Diverse musicians connect and create to the sound of one beat
Programme involving global artists a catalyst for social and cultural change
In 2010 the US Department of State, then run by Hillary Clinton, devised the concept of OneBeat, an incubator and accelerator for arts-based social innovation and cultural diplomacy.
The department entered into a partnership with Found Sound Nation (FSN), established by Jeremy Thal and Chris Marianetti in 2007 as a social justice arm of the neo classic music organisation Bang on a Can. The intention was to build strong, just and healthy communities.
"Music has a long-term beneficial effect on the relationship between people, as it creates a community connection for people from radically different cultural and geographic backgrounds," says Thal.
"You can see the nuance, the humour, the struggle and complex social ecosystem inherent in each country. We create egalitarian spaces where different parts of the system can meet on equal terms."
FSN launched their music education and upliftment programmes in the Bronx, New York, where they started an after-school training programme for high school pupils. This grew into a successful intercultural exchange within the city, with dozens of collaborative programmes and pop-up public art projects.
"A lot of the inspiration goes back to the high school kids in the beginning. They taught me the value of the cipher," says Thal. "It brings us back to Africa and the tradition of standing in a circle and trading, whether it comes to rapping, clapping, dancing or singing. It is a true folk tradition with an incredible amount of solidarity you don’t get in the conservatory."
FSN received support from New York-based Harare International Festival (HIFA) founder Manuel Bagorro to collaborate on his Music Connections programme at Carnegie Hall and to facilitate a project at HIFA 2010. This opened the doors to cross-cultural collaboration.
OneBeat began in 2011 with an annual month-long residency programme in New York. The residency brings together 25 emerging world musical leaders, with at least five from diverse communities in the US, to create new work and develop a global network of civically engaged music initiatives.
"In the creation of something original we become responsible to one another. 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," Thal says.
"You can bridge a gap in class, race, age and income positions through creating something together. You see the whole imaginative capacity of people when you are imagining things with them in real time."
The ensuing musical collaborations between many strong personalities have led to the formation of notable bands.
The 2016 alumni formed the Latin percussion-based LaDama and the 2017 alumni formed The Surge, which performed to acclaim at the recent Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
Slovakian violinist Jan Kruzliak showed his virtuosity alongside Russian drummer Sergey Balashov. Their Balkan groove was complemented by the sounds of a Moroccan Gnawa bass player, South African jazz trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, an Ethiopian-American rapper and Aisaana Omorova from Kyrgyzstan, playing a traditional string instrument.
Thal, a French horn player, held the collaboration together with his sonorous melodies and brilliant facilitation skills.
"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," says Thal.
"When we find the sound of all the voices in the room, we plant the seed for a new world community that is more than the sum of its parts.
"The artistic process provides an essential vitamin for the movement for social justice and actual societal change. One of the elements is connection and the other is inspiration.
"For people in different places in society, you build solidarity with them through making music together. Nationality and religion and all these things are very secondary to personality and aesthetics," says Thal.
Alumni of the programme have also taken their experiences and new approaches back to their communities.
Kyla-Rose Smith of Freshlyground fame has become a permanent member of the FSN and OneBeat team, pioneering the follow-up project, Hear Be Dragons, a sonic mapping project for urban youth in marginalised communities.
In 2016 Hear Be Dragons used music as a tool for cultural exchange between youth from Nyanga in Cape Town and Williamsburg in New York City.
In May, young people in Hillbrow, Johannesburg and Rufisque, Dakar will share their music and lives.
"Hear Be Dragons aims to give participants the tools and language to capture and document the sonic landscape of their lives. Participants are also equipped with a basic understanding of sound recording and sound editing technology," says Smith. "Sound is perceived as a tool to investigate the world and as an artistic medium to express quality of life, perception of history and memory and notions of identity, place, and time."
The OneBeat formula for cultural diplomacy, creative experience, musical residency and education has been successfully replicated with programmes in Russia and Turkey.
The OneBeat team is now sifting through applications from their alumni to choose the OneBeat Abroad partners for the next two years.
SA is a popular future destination to host the programme.
"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," says Smith.