ABC News Praises Erbil Arts Academy: A "Symphony of Hope" in Iraq


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HIP-HOP MUSIC IN IRAQ -- click to watch segment.


July 26, 2007

We look hard for signs of hope in Iraq. And so we were pleasantly surprised when we went to a music festival in Erbil--about 300 Iraqi musicians and dancers had been flown in to the northern city, and were given the run of an enormous performing arts center, courtesy of a grant from the US government. On hand were nine American music and dance teachers, who were giving classes on such subjects as Baroque keyboard technique, hip hop dancing and contemporary jazz. It was fun to see the Iraqi musicians soaking it all in. For 10 days, in the relative safety of Kurdistan, they got to act like most musicians in the rest of the world who don't have car bombs and gunshots constantly disturbing their sense of harmony.

Michael, the hip-hop teacher, was from Texas and very extroverted -- the young Kurds who wanted to learn hip-hop quickly lost all their shyness and inhibitions in the face of his antics. His first task -- to update their musical knowledge. They had been downloading most of their music on their cell phones, which Michael thought was cool -- until he heard it. “There is a definite time lag," he said. “I had an argument about it yesterday. They still feel Michael Jackson is the King of Pop." Once that issue was settled, he began teaching them a robocop dance routine. They loved it.

Other inhibitions melted away. Iraq is in the midst of a bitter sectarian conflict, and today people are usually very slow to socialize outside their own group -- it is a simple matter of safety. At the festival there were Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Arabs, flown or driven in from all over the country. On the first day the organizers noted that people pretty much stuck to their own cliques when they sat down for lunch or gathered in the hallways. But after about 24 hours thrown together in class rooms and the concert hall, religious and ethnic differences began to be pushed aside, as the musicians and dancers found common interest in their craft.

By the end of the festival they had put together what they called a “Unity Orchestra", made up of musicians from various cities around Iraq, who were to give a performance on the final evening to an invited audience. A conductor from Baghdad, Mohammed Amin, said the whole point was “to show that we are still here, that there is still hope for Iraq".

The music festival in Erbil reinforced my sense that, if they are given a modicum of security, Iraqis can lay aside their differences fairly quickly. In the context of today's violence, provoked by some very vicious extremists, that is a pretty massive “if". But as the conductor says, the moderate, non-extremist, non-sectarian majority of Iraqis is still here. And so, there is still hope.

Here is an in-depth interview with American Voices Executive Director John Ferguson.


American Voices will unite five Iraqi Orchestras on one stage, as part of The National Unity Performing and Visual Arts Academy. The Academy -- the first project of its kind in the history of Iraq -- will deliver a cross-cultural experience to nearly 300 of the country's aspiring performers.

American Voices and the U.S. Embassy have transported a faculty of U.S. and European music, dance and theater instructors to Northern Iraq to provide a ten day educational opportunity for young Iraqi artists. In addition to providing free training, American Voices will unite all of Iraq's four orchestras, as well as a newly formed Youth Orchestra, on one stage for a performance at the end of the program.

The academy is a tangible expression of the progress that can be achieved when members of Iraq's artistic community come together for a common purpose. As recently seen in All About Jazz, Musical America, IAJE News, Houston Business Journal and more, and soon to be featured in JazzTimes Magazine and elsewhere, the National Unity Performing and Visual Arts Academy is providing an oasis of calm in which Iraqis can continue their musical / artistic work unimpeded.

Arts educators from the U.S. and Europe have come to Northern Iraq to provide in-depth instruction in Jazz, Classical, Chamber music and more. Dance studies include Ballet, Jazz and Hip Hop, while Theater sessions incorporate selections from popular Broadway shows. The Summer Arts Academy will culminate in a landmark series of gala concerts, open to the public.

The National Unity Performing and Visual Arts Academy is sponsored by U.S. Embassy Baghdad, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Kurdish Regional Government. Participants include: The Baghdad School of Music and Dance, The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, The Symphony Orchestras of Erbil and Suleimanya, National Folk Dancers of Iraq and the Institutes of Fine Arts in Erbil, Suleimanya and Dohuk.

To support this extraordinary, program of music, dance and theater in Northern Iraq, American Voices is seeking donations of instruments, strings, reeds, etc (including a German bassoon.)

American Voices is a Houston, Texas-based not-for-profit organization, created in 1993 by Executive Director John Ferguson. Nearly every international Arts program Ferguson has initiated in the years since has been precedent setting. The original mission of American Voices was to provide quality American cultural programming to the newly open societies of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since then, American Voices' geographic range has grown to encompass eighteen time zones from Peru to the Philippines, with artists performing concerts, workshops and master classes (as well as interactive performance projects) to over 200,000 audience members in 79 countries on five continents. Millions more have been reached through live television and radio broadcasts across the globe.

In February of 2007, Ferguson brought American Voices into the heart of Baghdad for a historic concert held at the Al Rasheed Hotel and sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. The unlikely music and dance program was greeted by a standing ovation from the mostly Iraqi audience. Featuring Vocalist and Dancer Michael Parks Masterson and Ferguson on piano, the concert culminated in a joint performance with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performing a jazz and Broadway repertoire for the first time in its history. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes made an appearance at the concert as well. In fact, the warm response to the Baghdad event inspired the development of the upcoming Summer Arts Academy in Northern Iraq. (See this YouTube link for a view of the orchestra performing Duke Ellington repertoire as introduced to Iraq by American Voices.

More details about the American Voices Summer Performing Arts Academy in Northern Iraq will be announced in the weeks ahead.

American Voices is a not-for-profit organization with incorporation in both the United States and the European Union (The Netherlands). All sponsorship donations are tax deductible under US and EU law.

This story appears courtesy of Seth Cohen PR.
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