U.S. Jazz rocks heart in Algeria

U.S. Bluesman Bernard AllisonYoung people climbed up the old marble columns of the hall for a better look at the band. The audience ? including girls in headscarves ? danced around the gilded balconies to oriental, hip-hop and jazz moves.

A jazz festival may seem a little out of place in this remote Algerian town battered by social unrest and unemployment. But it’s part of an attempt by the United States to sponsor cultural events across the Arab world to capture the “hearts and minds” of people often wary of American policies in the Middle East.

As President Barack Obama readies for his first speech in the region this week, the U.S. is also trying what the State Department labels “public diplomacy” ? reaching out to local populations to let them discover American values. Funding for U.S. cultural and education exchanges in Algeria reached US$8.5 million for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, said Rafik Mansour, the head of public outreach at the U.S. embassy in Algiers.

“You can think of us as the soft-power program,” he said. “It promotes mutual understanding.”

On the last night of the jazz festival, hundreds of people in Constantine pressed against the gates of the concert hall to catch a glimpse of a Minneapolis Bluesman.

Islam Foura, 21, lined up for three hours to get a ticket, but was among several hundred turned down.

Foura and his friends conceded they didn’t know much about jazz, but craved any sort of culture.

“This is just about the only chance we get to hear jazz,” he said.

“We call Constantine Algeria’s biggest village: there’s nothing here,” added Mehdi Demech.

“And jazz: it’s the ‘groove,'” interjected Hicham Khelfelh, saying the word in English to show how much he had learned on the Internet and by watching pirated Hollywood movies.

On a downtown esplanade, hundreds of people listened to music and watched a digital screen late into the night amid little police presence ? a rare scene on Algerian streets. Inside the grand old opera house, leading blues player Bernard Allison shouted, “Are you ready for the blues?”

“Yeah!” shouted back the crowd of some 450 people packed tight in the sweltering heat.

The festival’s organizers are a nonprofit association of local musicians who started the yearly event in 2003. They called it “Dimajazz,” a play on words based on the Arabic term “majaz,” which means bridge.

“Jazz was new to Constantine, so it was a big bet,” said Noureddine Nesrouche, one of the four founders.

Nesrouche described how his generation felt asphyxiated through the 1990s, with virtually no cultural activity during a decade of near civil war between government forces and Islamists that killed up to an estimated 200,000 people.

“We needed some life in the town,” he said.

Violence has since abated, but militants from al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa continue to mount regular attacks. Security measures are stringent, but Nesrouche said only one group has turned down the invitation to come because of security fears.

Logistics are the real problem, he said, with a tiny concert hall, a lack of hotel rooms and the need for visas and airplanes.

Also, the festival had planned a budget of ?500,000 (US$710,000) but had to get by with ?200,000 (US$284,000) because there are so few private sponsors in Algeria for culture, Nesrouche said. The U.S. Embassy gave $5,000, while Algerian authorities footed most of the bill.

“The logistics of flying a group from Minneapolis to Constantine, it’s like drinking the sea,” Nesrouche said, using a colloquial expression that means something is nearly impossible.

The practice of “jazz diplomacy” was invented during the Cold War, with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Amstrong and Duke Ellington bringing their music to the Soviet bloc countries. Considered a brainchild of Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the policy was dubbed “America’s sonic weapon” by the media at the time.

Algeria, a north African nation of 35 million, is America’s second largest Arab trading partner after Saudi Arabia, exporting some US$20 billion of oil and natural gas each year. Removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and far from the Iraq war, it is relatively exposed to Western values. Mansour said the “American corners” set up in three of the country’s universities are constantly full, and that free English language classes also attract strong numbers.

“This country could well serve as the bridge,” Mansour said, “between the Arab world and the West.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.