As the One World Project Turns
Well, yeah. Hartt Stearns.
For the past few years, this local percussionist has been devoting his energies to the One World Project, a program that utilizes the arts of the world's varied cultures as tools for bringing its different peoples together. Through performances for students in AISD schools, training workshops with gifted musicians from AISD high schools, and concerts for general audiences, all featuring music and dance from Africa, Asia, and the Americas performed by culturally diverse artists, the project dissolves national and cultural boundaries between people and seeks to promote... well, one world. "A lot of times, listening to music can be very potent," says Stearns. "It's a bridge to seeing everybody as one. It's all one thing that's going on here."
The project reflects Stearns' own experience with ethnic music from around the world, which caused him to undergo a conversion of sorts when he was in college. Canadian by birth and reared in California, Stearns was a pretty typical white North American teenage guy when he started school at UCLA; his idea of exotic music was jazz. But as a freshman, he was drawn to the school's ethnomusicology department, where he was exposed to music from Nigeria, Persia, India, Ghana, and Brazil. The sounds and rhythms of these cultures had a profound effect on Stearns, so profound that he abandoned his chosen field of study, economics, to pursue music as a career. He quit school and moved to Brazil, where he studied with Mayuto Corea, a Brazilian percussionist who had toured with jazz greats Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Don Ellis, and Gabor Zabo. Through Corea, Stearns was introduced to the Argentine band Arco Iris, with which he played for more than a decade.
Given the way that ethnic music changed his own life, Stearns was convinced that it could do the same for others. On returning to California, Stearnes began to share the ethnic music he knew with young people through arts education programs in Los Angeles schools. With his partner, the vocalist Iluminada, Stearns performed from 100 to 200 dates each year in the schools alone. When the two moved to Austin in the early Nineties, they looked for a similar program in the Austin Independent School District (AISD), but discovered there was none. In talking to principals and music teachers at various schools, Stearns found educators eager to have him and Iluminada play for their students... as long as they did it for free; the schools simply had no money to pay them. If bringing world music to kids was something Stearns wanted to do in Austin, he'd have to find another way to do it. On his own, he wrote a grant for an in-school program, but it was not funded. Then he was contacted by La Peña, the Latino arts umbrella, which offered to help him pursue city funding. He took them up on it and applied for a Cultural Arts Contract under La Peña's sponsorship. This time, he got the money.
Partly because of who was handing out the funds, Stearns had expanded his program beyond in-school performances. "The cultural contracts are there to supports the arts in general," Stearns notes, and for that reason, "they were more supportive of adult performances. I have lots of experience in recording and working with professional artists, and I thought it would be nice to involve the top artists here" in his work. He decided to include in his project a series of performances celebrating specific cultures, but instead of featuring a culture's work presented only by artists familiar with that culture, the work would be presented by artists from a variety of cultures. African drummers would accompany salsa singers; jazz musicians would play for Indian dancers. Artists whose influences might be half a world apart and who, because of that, might never share a stage, would be brought together to learn from each other, to stimulate each other, to bring separate worlds into one.
In the last two years, One World has made good on that promise. In January, it produced a concert focusing on music and dance of India, and tabla player Oliver Rajamani, violinists Mitali and Mondira Chakrovarti, sitarist Amie Dutta, and Indian classical dancer Anuradha Naimpally performed alongside jazz flautist and saxophonist John Mills, modern dancer Sylvio Cole, Iluminada, and Stearns. The project's final show of this season, a concert of Latin jazz this weekend at St. Stephen's School, will feature Stearns, Iluminada, Mills, bassist John Fremgen, pianist Joel Guzman, trombonist Freddie Mendoza, vibes player C. J. Menge, trumpeter Bob Meyers, drummer Brannen Temple, and flamenco guitarist Teye.
Gathering such culturally diverse talents proved to be an unexpected pleasure for Stearns. He had fun going around "trying to find out who the top ethnic artists in town were. I played with Tomas Ramirez for about a year when I got here, so I got to know the jazz musicians in town. I got to know John Mills and Spencer Starnes. But I didn't know there were so many great ethnic musicians here. I didn't know Javier Chapparro, an absolutely incredible violinist, a concertmaster violinist, but he also plays jazz and ethnic music. He's going to be involved in next year's performances."
The concerts are not only remarkable opportunities for the professional artists in town; they provide the chance of a lifetime for young artists: performing with masters of the arts before interested, appreciative audiences. The young artists who perform at One World shows are among the most talented in AISD's high schools. Prior to each performance, Stearns conducts workshops with a handful, introducing them to some of the sounds with which they may not be familiar, teaching them to play and even to make instruments, and sometimes taking them beyond their ideas of what music is "good."
"If you're able to have aspiring young musicians under your wing, it's a tremendous opportunity," Stearns says. "We had a reherasal last Friday where the kids got to rehearse with the professional musicians. A couple of the kids in the workshop knew Brannen -- who he was, what he's done. Sometimes kids think, `I can only like this. I like rap. I like rock & roll.' But when they see some artist that they admire involved with music [from another culture], it makes it acceptable to them also. It breaks down some of their ideas of what's cool. They forget that it's something outside of them and they want to include it in their lives."
That was evident in the January concert. One point in the program featured a number with Iluminada singing, Naimpally dancing, Mills playing flute, Rajamani playing tabla, and Stearns and the high schoolers on percussion. According to Stearns, the piece begins with a sabada, a Nigerian rhythm sung by Iluminada and played by the drummers, which develops into a badya kacheri, an Indian rhythmic call-and-response. For this badya kacheri, Stearns and company included flute, drums, vocals, and even dance. Eventually, each drummer got a chance to solo, tapping out a rhythm on his cajon, a boxy Afro-Cuban drum. Every young artist's face was the same: intense while he was playing, then on completion of the solo, satisfied, proud. This music he has been making has taken on meaning for him. Whoever's it was before, now, it's his.
That's the kind of thing that makes you realize that that old Coke commercial may not have been such an impossible dream after all. I mean, here's a bunch of European- and Latin-American teens beating out a Nigerian rhythm on Afro-Cuban drums in a call-and-response from India. Those distinctions of national origin have dissolved. And why not, Stearns asks. "It's only our heads that create these borders."
Funny, that calls to mind John Lennon. He was quite the cynic and yet he was the one who asked us to imagine a world without borders, who wrote: "You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one."
The One World Project's Latin Jazz Celebration will be held Friday, April 18, 8pm, at the Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School. Call 454-TIXS.