Fifteen K-12 educators from across the state traveled to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to see Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour in concert at Memorial Hall on Oct. 25, 2016. It was a rare opportunity to see the artist described by Rolling Stone as the “the world’s most famous singer” perform stateside.
But the group was there to do more than see an award-winning artist. The teachers attended the performance as part of the Global Islam and the Arts Teacher Fellows program, a year-long exploration of Muslim cultures through music, dance and dramatic performances during the 2016-17 Carolina Performing Arts season.
N’Dour’s performance presented traditional Sufi songs and music from his Grammy Award-winning album Egypt, an album celebrating Senegalese Islam. He was joined by Mouhamadou Mbaye and Alioune Ndiaye, two Senegalese vocalists and singers working in the Sufi musical tradition. They have performed at numerous international music festivals, including the Salam Festival in Dakar, Senegal, founded by N’Dour.
“N’Dour is famous most for his pop music, but there is the more spiritual side to his music,” said Emma Harver, program and outreach coordinator at the Carolina Center for the Study of Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.
Prior to the performance, the fellows discussed Islam in Senegal in a conversation led by Barbara Anderson, associate director of African Studies Center. The conversation was an opportunity to provide a fuller context for understanding N’Dour’s work and life, and to connect his performance to prior group discussions about Islam.
Fellows participated in an orientation workshop during summer and will attend a minimum of five performances at the Carolina Performing Arts throughout the 2016-2017 season. They will also develop at least one instructional resource on Muslim cultures to be used in their classrooms and will present their work at a culminating workshop in June 2017.
“Our goal of the program is to deepen teachers’ understanding of Islam and its diversity, and to be able to convey that to their students,” said Harver. She said the program is designed to encourage teachers to engage students and inspire them to explore Islam through more effective, approachable ways.
Fellows have the opportunity to talk with scholars from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University about related readings and topics to better connect what they’re seeing on stage to the religious, cultural and social communities of the performers.
Carolina Performing Arts plays a critical role in the program.
Developed with input from Carl Ernst, co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, Carolina Performing Arts’ Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey performance series aims to showcase the diversity of Islam through various forms of performing arts including dance, music, multimedia staged work and theater during the 2016-17 season.
Community and campus outreach programs like the teaching fellowship have been developed in tandem with the performance series, and also include a student ambassadors program for UNC undergraduates, as well as public documentary screenings, lectures and staged readings of plays, a collaboration with PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Through the performances, the teaching fellows are able to explore the spiritual and cultural dimensions of Sufism through the work of performers from Muslim-majority nations outside of the Arab world, including Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Senegal.
Considering Islam through the arts is an appealing and effective way into what is often a politically charged topic in the United States. As Valerie Person, an English teacher at Currituck County High School, explained, “Art is a vehicle that delivers humanity to the heart.”
Fellows were chosen from over 50 applicants across the state, and are a diverse group representing teachers from both urban and rural districts, different grade levels and various subjects.
For Tinisha Shaw, a curriculum facilitator at the Early/Middle College at Bennett, the fellowship has changed the way she teaches U.S. history.
“I was looking for slave narratives, and I came across [Omar ibn Said],” Shaw explained. The fellows had recently discussed Said, a writer and Islamic scholar from Senegal who was sold into slavery in the United States in 1807. “I never would have used that before… Now I really want to incorporate it, because I want my students to recognize that Islam was a part of [early American] society.”
Teachers say the program has helped them teach sensitive topics in classrooms that often include Muslim students.
“Considering our political environment, presenting Islam as a multifaceted thing is important to us,” said Carla Ingram, a world history teacher at South Caldwell High School.
The Global Islam and the Arts Teacher Fellows program is a collaboration between the UNC African Studies Center, Carolina K-12, Carolina Performing Arts and the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies. This program is funded by the Warren A. Nord Endowment for Teachers and the Chancellor’s Global Education Fund.
Part of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations promotes understanding of the Middle East through teaching, research and community outreach.
To learn more about Carolina Performing Arts season-long exploration of Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey, including upcoming performances, visit CPA’s website.
By Wei Zhou ’17