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John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

By Published: July 24, 2007
But we did a concert in the green zone and invited Iraqis of all stripes, colors, and sects to our concert to perform together with the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra and had a wonderful concert with a big audience of 300 Iraqis. An invited audience, of course. You're not going to have your arch enemies sitting there hating you, but even going to places like Afghanistan it was heartwarming to [have] people come up to us over and over and say, "This is so great because it makes us feel normal again to have Americans performing here. Because no one had performed live there for like 25 years. The events are appreciated for their artistic or entertainment value, but they are also appreciated for their symbolic aspect politically. "Americans care about our country and this shows that some faith is being put into our country.

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 droves—again 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 singer—a male singer—and 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.

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