PERCUSSIONIST IMPROVISOR COMPOSER
BEIRUT: Gene Coleman is the new breed of U.S. envoy in Lebanon. While he doesn't rate a private residence, a car, or the typical diplomat's phalanx of bodyguards, this emissary still carries a title from the State Department in Washington D.C. - namely that of "CultureConnect" Ambassador. As the modifier suggests, his charge is not to deliver gala speeches, but to share his brand of American culture with foreign audiences. For Coleman, that means conjuring up some fiercely unorthodox sounds from his bass clarinet.
During last weekend's "Irtijal '05" festival of free improvised music in Lebanon, Coleman not only gave a solo performance on his chosen instrument, but also led an ensemble that included seven of Beirut's most imaginative young players. The results weren't at all timid. In fact, they were downright bracing - constructed as they were out of the noisy, post-everything flights of abstract experimentation that hardly ever draw big crowds, even in cities like New York or Chicago.
Himself a "windy city" native, Coleman rarely came within hailing distance of traditional musical notes, much less melody. Instead, he broke off each (brief) run of clean tonality with percussive "air slap" techniques on his woodwind, manipulating the reed and mouthpiece until they cried uncle, emitting sounds the instrument's inventor never intended (imagine a baritone opera singer being alternately choked and then drowned mid-syllable). At several points, Coleman managed to evoke a sustained, tremulous overtone atop a given series of fingered notes - effectively playing two different sounds simultaneously. His control over his instrument, and his knowledge of its unexplored capabilities, was nothing short of masterful.
If you went in expecting jazz - or at least the abortive nods to swing that can be heard in even the most "out there" works of John Coltrane or Albert Ayler - you might've come away from Coleman's performances a bit disappointed. But the (lamentably small) weekend audiences at Theater Monnot and the Espace SD art gallery gave no hint of being anything but thrilled by the opportunity to listen in on the proceedings. And as far as representatives from the U.S. Embassy were concerned, such rapt attention was bang enough for the average U.S. taxpayer's buck, even if the officials themselves had to cheerfully confess a degree of ignorance about the music they had funded.
"Did you understand that?" Juliet Wurr asked her colleagues after Coleman's Sunday solo performance, which added video projection and pre-recorded soundscapes to his bass clarinet stylings. Still, when discussion turned to the goals of the "CultureConnect" project, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy was on much more certain ground.
"America is a lot more than Hollywood and television sitcoms," Wurr said. "In that respect, programs of improvisational jazz reflect the value we accord innovation, originality, even risk taking. We admire people with original voices, even if we don't necessarily 'enjoy' the sound."
Still, given Coleman's fortnight-long stay in the country - and the decidedly modest turnout at the festival - how much sincere connection is the mission counting on? U.S. Embassy Cultural Attache Ryan Gilha said the idea was to start with "baby steps."
"We're not going to change attitudes overnight. ... This is the first time [since the Civil War] that we've done anything like this in Lebanon," he said, noting that the "CultureConnect" program isn't a quick fix for the problem of cultural estrangement, but is instead a way to take advantage of opportunities wherever they appear - whether in business, sports, or the arts.
"And the nice thing about this," Wurr added, "is that no one can say this [music] is pushing a particular foreign policy."
Still, it would be exceedingly naive not to recognize that the rather urgent U.S. foreign policy goal of image rehabilitation in the Middle East was being engaged by these concerts. To get a measure of just how important this project is to Washington D.C., one need only ask Gene Coleman. An old hand at the bureaucratic process of applying for scarce public arts funds in the U.S., Coleman described with some amusement the lightning-quick approval of his trip to Lebanon. "If your project engages people in an Arab country - especially young people - they're all over it. As soon as someone on the ground in the country expresses an interest in you ... the money can come very quickly. It surprised me."
Money and politics aside, though, Coleman noted that the embassy has kept quite an open mind. "Their attitude is really positive. They're not looking for a particular kind of work to promote. It seems very clear that their objective is to get American artists in direct contact with, in this case, Lebanese artists. And I think that's a very good idea."
Michael Zerang, another Chicago-based musician at the festival, agreed. Though quick to make clear he's "no fan" of the current U.S. administration (and that his trip was not sponsored by the State Department), Zerang said: "It's always a good thing to bring that [American] experience around the world, and make exchanges. Especially in the arts, where there are no bombs involved, you know?"
Perhaps it was fitting then, that one of the most interesting moments of such cultural exchange occurred between musicians, away from the view of embassy officials and appreciative audiences. During a Sunday afternoon rehearsal with the German saxophone powerhouse Peter Brotzmann, Zerang, whose mother and father were Iraqi-born, pulled out his derbecki - the classical Arabic bongo, if you will - and began an extended solo. Not long after, Brotzmann lit into the theme of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" on his horn. After the rehearsal had concluded, Zerang asked one of the festival's Lebanese organizers - who had been quietly sitting in the empty auditorium all along - whether he had recognized the beat. When the Lebanese musician admitted he couldn't place it, Zerang revealed it as the beat from the Kelis song "Milkshake," a Top 40 chart hit in the U.S. last year.
"It's weird, it's just this pop song with voice and derbecki," Zerang explained. "And the girl is singing: 'My milkshake is better than yours, my milkshake...' and she's talking about, you know, her milkshakes." With a little Ellington (played by a German) on top of that Arab-influenced pop song - and all for the benefit of a young Lebanese musician - the prospect of genuine cultural exchange seemed possible, if still a touch surreal.