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Pianist Phil Dunlap builds Jazz Bridges between St. Louis and Kabul

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2009 - At a recent performance, pianist Phil Dunlap found himself in unusual circumstances.

"We were at the top of a stairwell, and there was this huge window that was looking onto the street," he recalled. "They actually took out a big chalkboard and put it in front of the window. So from the street level you couldn't see inside. Just in case."

As education director for Jazz St. Louis, Dunlap typically welcomes public attention to jazz performances. This time, however, he found himself in Kabul, Afghanistan, where it's best to fly under the radar.

"Some people have been threatened or gotten death threats for participating in U.S. Embassy programs," he explained.

Dunlap traveled to the Afghan city as a participant in Jazz Bridges. The cultural exchange program is run by American Voices, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to "further the accessibility and the understanding of American music and culture, especially in developing countries," according to the program's website. Along with singer CoCo York and bassist Gene Aitken, Dunlap taught and performed jazz for Afghans.

Jazz Bridges originally began as a collaboration between American and Burmese musicians in 2002. Thanks to its success, American Voices launched versions in other Asian countries and entered Afghanistan in 2005.

This year marked Dunlap's first with American Voices. "My friend Marc Thayer, who's with the St. Louis Symphony, got me connected with John Ferguson, who runs American Voices," said Dunlap. "They needed a piano player, someone to teach in this program, so they asked if I would go and do it. I said yes."

Dunlap left the U.S. on June 26 and spent a week in Kabul. He and his colleagues worked with Kabul University's music department and the National Institute of Music, the equivalent of a vocational high school, and also performed with traditional Afghan musicians.

"A lot of what we were doing was exposing them to American jazz music, just because they had never heard it before," said Dunlap. Consequently, he and his colleagues shared with their students and collaborators a wide range of Western genres, reaching beyond jazz to sample gospel and Latin music as well.

Despite the Afghan musicians' eager acceptance of the new styles, the Americans could not fully immerse themselves in the local culture.

The U.S. Embassy "had pretty tight reins on us, said Dunlap. "We couldn't go anywhere that wasn't on the schedule. Wherever we went, we were in armored cars. We wore bulletproof vests and had armed security escorts.

"But we didn't meet any negativity, animosity, or hatred, or anything like that."

Many problems the visitors did face were of a more musical nature.

"We'll call a quarter note something different, and they'll call an F-sharp something different," Dunlap explained. "The way we teach over here is based on the Western harmonic structure. You can't necessarily fit every type of music into that bag."

At the same time, "their music has a lot of improvisation, just like American jazz," he said. Such similarities helped the musicians to overcome any communication difficulties.

Besides the lack of foreign influences, Dunlap concluded that most of the challenges facing Afghan musicians stemmed from the near-total absence of functioning instruments.

"Most of the pianos are just old and archaic, what we call P.S.O.s -- Piano-Shaped Objects," he said.

Unable to practice on high-quality instruments, the Afghans cannot improve their technique, Dunlap said. Also, since the Taliban banned Western instruments entirely, those who do play them began relatively recently. At Kabul University, most of the program's piano students had been playing for only a year or two.

Dunlap did not find Afghan music teachers to be much further ahead of their students. "The music teachers in Afghanistan so far are poor musicians," he said. He did not know the qualifications for becoming a music teacher but doubted that the position required sufficient expertise.

After working with the university students, Dunlap discovered that the youth enrolled in the National Institute of Music, the vocational school, actually played better than their older counterparts. He speculated that the students' skills resulted from their parents' ability to invest in a musical education. "They all said they had keyboards at home," he recalled.

"They got better because, just like here in St. Louis, the students who do the best and excel the most in music are the ones whose parents can pay for private lessons, can afford a decent instrument, and can put them in a school where they're around other kids who are as good [as] or better than they are."

Dunlap also attributed the youths' musical superiority to their openness to outside influences. "They recognize that if the country's going to get better and move forward, they'll have to embrace Western culture in some way." They realize that "there's a way to do it without losing the values of a society or compromising their core values."

When asked if the Afghan youth have begun to listen to American music on their own, Dunlap shook his head. "They don't have access to it," he said. "What's iTunes? What's Facebook? The only access to the internet may be at the school."

Dunlap did see some signs of American culture over the course of his stay. "They have TV shows, ones very similar to American Idol," he recalled. He "even saw KFC and a Pizza Hut."

However, "juxtaposed against those signs of progress are people pulling carts of stuff around, people transporting stuff with horses and carriages."

In the face of incremental change, "you learn patience," Dunlap said. "Getting mad isn't going to make anything go faster."

He has already decided to return, if American Voices extends its invitation again. He said he is attracted to his students' enthusiasm for learning. "At some point, the human desire to learn as much as one can takes over," he explained.

Observing it in the Afghans, Dunlap also finds this desire in himself. "If we had Afghan musicians who came here, I would love it. Or even from some other country. I would love to get that opportunity to learn."

Joe Milner, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Brown University.

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