith activists and as musicians. As David said, “Sometimes we activists forget that it’s not just about resisting what’s wrong; it’s also about lifting up what’s right. Besides, I just love hanging out with these guys and learning from them.”
Dawud also talked about using music, and his role in the Muslim community, to bridge faith-based divides. “After 10 years of writing traditional Muslim music for English-speaking families and children, I have been able to step away from performing solos. Music is still my primary path, but I can use that to bring the Muslim community along with me on this journey.”
Recently I was lucky enough to grab a quick lunch with the three members of Abraham Jam while they were in Asheville working in a studio. It’s a good day when you get to listen to three talented artists gush about the power of music and express their deep love for one another. When they also happen to be from three different faith traditions, you realize you’re in the midst of something truly special.
Header Photo: Pixabay