05/22/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

One Gray Night It Happened

Ravel's "Bolero" in Kabul, Afghanistan? "Puff, the Magic Dragon" in an Arab school in Israel?

On the evening of April 18, 2012, we heard about these wonderfully special musical moments, and much more, at a unique event at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Thanks to the indefatigable energy of Dr. Marina Cunningham, Director of Montclair's Global Education Center, and to the world-wide connections of Dr. David Sanders of Montclair's Broadcasting Department, Montclair was host to four remarkable men who came to speak (and sing!) in a Panel Discussion, "The Arts and Culture as Forces in Social Change," as part of a larger, seven-week series, "Justice and Civil Society in the Muslim World." The four panelists had moving stories to tell of artistic endeavors blossoming in the most unlikely places.

In a land called Honah Lee . . .

Swedish-born Henrik Melius talked about his intercultural organization Spiritus Mundi, which battles stereotypes by using music, imagery, text and other creative expressions to create mutual understanding. The group's project "Hayâtuna" took root in Amman, Jordan in 2011 and will soon expand to Cairo.

Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's former foreign minister and ambassador to the U.N., spoke eloquently about his experiences presenting a U2 concert in war-torn Sarajevo in 1997, at the height of hostilities.

But as notable as these two stories are, I feel the need to spend the remainder of this blog writing about the other two men on the panel -- Dr. Ahmad Sarmast and Mr. Peter Yarrow.

In 2009, Afghani musician and scholar Dr. Ahmad Sarmast founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul. At the formal inauguration ceremony in 2010, Dr. Sarmast stated: "Historically, music has been a vibrant and important part of Afghan culture, but war and neglect have left students without teachers, teachers without resources, and professional musicians without a context for their art."

Against all odds, and with financial support that began with a few chance encounters with German Ministry and World Bank representatives, Dr. Sarmast now directs a small Music Institute recognized by Afghanistan's Ministry of Education. There are 130 students at ANIM. About half are musical students who had already been attending other schools, and the other half are a mix of children from orphanages and street-wise working kids whose families rely on them for their sustenance.

Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff's gigantic tail...

About five of the 13 music faculty of ANIM are from Western countries. Dr. Sarmast writes that one of the goals of ANIM is

"to enable Afghanistan to have, in five to 10 years, its own national symphony orchestra. But to achieve that, we have to have teachers from outside. For example, if the head of the string department will be here for four or five years, I am confident that there are a number of violin students who can replace him within four or five years. So for some time we have to have among our faculty our international Western music educators, international faculty [in strings, piano, percussion]. At the same time, we are looking ahead to replacing these faculty members with local artists."

(Note: Gen. Petraeus is recommending that 20,000 troops remain in Afghanistan to focus on intelligence, special operations, air power, logistics, and training. Why not throw in 10 or 12 music teachers?)

The fourth speaker was Peter Yarrow of the classic folk-music trio Peter, Paul & Mary, which rose to national prominence when they sang at the 1963 March on Washington, on the same historic day that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. (Never mind that I could find no college students last month who had ever heard of Peter, Paul & Mary -- that's a blog for another time.)

Noble kings and princes would bow when e'er they came...

In 1999, Peter Yarrow began a project called Operation Respect. Through dialogue, but more importantly, through song, children learn to accept each other's differences and shortcomings. Their theme song is "Don't Laugh At Me." The project has caught on, and is now in 22,000 schools in the U.S. Peter has taken Operation Respect to Hong Kong, Croatia and, more recently, to two Jewish schools and two Arab schools in Israel.

Sure enough, Peter Yarrow started off his portion of the evening by singing, not talking. And who could resist joining in to sing "Puff, the Magic Dragon"? Even the college students who never heard of PP&M knew this song! Checking in with us, Peter asked, how were our feelings toward the others in the room before and after we sang together? His message: Get the children to sing together: "You don't even have to talk about peace. They go there themselves, but you don't have to talk about it, because you are living it. The moment we sing together -- that's the sound of acceptance. That's the sound of mutuality. And that is the sound of peace."

Peter Yarrow is 74 years old this year, and how heartwarming it was to witness his energy. Even as that iconic day in 1963 recedes further and further into the past, Peter has never lost his passion, fervor, and conviction that music and art can build bridges, and can break down barriers of hate and distrust. And how heartening, later at dinner, to see Peter talking to Ahmad Sarmast, asking in such detail about the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Could it be that Operation Respect is coming to Kabul? It won't be soon enough.

Someday we'll all have perfect wings...

David Witten owns two Peter, Paul & Mary albums and they are not for sale.