Accessibility links

Jazz, Hip Hop, Broadway Taught in Bangkok, Beyond

  • Daniel Schearf

BANGKOK - A U.S.-funded arts program is training students in the Middle East and Asia with American style music, theater and dance. The "Yes Academy" strives to build bridges between the U.S. and countries emerging from conflict. One of their biggest programs is in Iraq.

Grammy nominated jazz instructor Gene Aitken has conducted some of the top military bands in Asia and the Middle East.

From Thailand he travels to countries emerging from conflict and isolation to bring young people from different religions and cultures together.

"There's one common language and that's the arts," said Aitken. "Throughout China, throughout the Middle East, and everything, everybody understands the arts. Everybody wants to be involved either as a participant or as someone who observes. Because, when we go into Iraq, maybe we have a day's notice on when there's going to be a concert. And, the concert halls are packed."

Jazz musician Rang Kawa is from Iraqi Kurdistan and traveled to Thailand to study under Aitken.

"Jazz music, and rock music, pop music, it's one of the new things in my country. But, when American Voices Yes Academy program came to Iraq, it [was even] better," said Kawa.

Aitken's jazz classes are part of American Voices' "YES Academy" or Youth Excellence on Stage.

The U.S. funded non-profit offers free professional training in unique American performing arts such as hip hop and Broadway musicals.

YES Academy also runs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan and Syria, but Aiken says they work the most with Iraq.

Iraq has great orchestras, music and theater schools, as well as eager students, but decades of conflict have deprived teachers of proper training says director John Ferguson.

"We're trying to help re-build the cultural infrastructure there, helping train the teachers, helping train the next generation of teachers, and giving the students some motivation to keep going with their interest in music, dance, and theatre," Ferguson said.

Ferguson says they are not allowed to teach dance in conservative Afghanistan.

But, otherwise, across the region, Western performing arts are quite popular because of Hollywood films and a lack of classes and professional teachers.