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European Jazz Conference 2017

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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