Thursday, July 15, 2010

Beauty Out of Chaos: The Story of American Voices

“A 1, a 2, a 123”, and suddenly the air is filled with fused American and Kurdistani jazz almost hotter than the 125°F temperatures outside Peshawa Hall in Erbil, Iraq. Over the next three hours, representatives from the Cultural Ministry of Kurdistan, the U.S. Embassy Regional Reconstruction Team, Pepsi, and other local sponsors, along with the parents and friends of over 250 youth and young adults aged 7-27, will experience the artistic fruits of two weeks of training at the Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy.

This program, brought you to by American Voices, is just the latest initiative in a 16-year history of bringing concerts, workshops, master classes and interactive performance projects to over 200,000 live audience members in 110 countries on five continents. Under the direction of John Ferguson, our Jazz Bridges, Broadway, Hiplomacy and Yes Academy nonprofit programs aim to further accessibility and the understanding of American performing arts and culture including Broadway, Jazz, and Hip Hop, children’s theater and classical orchestra, classical voice, and piano instruction. In 2007, American Voices launched the YES Academies to inspire and motivate youth artistically and personally in areas of the world lacking opportunities for cultural exchange and dialogue with the U.S. Perhaps most importantly, we further strive to build bridges of mutual understanding among our participants of both gender, especially in nations where youth are separated by religious, ethnic, linguistic and political divides.

Each day in the field, as American teachers and volunteers, we confront our own challenges and uncertainties and dig deep for the patience it requires to facilitate multi-lingual, cross-cultural collaboration with students representing a broad spectrum of ability and training. Motivated by our own personal reasons, we fight injustice by navigating the underlying chaos of conflict, bureaucracy, limited resources, graft, substandard facilities and equipment and grueling travel schedules to create continued opportunities for our most talented students here and back in the States. But it is our student’s stories that haunt us and our sacrifices seem small in comparison with the real risks our students take to pursue something they love. Our students from Mosul are not allowed to be photographed or filmed because if news about their involvement in the arts were made public, their lives and that of their families would be in danger. In 2008, our teachers discovered that the most talented ballerina from Iraq’s Camp Unity, a child of 10, had been killed along with her entire family in Baghdad by extreme religious conservatives when a neighbor reported that she was involved in dance; for such stories, I find there are no words.

YES Academies have been conducted worldwide in languages including Kurdistani, Arabic, Urdu, Thai, French and English. Our students may speak different tongues but the language of beauty and creativity is shared and during the magic of the performance we are all on the same page buoyed by our new friendships and changed forever in ways we can only begin to imagine. In my second year as a member of this merry band of teachers and volunteers, I am amazed each time at each of the many tiny personal, organizational and artistic successes. This year our street dancers, many of whom have never taken a formal class and who have long standing rivalries, explored and then collaborated to teach their original choreography together. In another class, a pianist who moved us with his expressive rendition of a Chopin composition couldn’t explain how he had progressed from almost square one last year with limited access to a piano.

If I were a betting woman, I would put my money on the drive and passion that comes from not taking these opportunities for granted. Long term human development challenges like poverty can take generations to alleviate. But human expression through music, dance, poetry and theater, and the possibilities they allow for cultural and individual liberty, allows us joy and comfort along the way no matter our personal circumstances. Our students are so hungry for the knowledge that is otherwise not available and this is a place where my beaten up beginner oboe method book and a new reed are received like long-lost treasure to be used in isolation with newly learned skills until we return. American Voices also helps to facilitate donations of scores and instruments and on any given day our teachers can be found fixing a saxophone or violin.

At the close of this year’s first Academy of Summer 2010, as we rested from the spontaneous folk dancing that celebrated our shared experience, they implored us, in a common refrain, to return. We come each year, not to change the over 3,200 friends and collaborators we have made in Afghanistan, Belarus, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Syria and Thailand even as we are deeply altered ourselves, but only to offer opportunities through the arts by providing the skills and training they crave to make their own way in the world. American Voices and countless other cultural organizations in the field whose bread and butter is cultural exchange aren’t just feeding the soul. These programs train the next generation of cultural leaders often leading to income through teaching jobs and continuity through the development of new training schools. Measuring our impact is not always possible numerically but seeing the reflected joy on their faces and sharing the music of our hearts, despite all the chaos, danger and uncertainty, is a profoundly beautiful thing.

1 comment:

  1. Aimee,

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful post. I now understand exactly what you're doing and why you are there. It is really unbelievable to think that these children and their families are risking their lives to learn and participate in the arts. But, this fact reflects a steady light of hope and beauty that cannot be burnt out. No matter what's at stake, our humanity guides us towards the arts.