Why Can't We Be Friends?

Yeah, Russell Packard will take the occasional puff on his traditional Arabic flute called the "nay," but he's never inhaled.
Jim Walsh

Last Wednesday morning, as he does every morning, Garrison Keillor went out over the nation's airwaves on The Writer's Almanac to talk about the history of creative types. "On this day in 1904, Henry James visited the United States for the first time," Keillor began, then spent a minute chronicling the expat's love-hate affair with American culture. Keillor concluded, "A few years later, [James] wrote to his sister-in-law, 'Dearest Alice, I could come back to America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die—but never, never to live.'"

The same morning, Russell Packard, who has chosen to remain in America, was busy getting ready for another year at the Friends School of Minnesota, a tiny Quaker academy not far from St. Paul's Midway neighborhood. Friends is run by a group of educators and peace activists who are trying to put a finger in the dike of their homeland's culture of violence.

"When I traveled the Middle East with my guitar, the generosity of the Arab people was amazing," says Packard. "You could leave your wallet in a restaurant, and you could come back an hour later and they'd give it to you and say, 'Here, have a sweet or some lemonade or something.'" Packard is ignoring the iced coffee and muffin that will sit before him, untouched, for the duration of this interview.

"I think the Arab people are very misunderstood," Packard adds. "Right now, they're the victims of racism, and it's a different kind of racism than [inequality]. It's distrust. Which is why I believe now, by presenting the beauty of their music, we can counteract the racism. Because once people start trying to understand music, they start to have empathy for people, and it's harder to hate them.

"When you speak with people about Arabs, you can tell they just don't trust them. In '91 I was teaching in the Highland Park schools, and they were telling me not to talk about Arabs or their music or politics. I realized that I didn't feel comfortable bringing the music in there, but I did here."

"Here" is Packard's music classroom at Friends School, where his seven-year-old daughter Molly and a friend are playing hide and seek amid drums, tambourines, and various exotic percussion instruments. As the kids race around and draw on the chalkboard, Packard talks about his travels, arrests, brushes with death, and experiences busking in South America, Ireland, India, and the Middle East. This, he explains, is how he came to become an expert in world music—not through books or recorded music.

It's also how he, a resident of Lake St. Croix Beach in Washington County, came to co-found the local world-music ensemble Crossing Borders and play a dozen or more instruments, including the nay ("nigh"), a traditional Arab flute. And how he was invited to perform at the international Jerash Festival of Arts and Music near Aman, Jordan, which was cancelled last month when the missiles started flying across the Israeli-Lebanon border.

"The very day before I was set to go, I had my bags all packed, including my toothbrush and all the gifts for the children I was going to see," says Packard, his white beard and Irish wolfhound eyebrows jiggling with laughter. "I was checking my email, and the organizers had written to say, 'Out of empathy for the suffering of the people in Lebanon, we cannot have this festival now.' I wanted to go anyway."

He'll get his fix September 10, when Packard's friend Sakher Hattar, a virtuoso on the oud, will travel from Jordan to perform at a Lebanese relief benefit at the Cedar Cultural Center. The show will double as a CD-release party for Hattar's new CD, The Passionate Voice of the Oud.

"Various venues and media aren't receptive to us, and I feel it's because of our association with Arabic music and Arabic culture," says Packard. "And so many of our musicians are into this because they love the music. They're not into the politics of it; our concert is a benefit for Lebanon, but there's no political music. It's just going to be classical music, highlighting the beauty of Middle Eastern culture. That in itself, however, in the context of war, is political."

Packard's ideological sympathies began during a childhood in Long Lake. His mother was a housecleaner for the gentry of Lake Minnetonka, his father an auto mechanic. Both, he says, "were intelligent, hard-working people who didn't get a fair shake." Packard recalls that when his father collapsed from emphysema, having spent his life inhaling car fumes, he was promptly fired. He had no pension, no retirement plan. The schism between rich and poor has inspired the 52-year-old to work for labor causes and underdogs of all sorts.

"We want to combat the xenophobia, and contribute something to Lebanese relief," he says. "The money we raise will be a drop in the bucket, but I think it's our best way of making a gesture of empathy and peace to those people. It's very important that the Lebanese understand that there are American people who care about their suffering and that we're not all their enemies. They have other people to go to besides Hezbollah."

At that, Packard slides out from behind his desk and begins to tune up his tamboora, a towering gourd-like instrument with four-strings. One of the kids instantly connects its hypnotic twang with "the Beatles." The music teacher asks the kids to press their ears up to the base of the gourd so that they can hear the instrument's "sympathetic vibration." Packard plucks the strings. Can you hear it?

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