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Jammin’ Across Cultural Divides

The Caravaan Narrative

At some point in my development as a musician I heard an interview with John Cage who referenced this quote “The purpose of music is to sober and quite the mind, thus making it susceptible to greater influences”. This quote has continually come back to me over the years though through my various experiences, its significance and meaning for me have transformed many times. Looking back, the things that most influenced me as a musician, were my performance experiences that involved music and musicians from various cultures and for diverse audiences across cultures that deepened my own humanity and understanding of class, race, poverty, injustice… or the world I suppose one could say.

The concept of music sobering and quieting the mind and making it susceptible to greater influences returned to me many times over the years, but it wasn’t until I was living in Mexico City in the late 90s and performing in a jazz band that I experienced the significance of this idea in the way audiences received music. We were playing in the rural town of Tasco at the annual “Feria de la Plata” or Festival of Silver. It was a week¬-long event that brought culture from all over Mexico, including theater, literary events, dance and concerts. We were the only band performing jazz and it seemed to truly captivate and generate a large audience. I had been playing with this band for nearly a year, rehearsing consistently as well as performing at a steady 3 nights a week gig at a club in Mexico City. I was struck by the performance that night in Tasco, because we had witnessed many other bands performances, but it seemed that when we started playing that night, the fair kind of quieted down and most of the fair goers were watching and listening to us. I remember thinking, “OK so we’ve quieted minds, so what and where are the greater influences”? Was it just the music? Could we have done more to provide other influences?

I moved to Uganda in 2002, it was the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, more than 26 million people had the disease and few had treatment in Africa. Uganda was among the hardest hit countries. I was heading there with a partner who would be working on addressing the epidemic but something gave me the feeling that music could be important in this milieu: if nothing else, as a way to quiet the suffering minds and bodies, perhaps, as I realized later, a more potent tool in the fight for treatment access.

As is often the case, my work in Uganda unfolded serendipitously. En route to my new home, I happened to meet a bass player in London’s Heathrow airport who was headed back to Uganda. His name was Nick McWiggin and he had raised money among the expatriate community in Kampala, to buy an upright bass to bring back to Uganda where he was living and playing in a band. When he learned that I was moving to Kampala and played guitar, he invited me to come by and sit in at a weekly nightclub gig they had. Having played in a Senegalese band that won the Boston Music Awards in 1994, I was quite excited to expand my knowledge and repertoire of African music and to further explore the rich experience I had playing in cross cultural situations. When I went to hear the band I was surprised to hear not only African music, but that they were also playing some jazz standards. After sitting in with them a couple of times they asked me to join the band. I was somewhat hesitant, but the band members shared a point that I had experienced—that playing songs from another culture (in their case Jazz) broadened their view. They convinced me that by sharing my knowledge of Jazz with them, it would provide them with a unique skill in Kampala that they would sustain once I left and it would make them better musicians.

So, I joined this diverse group: a Ugandan keyboardist and drummer, a Congolese guitarist, and Nick playing upright bass and we became quite good in short order. The, “Kampala Jazz All-stars” became well known in the capital. We played at nearly every national holiday, for international embassies and at many local festivals. I learned about their rhythms and melodies, their local drums and other instruments, and I collaborated in writing some Afro-Jazz fusion with Godfrey the keyboard player. At the same time, I taught them a broad variety of jazz, from John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to Pat Metheny and Chick Corea and they learned it with amazing ease.

The importance of the cultural exchange through music is evident to many. In the summer of 2003, I was encouraged to write a grant to the US State department by then US Ambassador Jimmy Kolker. We were awarded the grant which enabled us to do a tour of the country to bring “jazz”, an African American art form, to Africa. At the end of the tour we wrapped up with a series of concerts at the National Theater in Kampala.

It was on this tour that Cages’ quote returned to me. The number of people that showed up to hear our music which was totally foreign to them, was staggering to me. I put together an extremely diverse repertoire for us to play. I was aware that some of my choices would be way outside of the comfort zone for many of the audience in the places we were going. One of the tunes I chose for this very purpose was an Ornette Coleman tune Broadway Blues and performed in the “outside” jazz style which is dissonant by design. Teaching the band to play “outside” jazz was challenging enough, but to go out into the districts and perform it was a real stretch. I spent a decent amount of time preparing the audience for many of the tunes we played and in the case of Broadway Blues I really tried to get them to understand my objective, which was to expose them to some of the most “fringe” music. Regardless, every time we performed it, most of the audience would leave their seats and take a little break. Once we began playing something a little more accessible to them, they would return. This didn’t surprise me, nor did it keep me from continuing to perform it. There were a few people that would remain in the audience and my philosophy was that if I could influence even a few people to listen to something so foreign, it was an accomplishment.

During my 2 years of living in Uganda, I had heard quite a bit about the conditions in the north of Uganda where the Lords Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony had forced 1.4 million people into Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps. Though it was common knowledge that it was not a place to visit due to ambushes and battles with the Ugandan army. In the summer of 2004 the Kampala Jazz All Stars was invited to perform in the IDP camp and join in a youth camp in solidarity with the IDP residents in Soroti. It brought youth from all of the surrounding countries to come together and visit and work in the camps, to discuss the conditions and work together on methods of conflict resolution and reconciliation. This camp was not in the most dangerous area in Uganda so we accepted. I applied for a small grant from the US Embassy to take the Jazz All-Stars to the IDP camp and perform for the residents offering a day of respite through music. When we arrived and set up the stage, Cages quote returned to me and I thought, why not bring health organizations in to set up in the periphery of the crowd and deliver aid and services.
Through serendipitous events a USAID AIDS project called AIDS Integration Model (AIM) was engaged in a conference that day with all of their local health partners. I found this event and spoke to an organizer about my idea. They offered me the microphone at the end of the lunch hour to address all of the attendees. I invited anyone interested to come and utilize this opportunity to reach a large number of residents as well as address them with the PA at breaks. The Ugandan Red Cross and The AIDS Support Organization were the only 2 to attend the following day. But at the end of the concert, the representative from TASO approached me. He thanked me for an incredible experience. He stated that he normally did one or two AIDS tests in a day but that he had brought 200 test kits that day and a large number of community health workers to provide the necessary counseling and he ran out of his 200 tests before the music stopped. He was genuinely astounded. He said he felt sure that the music had provided a level of de-stigmatization that allowed residents who would never normally publically announce they were taking an AIDS test to stand in a line nearly 100 people long together waiting to be tested. I had finally found the meaning I had been seeking for those many years to Cages quote.

You can view images and read about our pilot initiative in Soroti HERE