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American Voices brings American music around the world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2012 - The international disputes, warfare and political agendas that the U.S. is embroiled in may be controversial. But there is another side of America that other countries on every continent embrace -- American music, dance, theater and the arts.

The deep connection engendered by music and the arts helps bridge barriers of languages and cultural traditions. A belief in the value of sharing our nation's music and arts is the motivating factor behind an organization that now has its home in St. Louis - American Voices.

Founded in 1993 by John Ferguson, the organization was set up as a nonprofit to bring American cultural programming to European countries recently liberated from the Soviet bloc.

American Voices soon expanded into the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the Far East. The organization brought Broadway to Egypt, Lebanon, Vietnam and a host of former Soviet republics for the first time. American Voices also introduced jazz education in Taiwan and Iraq, and it has expanded its efforts to present country, hip-hop and other distinctive American musical styles as well.

Since its inception, American Voices has worked in more than 110 countries, most recently presenting YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academies in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand and other countries.

The organization's roots in St. Louis go back to 2008, and partnerships with Saint Louis University and the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra to bring students from Iraq and Lebanon to study music and English. (Click here to see a trailer for a documentary done on the group's work in Iraq.) 

"This past August, the State Department named American Voices as the administrator of the American Music Abroad program, the Department's flagship cultural diplomacy program," says Paul Rockower, director of communications, as we talk in the back of a south Grand coffee shop along with Marc Thayer, the program's education director. "We're definitely following in the tradition of the Jazz Ambassadors program of the 1950s and Lincoln Center's Rhythm Road, but we're also focusing on American music and arts from a wide range of styles."

Thayer, who has been working part time with American Voices since 2007, resigned from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in May 2011 to work full time with American Voices. It's clearly a program that's close to his heart -- and his visits overseas have only strengthened his desire to connect with other cultures through music and the arts.

"The first trip I made with American Voices was to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in 2007," recalls Thayer. "I've been back every summer since then, and have also been to Palestine and other countries like Morocco to teach music and help with a theater programs and arts academies. It's really true that music, dance and other art forms are universal languages. The arts are a way to connect and communicate -- even when you don't speak the same language."

Thayer has written about his experiences in the Beacon in a series of "Letters From Iraq," as well as describing his experiences entering Gaza through a tunnel to work with Palestinian musicians.

Thayer's memories of these countries focus on the human connections that come about through a common love for music and the arts.

"I think back to my visit to Morocco," recalls Thayer. "And what I remember most is that it seemed like music and art institutes were everywhere. And it was very exciting to see the incredible hunger for learning, especially about all forms of American music, theater and art. It's amazing the impact of hip-hop and break dancing, for example. Sometimes when I'm there I completely forget where I am!"

American Voices recently relocated from Houston to St. Louis, and Rockower was quick to emphasize the reason behind that decision.

"Too often, cultural diplomacy organizations are located only on the east and west coasts," he states. But it's important to bring it to the middle of the country. Marc has done an amazing job reaching out in his travels overseas, but he also has made this a two-way street - bringing musicians from other countries to St. Louis to learn about American music and arts."

For example, the group brought the Moroccan group, the Abdullah El-Miry Trio, to St. Louis in late November so the musicians could interact with bluegrass players.

"We coordinated the interaction of the trio with area bluegrass musicians through Becky Boyer, who plays violin in the symphony, but who has deep roots in traditional folk music. And Phil Dunlap of Jazz St. Louis also helped make connections for us as well. And we're also going to be bringing the Kurdish String orchestra to St. Louis from Iraq this March for similar musical interactions and performances -- both here and in New York," said Thayer.

The St. Louis connection will continue to expand. Nergez, an Iraqi traditional music ensemble made up of American Voices scholarship students at Saint Louis University, has plans to perform in St. Louis and across the U.S.

And in late February, New York and San Francisco will host competitions to choose bands for "American Music Abroad."

The 10 bands chosen will tour countries around the world, representing America and the State Department and supported by U.S. embassies in the nations where they will tour.

"The competition will be closed to the public," says Rockower. "There will be four judges at each location, and one of them will be local to that area. We've had over 300 entries in the competition, over a wide range of American musical genres. We're going to announce the winners on March 8, and we're really looking forward to getting these bands on tour over the next 20 months."

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers music and the local music scene.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.