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Interviews

John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

By Published: July 24, 2007

What is amazing is how easily traditional musicians all over the world take to [jazz]. Take to improvising together. Its really ducks to water. Its always a thrill that once people understand they can be free to play what they want to play, they take off with it.

John Ferguson >From Afghanistan and Albania, to Venezuela and Vietnam, <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org TARGET=_blank>American Voices</A> founder John Ferguson has brought American music, including jazz and blues, to almost every corner of the world, including <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org/press/materials/statistics/countries TARGET=_blank>79 countries on five continents</A>. And after traveling back and forth across the globe, what Ferguson is looking for next is simply the latest place where listeners have yet to encounter the diversity of American musical culture. <br /><br /> American Voices, founded in 1993, is a non-profit organization with the simple, daunting mission of bringing American performers and educators to parts of the world isolated by either geography or conflict. Including classical, Broadway musicals, country, hip-hop, jazz and blues, Ferguson's programs use the varied musical traditions of the United States as a powerful tool for cultural diplomacy, and in the process has given many artists and audience members their first chance to witness jazz played live or, in some cases, to hear it for the first time altogether. Through its innovative <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org/programs/jazzblues/jazzbridges TARGE=_blank>Jazz Bridges</A> program, a series of workshops and concerts begun in 2002, American Voices has also introduced traditional musicians from around the world to the art of jazz improvisation, and given jazz players the chance to learn the local musical forms and styles. <br /><br /> All About Jazz caught up with Ferguson via cell phone during a layover in Bangkok, where he provided the distinct privilege of an update on his latest projects in Iraq, as well as discussions about the lessons he's learned about music and cultural exchange from over fourteen years of unique experience. <br /><br /> <strong>All About Jazz:</strong> I want to start at the beginning. Let's rewind to right before you founded American Voices. It's the early '90s, the world is changing dramatically, the cold war is over, there's a real sense of optimism and possibility. It's a whole new global landscape. Where were you and what were you doing? <br /><br /> <strong>John Ferguson:</strong> One of the ways this got started is that I moved, at age 31, back to Europe to study, to finish a kind of artist-performers diploma at the conservatory of Toules France. It was March '89, and within six months all of the walls between East and West Europe began to disintegrate. I'm a classical pianist and I was there studying the classic repertoire but at the same time working a lot to perform in Western Europe with an American music program. Out of the blue, later in '89, I got an invitation to Latvia and we went to Latvia in 1990. <br /><br /> That tour ended up being a tour to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to the Baltic states which are now completely normal places to go, but at the time were just sealed off in so many ways from American culture, musicians, and cultural exchanges, and I found myself giving performances of people like William Bolcom and John Adams, George Gershwin, and Eubie Blake to audiences that had never heard the music live before, had never heard an American live before. We were like these exotic, amazing creatures that everyone had heard about all of their lives because we were the great enemy, but no one had ever had any contact with us. Audiences were like these blank slates, or dry sponges, and they were absorbing anything you could offer them. They were so curious about the outside world. <br /><br /> That got me to thinking about how, in the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Eastern Germany and so forth, [they] really needed what I had to offer as a specialist in American music. And two years later, in 1992, American Voices was born as a not-for-profit organization. We immediately started working with the American Information Service and the new embassies and consulates that were sprouting up all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. <br /><br /> <strong>AAJ:</strong> Did the idea to form an organization and formalize the process of musical exchange come as a bolt from the blue, or did it come in stages? <br /><br /> <strong>JF:</strong> It came in stages. The first stage was basically as a classical pianist, performing with the other singers and instrumentalists I worked with, to bring our programming to Eastern Europe. Then we started doing our jazz program, and in 1998 our geographical expansion began with a tour to the Middle East and the Gulf countries for the George Gershwin centennial, and that was a Gershwin, Broadway, classical program, and then in 2000 we started going to Africa and Asia. <br /><br /> <strong>AAJ:</strong> What was the biggest challenge in getting things off the ground? <br /><br /> <strong>JF:</strong> 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. <P> There was a weird triumphalism in the congress in the '90s. They were like
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?

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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.

On one hand it's hard to organize in places and countries that have been isolated, because there just isn't infrastructure for these kinds of things, media, concert halls, sometimes there is no electricity, sometimes no instruments, or no sound system, all kinds of problems come up. But the enthusiasm and the huge crowds you can bring in make up for all the headaches.

AAJ: Do you think there is an idea out there that you encounter of what jazz is? And does that then match what you present? Are people aware of the current landscape of jazz, or does it shift after they experience your program?

JF: When you go to really isolated places, if there is any notion at all of what jazz is, it tends to be knowledge of the great singers. Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday for example. Or people might know the music of Duke Ellington or big-band music, but it tends to be the more traditional kind of jazz from the twenties, thirties, and forties.

But that said, in the former Soviet Union jazz started to penetrate due to Voice of America, so if you go work in Azerbaijan or Kazikstan, the jazz players kind of come into it in the bebop mode and take it from there. You have a very interesting circumstance where they are combining this jazz with their local traditional music, giving it this little accent, which is very fascinating in and of itself, but they didn't learn—the grooves are not in their blood from the beginning, you know? So the shuffles and the grooves from early African-American jazz just weren't in their ears. They got it from the fifties, so they come to it with some sort of gaps in their (pause)groove. You hear that in their rhythm section, in the playing. Those are some of the things we try to work with.

But it's kind of an existential problem. You can't take people who've heard this fifties jazz and been playing in a vacuum, like say in Azerbaijan, and say, "No, no, no, this is how jazz really started and you should play this standard by George Gershwin and you should play it this way first, So it's complicated, and strange.

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Baku Big Band, American Voices Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival, Azerbaijan 2003



Then there are countries you go to like Afghanistan, where there just was never any jazz. Or if it was, it was played in a couple hotels in the fifties and sixties. That's how we developed the Jazz Bridges program where we go in and work with them playing their traditional instruments and their traditional music. And provide them a jazz underpinning for their traditional music. Then we show them some standards and styles and work with them over a five or six day program to teach us their traditional music. What is amazing is how easily traditional musicians all over the world take to [jazz]. Take to improvising together. It's really ducks to water. It's always a thrill that once people understand they can be free to play what they want to play, they take off with it.

AAJ: We've seen jazz used in the past for cultural exchange, all the way back to the twenties, and at the height of the Cold War we were sending jazz musicians over as emissaries to present American values—even though segregation was alive and well at home. That was a totally different context, and a fascinating tension existed in presenting American culture in the context of "these are our enemies . Then, as you said, you began American Voices right at the end of that dynamic, but now are bringing musicians to Iraq. I have to imagine that a trip to Iraq now is very different from a trip to Poland was in 1992.

JF: You know, the few places where we have any political resistance to our artistic work are often in Western European countries...from certain ministers of culture, for example. Who might be a little anti-American or anti-Western. But audiences do not hold American musicians accountable for foreign policy or [the] other things that irritate them in their particular country. You go from country to country and the sensibilities change, or even to different parts of the country. If you go to Iraq, for example, where we will be going—I can't be too specific right now for security reasons—but, say, in the Kurdish regions they love the United States. They love us because the United States created a no-fly zone which meant Saddam couldn't attack them anymore. The Kurds view us as their liberators. But if you [went] to Baghdad and left the green zone into the red zone, you'd be dead within a day, at least, because people literally want our heads.

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.

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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.

JF: Exactly. And what's heartening to see, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but also in places like Lebanon and Morocco and Tunisia, and Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China. Jazz is starting to take off in those countries because they were only really freed in the '90s. So huge new audiences are being developed and have the potential to be developed. And good jazz, not the watered down, soft-pop version you hear on the radio in the United States almost everywhere. The opportunities are really abroad. And one thing that could infuse the jazz scene in the States is to bring back, like, the most interesting Lebanese players or Kazak jazz players, and show what the combination of jazz and world music can do.

AAJ: That's a very good point. I think that's something that jazz listeners recognize, that jazz has always been moved forward by new sounds and people bringing in those new cultural elements. Here's a question almost in reverse. The agenda of American Voices is cultural exchange, which must mean that you and the people you work with are constantly learning and evaluating American culture. What have you learned about American culture over the years?

JF: You learn a lot when you see your own culture through other people's eyes and ears. I think the thing you start to appreciate—as much as we all gripe about the United States—as much as I hear people griping, "It's becoming this, it's becoming that, it's becoming Fascist, it's becoming too conservative, or too liberal, or too amoral, I think the great thing about the United States is the freedom of inquiry that we have in our educational system. That's one thing. We grow up being encouraged to be ourselves. To look at the world in a different way, in our own unique way, and to develop ourselves and our own thinking about things. And that shows up not just in musicians' lives but in every American.

There's this individualism that makes our society a bit difficult at times, but for artists it's a great thing. And I see the kind of education people get in other countries—music education and academic education—it just shuts them down. The longer they are in school the more shut-down, closed-off, and uncreative they get. So I think that is one of the great things about the United States. We are trained to think outside of the box.

The other thing that I think is great about American culture, though I am not sure if it is as strong now as it was when I was a kid, is this belief in everything being possible. The American dream that you can make what you want of your life, that whole self-transformative attitude we take towards life. It's unique. You don't find that in many other places in the world.

For videos and recordings from American Voices performances, visit American Voices Sound and Video.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of American Voices

For more photos from American Voices, visit the AAJ Visual Arts Gallery and search for "American Voices."



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