John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy
We started going to Lebanon in the late '90s and we were like one of the only non-Lebanese American groups to come back to the country and perform in 20-25 years. Now it's normal. People go there all the time. But in the mid-nineties it was still considered too edgy, too unsafe. Lebanese would come out in drovesagain of all stripes. It would be a bit tricky to find the right hall, the right neutral territory that everyone would feel comfortable coming to, but believe it or not the first big concert we did in Lebanon was a Christmas concert with the National Symphony Orchestra.
AAJ: So the politics are important and need to be navigated, but they don't transform the mission of your work, or the audiences' response to the music.
JF: When the Americans are onstage, all seems to be forgiven. No matter what they think about the military or governments or foreign policies, that all seems to just fly out the window. And that is one of the great things about the Jazz Bridges program. For example, when we did that program in Afghanistan our singer was learning songs in the local language and singing with the local singera male singerand just to have a female singing with a man on stage in Afghanistan we thought at the time was really pushing the envelope, but the fact that she was an American and an African-American woman seemed to just not count against Islam. The audience loved it. She started to sing in Brahui [and] the audience would just go wild and dance in the aisles.
All of that [is] to say we really don't encounter difficult audiences or go places where we feel we are in any kind of danger, or people don't like us, whatever that means.
AAJ: What's the next big project for American Voices?
JF: The next big project is bringing together 300 Iraqi musicians and dances from various parts of the country, and brining together all of the orchestras of the country, two dance groups, children's theater groups, brining all these people together under one roof for nine days of training and performances. After that we plan to do some regional follow-ups where it is safe to go.
AAJ: Do you see Iraq remaining the focus of your work?
JF: It's not the only focus. We have some break-dancing and hip-hop groups we're working with and we keep programming them all over the place. We're working on musical and opera in Turkey. We're working on another Broadway training program in Taipei. We have lots of projects going on all over the world. But there seems to be a lot of need right now in Iraq, and our mission is really to focus on and create access to American culture and [provide] training in places that are isolated due to conflict or geography, so Iraq really fits that part of our mission.
John Ferguson and Ira Spaulding in Concert in Yekaterinburg, Russia
There are a lot of difficulties working in a war zone, everything can be canceled from one minute to the next. Funding is difficult. It's difficult to find teachers who understand the need and are willing to respond to it, people willing to go into a country that sounds so dangerous. But in reality, there are parts of Iraq you can go to that are quite safe.
AAJ: It's been fourteen years since you started the program. You've been all over the world, what keeps you motivated now?
JF: I keep saying I do this for the audiences that appreciate it so much. That's the only thing that keeps me going, because it's certainly not for the money or the fame you get! Though I guess we're kinda famous in Afghanistan or Kazakhstan (laughs).
AAJ: But you are not on the top of the Billboard charts yet.
JF: No, no, not yet. We haven't tried real hard to get our recordings distributed in the States or anything like that. We've really been focused on the projects abroad, so people don't really know too much about what we've been doing. I think what's so significant is that we've taken jazz to parts of the world that just never would have gotten them otherwise.
AAJ: There's a precedent for jazz spreading to all parts of the world though. It has become quite international. It seems there is jazz almost everywhere you look, often tinged with its own cultural elements and traditions. But your work is taking it places where it is still unknown, to whole audiences that have no exposure. I think for jazz fans this is another opportunity for jazz's growth. Jazz has always been able to absorb new threads and sounds, and this means more new sounds and cultural connections.
JF: I think this is something important for your readers. I think there is a lot of despair in the West about, "Is jazz a living art form or is it on its way out?
AAJ: That is certainly a theme I'm tired of hearing.