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Taken from Ottawa Citizen (March 18, 2006)

Even in a war zone, the beat goes on

by Lynn Saxberg, CanWest News Service

Michael FrantiMusician and self-described peacemaker Michael Franti discovered death metal in Baghdad, hip hop in Palestine and visited the only free radio station in the Middle East.

Even in a war zone, the beat goes on, as we saw in Franti’s powerful new documentary, I Know I’m Not Alone, filmed during a 2004 trip to the Middle East and screened at Bronson Centre on Thursday.

The close-to-sold-out audience consisted of nearly 900 faithful Franti followers, ranging from artsy young women in beads and crocheted accessories to aging hippie types who probably discovered Franti at Ottawa’s blues or folk festivals on the joyous occasions that he played with his reggae-hip-hop outfit, Spearhead.

This time, emotions overflowed at the film’s heart-wrenching images of dismembered children, grieving mothers and displaced families. During a question-and-answer session after the film, people wanted to know how it affected Franti: Was he scared, did he cry and were there any regrets about the trip?

“I was scared every second I was there,” replied Franti. “The only time I really felt safe was playing a song ... so I carried my guitar everywhere.”

The charismatic singer-songwriter, barefoot despite Ottawa’s sub-zero temperatures, his dreadlocks tucked under a toque, said he managed to hold back his tears until he was in his hotel room each night. His biggest regret was the worry it caused his family.

One striking aspect of Franti’s film is how it illustrates the power of music to bring people together. Realizing that the positive messages of his songs would be lost on non-English speakers, Franti decided to write a new song based on one Arabic word. The word he chose was ‘habibi,’ evidently a term of endearment for a loved one.

The chant he came up with isn’t exactly hit- single material but it makes everyone who hears it smile and clap their hands over their heads, no matter what their age, religion or economic status.

And when he closed the musical portion of Thursday’s entertainment with it, the people of Ottawa were no exception. We danced in the aisles, grinned big happy grins and felt a real connection to the folks we had just seen in the film.

Franti brought his tales from war-torn zones to the capital of Canada the same week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was depicted hanging out with our boys in Afghanistan. It was a logical spot for peace activists to step up their campaign. Flyers were handed out to spread the word on Saturday’s peace march at the National Gallery of Canada, and Franti mentioned it from the stage.

Unlike Harper, Franti made no attempt to make himself out to be the hero; his film was a sobering look at living in a place where there are no jobs, no electricity, no security, you get forced off your property and your children die.

Despite the serious tone of the evening, whenever Franti is in town, it turns into a joyous occasion. It happened again when he picked up his acoustic guitar and dove into a tight set that included important, change-the-world songs such as One Step Closer, Everyone Deserves Music and Bomb The World.

The film screening that turned into a mobilizing drive for peace activists ended as a funky reggae party. By the end, we were all peacemakers.


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