When I got back from vacation last year, the community where I live was buzzing about FODfest and its high energy fundraising concert. I missed the performance but was able to catch up with Executive Director, Todd Mack, and learn more about this inspiring organization.
Todd Mack and a band of American and American-Israeli artists had just held a FODfest concert at a school in Negev Desert in Israel. “The response was amazing,” says Mack, a close friend and former band mate of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and slain in Pakistan in 2002 and in whose honor FODfest (Friends of Danny) was founded. “This fourteen-year-old girl, the class spokesperson, starts apologizing for Danny’s death. ‘That’s not who Muslims are,’ she said. And she told us she wanted to be a journalist like Danny.”
FODfest is now a full-fledged non-profit that has toured to more than 50 communities in countries including Israel, Palestine, Taiwan and the U.S., where an ever-growing circle of artists, nearly 1000 to date, produce free public concerts, school programs, and multimedia productions. From an olive grove to a tent school to 300-seat concert halls, no matter the venue, the mission is the same – bringing people together through music.
Each FODfest event is unique – part concert, part song swap, part jam session. For the musicians, many of whom are meeting for the first time on stage, the experience is unforgettable. “It was one of the most amazing events I’ve taken part in,” says Laurie Ornstein, who counsels English teachers in Israel and who helped organize FODfest’s 2010 tour there. “I’ve been facilitating American folksong workshops for a while, so I was excited to bring FODfest here,” says Ornstein, “I opened with ‘This Little Light,’ a song the pupils already knew, and then I joined FODfest on stage with my guitar and voice. The songs and Daniel’s life story made a very strong impact on the kids.”
To encourage children to get involved with music, FODfest offers an eight-session school-based program facilitated by FODfest Music Ambassadors. With the help of these mentors, kids, ages 10-18, create, perform and record their own songs. Says Mack, “We build a micro-community around the concerts and then funnel those funds into the school program. Sponsors support a particular concert in a particular community, so they’re essentially investing in their own backyard.”
Eighteen-year-old violinist Adnaan Stumo, who first performed with FODfest in 2010, credits the program with expanding his musical horizons. “FODfest produces more original collaborative music than any other program I’ve heard of. I’d never improvised jazz until I jammed during FODfest. That opened up lots more possibilities for me.”
Like FODfest concerts, the school program emphasizes collaboration. Says Ben Senterfit, a musician and vocal coach who served as a FODfest Music Ambassador for an after-school program in Hudson, New York, a depressed post-industrial town, “Most of the kids were African-American or Latino so I realized early on that if I did the singer-songwriter bit, the kids would tune out. Instead, we sat in a circle and I asked each child to contribute a word. The first word I got was ‘the.’ Each kid added a word. Someone said ‘I don’t know’ so ‘I dunno’ became a phrase in the song. The chorus was ‘We all work together to protect one another.’”
And how did the kids respond? “Once we got going, the kids really took ownership. The next week every one of them knew the lyrics by heart,” says Senterfit, “By the end of the program, they were telling other kids, ‘FODfest is cool.’”