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Taken from globeandmail (March 31, 2006)

Beats not bombs

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michael FrantiSan Francisco artist and activist Michael Franti recalls the pivotal moment that led to I Know I'm Not Alone, his first documentary film. It was the eve of the Iraq war, and the U.S. military was making final preparations for Donald Rumsfeld's Shock and Awe bombing campaign. Franti had gone to yoga class and he lay on the mat afterward, trying to meditate.

"I was pondering, 'What would I be telling my two sons at that time if the most powerful air force ever assembled was coming to bomb San Francisco?' " says Franti, who is known for uniting folk, funk, reggae and hip hop with the band Spearhead. "I couldn't think of anything to say. I just lay there, and started to weep.

"In the following weeks, I waited to hear the voices of Iraqi people. And I never heard them. So after a year I decided to get on a plane with my guitar and a video camera and go and play on the streets of Baghdad. Then I went to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and did the same thing, ask people, 'What is it like living in a war?' "

The biggest challenge was coming to grips with the imminence and aftermath of violence. "There were a couple of close calls that are on the film," Franti says. "It was difficult to feel safe -- the only time I did was singing songs for people, because I felt like I was connecting, seeing again how music has this ability to break down barriers."

There were edgy encounters, in Iraq, when the lanky, dread-locked Franti was invited into a bar filled with off-duty U.S. soldiers.

"These guys are holding an M16 in one hand and have a beer on the bar, and I come in with my wooden folk guitar to sing about peace and love. . ."

Fortunately, Franti recalled the advice of one of his companions, a 62-year-old woman with experience in the Middle East. "She said, 'It doesn't matter what you sing or what you say -- it's that these guys should know you came all the way to be there in this moment. If you can treat them with that respect, and speak from your heart, they'll listen.' After I got done playing, I spoke to every one of the guys, and there were about 30 or 40 of them. Many told me that before going [to Iraq], they believed they were doing the right thing. But now they've seen the lies and they just want to go home."

Encounters with people who deal with the effects of warfare every day of their lives has changed him, says Franti, whose Vancouver screening of I Know I'm Not Alone will be followed by a brief question period and an hour-long solo of songs written during and after the trip.

"I've always believed in 'position politics,' where you take a stand and argue to convince. But sitting down with an Israeli mother who'd lost a son and a Palestinian woman who'd also lost a family member, and listening to them speak and say, 'If we're able to move beyond the killing to forgiveness, then certainly our nations can learn to do that,' has led me to think that that's what's missing with governments involved in the conflict -- the willingness to consider the other."

Michael Franti will perform after his film's screening. April 2, 8 p.m. Commodore Ballroom, 868 Granville St., 604-280-4444.


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