Marcus Eley, a clarinetist based in Los Angeles, California, renowned for his performances and lectures on the classical music of African Americans, has represented the U.S. as a cultural ambassador on several state-sponsored tours in China and South Africa.
In fact, Eley’s latest CD, But Not Forgotten, came together while he was performing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, three years ago. It is a compilation of fine works for clarinet and piano by African-American composers. “One of the things I wanted to do in this recording is salute the unsung heroes of music composition – people who are African American,” Eley explained in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “This recording is dedicated to those composers that I’ve had the pleasure of working with or that I’ve admired over the years.”
In February 2013, Eley will return to South Africa to perform as an invited guest at the Darling Music Experience Classical Festival.
S.S.: Marcus, thank you for joining Arts Diplomacy Network for this chat! You’ve given performances and lectures on the music of African-American classical composers in many places around the world–Hungary, Japan, Australia, China and South Africa, to name just a few. In how many of these instances did you consider yourself to be acting as an official U.S. arts envoy?
M.E.: Whenever I am invited to perform or present a talk abroad, I feel I am representing the United States whether it is in an official role or not. Many times my appearance will be the only time an audience will meet an American performing artist or African American. There is much truth to the adage that “you get one chance to make a good impression.” This is especially true when an international audience sees you as the “spokesperson” of all things American. I do my best to remember that. Also, I refrain from any discussion on the host country’s politics.
S.S.: In 1991 you traveled to China to present lectures and performances on African-American contributions to American music, sponsored by the [now defunct] United States Information Agency. What goals were attached to these events?
M.E.: My goal while in China was to open avenues of understanding as it related to African-American culture. I accomplished this by presenting talks where I used visuals, pre-recorded samples and live music. I was fortunate that the State Department provided a simultaneous translator who assisted me in my presentations. Having a translator made it easy to explain how metaphors or hidden messages were used in Negro Spirituals and freedom songs, double entendres of the Blues and music of the Civil Rights movement. My presentations were made available to Chinese teachers of English, music teachers, university students and anyone interested in learning more about American culture.
I tried to make my presentations lively and entertaining. I remember trying to explain syncopated rhythms to a group of Chinese teachers. I played an example of a Blues tune then clapped the off-beats. The audience tried but they seemed to always clap on the downbeat. One attendee stood, clapped all the beats, and took a bow. Everyone in the room laughed and so did I. By making a human connection, I knew I had won over the audience.
S.S.: How did your invitation to perform in Johannesburg, South Africa, come about, and what was your experience like there as a musical ambassador?
M.E.: I was an invited performing artist at the National Arts Festival [in Grahamstown]. In fact, my performances were sponsored in part by the American Embassy in Johannesburg. Because of that relationship, they arranged several workshops for me in Soweto and Johannesburg.
There is a kind of desperate call from young South Africans wanting to meet positive African-American role models. Most perceptions about African Americans in South Africa are influenced by images that are sold by television and films but as the world becomes so much smaller through the internet and other forms of social media, an increasingly younger generation of South Africans is beginning to look for successful African-American models—much of this is also influenced by the Obama phenomenon.
S.S.: How have different international audiences received you and your presentations of the music of African-American composers?
M.E.: From my experience with international audiences, I have not noticed or received any negative responses. The audiences have been very respectful and appreciative. Of course, if English is not spoken, then there is obviously a language challenge. I hope my selection of music and performance will bridge that gap. I know I have made a connection when I get a smile or foot tap.
Also, I find there is always a level of curiosity and courtesy. Audiences want to be entertained yet they are curious about this “stranger” in their country. “Is he is like the African Americans I see on the music videos? Will I like his music?” Again, my clue is a smile or foot tap. As far as “courtesy,” that happens after the presentation when someone will say, “Thank you and welcome. I hope you will enjoy my country’s hospitality. Please come again.”
S.S.: How do you get to the smiles and foot taps? What do you do to engage foreign audiences in a meaningful way?
M.E.: I feel the best way to engage an audience is to find some commonality. For me, music is that vehicle. I will usually select music that paints a “sound” picture – something that will leave a lasting impression. Also, I find talking before and during the performance removes the invisible barrier between the performer and audience.
S.S.: Thank you, Marcus, for sharing your experiences as a musical ambassador. And finally, in your opinion, what should every American musician know before they perform abroad?
M.E.: I believe it is important to have an outgoing personality. Remember whatever you do or say will be perceived as a view from America. Always smile. Be respectful of the country’s traditions. Finally, concentrate on the one element that transcends language – music.