On Labor Day weekend in the Sierras at the Strawberry Music Festival, a lovely young Canadian named Samantha Robichaud took the stage. She played one delightfully modernized traditional fiddle tune after another, swiftly, deftly, introducing each piece with a little story. She showed a killer left hand pizzicato; she played brilliantly with her excellent band, she danced in her high heeled boots and radiated vivacity and charm. And then she said "How many of you know who Daniel Pearl is? Well, for those of you who don't know, he was a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan, in 2002. He was an amazing journalist and a great musician. Where ever he traveled, he wanted to make friends, using music to bridge cultural differences. I was honored with the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin for a year, so that I could be inspired to tell you Daniel's story. I wrote a song in his memory, and I hope you enjoy it.... it's called `Always Remembered.’
The collision of gory memory and lilting music shocked me.
After her set, I waited in a crush of fans to buy her CD and I asked Samantha for an interview. I told her I’d never heard of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin and I was pretty sure most people hadn’t. I said something like "do you know you have accepted a lifelong responsibility to humanity?" I don’t know if she really heard or thought about the question in the pressing commotion, but she looked at me levelly and said "Yes." We agreed to e-talk shortly.
But I had not known that Daniel Pearl was a fiddler.
In fact, Pearl was a classically trained violinist, a fiddler, and a mandolin player. He and his band, the Ottoman Empire, once opened for the Kinks, in Atlanta, Georgia. When he lived in Washington, D.C., he jammed around the bars in Adams-Morgan. When his career took him to India, he played regularly with local bands in Mumbai café-bars like Indigo and Soul Fry, until his assignment in Pakistan and his tragic death on February 1, 2002.
The Luthier’s Response
Violin maker Jonathan Cooper was watching TV at his home in Maine when he learned that Daniel Pearl had been killed.
"They showed a photo of him playing fiddle in a band, and I said, 'This guy's a fiddle player?' Then I saw his wife; she was such a lovely person, talking about wanting a more peaceful world.
"We are in a dark period," Cooper said. "I thought, what can I do that is good, what can I do about it, about Pearl’s death. I identified with the guy.
"I thought, maybe I’ll make a violin and give it to his wife for his son, who was not yet born at that time. I thought about it for a while, and then I decided I’d make a violin and dedicate it to him."
Cooper told fiddler extraordinaire Mark O’Connor that he was making a violin in Daniel Pearl’s honor to give to the Daniel Pearl Foundation. O’Connor, who runs an annual fiddle camp for promising young players, also thought it was a great idea. And then he built on it.
"He said maybe the Daniel Pearl Foundation can lend it to someone at camp every year and talk about who Daniel was," Cooper said.
The Pearl family were preparing the first of 540 concerts in a series of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, presenting music as a force for peace. "Jonathan Cooper came into our world in 2002," said Daniel’s father Dr. Judea Pearl. The senior Pearl, who teaches computer science at UCLA, spoke to me after returning from an out of town trip. He and his wife Ruth both sounded tired, but graciously offered to talk with me. "Jonathan's idea of crafting a special violin rang in perfect resonance with what we were doing," he said.
Cooper set about building the violin.
"I wanted to make an instrument with a beautiful, even sound, good looking, to be something a musician would want to play," he said, "a violin that is functional, giving, that has sound and color, an instrument a musician can get lost in, something with a big palette of sound and color. It’s like cooking. What do you think about when you’re cooking? It’s like that."
When he finished the violin, Cooper presented it to the Daniel Pearl Foundation at a concert in Boston on November 16, 2002. Mark O’Connor accepted the violin on behalf of the Foundation.
"The Pearl family contacted me," O’Connor said. "They wrote to me and said the violin is so wonderful, they felt that the idea of young people playing it was the best thing to do. They felt it was an inspiring gesture of Cooper’s and I felt it was an inspiring gesture of the Daniel Pearl Foundation that the violin be played. They said they would like to see the violin presented to top students at my camp."
The Fellowship of the Violin
The summer of 2003, O’Connor conferred with the other teachers at his fiddle camp. "We wanted to find someone who would be out playing, in the public eye, who could spread the word," O’Connor said "We asked among ourselves who would be a good ambassador. We are looking for quality of artist and quality of person. We envision one who feels that he or she could carry the message of this violin to more people. We look for students who will talk about what this violin means to them, and the idea of using music against hatred. We are looking for young people who can articulate that through music and words."
At the end of that summer’s camp they presented the instrument to Jeremy Kittle. He was already a national Scottish fiddle champion, and he was going to college. He would see and perform for many people. So Kittle played the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin for a year, and the following summer he went back to fiddle camp and returned the instrument to O’Connor.
Shortly after the 2003 camp, Cooper got a call from someone in San Diego who commissioned him to make another Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin. (The donor requires anonymity.) So he made a second violin, and in 2005, O’Connor presented two Daniel Pearl Memorial Violins to two promising students. One went to Alex Hargreaves. The other one went to Samantha Robichaud.
"I learned the last day of camp that I would be presented with it," Robichaud said. "I had no idea about the violin until Mark approached me and asked if I would be willing to accept it."
Robichaud felt awed. "I was so honored and shocked that Mark had chosen me. It was such a huge responsibility and I was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude."
"A number of the recipients were young, not political so much, but they immediately got it," O’Connor said. "This violin is in honor of a musician violently murdered. They were all humbled by it. Each one was aware of what they were part of."
Robichaud accepted the violin. She received the newer of the two instruments. There was no contract, no instructions or directions, just a verbal agreement that she would take care of it and bring it back the following year.
The Luthier’s Work
"It was an absolutely amazing violin, and had almost a haunting, yet sweet sound," she said.
2006 recipient Phoebe Hunt played the older memorial violin. "It has a really large sound," she said. "It has a round sound, and it’s easy to play. My fingers were in tune with that fiddle. It has an old timey feel."
"There is so much ugly stuff out of control in the world," O’Connor said. "To see an expression of beauty is much needed, especially by young people. It invites them to be part of something more personal and political, about music.
The Tradition is Wrought
"It keeps me in check to be grateful for what I have and to live an honorable and respectful life," Robichaud said. "I want my students to be kind to one another and supportive. I encourage them and myself to play at nursing homes and to share the music because it brings so much joy to others."
"There's something really special about the fact the violin will be passed on from musician to musician over the years," says Alex Hargreaves. "It's like a musical tune, a couple hundred years old, passed on, and each musician adds a different twist. This violin will be part of that tradition, so people won't forget what Daniel Pearl stood for."
"I want there to be a whole quartet," Cooper said. "I am building a viola, but I can’t afford to donate a cello and I’m discreetly looking for a sponsor. Hopefully one will appear."
"I envision that we get to keep doing this as long as there is a string conference, "Mark O’Connor said. "In my old age this violin will have been played by incredible people. We are making a fellowship of a great idea."
Laptops and Fiddles
"A culture of friendship, humor, humanity, has come under attack," Dr. Pearl said. "We can not take this culture for granted. We must cherish it and give it meaning. We must become what it represents. We must become humane."
2006 recipients John Abrams, now 17 years old, and his brother James, age 14, toured the world with the fiddle, playing bluegrass and roots music. "Every time we played internationally, we would tell people in the audience to email the Pearl Foundation that they saw and heard the violin. So the foundation was getting waves of emails from around the world – Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, Israel."
In October 2007 the Abrams brothers played at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festivaland at Daniel Pearl World Music Days, playing before 6,000 middle school students. "They bring in the middle school students to hear roots music – there were busloads of children. It was fabulous multiculturalism," John said.
"We must all become Daniel Pearls," Dr. Pearl said. "We must travel the world with our laptops and fiddles and spread that idea. We must become an army of Mozarts, an army of peace."
The recipients of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin:
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Riverview, New Brunswick, Canada
John and James Abrams
Ruby Jane Smith
Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan on February 1, 2002.