In the end, however, artists from nine Western countries, including the United States, would take part. One American who immediately jumped on board was Rickie Lee Jones, popular singer-songwriter and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration.
"George Bush and Dick Cheney and [John] Ashcroft are the axis of evil," Jones said in a phone interview from her home last week. "They are a triad of evil, and so of course they would think in those terms. To go down in history as the president who called the Middle East people evil is a terrible legacy. In political times to try to evoke religion and the ideas of goodness and evil, when you're fighting about oil -- to try to get the American people to think of these people as evil because you want their oil -- this is what he's trying to do."
Palestinian singer Rim Banna, whose twins were born just before she recorded her lullabies, says the songs "can be a bridge between cultures."
(Photos Erik Hillestad)
If President Bush intended that "axis of evil" be applied to the governments of these countries and not the people, it is a message that is neither understood nor accepted by many of the album's participants. Singers, and sisters, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat are self-described dissidents in Iran, but they still object to the president's words.
"I am not satisfied in my country with this government," Mahsa Vahdat said in a phone interview from her Tehran home. "We have very complicated social and political problems here. But it is very heavy, very sad, to have the people of my country called this name."
Elana Fremerman, singer with the retro-country and jazz band Hot Club of Cowtown, performs on two of the tracks. "It was a pleasure being involved in a project with beautiful music," she says. "The fact that it was also a means of helping people in the West understand that not everybody over there is just carrying around a Kalashnikov, that was frosting on the cake."
On "My Tulip, My Pearl," Fremerman and Iranian singer Pari Zanganeh -- who alternate verses, as do most of the "partners" on the disc -- are accompanied by the Washington National Cathedral's girls choir. Hillestad says he was intrigued with the idea of using a choir from what he described as the official center of religious life in the United States. Greg Rixon, a spokesman for the Washington Cathedral, shies away from any symbolic inference. "We didn't see it in political terms at all," he said. "This project is rather universal in that the suffering that the whole world endures during war is most poignantly felt by women and children. And we believe it is that sentiment that is reflected in this disc."
More than anything, the album reflects the protective instincts of parents everywhere. On "Don't You Worry, My Child," Kulsoom Syed Ghulam of Afghanistan and Lila Downs of Mexico express that message with a moving eloquence:
Don't you worry my child,
My little darling.
Leave the world far behind
When you are sleeping.
Don't be afraid of the night.
I'll be watching.
Lying right by your side
Hillestad hopes the sentiments expressed in this song and the others will help humanize the "axis of evil" countries. "When the Western world is writing stories about these countries, they only write about just a small elite or a little group that has seized power," he said. "But most of the people there are just like most of the people on the planet."
Hillestad says 10 percent of the profits from the disc will go to Worldview Rights, which describes itself as an "organization for promotion of human rights, democracy and conflict resolution using communication strategies and applications."