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Brookline vocalist performs with Carole King

Berklee student Ahmad El Haggar of Brookline and Carole King rehearsed in advance of the Jan. 24 MusiCares event.Elissa Kline

HE’S GOT A (FAMOUS) FRIEND: Last May, Berklee College of Music student Ahmad El Haggar of Brookline applied for an event-planning job on campus. The 25-year-old ultimately didn’t get the position, but he was invited to chaperone music legend Carole King as she joined fellow multiple Grammy Award winners Willie Nelson and Annie Lennox in receiving honorary doctor of music degrees at the 2013 commencement.

A native of Cairo, El Haggar made such a strong impression that King contacted him through Berklee president Roger Brown in September. Would he like to write a song arrangement and perform alongside her at the MusiCares Person of the Year ceremony on Jan. 24 in Los Angeles?


El Haggar, a vocalist and oud player, said he selected King’s song “Home Again” because of its special meaning to him as an international student, and for its catchy riff that fits with the melodic quality of Arabic music. They rehearsed just once together at Berklee in November before reuniting at the concert, which honored King’s accomplishments and charitable endeavors.

El Haggar said he walked the red carpet quickly “because nobody knows me,” and was so nervous backstage that he had to be calmed by backup singer Lisa Fischer, who was featured in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” He said King was just as supportive, insisting they are “both just musicians.”

He began to relax after his solo and enjoy the moment, which was followed by awe when he saw Tom Hanks joining in the standing ovation. Afterward, he was congratulated by fellow performers Amy Grant and Jason Mraz.

Since returning to Boston, El Haggar has marveled at how his life has changed in the past year. Before coming to Berklee in January 2013, he attended the Higher Institute of Arabic Music with a focus on traditional Middle Eastern and Western music. In addition, his rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” has garnered more than 113,500 views on YouTube since it was posted last March.


“I’m very proud of my traditional music, and one day I hope more people will discover it, and even the culture behind it,” El Haggar said. “There’s so much talent the world doesn’t know anything about.”

CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY MONTH: In honor of Black History Month, Beau Stubblefield-Tave will moderate the panel discussion “Civil Rights: How Far We Have Come, How Far We Have to Go” on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Newton Free Library.

A resident of West Newton, Stubblefield-Tave is cofounder and principal of the Center for Culturally Fluent Leadership. The other participants are Mayor Setti Warren; the Rev. Brandon T. Crowley, senior pastor of Myrtle Baptist Church of West Newton; minister Inez Dover, former English and drama teacher at Newton North High School; and the Rev. Erin Splaine, senior minister of First Unitarian Society in Newton.

Stubblefield-Tave said he selected the four local civil rights leaders based on their diversity of age, gender, race, and religion. Topics will include their individual paths in the civil rights struggle; the status of civil rights in Newton; what needs to occur to enable the emergence of women and openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual leaders in all aspects of American society; and the importance of involving young people in today’s movement.

Stubblefield-Tave said he designed the program to address civil rights as a personal, historic, and political topic, with half the time devoted to a question-and-answer period.


“My hope is to inspire greater awareness and greater action,” he said. “It will be a great conversation, and hopefully one that will continue long afterward, because the work for equal rights for all is not over.”

The program, which is free and open to the public, is cosponsored by the Newton Human Rights Commission.

A NEW TAKE ON ‘WAR AND PEACE’: Brookline artist Lola Baltzell’s War and Peace Project will be exhibited in its entirety for the first time in this country at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from Feb. 23 through March 13. An opening reception will take place at the school’s Hampden Gallery Fine Arts Center on Feb. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m., with Baltzell giving a gallery talk at 3 p.m.

Co-curated by Baltzell and Trish Crapo of Leyden, the show is a “collaborative fusion of literature and art,” according to Baltzell, founder and lead artist. The project consists of 747 individual 5- by 7-inch collages incorporating one page of Russian text from Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace.” Other media were culled from used books, maps, pamphlets, and letters, and artists added dried flowers, thread, ink, and graphite.

Baltzell, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies, said the project took two years to complete, involving a core five-member team that met weekly in East Boston, as well as guest artists as far away as Germany. Although a selection of the collages was shown in Boston, New York, and at the Moscow International Book Fair, the project was only previously exhibited in its entirety at Yasnaya Polyana (the Leo Tolstoy Museum-Estate) in Tula, Russia, in 2012.


Baltzell initiated the War and Peace Project after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2008, as a “meaningful and creative way to spend my time.” Baltzell, who is now cancer-free, said the project has been “life-affirming, life-changing, and indeed life-saving.”

“It ties in my Russian heritage, love of Russian language and literature, the pleasure of art-making, and the joys of friendship,” she said.

For more information, visit warpeaceproject.blogspot.com.

LECTURING LOCALLY: Three Arlington residents will participate in Arlington Community Education’s first Conversation event of 2014.

David Swaim, pastor of Highrock Church in Arlington, and David Hall, Bartlett professor of New England church history at Harvard Divinity School, will present “Understanding Evangelicalism: Not What You’ve Seen on TV” on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at Arlington High School, 869 Massachusetts Ave. The program will be moderated by David Whitford, editor at large at Fortune magazine.

Swaim said he was reminded of the confusion surrounding the word “evangelical” three or four years ago, when several concerned residents and organizations assembled after the Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest a local play with a gay theme.

“Someone said to me, ‘I’m surprised you’re here. I thought you’d be with them,’ ” recalled Swaim, noting that evangelicalism differs from fundamentalism in its approach to the Bible, government, education, and science.


“This misunderstood characterization prevents real dialogue, and the fear, suspicion, and apprehension keep us from working together on common goals of social justice,” he added. “I hope people come, ask questions, and learn what we’re really about.”

Admission costs $10, with registration available at 781-316-3568 and arlingtoncommunityed.org.

People items may be submitted to Cindy Cantrell at cindycan-