International Jazz Day - On Global Outreach

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Regarding the global outreach, it is such an inspiring and enlightening experience to connect with people all over the world - literally in every single country - especially with those who are in countries with political, financial or security challenges.

 

So many countries lack basic logistics like steady electricity, running water or internet - let alone cultural institutions - so we try to call anyone who can play jazz and spread the word. Traditionally, UNESCO only reaches out to their 'official' partners - National Commissions or Ministries of Education by blast/mass emails. But this outreach has been aimed at the grassroots level. Our strategy is to make personal calls to individuals to create relationships and partnerships in jazz clubs, restaurants, cafes, hotels, sports clubs, race tracks, frankly, anyone who has a sound system and can tap into the local community. It is like running a campaign - you find one positive person, and that person will most likely have friends who will be positive, and that connects you to one or two more people, then they will connect you to their contacts, and so on. This is how it has been growing - one call and one person at a time.

There was so much skepticism from everyone going into this outreach. Everyone at told us that there is no way we would get the 'difficult' and conflict ridden countries - that trying to get 196 countries was too ambitious and there would be no point. People were also in doubt since no other U.N. Day necessarily aims to get every single country to celebrate an international day, especially in the conflict zones, famine areas or in the Fragile States. It seemed implausible that we would be able to really, actually, get people in every single country to participate. But it happened - through tons of obsessive late-late night and early morning calls, literally waking up and falling asleep with a list of countries under the pillows of our 2 person team last year (with 3 of us this year).

I have to say that it has been a truly incredible revelation that the people in the most distraught and ignored countries were the most enthusiastic and appreciative of our calls. And they understood the message of Jazz Day more than anyone else in the world.

It is difficult to describe in words just how deeply moved I was talking to many of these courageous people who are trying to keep music alive in some of these places. So many people, in places like Niger, Mali, Myanmar, Iran and Iraq, thanked us for thinking of them and recognizing them as someone worthy of partnership. They said no one ever gets in touch with them from the outside with this kind of initiative. They get plenty of calls for interviews to talk about poverty, conflict and war, but never about including them in a global celebration.

A manager of a music cafe in Niger, for example, thanked us profusely for not forgetting about his people and the artists in his country, breathlessly saying that when there is so much strife and poverty, people forget that the human spirit needs music, culture and beauty, just as much as food and water. He said that even when there is no food, there will always be music. He said he fights everyday to keep culture alive despite the odds and that international support and recognition from us gives him credibility on the ground to keep fighting. I cried when I spoke to him.

Another example is Iran. I spent weeks trying to get official support to organize a performance in Teheran, and no one wanted to get involved because you need an official permit from the Ministry of Culture to do any kind of musical performance and it can become very complicated and potentially politically risky. I was able to get in touch with many young musicians in Teheran who wanted to play for Jazz Day but could not find a venue. After many failed attempts to find hosts at a diplomatically sanctioned venue, it was
decided to do a gathering of musicians to talk about jazz and jazz history.

This was similar to what happened in Syria. It was at the height of the conflict last Spring, and the main musician who lead the Jazz Day efforts spent hours talking to me about how he had to be careful in not having too much visibility of his 'event' because he did not want the government to become aware of it. He said that the government could use his Jazz Day event as propaganda to the West to show that everything was peaceful and working well in Damascus and that artists are happy and active. There was so much paranoia in the air, everyone I spoke to there was so scared that it was difficult at times for me to even understand the true context and the real risks, but we managed to help them do a screening event of the Jazz Day concert.

What has also been moving is that everywhere I have called, people knew about jazz, about Herbie Hancock, and about the history of jazz. More than the fact that it is a UNESCO event, they were amazed that Herbie Hancock's people were calling them and came up with very original and symbolic events.

Some of the islands in the Pacific, for example, celebrated Jazz Day with the rising sun, since they are the first ones to begin Jazz Day on the planet. They organized a welcoming of the day ceremony in the early morning hours on the beach, then proceeded to do an all day musical event with local musicians. So beautiful.

Reaching out to Somalia, the last example I will write to you about, was like reaching out into the twilight zone. In Mogadishu, as you know, there is no government, no official network, no clubs, no bars, no cafes except for very religious ones, and no music allowed. I called hotels run by expats, conference halls, the U.N., and no one responded. I started to call places in Somaliland, figuring they must be more open than in Mogadishu. I found a hotel with a 'lounge', thinking they must be able to play foreign music if they are playing music at all. I must have spoken to every single person who works there over a dozen times. They laughed when they heard I was calling from Paris, and calling about music. They were so entertained. They brought in their friends on our calls because they had never spoken to anyone outside Somaliland before. I finally spoke to the owner and asked him to play jazz music for the day at his establishment he immediately and nonchalantly said 'oh, no problem', like he was talking to me from around the corner asking to burrow a cup of flour or something completely mundane and ordinary like that. I was stunned how simple and universal talking to people about music was - and realized at that moment that what I was doing should not be considered extraordinary at all. Reaching out to our global neighbors to talk about music - this should be normal. It should be so easy. And it should be happening all the time. I now feel like these guys at the Embassy Hotel in Somaliland are my long time friends now, and can't wait to speak to them again this year (when the lines go through - most times they are not functioning so I have not been able to reach them yet).

We take so much for granted in the Western world that this kind of direct outreach makes you realize just how precious music/culture really is and just how important it is for people, especially in places we expect it the least. The people in these places were the most enthusiastic, and they need our outreach and support the most. Keeping music alive in places like Syria, Iran and Iraq, is about their cultural dignity, basic rights and freedom, and about them being part of a positive global community even when they are shut out politically. In places like Nauru, Kiribati and Vanuatu, it is about feeling like they are included in a global community and recognized as important actors in an international movement.

This work has transformed the way I think about culture and about all of the places we think about the least - and the need for the work of to be truly inclusive of everyone on this planet in a hands-on grass-roots way.

Mika Shino
Director, International Jazz Day Program and Outreach

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