The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a nice feature on the cultural diplomacy work of American Voices:
Headlines about the Middle East and Asia are usually dominated by stories of war and political confrontations. But in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Gaza and Malaysia, music, art and dance are helping to bring people together.
"It's cultural diplomacy, cultural engagement," says American Voices founder and artistic director John Ferguson, a jazz pianist.
Ferguson, who now lives in Bangkok, a new center for the group's efforts, was living in Paris in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. His trio was called on by the new American embassies in the former Soviet Bloc to perform and work with children there. "It opened up an idea in my head that there was a need out there."
In 1993, he formed American Voices, expanding to bring a variety of teaching and high-quality American cultural programming to countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The organization, which relies on part-time teachers, has since taken its mission around the world, to 110 countries on five continents, reaching hundreds of thousands of people with classes and performances of everything from classical music to hip-hop, Broadway and jazz: "West Side Story" in Vietnam, Broadway classics in Kazakhstan.
"In a lot of these countries," says Ferguson, "there is no music curriculum, no access to trained teachers. We're trying to train students, give them a musical education and help re-establish that curriculum."
Marc Thayer, a violinist and the former head of educational programs at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, went to work full-time for American Voices a year ago as its director of education. He got started with the organization on a part-time basis in summer 2007, when he taught a string orchestra in a two-week academy in northern Iraq.
Since then he's worked in a dozen other countries, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Thailand — and, in December, Gaza, which he had to enter through a tunnel when Egyptian Army guards wouldn't let him through. "It's the only time I've done something a little risky," Thayer says. "It's not how we normally operate."
The organization "normally goes to places where things are very stable," he says. In Iraq, that means Kurdistan, in the country's mountainous northern region. "The south is not as safe." In Lebanon, they stay within Beirut's Green Zone.
The reward, he says, is the fulfillment of teaching students who are hungry to learn, "and seeing the impact you can have on 1,000 people in just two weeks."
The academies typically take place during school breaks in the host country. Some promising students are later able to come to the United States to study. The programming and length of stay in a particular place is largely dictated by the local embassy's cultural attaché. Still, there's always an element of both teaching and performance, and both American and local artists take part. The funding comes largely from a U.S. State Department grant, with some corporate funding, foundation grants and individual gifts.
There is a constant need for music and instruments. Alfred Publishing has given hundreds of musical scores, student materials and teaching guides — "tons and tons of materials," says Thayer. "We donate as many instruments as we can, reeds, mouthpieces, strings, whatever we can get."
With Ferguson in Bangkok and Paul Rockower, the director of communications, in Washington, American Voices is "de facto" centered in St. Louis, says Thayer, where he and Jeremy Idleman, the director of operations, are based.
Thayer is gearing up for an academy beginning next month in Thailand. With support from the American embassy there, students will come from countries including Burma, Malaysia, Pakistan, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Thayer says he hasn't encountered political problems.
"We're not going there to promote American culture," he says. "We're sharing ours and learning about theirs. We have a lot more in common than differences. Music and art are a great way to realize that, to realize that we can work together."
American Voices Student Profile: Rebin Ali
American Voices educational director Marc Thayer has been able to bring several students from the Middle East to study here, with the expectation that they'll go home and work in their own countries.
One is Rebin Ali, 21, from Kurdistan.
Ali took part in an American Voices string orchestra academy in 2008. He began his studies at St. Louis University in 2010, and is now half-time at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as well. He studies violin with Thayer (who also teaches students in Gaza and Syria every week via Skype), and plays in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and SLU's string orchestra.
"It has made a huge difference in my life," Ali says. "I have a chance to live in another culture; I have a huge opportunity music-wise, with great teachers, a very good youth orchestra, things I couldn't have at home."
He says he's impressed by American generosity. "Here, when someone knows you want to do something, and you have potential, they want to help you. I'm surprised by how good people here are to me. These people like Marc, and (pianist) Vera Parkin — they are very, very helpful. They do these things for nothing."
Ali plans to teach. "At home, there is lots of talent, lots of potential, but a huge lack of teachers."
At SIUE, Ali is learning Suzuki teaching methods. "In Kurdistan, nobody is teaching by this method; I'll be the first one. And all of this was because of American Voices, especially Marc."