The mountains of Aïn Draham seem far away from the big table.
The big table takes up most of the space on the back deck of the top-floor apartment. It’s surrounded by potted plants, including the one that provided the sprigs of mint Allie Deaver would soon put in the heavily sugared green tea she was making with a Tunisian recipe.
The big table is on a deck at an apartment building in a pocket neighborhood in Edgewater. Aïn Draham is in the Jendouba Governorate in northwestern Tunisia.
“It’s like the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. You’re about 30 kilometers south of the Mediterranean. It’s beautiful. Absolutely breathtaking scenery,” she said. “It’s mountains. It’s cedar forests. It’s not what you might expect thinking of North Africa.”
Allie Deaver is a flautist. For the past two years, Deaver, 28, has gone to North Africa as part of Cultures in Harmony. The eight-year-old nonprofit sends American classical musicians to Tunisia, to Zimbabwe, to Mexico and Papua New Guinea and Cameroon and Afghanistan and points east west north and south for a simple task.
To jam. They find local musicians and jam with them.
“You have this combination of Western classical music, traditional Arab music, everything in between,” Deaver said, leaving the big table momentarily to check on the tea.
Cultures in Harmony’s Tunisian program is in two parts. First, there’s a weeks long music camp for children aged 7 to 22. Then there’s the “Musical Caravan,” a series of outreach concerts in rural areas, rehearsing and performing with Tunisian musicians to create on-the-spot fusions. Improvised jams somewhere between Mozart and “Maktoub.”
“These people are sometimes just incredibly gifted and incredibly dedicated musicians, but during the day they’re like a pharmacist,” Deaver said. “It’s great to go to countries where music-making is valued by everybody to the point where everybody can participate.”
Deaver isn’t sure how the word is spread to the musicians. Madame Hanen, the Tunisian woman who organizes the caravan, speaks almost no English. But the musicians show up, town after rural town.
“When we went to Béja, we had these people who were like ‘I’m into metal and progressive rock and we’re in a band. Can we play some of our stuff for you?’ And we were like, ‘Sure. Go for it.’ And it was actually pretty good. Béja was interesting because last year when we did the Musical Caravan in Béja, there were actually protestors. I’m not clear on whether they were aligned with a certain group or organization or Islamic sect, but they didn’t really want us there.”
The protestors weren’t violent, she said quickly, but “They were protesting us. They were there for us.”
The musicians were whisked away and the locations for the both the pre-concert workshop and the concert itself changed.
“The security situation in Tunisia this year is a little more unpredictable because of things that are going on along the Algerian border, which is of course where we were most of the time,” Deaver said.
She heard of “some skirmishes,” she said, but news was hard to come by, mostly gossip from the older students about weapons smuggling from Algeria to Libya.
The Tunisian students were meanwhile horrified by the American security situation.
“When I was over there, there was that shooting in Uptown where like five people were randomly shot in a drive-by or something, and I made some remark about that occurring. I said something like ‘Oh my gosh, there were five people shot a mile and a half from where I live.’ And one of the girls goes, ‘Oh my God, how can you feel safe there?’”
The students at the music camp in Aïn Draham were mostly middle class urban Tunisians, she said. They were musically inclined, charming, fun, sloppily dressed, iPhone obsessed, English-speaking teens in the process of growing up on Western television and Adele albums.
They were the type of kids whose parents would send them to weeks long music camps over the summer.
There were 40 students last year, about 24 this year because Ramadan and the Tunisian school year had an odd crossover on the calendar and the camp wasn’t as convenient for a lot of the parents.
Deaver, a Naperville native and flautist with the chamber orchestra bar band Classical Revolution Chicago (oh, you better believe I’ll be doing a story on that), has been to North Africa twice now. Now sipping the Tunisian tea recipe she learned in Egypt, she said the cultural exchange went both ways.
Before one concert, an excited cultural attaché handed them sheet music for Tunisian standards “Maktoub” and “Takht Yasmina” with the request to play. Madame Hanen happened to have some traditional Tunisian dresses in her car.
“And we’re sight-reading ‘Maktoub’ while wearing these traditional gowns while also having to improvise all the solos and this occurred right on the spot. But then I also had to turn around and perform a movement of a Poulenc sonata but this is after we’re trying to teach a bunch of Arab kids which is after I had to jam with a ney player,” she said, laughing. “Ney is the traditional Arab flute, which is played from the side of your mouth. I can’t figure out how to make a sound out of it, but I felt a little better when he couldn’t figure out how to make a sound out of my flute.”
The hostel where the music camp students stayed made ends meet by hosting weddings, Deaver said. They had weddings every night except for one of the Jumu’ah prayer nights on Fridays. Nightly weddings and 24 music camp kids made an annoying combination for the hostel’s owners.
“After a while they started coming up with these activities to get the kids out of the way because the kids would just crash the weddings. I, uh, crashed a couple of them with the kids,” she said, glancing down a little sheepishly before excitedly describing the party favor she scored at one.
“One of the nights they organized this hike up to the top of the mountain. They did a campfire. We’re just sitting there eating our dinner and Hanen, actually, starts singing a traditional northwestern Tunisian folk song that they would sing at weddings. It was just such a cool moment because it happened out of nowhere. Someone had dragged a darbuka, the drum, up with them… some of the kids had their guitars.
“It just turned into this jam session up at the top of this mountain where everyone was singing,” she said, smiling.
A song sung in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains by Aïn Draham still resonates by a big table in Edgewater, Chicago.