American Voices’ Executive Director John Ferguson

Years ago, cultural diplomacy largely meant “performing the nation” to audiences abroad. Cultural diplomacy scholar Jessica Gienow-Hecht considers this monologic approach as the main political function of touring musicians of yesteryear: “A state-sponsored guest is a way of saying adsumI am present.”

Today, reciprocity and programs with an emphasis on local development are on the rise.

As Sharon Memis, former Director of the British Council USA, put it, “Entering each room by saying ‘there you are’ instead of ‘here I am’ is essential to building credibility, and ultimately, trust.” Similarly, in recent years at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, “engaging with the world” has replaced the old USIA motto “telling America’s story to the world.”

American Voices, an organization that has engaged in this kind of work since 1993, is at the forefront of this movement. It also now administers the ECA’s American Music Abroad program. American Voices was selected by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy as a “Top Ten Best Practices Organization.” AV Founder and Executive Director John Ferguson recently answered some of my more burning questions regarding the nonprofit’s arts-based cultural diplomacy work abroad.

avSS: I understand American Voices works with aspiring young musicians in countries emerging from conflict and teaches them to play at a more professional level. What does it mean to these youth to work with professional American musicians? What impact have you seen from a public diplomacy perspective?

JF: I believe it is hard for anyone who has never been to a nation such as Iraq, Sudan or East Timor, nations emerging from conflict and isolation, to understand the effect this isolation has on the performing arts and the young generation of artists. All the touring performances, visiting professors, masterclasses, and well-stocked libraries that we take for granted in the G-20 countries are not available to audiences in countries perceived as dangerous.

So when someone does come to share knowledge, skills, performances and materials, as we did in 2007 as the first foreign musicians to visit the Kurdistan region of Iraq, we were hailed as a kind of rock star. Even in countries like Pakistan where there is significant negative feeling towards the U.S. over our policy in Afghanistan or our drones in the NW of the country, those attitudes melt away when U.S. specialists bring skills and expertise in genres that the youth are desperate for training in Broadway, Hip Hop, Rock, and DJing.

So these extended visits (we do not do one-offs as a general rule) have enormous and lasting impact.

Imagine you were a break dancer in Baghdad, learning to dance from YouTube videos, and suddenly there is a teacher to work with you and your crew over 12 days, 10 hours per day, giving you exactly the kind of training that can only be transmitted live and in person. We have seen our training stimulate theater groups, hip hop crews, rock bands, etc to create new work, try new things (such as actually singing the Broadway songs in a show and not lip-synching in Pakistan) and in general move things up a notch or two in the local performing arts community.

I think it is also a mistake for us to assume from watching western news reports that there is not cultural life in countries such as these – we are constantly surprised by the amount of performing arts activity we find in nations in or emerging from conflict.

From a public diplomacy perspective, there are significant benefits – first of all, overwhelming media coverage from TV, radio, press, bloggers and social media amplifies the message that there is more to America than its (locally unpopular) foreign policies. It allows all involved to drop the current media narratives and focus on what we have in common as artists and human beings.

From an educational perspective, the kids we meet are like sponges and soak up everything we have to offer. It spoils us for a return to the often blasé atmosphere on university and music school campuses in the West.

We also run long-term scholarship programs in the U.S. designed to get kids from Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and other difficult regions into degree programs and receive the training they need to go back and help train the next generation of teachers and performers. We currently have six students on scholarships in the U.S.

SS: In your work, either with the YES Academy or in administering American Music Abroad, how have you been able to successfully leverage local or regional resources to achieve your program goals?

JF: Having strong local partners is a key to success – we have worked closely with local government, NGO and business community partners as both sponsors and co-presenters / co-organizers. In Iraq, for example, we receive significant funding each year from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil to cover local transportation, food and housing costs for our 250+ participants.

In our first American Music Abroad tour (AMA) we had a fantastic partner in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) who had the local knowledge to partner our touring band with very innovative and professional young Filipino bands. They also arranged a series of workshops for existing high school rock bands. Without their local knowledge we would have had a much less effective program.

University and/or Festival partners are often key to the success of our YES Academy programs – recent programs such as YES Iraq partnered with University of Duhok for facilities, equipment, transportation and faculty and student housing. In Malaysia, YES Academy Penang partnered with the George Town Festival who handled all registration, administration and housing / transportation for the students allowing us to focus on the program. So we work closely with local partners wherever possible.

SS: In your experience as a practitioner, how has current cultural diplomacy changed since the end of the USIA, or since the early 2000s?

JF: It has gone from what I call a Cold-War model to a Post 9/11 model. Before, much–but not all–of such programs focused on bringing a group in for one-off performances and workshops in a touring setting. The presentations and the interactions were more formal and less time was allowed for the people-to-people element.

For the past 10 years or so, I like to think that we have been important in helping shape the shift to a new model that is more interactive and based on longer-term programs with follow up. Cases in point are our Jazz Bridges, Hiplomacy and YES Academy programs.

SS: What are some traits of the most successful arts-based cultural diplomacy practiced today?

JF: Just as in the airline business where low-cost model has taken over the market, I think cultural orgs working in cultural diplomacy need to be nimble, flexible, globalized, well-connected, low-cost and interested in partnerships with both performance and educational elements rather than just performing opportunities.

Organizations need to understand the changes in how to best connect to you: for example, that hip hop is now the global progressive language of youth. 

Nations want not only a performance with a visiting youth orchestra from the US, but also help establishing a youth orchestra of their own. So US orgs need to understand the situation on the ground where they are going, partner and reach out to as many local partners as possible and set up a very big tent where possible.

Also, patience and daring are required in equal measure. Working in cultures where things come together at the last minute can be challenging for citizens of countries where arts events are planned a year in advance. Embrace the spontaneity and what we perceive as chaos.

av2SS: What specific evaluation metrics does American Voices use to determine its programs’ success? How useful do you find these evaluation methods in determining future programming?

JF: We evaluate every large scale YES Academy we produce. The evaluations are helpful to see where the youth and their parents’ expectations are being met, where they are being challenged and growing, and to see where we can do better with infrastructure such as dorms, meals, and transport.  

SS: Why are Country, Hip Hop, Broadway and Jazz among the best musical genres to communicate America’s nation brand to the rest of the world?

JF: These are the genres that grow out of the American experience, the melting pot of ethnicities, ideas, histories and backgrounds, and have huge resonance overseas. It doesn’t hurt that these genres also have a strong commercial component and get heard by and promoted to a global audience.

However, I think the genres that have resulted from the interaction of African-American cultures and other US traditions have the most strength and appeal globally. Jazz was the first genre to take the world by storm, then Rock, Broadway and Hip Hop. Country is strong too, but not everywhere. It seems to have most followers in Asia for some reason.

SS: How could American cultural institutions do more to help fill the public diplomacy gap around the world?

JF: It would be great if every major institution committed to one cultural exchange program every year – even if it only meant that the Houston Symphony send a quartet to Kazakhstan, and then brought a quartet to Houston. There are some many corners of the planet that go completely ignored – so orgs need to get their minds off of the G-20 countries and look at the map and create exchanges with nations that really need the contact with the outside world.

Our educational institutions also have the capacity to do much good at very low cost. To send a string quartet of university professors to teach in Moldova or Paraguay in the summer would not cost all them much and could be a great recruiting and fundraising tool for the university. I think there is the most unused capacity for cultural diplomacy in the higher education sector.

Please consider donating to American Voices. You can learn more about the YES Academies and AV’s other programs here, or watch this Voice of America report on the 2012 YES Academy Thailand:

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