Lassaad Hosni looks up from his brie plate with a scowl, insisting that cheese should be salty. Brennan Gilmore (Col ’01) urges him in fluid French to give the fruit pairing a chance, but Lassad is having none of it. The waitress at Michael’s Bistro quickly brings him a plate of cheddar slices intended for cheeseburgers and the table erupts in laughter. It’s clear that this band is in the habit of joking with each other, language barriers or no.
Welcome to the strange cultural meld known as Kantara, the world’s first Arab-Appalachian fusion group.
Gilmore, a guitar-mandolin-banjo player raised on bluegrass, was stationed in Tunis with the U.S. State Department in 2005 when he met Riadh Fehri, a Tunisian musician who plays the oud. Soon thereafter, Gilmore recruited friends Zack Blatter (Col ’01), Anne Marie Calhoun (Col ’01) and Brian Calhoun to join the ensemble, while Fehri contacted some of his North African compatriots, vocalist Amel Boukchina and renowned percussionist Lassaad Hosni.
Kantara literally means “bridge” in Arabic, and sweet or salty is the least of the cultural and musical barriers they intend to overcome. While a number of their pieces splice Appalachian chord progressions with Arabic melodies, the band is proudest of their original compositions. Written primarily by Gilmore and Fehri, they synthesize classic Appalachian and Arabic tunes. Kantara has been lauded in the press for its virtuoso live performances of this musical combination, even earning recognition from the U.S. State Department for Muslim cultural outreach. Despite a hectic schedule of travel, rehearsals, shows and recording for an album to be released this fall, the musicians are consummate pranksters—teasing, shooting spitballs, even hiding one another’s passports until the last minute in what seems a bizarre, globe-trotting version of the game “chicken.”
Humor, ingenuity and talent blend effortlessly in Kantara’s on-stage presence, delighting packed crowds from the Kennedy Center to the Mohammad Theater in Rabat, Morocco. Performing in such venues is thrilling, says Blatter, the band’s upright bass player, but there’s no place like home. On a rainy night in June, they appear at the Lime Kiln Theatre in Lexington, Va. Ann Marie Calhoun, part violin prodigy and part June Carter Cash, keeps the mood light between songs by joking about Hosni’s newfound love for Where’s Waldo and Little House on the Prairie. On a more serious note, she adds that Kantara hopes to demonstrate that Arabs and Americans can work together.
Conflict-weary crowds from Carthage to Charlottesville are eating it up. While some Tunisians weren’t happy when Fehri started working with Americans, after a recent concert in France a young Arabic boy said that it was the first positive experience he’d had with Americans. Fehri smiles at the memory, then settles into one of the evening’s last songs, a doleful Arabic tune that feels right at home in the Virginia night air.