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John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

By Published: July 24, 2007
JF: Well, it was and still is the challenge working with the changing landscapes at the State Department. At one point there was an independent agency known as United States Information Service that handled cultural and educational exchanges for embassies. Then in 1998 that agency was folded into the State Department. So between '95-'98 there was very little work that you could do as a performer with the State Department or the Information Agency. A real kibosh was put on the performing arts as unnecessary.

There was a weird triumphalism in the congress in the '90s. They were like "Communism is dead, we conquered those countries, we'll just focus on maintaining relations in the upper, highest echelons. So they focused on brining in speakers to speak with judges, and university rectors. They weren't reaching out to larger audiences anymore, and especially not for multi-cultural programs. So during that time we turned our attention to Poland and [the] former Eastern Germany, and Hungary, and so forth. Then in '98 after the turmoil between the State Department and Information Agency was settled, we were able to start working with the State Department again and find a new path to work together.

There have just been all these ups and down. After September 11 [2001], suddenly there was a huge budget available for public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy programs in the Muslim world, and then that budget, after 2003 when the fighting started in Iraq, that just basically began to disappear. Things are actually very, very tough right now. It's hard to do programming right now because the budgets are just so tight because of...the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that said, the landscape changes every year two.

AAJ: Can you describe some of those first trips? What was the reaction to your performances?

CoCo York, Jazz Bridges Afghanistan, Dutch Embassy, Kabul 2005

JF: The same experiences we were having in the 1990s, I'm still having this month. The funny thing is how there's a common perception out there that American culture has invaded the world and conquered every corner of the planet, and that might be true with things like Hollywood movies and Madonna, but the understanding of our culture, how it developed over the years, and the different genres that make up our musical culture—like jazz and Broadway and American concert music, hip-hop and break dancing—all these different elements of our culture, that's not very well known outside of the G8 countries...There's this experience that repeats itself over and over when you go into really isolated countries—and by isolated I mean either by geography like places in the Muslim world or Western China, cities like Kashgar, or isolated because of conflict, someplace like Syria that is roped off from the world diplomatically right now. Or Afghanistan. Or the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq where we are working a lot lately. Or Baghdad, [where] American culture wasn't allowed for the last 25 years due to conflicts with the United States.

There's this experience where you walk into a room of, say, music students and...they're like blank slates or dry sponges, completely curious to know what you are like as an American first of all, that's strange for them, for a variety of reasons. They may never have seen an American face before, and they know nothing about your culture except maybe Terminator films...So I walk in with my program of ragtime and Gershwin and contemporary composers, and they go wild for it.

For example, we were putting together a Jazz Bridges program in Kashgar where we took our jazz trio and worked together with local traditional musicians and took songs like "Caravan and taught traditional players the song and performed together with them, and they improvised to it, and really went wild with the whole concept of jazz and improvisation. And then the audiences go wild with it as well because it's a whole new genre.

AAJ: Clearly, you offer a full spectrum of genres—everything from country to classical, to hip-hop, but being as this is All About Jazz, I want to concentrate for a minute on your jazz program. You do present a lot of jazz and blues.

JF: It's about one-third of our programming. First of all, because it's something that audiences demand everywhere we go. There is a huge demand for it. Somewhere like China or Afghanistan, with our jazz program, huge crowds turn out. You don't have to advertise. This is something that will make a lot of organizers and promoters in the Western world jealous to hear, but audiences are never a problem in most of the countries we go to because there is just such a thirst for live performance from the United States. And such a thirst to hear new art forms from them. Often you have to lock the doors from the inside because so many people are trying to crowd their way in.

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