Class profile

String Theory

Banjo music melds with ancient instruments in Morocco


By Beth Finke

Michael Miles
Michael Miles working with students in Casablanca, Morocco

When Michael Miles ’76 las left the University of Illinois in 1974 to spend his junior year in England, it was the first time he’d ever set foot overseas.

It wouldn’t be the last.

Just this year, the Chicago musician returned from his second trip to Morocco, a five-city tour that came at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. Miles’ diplomacy, though, was of a different sort – to use the language of music to communicate.

“Music is a big part of who Americans are, and it’s a part that the rest of the world doesn’t always get to see,” he says. Recognized as one of the country’s leading innovators on the five-string banjo, Miles toured the African nation with Chicago-based drummer Tony Dale and Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Abdelilah El Miry. Along the way, Moroccan musicians took time to teach Miles ancient melodies.

“Some played oud, some played louthar, all unusual string instruments that are all native to Northern Africa,” he says. The tour also included a special event with world-renowned oud player Haj Younes of Casablanca. “I was getting personal instruction from the masters!” Miles says.

At a state department concert in Marrakech, U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan told the audience that if anyone can represent the U.S. well, it’s open-minded and approachable American musicians like Michael Miles. Miles also performed for children at elementary schools and for townspeople at civic events throughout Morocco. “I’d tell them that people can appreciate one another’s culture by sharing history and music, and when that happens, there is hope for the world,” he says.

“Theoretically that’s the truth, and people say it out loud, but we could demonstrate it,” Miles says. “Out come these guys with their ancient string instruments, and we would play together – everybody was honored by everybody else’s presence.”

Miles first got to Morocco in a roundabout way. The accomplished composer and musical playwright had left his job as program director at the legendary Old Town School of Folk Music in 1998 in Chicago to open a one-man show at Chicago’s Pegasus Players Theatre. After that, Pegasus commissioned him to write “Chicago Rhythm and Rhymes,” a show Miles debuted in Casablanca in October 2002 during his initial trip to Morocco.

“I knew Michael would be a great success on the tour,” says Arlene Crewdson, former executive director of Pegasus Players Theatre and founder of Global Voices, a project bridging cultures through the arts. (He has been working with Global Voices ever since, linking students from Chicago Public Schools to students at Riad School in Casablanca.) “Michael Miles is not only a great musician,” she says, “he is also a man who is absolutely dedicated to peace and the kinship of all human beings.”

Michael Miles
Michael Miles in concert with Abdelilah el Miry on gimbre and Nasser Hourari on oud

Miles did not study music while an undergraduate at Illinois, opting instead for a degree in oral interpretation. After teaching himself to play banjo and guitar, he started using the instrument in his interpretations of literature. “I discovered that music, just like music scores in films, … can push the story forward,” he says.

Miles’ love for theater and music blossomed during his junior year abroad at University of Lancaster. “I wrote a letter from England to my entire family saying that I’d decided I would be a musician,” he says with a chuckle. “I got a whole variety of responses to that.”

Miles got the last laugh, though. Repeatedly praised by music critics, his groundbreaking work on the banjo has put Miles in a category all his own. He has collaborated with world-class jazz, classical and folk artists – most notably fellow banjoists Pete Seeger and Béla Fleck, as well as the de Pasquale String Quartet of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Miles has been invited for a third trip to Morocco and is weighing invitations to perform in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, India and England. “I pinch myself regularly,” he says, “that I make a living doing this thing, this thing that I love to do.”

For more information about Michael Miles, visit

Finke ’81 media is the author of the memoir “Long Time, No See” and the children’s book “Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound.”

@Illinois E-News