Interview Jeremy Thal
I was starting with gardening and building a community. When I moved to New York I had met Chris Marianetti co-founder of our organiser. He worked for a music programme Bang on a Can which is essentially for composers and performers for new music – contemporary classical. It is a very creative place – pushing the boundaries of classical music and how it can feel fresh and exciting. We became friends and Eleanor the co-director.
I wanted to be involved in the creative community with the kids in the neighbourhood – the same way I did in Chicago where I worked with youth organisations and immigrant rights organisations because I went to College there.
New York I didn’t have that network but we slowly started working with various schools and initially in the Bronx where he went in with his recording setup a couple of headphones and speakers one microphone and they made beats rapped told stories poetry because the rule was that everything had to be recorded in the classroom. The music that came out of that seemed very interesting and was an idea that needed to be continued. I got involved and we started working in high schools, getting these kids to express themselves, put themselves out there collaborate. There are a lot of life skills, learning how to step up and step back.
We were also doing work in juvenile detention centres. There was kind of an inter-cultural exchange within New York City from kids in Kinasi growing up with hip hop to the Indian classical community to people playing jazz and classical music. There are all these different cultural worlds that don’t usually interact in positive ways.
And there is a very repressive justice system which is racist, so in that context we are trying to create egalitarian spaces where different parts of the system can meet on equal terms where now we are responsible to one another in the creation of something original.
We are co-creating something. We are working something out. And using that as a bridge between cultures was born with high school kids.
Manuel Bogorro who started the HIFA festival started this programme at Carnegie Hall. He is based in New York but he goes back t Harare every year to work on the festival. He was a big champion f our early projects and a great guy. He invited us to HIFA in 2010. He brought us to Harare to do a similar project. We brought in professional musicians and poets from Zimbabwe, It was a conglomeration. Manuel put us all together in this group and let us make something. It was the first time we were working with people of very different experience and ability. Blessing Chimango was in the band when he was 19. He has gone on to be a superstar. We made this abstract piece about HIV stigma. That was our first foray into bridging our work with high school kids and professionals. That was the bridge between youth work and cross cultural collaboration with professional artists. And that is what we wanted.
The after school youth programme was beautiful but not the thing we were most interested in.
If you are in a space of co-creation you have access to each other’s fundamental humanity that isn’t always accessible if you are in the role you are playing in society. If facilitated correctly and the stage is best in the right way. Music is a great way of doing this in that it is fast in the terms of the time to make something and that it happens in the moment. The notion is you can bridge a gap in class position, incarcerated or not, young old differences in race and income and in my experience if done in the right way it goes away in the moment that we are creating something we are coming up with something we are creative beings – we are imaginative. You don’t see the whole imaginative capacity of people until you are imagining things with them in real time.
We have done a lot of projects. 3 weeks in Zim in 2010. There was another project organised by Kyla Rosa Smith – Here be Dragons project. Every place we have been have informed the work in different ways. The fundamentals are the same everywhere and in any urban area across the entire globe and definitely including the US has the same issues. What we find is that all the musicians that come from various countries to Onebeat are all struggling with this thing how do you reconcile the situation and continue to be an artist and conscious and active voice.
The fundamental principle gets down to the fundamental nature of capitalism – because of the nature of the system there is always going to be an under-class. Is music a bridge or a palliative in the sense that we consume art and give some music lessons to poor kids and then art has served the purpose of making it seem better. Or, is art an agent of change that addresses the fundamental nature of the problem. I think we are addressing the latter, a movement for social justice and actual societal change. Part of what needs to happen in that movement is something that needs an essential vitamin that is provided by artistic process. One of the elements of that is connection, another is inspiration getting people to dance and sing and move and feel and think. If you want to have solidarity you need to have trust and a sense of camaraderie and that you are in the same space and tome of the creative universe as someone else. For someone else who is in a different place in society you build solidarity with them through making music together. You go much faster to a place of understanding.
The Surge is a funny example because humans are very difficult to work with especially artists. The challenge is lets fight about it and then we will form this community from that conversation. The way we did it this year is there is always forming of ensembles. My personal belief is once you get above 5 people it gets a bit tricky. Great collaborative ensembles of 10 or 12 are rare. I like to break people down into smaller groups. We set the initial vibe through feeder games and warm ups and trust falls getting people into a space that is open and creative and in a state of childlike wonder. And then we put people into groups. There are so many ways do it. Literally randomness works almost as well as any other method. This particular group I chose Serge Jano and Mandla and put them in a group together because if I put them in any other group they would take over because they are all strong personalities. I put them in a room together and normally I would go in a coach but I couldn’t because they were just yelling at each other. The volume was very loud and I thought I had made a terrible mistake for about a day and then I realised after fighting for a three hour rehearsal they went and ate together. And when they gave a performance for the rest of the group it was amazing, the vibe you felt on stage was already there. They had created an energetic baby from their fighting and became life-long friends. Nationality and religion and all these things are very secondary to personality and aesthetics.
And then Medi joined the band. And that energy started pulling in people. And I joined the band because I realised they needed facilitation help and could benefit from a lower horn part. Helie was attracted and started singing rap. Asana joined from another group. And it formed organically.
Ladama was a slightly different. I was in a similar situation with the Brazilian and Columbian percussionist. It was a hit. It didn’t continue. And then they brought in Maria and formed a band later. And that doesn’t happen that much. So many great bands were gone as soon as people had to fly home.
Surge was hip and had a vibe and Mandla wanted to bring it to the festival and it was cool.
Not too many journalists have covered us in America. We were once included in Tom Cobin’s waste book – a republican politician – one of the 100 most wasteful federal programmes. It was lumped together with a programme that was massaging bunnies. But it didn’t get noticed enough for anyone in congress to strike the programme. And within the state department it is popular and various embassies like it because it is as good way for them to have positive PR. The State department is trying to have a positive relationship with the people in the country which they work with. And they understand the value. When it comes to the political appointees! It has been difficult for a long of people in the state department. We were lucky.
Now we have a new secretary of state.
It was part of Hilary Clinton Secretary of State – part of her soft power initiative. Bush Jnr also funded a lot of cultural policy programmes. I have heard that Republicans tend to fund more cultural programmes then democrats.
State department initiated programme : to bring artists from different countries together to make music and workshops. We came up with a lot of the structure a residency and an tour and the involvement of American alumni. It has developed ...
The basic structure was there we added 25 people, so we said at least 5 out of 25 would be US citizens. The programme is unthinkable without that to have the Americans like Heilie in the mix. They are always from diverse groups and the most talented people that apply.
People’s view of America tends to shift by playing with Americans and realising that it is a diverse country with lots of different ideas and aesthetics. And that is the real beauty of public diplomacy. At some level it is about furthering the agenda of the State Department and therefore the Federal Government but I don’t believe that is the role of state diplomacy. I believe the role is affecting the non governmental people of society very positively. That has some long term beneficial effect on the relationship between people generally. And see the complex eco-system that is the society. Same with America you can see the nuance, the humour and struggle inherent in the country.
It does have an appeal across the party line because Onebeat is not political it is just about love and appreciation. All the goals that are listed left over from the Obama administration; women empowerment, youth engagement and countering violent extremism – these are the things that we are tasked to do and they are so big – what we are doing is let’s have a community connection.
Onebeat has a formula for cultural diplomacy and as a concept and a template for a creative experience musical residency, educational model it is totally replicable. You can set it up anywhere and it would take on different forms.
Onebeat is expensive with the cost of flying and accommodation for that time is expensive. It is meant to be short term. The Onebeat experience is a one month intense crash course accelerator incubator. It is not meant to be something you exist in for that long. But how do we set people up for success in terms of making a living and setting up a social engagement practice where they are from. And that is an open question. We are doing more fund raising for follow on projects. There are so many brilliant ideas. My hope is that a big donor will come along so we can climb into some ideas.
Musical facilitation is the job of being a good musical producer – someone to set up rte right atmosphere and culture of an egalitarian co-creation as opposed to a top down creation where I write the notes and you play them. Authoritarian works in music with a conductor and 60 people is not what we want to do. It takes a certain kind of skill to work with a group and create the right environment for that to happen. I feel I am learning that skill and it is a skill that a lot of great musicians have, but it is not necessarily valued enough. How do you get all the people to do something together that makes them feel they are respected and their talents are used? In business people do this a lot because their productivity in terms depends on this. In the capitalist context it is about selling more. But the context we are thinking about is how can we create peaceful co-existence on the planet. What I have been thinking about for a number of years is writing a handbook on musical co-creation for musical facilitation. The other way is people who have lived through those experiences go back to their communities and bring that approach to their community.
A lot of the inspiration goes back to the kids in the beginning from learning from those 15 year old kids they taught me the value of the cipher. It brings us back t Africa the tradition of standing in a circle and trading whether it comes to rapping, clapping, dancing, singing – the circle cipher is critical to hip hop culture and it is critical to Onebeat. It is a synthetic thing where we are taking on a lot of traditions. But those kids at the juvenile detention centres it was like a spirit of mutual support and in the nature of the true folk tradition of hip hop there is an incredible amount of solidarity which you don’t get in the conservatory.
Interview Kyla Smith
Hear Be Dragons is a community-based education and creative arts initiative that brings together groups of urban youth people to map the sonic landscape of their lives. sharing these with one another and the public through experimental sound, music and interdisciplinary performance works. This unique experiential education project encourages youth to explore sound as a tool to investigate the world around them and as an artistic medium to express quality of life, perception of history and memory and notions of identity, place, and time. This project maps the aural landscape and explores the unknown as a means of liberating awareness and access to rapidly transforming neighbourhoods and cities around the world.
The title Hear Be Dragons plays on the medieval saying “here be dragons,” which denoted unchartered territories – often believed to be the home of dragons or other mysterious phenomena – on maps. Hear Be Dragons aims to awaken its participants auditory senses and give them the tools and language to capture and document the unexplored territory of sound, while equipping them with a basic understanding of sound recording and sound editing technology.
We completed a highly successful exchange in 2016, between youth from Nyanga in Cape Town and youth from the south side of Williamsburg, New York City - culminating in a interdisciplinary performance at renowned Brooklyn new music venue National Sawdust.
We are now planning a second iteration of this which will be an exchange with young people in Hillbrow, working with The Hillbrow Theatre and youth in Rufisque, Senegal in collaboration with fellow OneBeat alumni PPS and his community center Sunu Kaddu. We start this exchange in May, with a planned “in-progress” performance at The Center for The Less Good Idea who are providing support for the Johannesburg portion of the exchange.
The focus of this iteration of HBD is exploring resilience, relating to the adaptation and processes of urban social change affecting individuals and the communities in which they live. We are working across a range of different types of neighborhoods --in particular, what we might term working class, inner city, and outer suburbs within each city-- through the medium of sound. Through creative exchange we will look at the impact of climate change, urban planning and rapid changes in city areas e.g. gentrification, migration and questions around tradition, culture, family, citizenship, gender, home and displacement as experienced by these young people today.
The workshops will serve as a means of getting to grips with the respective cities of Dakar and Johannesburg, investigating their current organizational, historic and symbolic systems, and exploring alternatives to these. We are particularly interested in the geography, layout and histories of these two cities, and the neighborhoods in which we we plan to work. We will focus on areas that have moved from the core of urban life to the periphery - evolving from being bustling urban centers to largely neglected areas that suffer from systematic underinvestment.
In the Dakar region, we will focus on Rufisque, once considered an important port city and a melting pot of African and western culture frequented by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English traders and inhabited by a Euro-African Creole community of merchants. Rufisque is now no longer an active port, and is instead considered an outlying suburb of Dakar, and is certainly the most neglected of Senegal's four historic "communes," with no tourism sector and a chronic lack of investment in public infrastructure.
In Johannesburg, we will work in Hillbrow, an inner-city residential neighborhood of Johannesburg. Considered a "grey area" during Apartheid, Hillbrow was a bustling island of tolerance and non-racialism, as well as being a “liberated zone” for South Africa’s LGBTI community during the time. During the “white flight” from the inner city of Johannesburg of the 1990s, Hillbrow fell into severe decline: buildings became increasingly decrepit, with many lacking basic services such as electricity, sewerage and water, and rampant overcrowding. The lack of investment and fear of crime led to an exodus of middle class residents and the decay of major buildings, leaving in its wake an urban slum. Today, most residents are migrants from the townships, rural areas and African countries such as Zimbabwe, DRC and Somalia, with many living in abject poverty.
Link to OneBeat - I managed to get this project off the ground with the support and collaboration of Found Sound Nation, the Brooklyn based arts collective who co-facilitated the workshops in South Africa and New York. This happened after I was a OneBeat fellow in 2014, and although I had already started developing this project before I went to OneBeat, the experience and relationships that it afforded me helped to finally get this off the ground, and it became a very successful OneBeat follow-on. Found Sound Nation produce OneBeat, and now I find myself living in New York and working with Found Sound Nation running a non-profit record label we started last year and also as OneBeat Programs Manager.
OneBeat South Africa - I would love to see this happen! I think that South Africa is an incredibly fertile place for bringing together artists and musicians from different musical disciplines and also an opportunity to explore the diverse traditional musics of South Africa - I actually think that a OneBeat Southern Africa is very compelling idea! We recently had an open call to our alumni to apply to host a OneBeat Abroad in their country - and received an overwhelming response with some really great applications - we are currently in the process of selecting two of these to role out over the next two years. It would be great to find ways to be able to do more of these offshoot OneBeats, both in terms of capacity and most importantly in terms of financial support, particularly in the countries where we hope to host these OneBeat Abroad Programs.