A few days after the 2016 presidential election, Sonny Mehta and his eight-piece ensemble, Riyaaz Qawwali, stopped at a gas station outside Little Rock, Ark. Mehta’s bandmates – men of Pakistani, Indian, Afghani and Bangladeshi descent who all live in Houston – shuffled out of the tour bus as a man in a white tank top approached them, wearing an unmistakable glower.
“He said, ‘You better get enough water, because it’s a straight shot down to Mexico,’ and to get the eff out of the country,” Mehta recalls, speaking from his Houston home. The ensemble, who perform qawwali, a 700-year-old devotional chant-and-percussion-based poetry of the ancient Sufi faith, were on their way to perform a private concert at Monticello in Virginia.
As anti-immigration rhetoric persists under President Donald Trump’s administration, Mehta says the band has been targeted for discrimination multiple times by the public. He says these ordeals have made Riyaaz Qawwali’s members afraid to travel, even to the North Beach Bandshell in North Miami Beach, where the band will perform on Sunday, March 12.
“We’ve even requested from concert presenters that we need accommodations at hotels, as opposed to motels, just for our safety,” Mehta says. “It hurts me to see we’re becoming so divisive. While we’re fearful, I just want to bring our music, which is all about oneness and togetherness. There’s no better time than now.”
The band’s special request is one that Laura Quinlan, artistic director of the Rhythm Foundation, was happy to oblige. Riyaaz Qawwali’s performance is part of the Miami nonprofit’s new concert series Axis of Love, a trio of concerts taking place March 5, March 12 and March 26 at the band shell.
Kicking off the series on March 5 will be the duo of Malian musician Ballake Sissoko, who plays the West African string instrument the kora, and French cellist Vincent Segal. Egyptian duo Tarek Abdallah, who plays the stringed oud instrument, and Adel Shams el Din, who plays a classical Arabic tambourine called the riq, will perform March 26.
Quinlan says she booked the Axis of Love bill (a riff on the President Bush-era phrase “Axis of Evil”) 18 months ago, when “talk of Islamophobia and Mexican borders” began. Since January, however, the concert series has been branded as a response to President Trump’s controversial, now-frozen travel ban of people from some Muslim countries.
“We didn’t know how timely it would be when we put the series together,” says Quinlan, whose Miami nonprofit is supported by the Knight Foundation. “We wanted to build bridges, not walls, and we wanted to be global with beautiful, traditional meditative music from the Middle East.”
Still, the in-the-round-style concert series is less a political statement than a celebration of world music, Quinlan says.
“It’s been really weird thinking about politics in the context of this series,” Quinlan says. “We’ve never had to worry, for example, about whether bands will be taunted at their hotels. We’re in crazy times. But North Miami Beach is lovely and welcoming, and the music should be beautiful and ecstatic.”
The Axis of Love Concert Series will take place 7-10 p.m. Sunday, March 5, March 12 and March 26 at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., in North Miami Beach. Tickets are $20, $50 for three-concert series. Call 305-672-5202 or go to RhythmFoundation.com.
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