Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding Hip-Hop in Kazakhstan and Country in India: American Voices Sets Up in St. Louis

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 6:06 AM

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Some of the programs that bring international musicians to St. Louis seem mutually beneficial. People in St. Louis get to experience great music, while the performers get to take back acquired expertise to their home countries.

Thayer: This idea of cultural diplomacy, it isn't just us going to another country. Right here in St. Louis in this neighborhood, you've probably got people from 50 different countries. There are a lot of new immigrants ... coming every week and trying to interact and work with them.

And you know, people in this part of the world often don't meet anyone from the Middle East or they don't meet anyone from Cambodia or Thailand or Gaza. They've got to get to know people. It's the only way we're going to understand a little bit about each other. It's not what you see in the news. Everywhere we go it's really revealing and eye-opening. Especially when people have maybe difficult living situations or not enough of what we would consider daily needs. But they still work very hard to have a music school, an orchestra, a dance company - that's still very important to them. Often more important than other places. It's nice to see.

Tell us a little bit about American Music Abroad.

Rockower: That had been the Jazz Ambassadors program. It was the program that Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck were all part of back in the 50s and 60s. It's a real famous cultural diplomacy program by the State Department.

More recently, the Jazz at Lincoln Center was administering it under a title called "The Rhythm Road." Now we're proud to be administering the program. ... We're sending 10 musical ensembles from any type of American musical genre - so it could be bluegrass, blues hip-hop, Cajun, Zydeco, you name it. We send groups on a four to six country tour. And they perform, they do workshops with local students, they do jam sessions with local musicians. It's really about the give-and-take of cultural diplomacy. So we're in the midst of recruiting program. We just finished the application process and we had a tremendous, tremendous number of applicants for the program - nearly 300."

Thayer: For each band, part of the audition process is not only quality of their performance for whatever style music that it is in. But they also have to do some educational work. How would they present and talk about their music ... with a group of high school kids or middle school students? Part of what they're talking about is are they people we want representing the U.S. and really serve as musical ambassadors wherever they go. So each band consists of three to five people and each one will go to a different region of the world.

The embassy in each country determines what they do and we help to coordinate it.

Rockower: It's meant to be a two-way cultural exchange. They're going as musical ambassadors on behalf of the U.S., but they're also gaining from the culture and the places they go. Then they come back and they've been shaped by the programs that they've been on. It affects their music. I saw a concert from a group that had returned from last year's program. And they came back and they've been to India and Bangladesh. And they were a jazz group, but they were kind of influenced by the Bengal music and northern India music. So it affected their own music.

How are you hoping St. Louis benefits by your organizations?

Thayer: I think it's the type of city that really embraces this type of international interaction and loves having people here, loves hosting people here. It's good for the city - it's brought in a $1.5 million grant for this organization, which is based here now. The donors and the new board members who have gotten involved are very excited about this kind of work, because it's good for us locally and it also connects St. Louis with Washington, with the other cities where these bands are from and with the other countries where we're working.

And there's a lot of excitement about this, more than you might find in New York - where there's maybe not as much hunger for that kind of interaction and that kind of connection. There's a lot of potential here, there's a lot of generous support for this kind of work - for the arts and education in general in St. Louis.

Which country surprised you in terms of musical interest?

Thayer: I am constantly surprised how prevalent [hip-hop] is everywhere. We could put an announcement on Facebook saying tomorrow we're having auditions for a hip-hop program and have 100 or 200 people sign up.

Rockower: We've done hip-hop programs in Kazakhstan. We've did programs in the past, such a "country eastern" tour where we sent a country music singer named Jesse Dayton to Vietnam. ... Country music actually really big in places you wouldn't expect -- in India and Vietnam. One thing we haven't done yet, but what I'd really like to see is punk rock is really big in Indonesia. And maybe we'll end up doing that in the future.

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