Instruments of Peace

Three Texas fiddlers celebrate and share the spirit of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl.
by Published on
Phoebe Hunt with the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin.

Jonathan Cooper was watching a TV report about the abduction of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 when an old photo of Pearl playing an instrument flashed across the screen.

“I jumped out of my seat,” Cooper says, “and said, ‘Oh my God, that guy’s a fiddle player!’”

Cooper is a Maine-based violin maker. He’s plied the trade since the late 1970s to the benefit of Nashville fiddlers and classical violinists alike. Pearl’s death struck a chord. Not only was Pearl a member of the same tightly knit musical community, but he was also a journalist, like Cooper’s brother, reporter Matthew Cooper, then of Time, now of Portfolio. After Pearl’s murder, Jonathan Cooper paid tribute to the slain journalist’s family by handcrafting the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin as a symbol of Pearl’s pursuit of truth and understanding.

“In a way,” Cooper says of the violin, “it was a chance to, perhaps, push back against a world which I felt was very chaotic and very destructive and wrong.”Cooper initially intended the violin for Adam, the son born to Pearl’s widow, Mariane, four months after Pearl was murdered in Pakistan by terrorists on February 1, 2002. But Cooper and Pearl’s family decided the instrument should be passed down annually from student to student at the Mark O’Connor String Camp in San Diego. O’Connor, a stylistically wide-ranging composer and acclaimed violinist who performed at Pearl’s memorial, started the weeklong camp in Tennessee 15 years ago. It’s a place where string players of all ages and skill levels learn Western classical, jazz, folk fiddling, and world music.

“We present the violin to a player who’s deserving,” O’Connor says, “who, you know, engages people during the week and who would play the violin during the year and talk about the message behind it, of bringing people together to fight hatred in the world.”

The violin was first awarded in 2003. A contribution allowed Cooper to introduce a second memorial violin in 2005. The goal is to add a viola and a cello to eventually form a quartet.

Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, attended the award ceremony for the first time this summer. They act as liaisons between the camp and the Daniel Pearl Foundation. One of the foundation’s initiatives is World Music Days, in which musical acts across the world dedicate a performance to Pearl in October (Pearl’s birthday was October 10). The performances are meant to foster international friendships and spread hope and unity across cultures.

In San Diego, Cooper talked with Judea and Ruth about the violins’ future. The Pearls agreed to keep the message associated with the instruments loose, allowing recipients to find their own ways of expressing Daniel’s passion for humanity.

“There is no press kit,” Cooper says. “There’s no formal thing written. There’s nothing. It’s just, here’s this instrument, and you know what to do. And every one of these kids who’s had it has known exactly what to do.”

For the past three years, Austinites Phoebe Hunt, Ruby Jane Smith, and Ian Stewart, respectively, have served as messengers. Hunt, 24, received one of the violins in 2006; Smith, 13, in 2007; and Stewart, 16, this year. They met at O’Connor’s camp, which they’ve attended for several years. Their bond is evident.

They say they don’t read too much into the coincidence of their residence, but they do think coming from the Live Music Capital of the World helps more than it hurts. Austin embraces string-based, roots-oriented genres, allowing the three ample opportunity to hone and diversify their chops outside of camp. Also, accomplished veterans are always playing around Austin, and the three learn a lot through observation.

“There’s an energy in Austin that is noncompetitive and, like, very accepting,” Hunt says. “It kind of, I think, represents all the things that the Daniel Pearl violin does.”

The main requirement for receiving a Pearl violin is that the recipient performs onstage on a regular basis (and that they return the violin at the end of their term). Hunt plays in a swing band called the Belleville Outfit. Smith is the Ruby Jane Show. And Stewart fronts a bluegrass group called Fireants. Each player’s technical prowess is undeniable, but that alone didn’t score them their ambassadorships.

“I think they also saw beyond the musicianship,” Hunt says of the world-class instructors who nominate students at the camp. “It’s like they want it to go to someone who is talkative, someone who actually is sociable. Because Daniel … like, from reading his book [Ruth Pearl gave a copy of At Home in the World, a collection of Daniel's reporting, to each of the recipients], he would make a friend out of anyone he talked to, and I think that they want someone who kind of shares a personality trait there, someone who’s open-minded and accepting of other people.”

In Smith, one of the violins found all the personality it could handle. The fiddling prodigy started playing when she was 2 after repeatedly watching the Itzhak Perlman video her mom left for the babysitter to play. One day Smith surprised her mom by reciting every instrument in the string section of the orchestra, telling her that she wanted to play the violin no matter what.

“I was a very precocious 2-year-old,” Smith says.

Smith didn’t live in Austin when she was awarded a violin. She and her mom lived in Columbus, Mississippi, in an R.V. They were on the way to San Diego for the O’Connor camp and decided to make a pit stop in Austin. Their first night in town, Smith jammed with truck-stop crooner Dale Watson at the venerable Continental Club. Mother and daughter were smitten. After camp, where Smith received the violin in a ceremony that involved Hunt handing the instrument off during a performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the free-spirited duo hightailed it back to Austin. It’s been a heck of a place for spreading Pearl’s legacy.

“I talk about it a lot at every show,” Smith says, “but not when I’m not the front person. Like, if I’m playing with Asleep at the Wheel or I go on tour with Willie Nelson, I don’t talk. But at my shows, I tell everybody.”

Hunt also talks about the violin regularly, even after it’s been passed to someone else, but she’s wary of inundating the rest of her band with PSAs. She finds indirect ways to express the message, such as writing lyrics that resonate with Pearl’s ideals. She’s not the only one. Songwriters Tom McBryde and Lynn Wilbanks, inspired by ’05 recipient Samantha Robichaud, wrote a song about Pearl called “A Bridge Across.” It was picked up by Dolly Parton, who recently recorded it as a duet with O’Connor.

Stewart, a current violin-keeper, continues to shape his talking points as he waits to have a pickup installed so he can amplify the violin at live shows. He takes the instrument out of its case and admires it.

“It doesn’t feel like a piece of wood,” he says. “It feels like a fluid thing.

“It’s my axe,” he adds, holding it above his shoulder. “I’m going into battle.”

Daniel “is a citizen of the world, a lover of differences, a man capable of embracing them all,” Mariane Pearl writes in A Mighty Heart, her gripping account of Daniel’s ordeal.

Mariane and Daniel met 10 years ago this fall. Throughout their short life together, Daniel was never without his instrument. He brought his mandolin to her apartment in Paris when he arrived to cook her breakfast for their first date. He played the traditional country tune “Chan Chan” on his violin while Mariane scattered her mother’s ashes atop a hill in Cuba.

“Danny played everywhere,” Mariane writes in an e-mail. “In many different countries and widely different cultures, he’d pull out his instrument, and a beautiful, common language would emerge from the musical encounter.”

Jonathan Cooper says, “That’s sort of what the music that we do is about. Being a fiddle player, it’s a traditional form of music, and it’s from person to person. It’s the whole, you know, playing and social thing about it. It’s a community. It’s a world unto itself.”

Michael Hoinski is an Austin writer. His work can be found at www.michaelhoinski.com.