9

European Jazz Conference 2017

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
I don’t think it is a music festival’s job to be a museum of music. Music is an emotional experience…way more than a cultural experience… —Rabih Abou-Khalil
European Jazz Conference 2017
Cankarjev dom
Ljubljana, Slovenia
September 21-24, 2017

The snow-capped mountains flanking Ljubljana form a natural border between Slovenia and Italy and provided a picturesque backdrop to the 4th annual European Jazz Conference. For the record two hundred and twenty conference attendees [Europe Jazz Network members and guests] the sun shone and the air was cool. The handsome Slovenian capital, with its bicycle-friendly, litter-free streets felt serene as tourists strolled through the old quarter and locals sat al fresco at street-side bars and restaurants.

Yet even the most idyllic scenes can be deceptive.

In Slovenia, as in many other European countries tensions have arisen over the numbers of migrants/refugees arriving every day, many of whom are fleeing the interminable conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The situation is complex and divisive. Debates over borders and human right are ongoing. Slovenia, however, is primarily a corridor, with the vast majority of these human waves seeking resettlement in third countries.

The very same questions about border controls, humanitarian and economic responsibility—along with rising nationalist sentiments derived from defensive notions of fixed national identities and cultural purity—are common to practically every other country in Europe. So too, the fear of terrorist attacks.

Without exception, for the festival directors, producers, agents, academics, jazz journalists and musicians who congregated at the EJC, these issues do not exist independently from their activities, but instead inform, to a greater or lesser degree, programming decisions, audience development, community outreach projects, research, the economic politics surrounding funding, the subject matter of panel debates et cetera.

Hailing from forty countries including Benin, Mali, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Azerbaijan, Italy, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Belgium, Norway, Finland and Sweden, the links between them all could be mapped out not just in musical terms, but also in the routes travelled by migrants and political/economic refugees, the insurmountable borders and those that are open, the centres of greatest migrant/refugee concentration and the rise of right-wing politics.

That two of the EJC's three Keynote Speakers had either fled war or effectively became an exile because of war, and that the third uses the arts to counter the socio-political, historical and psychological forces that compel many Africans to seek a better life in Europe, underlined the dominant and inter-related themes of the three-day conference.

Migration, crossing borders (cultural and psychological as well as physical), identity, racism and tolerance, integration and marginalization, language, the yoke of history, cross-border collaborations and political agendas. If it seemed like a heavy load for a conference focused on jazz and related music to embrace, it's worth remembering that these themes pretty much reflected the 100-year history of jazz to date.

Europe Jazz Network: A Brief Background

The Europe Jazz Network was founded thirty years ago as an association of promotors, presenters, venues, organisations and individuals dedicated to jazz, improvised music and related creative music. Essentially, the EJN promotes the diversity and identity of this music as well as its cultural and educational capital.

At the core of the association's ethos is the belief that this music contributes significantly to societies, not only in economic terms, but also as a force for social and emotional growth and as a conduit for promoting harmony and inter-cultural dialog between the diverse peoples and cultures of Europe -a fact, incidentally, that has been recognized by UNESCO.

It's a case of do as I do, for as Maja Osojnik—one of the Slovenian Showcase Festival musicians said to the EJC attendees in the audience on the first night of the showcase concerts: "It feels really like one big family, observing how you guys talk to each other. It's a nice feeling." The harmonious, family-like vibe of the EJC engenders a proactive, 'can do' philosophy that results in practical and meaningful collaborations, from the sharing of ideas and good practises and the co-commissioning and co-touring of artists, to research projects such as the monumental History of European Jazz project—an unprecedented 660-page opus due for publication in 2018.

As of 2017 the EJN boasts 112 members and the number is growing year by year. Significantly, the EJN has opened its borders to non-European organisations for the first time, with Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and—just two days prior to the EJC 2017—the Australian Music Society becoming two of the most recent members.

The EJN, inevitably, has evolved over its first thirty years. So too has jazz and so too the geo-political map of Europe. A lot of these changes were reflected in the discourses and dialogues of the EJC 2017, with the past casting almost as long a shadow over the three days as current events.

Day One

During the preliminary greetings to the 220-strong audience in the main sala of the Cankarjev dom EJN staff member Giambattista Tofoni explained the contents of the EJC shoulder bag gifted to everyone. Whist the eye-patch and the neck brace were clearly both sleeping aids Mr. Tofoni didn't clarify if a mass outbreak of snoozing was anticipated. The plastic container, however, was no mere water bottle. "You can put in it anything you want," Mr. Tofoni revealed.

This bold statement could also have served as a metaphor for jazz, for during the three days of the EJC, concert after concert underlined just how far-reaching jazz/improvised vocabulary has become.

Opening Gala Concert

Bojan Z

Since moving from the ex-Yugoslavia [Serbia] to France in the late 1988s, Bojan Z has carved out a niche as an exponent of Balkans folk-flavored jazz. For this concert, the pianist was joined by Slovenian musicians, though it was with an extended solo exhibition that Bojan Z began, launching off with the percussive intro of "Full Half Moon" from Soul Shelter (EmArcy, 2012). This thirteen-minute solo spot was laced with Balkan motifs and ornaments, alluding also to classical music and the influences of Don Cherry, Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett. Bojan Z's very own brand of world music was tender and dramatic in turn, his flowing narrative underpinned by dancing rhythms.

Goran Bojčevski on wooden flute (a kaval, widespread across the Balkans) then joined Bojan Z in a duo performance of one of Bojan Z's traditionally inspired tunes. The flute has a long history in Slovenia, for just a stone's throw away, the National Museum of Slovenia displays what is claimed to be the world's earliest flute, the holes carved into a bear's femur that dates back 43,000 years.

Bojčevski's quintet of Tadej Kampl (bass), Tomaž Marčič (accordion) and Ziga Kozar (drums) then swelled the ranks. Given that the musicians had first played together at the rehearsal earlier in the day, it was perhaps understandable that solos dominated, with the Slovenian leader's clarinet bringing a klezmer air to Bojan Z's dashing "Debacle Presidential." The brief, twenty-minute collaboration came to an end just when you felt the band was really warming to the task.

Rabih Abou Khalil

Lebanese-born, French based oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil has long straddled musical borders, with jazz, fado, French musette, blues and poetry just some of the threads entwined with his Arabic roots. Abou-Khalil was joined by Jared Cagwin on percussion and Luciano Biondini on accordion, a trio whose collaborations date back twenty years. The fiery "When Frankie Shot Lara" saw Biondini and Abou-Khalil deliver impassioned solos, with Cagwin's visceral rhythms stoking the flames.

Abou-Khalil has long enjoyed hanging comical titles on his compositions and "Crisp, Crap Coating"—a riveting number inspired by Finnish cuisine—was no exception. Yet the humour—and Abou Khalil could easily double as a stand-up comedian—could not mask the serious art in his compositions nor the mastery of his instrument; Abou Khalil is to the oud what Paco De Lucia was to the Spanish guitar.

The love song "If You Should Leave Me (Si Tu Me Quittes)" and the powerful lament "Dreams of a Dying City" highlighted the emotional depth in Abou-Khalil's pen. The latter, originally written for Beirut during the civil war, could today serve as a heartfelt cry for far too many cities throughout the Middle East.

Riffing oud and driving percussion colored the final number, with Biondini leaving his best to last with a wonderfully fluid solo. Abou-Khalil's ensembles small and large, however, have always been about the collective voice as this beautifully balanced concert, powerful yet elegant, amply demonstrated.

Day Two: Keynote Speech:

Rabih Abou Khalil: Music Across Borders

In a hugely entertaining and wide-ranging Keynote speech, Rabih Abou-Khalil touched on themes including early musical influences, migration, music as an expression of self, and reading copies of Das Spiegel in a Beirut basement for two years while the bombs fell. And, through medium of a simple, yet colorful parable, he suggested how better linguistic skills could potentially bring an end to all human conflict.

Growing up in Beirut, Abou-Khalil's first encounter with music from the West came in the shape of Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk and Tom Jones. How different About-Kahlil's path in life might have been had he been seduced by Welsh crooner Jones instead of Zappa and Monk.

Abou-Khalil abandoned war-ravaged Lebanon in 1976. "I couldn't muster enough anger or hatred against any other group to stay there and participate in the war." This pacifism he attributed to growing up as an atheist in a country hosting nineteen religions—each one proclaiming the truth. His move to Munich, classical music studies, his brief flirtation with ECM and his fascinating solo career have been well documented over the years. Less well known perhaps, was the reaction he received as foreigner in late 1970s Germany: "People would actually stop talking when I entered a shop and look at me—this dark person."

It's remarkable to think how, in just the lifespan of the EJN, European cities have become so much more cosmopolitan, to the point that it's hard to imagine what would make heads turn these days. "Everything has changed a lot," Abou-Khalil acknowledged. "Now when I open the door nobody even notices I'm in the room. People can't even remember those times."

Those times. These times. The question of belonging, identity, racism, integration and inclusion are as relevant today as they ever were. These salient issues were central to the main debate of the EJC 2017, which followed on from Abou-Khalil's keynote speech.

Plenary Debate: Where to begin? Social Inclusion in Cultural Policies

The plenary debate—moderated by the EJN's Francesco Martinelli—brought together Rabih Abou-Khalil, Anusa Pisanec (music journalist and development worker), Mehdi Marechal (expert in cultural participation and interculturalism), and N'toko (experimental hip-hop artist and producer). This imaginatively assembled line-up, which offered the promise of lively and stimulating debate, did not disappoint.

The major theme of social inclusion—seen primarily through the prism of festivals—included the politics surrounding the targeting of audiences, ticket affordability, institutional racism and the stereotyping/marginalisation of minority groups.

The session began with a summary of a paper by Mehdi Marechal, in which he spoke of the diversity in the cultural sector—a reflection no less of our societies—that is not, however, reflected in festival audiences, which he said, remain mainly white middle class. Mehdi warned against the well-intentioned programming behind, say for example, 'Moroccan Night' at a festival, as if Moroccans don't go out on any other nights, and furthermore, as if such a group needed to be steered towards such a cultural happening in programs "that are rarely questioned."

In essence, Mehdi's summary of his paper spelt out the message that there exists a wrongly assumed homogenous understanding of culture, a mistaken assumption of a shared universality of culture. In increasingly diverse societies, Mehdi asked: "How many generations do you have to be in a country not to be considered a foreigner anymore?" It is difficult, he said, to talk in terms of clear ethnic, cultural categories, (Refugees? Newcomers? Third generation immigrant? Immigrant middle class?) , adding that it no longer makes sense to think in binary terms of 'foreigner and native,' 'majority and minorities.'

The tendency may be to categorize, but, the author stated, the reality today is that there exist multiple smaller categories, intertwining and overlapping. "Citizens carry cultural backgrounds but they identify themselves with very different groups, communities and institutions."

If, the author underlined, we target specific audiences through festival programming—dividing people into clearly defined ethnic and cultural categories—we run the risk of reinforcing "the 'us and them' mentality in society, which can lead to a certain stigmatization."

The panel agreed that identities of an individual, never mind an ethnic group, are multiple and that greater social inclusion should be a societal aim. The question as to why festival audiences are not more diverse brought this answer from N'Toko: "Basically because it's not in their budget." It's no coincidence, the hip-hop artist said, that the greatest diversity in Slovenia is found in squats because food, drink and live music is affordable.

Anusa Pisanec spoke of the marginalisation of migrants in Slovenia. "They are not really recognized as an equal part of society. What our government is doing is basically a kind of systemic racism, because they are either in asylum houses or they get put into really bad apartments." N'Toko concurred: "You can't build a common culture if you don't have equal material rights."

The complexity in any discussion about social inclusion was underlined by Abou-Khalil, who had listened attentively throughout. Racism, that's to say the exclusion, marginalization or harassment of one group by another, he pointed out, has existed in every society since the dawn of time. "I think this is something very inherently human," he opined. "I hear even apes have that." Abou-Khalil also said that we should not be afraid to challenge the racism that exists within the societies from which the migrants come. "They have to learn to live with each other."

As for programing ethnic cultural nights at festivals, Abou-Khalil was clear: "I don't think it is a music festival's job to be a museum of music. Music is an emotional experience...way more than a cultural experience, because that becomes cold and stiff. We need more sensuality in all of this and less political correctness."

Book Presentation: The History of European Jazz

One of the most exciting projects of the Europe Jazz Network is the forthcoming publication by Equinox Publishing of the book The History of European Jazz. The idea for an authoritative history of European jazz was that of jazz historian, author and Siena Jazz Archive Director, Francesco Martinelli. After much dreaming and several years of diligent and exhaustive work, the book is due to hit the shelves in the first half of 2018.
  • Martinelli, and jazz author, critic and BBC Radio 3 presenter Alyn Shipton—who has worked closely with Martinelli—gave fascinating insight into the mechanics of writing this unprecedented linear history of jazz across Europe. Whereas individual country histories exist, often written by outsiders, The History of European Jazz will give voice to the people of the countries themselves, with forty three authors from forty countries contributing.
  • Martinelli paid tribute to the people who kept jazz live often under very difficult conditions such as war, authoritarian regime and strained international relations. He also acknowledged the significant role of Equinox Publishing in assuring the production qualities of the book.
  • Martinelli and Shipton discussed the technical challenges of multiple translations, the cover design, chapter size and stylistic homogeneity, cross-referencing information and providing detailed and accurate bibliographies for each chapter.
Contextual chapters [non-country specific} will cover the history of jazz festivals in Europe, manouche jazz, Jewish jazz and klezmer music, the dialogues of the avant-garde, jazz in film, plus a chapter on African-America entertainers who came to Europe prior to World War One.

Shipton stressed the importance of the European record labels: "The first recording of stride piano was made in Europe. The first recording of the blues was made in Europe. The first recording of an African-American improvising ensemble playing jazz with a drum accompaniment was made in Europe. These are very significant things."

When the final full-stop is in place The History of European Jazz will weigh in at a hefty 660 pages, give or take. It is, and has been, a huge and demanding process. As Martinelli joked: "Maybe I'll write a book about writing the book."

Special Concert: To Pianos

A special musical interlude saw Eve Risser (France) and Kaja Draksler (Slovenia) give a piano duo performance to mark the official release of the CD To Pianos (Clean Feed, 2017). The concert took place in the Cankarjec dom's intimate, circular amphitheatre Sith Hall, which afforded optimal views of the two musicians at play.

Beginning in unison, the duo sounded a repetitive motif like chiming bells. Gradually the two streams separated, creating at first interlocking patterns, and then, as the two musicians moved into more personal terrain, a denser and less distinct mosaic.

Cacophonous mantras were juxtaposed against hypnotic minimalism, while mallets small and large coaxed shimmering overtones from the pianos' innards. Draksler's resonator drew droning hum from her piano strings a she maintained deep bass notes like a slow pulse, while Risser responded with small hand cymbals. The two pianos offered up an orchestral range of sonorities—creaks, knocks, echoes, drones and harp-like strums, insistent pulses wrought from strings, wood and ivory.

At a break in the music Risser introduced the first two pieces by their respective titles, though any compositional frameworks seemed sketchy compared to the improvisational elements. A brief, punchy interpretation of Carla Bley's "Walking Batterie Woman" captured the precision and playfulness of the original. It marked the end of a memorable performance and drew a sustained ovation form the appreciative audience.

Abstract in the main, whether spare or full-blooded, jagged or flowing, the sense of Risser and Draksler' brave experimentalism was ever-present in a performance that rewarded open minds as much as open ears.

Creative Walks

A novel aspect of this year's EJC was the inclusion of a series of walks around the city of Ljubljana. Given that there was little time to explore the city due to the intensive nature of the conference, these walks afforded the opportunity to see a little of this handsome city and, in addition, provided a welcome change of scenery. Starting from the main entrance of the Cankarjev dom, six groups set off for unknown destinations, guided by a group leader/s.

The group leaders included; N'Toko and Iranian musician Shahryari-Naj, a musician living in Slovenia; Dre Hocevar, a musician working between New York and Slovenia; Eric Yovogan, a Beninois trumpeter living in Belgium, and Mehdi Marechal; Shaalan Alhamwy, a Syrian concert violinist living in Belgium; Edin Zubcecvic of the Sarajevo Jazz Festival; and, Pedro Costa of Clean Feed Records.

Once the groups had reached their respective destinations, the group leaders would play some music and/or relate a personal story that tied in with some of the conferences themes, that's to say, migration, cultural inclusion—or the lack of—identity, and so on.

The group led by Syrian violinist Shalan Alhamwy made its way slowly through the old quarter of Ljubljana, stopping in front of a stylish, though institutional-looking building -the Institute of Arts and Political Science. A curious vertical coil of barbed wire climbed from above the main door to the roof—installation art as protest against the razor wire barrier placed along the Slovenia-Croatian border in 2015.

The violinist took his instrument from its case and played a dancing Syrian folk tune. Alhamwy then told the story of his journey from his homeland across multiple borders to Belgium. It was also the story of his violin.

Studying in Damascus, Alhamwy's professors insisted he buy a violin worthy of his talents for his graduation performance the following year. He began to contact dealers. "Finally I found her," Alamwy said, gazing at his instrument, "And I fell in love from the first moment."

The only problem was the price, which was fifty times more expensive than the fee Alamwy could earn from a concert. Love, however, knows no boundaries, and working hard in his spare time from his studies Alamwy was able to buy his adored violin. They became inseparable.

War broke out in Syria and Damascus became too dangerous for Alamwy. He left for another city. "My violin was the first thing I took with me." As the war intensified and the fighting spread, Alamwy was forced to leave his place of refuge a further three times. Finally, he was forced to leave his country altogether. He decided to make for Europe but he knew that the journey would be too perilous for his violin so he left it with his mother.

In the event, it was a wise move. "In Turkey you have to take a boat to Greece and I had to walk in the water which was to here," Alamwy described, placing his hand under his chin.

Alamwy otherwise spared the details of his escape, simply describing it as "a long journey." He arrived in Belgium, where he spent time in a temporary asylum centre awaiting his papers. "I was in a city called Sint-NIklaas." Alamwy soon enough received a gift from Santa Claus. He contacted a local amateur orchestra who managed to get him a violin of Joseph Claus, a highly prized instrument. It was a long-term loan from a lady from the Netherlands. "She said play as long as you want," Alamwy explained.

Thanks to Wim Wabbes of the Handeelsbeurs Concert Hall, who provided Alamwy with a platform in Ghent, Alamwy has been able to make useful connections and construct a career.

After nine months, Alamwy's mother obtained a visa to join her son in Belgium, bringing his precious violin with her from Syria. "What if objects had memories?" Alamwy asked rhetorically. "I think objects can really have memories. This violin has memories of some bad moments." Alamwy finished by playing an improvisation, tender but tinged with melancholy. No doubt the music was triggered by the musician's memories, but perhaps also some of the violin's too.

Though in abandoning his native Syria and journeying to Europe as a refugee, Alamwy has experienced stresses, traumas and heartaches the likes of which most people cannot imagine. And yet, musicians like Alamwy are luckier than many refugees/migrants, for as Rabih Abou-Khalil had said the previous day: "Music has always lived off benefactors."

Day Three: Keynote Speech

Bojan Z: The Artist—A Bridge Between Communities

French-Siberian jazz pianist Bojan Z has spent more than half his lifetime in France, having left Belgrade in 1988, aged twenty, on a scholarship. His Balkans-infused jazz has singled him out as one of the most original composers and improvisers of the past quarter of a century. Taking up the EJC leitmotif for 2017 of What if...?, Bojan pondered what if certain people who had influenced his path in life had not existed?

In a linear narrative, Bojan Z recounted his formative years growing up in the capital of the former Yugoslavia in the bosom of a musical family. Cousins and friends coming by every other evening for dinner and a subsequent sing-song, created a social environment in which music was a natural form of communication. His interest in the piano stirred when he was three years old and his formal, classical studies began at five.

The classical studies and the gift of The Beatle's Revolver (Parlophone, 1966) on Bojan Z's sixth or seventh birthday would both significantly influence the course of his life. Importantly, many of his friends played music, owned guitars and amps, which lent itself to the "constant feeling that I was doing was very normal, not something special."

Rock and progressive rock provided the templates for the first bands Bojan Z played in but it was a summer camp in Istria—at the age of fourteen—led by Boško Petrović that proved a major turning point. "The doors of the jazz world opened to me." For the next few year in Belgrade Bojan Z immersed himself in bebop and the language of Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

In 1986, Bojan Z received a scholarship to study music in a summer camp in Michigan, USA. This was another eye-opener for the then sixteen-year-old, as he found that the other students "were relaxed around what is and what isn't jazz." Bojan Z was offered an extended scholarship but had to return to Yugoslavia to do his compulsory military service. After two months of regular army training Bojan Z was given the position of Chief of the Army Band. They band played every night in Mostar and its primary goal was "to make people sing, dance drink and cry."

Just before embarking on his military service, Bojan Z became the pianist for the Belgrade Radio Big Band, which was considered as the pinacle for a jazz musician in his country. The search for other mountains to climb—plus the fact that he'd met the French woman who was to become his wife, at the jazz summer camp at Istria —took him to France.

There, he quickly found like-minded musicians. "We know everything about jazz, what happened before, but what shall we do now?" The question, acknowledged Bojan Z, is one that arises anew from generation to generation. "The purpose was to find your own voice." Thus, Bojan Z began experimenting with Balkans folk music and jazz, though as Balkans folk music is not written for the piano he began studying ornamentation typical of the clarinet.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. With musicians such a Julien Lourau, Henri Texier and Michel Portal, Bojan Z has made his way, step by step, to the forefront of contemporary European jazz. As a leader, he first recorded in 1993, and led his first major tour, in Ireland, around the same time. Bojan Z thanked Brian Carson—sat in the audience—of Belfast music promotion company Moving On Music for giving him this opportunity, and concluded by thanking sincerely everyone in the auditorium who had helped him along the various stages of his career.

Unbeknown to Bojan Z, the man responsible for the scholarship that had taken the pianist to Michigan some thirty years previously—Mike Mazur, a legendary Yugoslavian jazz journalist who ran a jazz radio program for fifty three years—was also sitting in the auditorium. Their subsequent introduction was, amazingly, and in a fitting coda, the first time that Bojan Z had ever met this important benefactor. What if...?

Parrel Working Groups

A large chunk of day three of the EJC 2017 revolved around a dozen working groups, split either side of lunch. These sessions, broken down into very specific categories, covered various projects and ongoing concerns of the EJN.

With audience development a buzzword of festivals these days, particularly given the ageing and still predominantly white male demographic of many festivals, workshops on Jazz and Young People, Social Inclusion, and Gender Balance in Music reflected these concerns. It was of note that the working group on Gender Balance, led by Ros Rigby (EJN President and Festival Producer of Gateshead International Jazz Festival), proposed a manifesto on gender balance for the EJN.

In the morning session there was a working group specifically for presenters, managers and agents, and another on the use of video and live streaming for audience engagement led by Nigel Slee of Jazz North (UK). At the EJC 2016 in Wroclaw, Poland, the suggestion arose to record all the working groups and make them available on-line at the EJN website—a sound motion given the impossibility, even with the greatest will in the world, of being in six places at once. The ease of high-quality recording on bog-standard phones these days means that there is no obvious barrier to this idea, yet to be implemented.

Two groups were divided along the lines of Spring/Summer Festivals and Autumn/Winter Festivals. These groups offered presenters the chance to share ideas, propose co-presenting, co-commissioned work, and generally facilitate collaboration between those actively seeking to take advantage of the EJN's wide reach. With many festivals proud of their individual identity and artistic autonomy, some presenters took these sessions more as an opportunity to sell their wares, so to speak.

Other groups focused on national and regional organisations, clubs and venues. A fascinating working group entitled Protecting the Music Ecosystem addressed, in short, the issues of European funding for music in general, the complicated hoops jazz has to jump through to gain financial support, and the increasing numbers grappling to get their paws in the honey pot.

Ian Smith of the European Music Council, researcher George McKay of the University of East Anglia, and Michelle Kuijpers of North Sea Jazz Festival, delivered the message that preference is increasingly given to music that can prove its economic worth, and not just its socio-cultural capital. With jazz being niche music, the very word 'jazz' could perhaps prove a disadvantage, with jazz presenters needing to be evermore inventive in the drafting of funding proposals.

In footballing parlance it's akin to clubs competing for inclusion in the Champion's League. Membership at Europe's top footballing table secures a flood of money and mid to long-term stability. Failure to make the grade means fighting for the scraps, or even for survival.

Finally, there was the Jazz Research Group, led by Tony Whyton of Birmingham City University. Academic research provides dispassionate and incisive insights into issues surrounding jazz, its production, dissemination and presentation. From balanced historical perspectives to detailed analysis of the economy of festivals, and from new ways of thinking about the multiple meanings of jazz to George McKay's important work on disability and music [see Shakin' All Over: Popular Music And Disability], the EJN is a culturally richer, more knowledgeable and a more balanced organisation for the input of academic research.

Keynote Speech

Rokia Traoré: The Role of An Artist Aginst Misconception

Malian singer-songwriter/musician Rokia Traoré has recorded six critically acclaimed since her debut Mouneissa (Label Bleu, 1997), though since 2009 much of her energy has gone into her Foundation Passerelle, which helps train young Malian musicians for careers in music. In a fascinating keynote speech, the singer spoke of her musical career, her activism, and of the damaging legacy of colonization, which she reasoned, has stripped Africans of their identity, self-worth and culture, pushing many to seek a better life in Europe.

Traoré described how her incremental success as a professional artist came as a surprise to her. She acknowledged the support of the French Cultural Centre at the outset of her career, and even then wondered why such Malian institutions did not exist to give a helping hand to aspiring artists. This questioning planted the seeds of Traoré's future Foundation Passarelle, and with the royalties from each successive album and with the fees from touring she set about buying land on which to build a cultural centre for Malians.

Traoré almost reluctantly accepted her role model status for young Malians, describing it not so much as a choice but as a position somehow inherited. "Others understand who you are before you do."

Traoré asked what African culture and arts bring to Africans themselves. "We can say nothing, because the best of African art and culture is for abroad." Traoré emphasized that while the greatest visual artists, singers and musicians from Africa are celebrated abroad, at the same time the lack of resources in Africa means that theatres and other spaces that could potentially build a relationship between audiences and artists simply don't exist. It follows, she said, that African artists and their works are generally not known in Africa.

For this lamentable situation Traoré pointed the finger at two targets—religion and colonization. Traoré described how religion has replaced the space once occupied by culture. "Young people go to mosques because they have no cultural space, and there they are taught how to reject culture in order to be as close as possible to God." The trade-off dictated by the mosques, Traoré said, was for young people to effectively know nothing about themselves and their culture in return for knowledge of the afterlife.

The desire amongst young Malians—and Africans in general—to head to Europe for a new life, stems from the fact, Traoré said, that they are disenchanted with their leaders and their own lack of self-identity and self-worth -the legacies of colonization. "This is a lost continent. Everything we do here came from somewhere else."

The challenge, Traoré concluded, is to make African leaders aware of the importance of culture and of the arts. "It's the long-term solution of all the problems, for which they will spend one hundred times the money once they have happened."

Wrap-up

In addition to a lot of great music the EJC 2017 in Ljubljana provided a veritable feast for thought. Above all, the three days served as a potent reminder that the cultural diversity in all our societies is a process of natural evolution. Yet while tensions exist, and they likely always will to greater or lesser degree, there is a pressing necessity to work for social and political inclusion, tolerance and understanding, beginning, perhaps, within our own indigenous cultures.

The stories heard, from all three Keynote speakers, and from migrants, ex-pats and refugees alike, underlined the fact that the motivations to cross borders and seek a new beginning are many and varied. From the push factors of war, famine, drought, poverty, unemployment and oppression, to the pull factors of work opportunities, better health care and education, material goods, and not least, a safer, more tolerant environment.

Though Rokia Traoré expressed the hope that African youth will find in their own countries, the work, opportunities culture and sense of self-worth that will make their dreams come true, she acknowledged the eternal human drive to go wherever it is necessary to get ahead. "That is the way we all left Africa centuries ago and that is the way we all started as humans occupying the rest of the world," she observed. "That is the way it will continue."

The choices are not many. Social inclusion—and this must begin, as Traoré noted, at home—or social upheaval. Open hearts and minds, or razor wire borders, ghettos and ever greater numbers of displaced, marginalized and nationless humans—the prey of traffickers and those bent on political radicalisation.

Jazz is no panacea, but its practitioners and presenters all have potentially important roles to play in our increasingly hybrid societies. The EJC 2017 brought that much into sharper relief.

Photo Credit: Tina Ramujkic

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Redwood City Salsa Festival 2017 Live Reviews Redwood City Salsa Festival 2017
by Walter Atkins
Published: October 17, 2017
Read AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia Live Reviews AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia
by Mark Holston
Published: October 13, 2017
Read CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club Live Reviews CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club
by Ian Patterson
Published: October 11, 2017
Read "ECM Showcase at NYC Winter Jazzfest 2017" Live Reviews ECM Showcase at NYC Winter Jazzfest 2017
by Tyran Grillo
Published: January 22, 2017
Read "Pat Martino at Dazzle" Live Reviews Pat Martino at Dazzle
by Douglas Groothuis
Published: September 2, 2017
Read "Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ" Live Reviews Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ
by Harry S. Pariser
Published: May 2, 2017
Read "Steve Reich @ 80: Music for 18 Musicians" Live Reviews Steve Reich @ 80: Music for 18 Musicians
by C. Andrew Hovan
Published: March 29, 2017

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.