With ‘War Project’ SF World Music Moves in a Radical New Direction (and That’s a Good Thing)

Musicians performing with SF World Music's The War Project; Photo by Jim Block, courtesy SF World Music

Musicians performing with SF World Music's The War Project; Photo by Jim Block, courtesy SF World Music

Over the course of almost two decades, the San Francisco World Music Festival has developed a reputation as a risk-taker. This year it’s making its biggest leap yet. Gone is the focus on concerts in music venues. Gone is the San Francisco-centric programming. And gone, even, is the word “festival.” Now called “SF World Music,” the organization has remade itself into a global entity that uses live-stream technology to work with singers and musicians in some of the world’s most neglected areas – while connecting these communities with resources that help them in the long term.

It’s music as bona fide activism that will play itself out over the next year with three war-themed events. The War Project begins on Friday, November 21, at San Francisco’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church with a concert featuring musicians with roots in China, Iran, Azerbaijan, South India, Zimbabwe, and Ireland. Their songs will explore the way music can be used for cross-purposes in war – to propagandize causes, to protest injustice, and to offer solace to those under severe stress.

SF World Music 2

On April 17-19, The War Project will set up at Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavilion, where musicians will perform in different tents – in collaboration with live-streamed musicians in other countries – to mirror the refugee conditions that millions face around the world.

And then in the autumn of 2015, at a date to be announced, from regions yet to be determined – it might include Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, and India – musicians from refugee camps will perform a benefit concert that reaches audiences in San Francisco — and anyone else — watching online. With its mix of live performance, live-streaming and integrated video footage, The War Project will let audiences experience the cultures they see in ways that diverge dramatically from traditional concerts, including those of previous performances by SF World Music.

“We don’t want to be a festival; we don’t want to be a concert,” says SF World Music founder and executive producer Michael Santoro. “This is a social justice shift. We feel an obligation out of all the years we’ve been doing this.”

The shift has been gradual. In previous years, SF World Music has done video collaborations across time zones. And in previous years, it has worked with children’s groups around the world. But in this new phase of the organization’s life, the collaborations and the activist work are taking a more central role – and it’s coinciding with a much greater emphasis on technological advances. Next April, staff will employ multiple hand-held cameras to film musicians during the concerts. As online concert-goers watch the performances at SF World Music’s website and see, say, a musician from Zimbabwe, the live-stream visual feed will cut to a recorded interview with the musician, then cut to footage of Zimbabwe – as the concert still steams live on the audio feed. To deepen the experience for online viewers, the festival will attach small cameras to the musicians’ instruments, providing a unique view of the performances. The possibilities for deepening the audience experience are endless, Santoro says.

SF World Music's Youth Orchestra
SF World Music’s Youth Orchestra (By Jim Block, courtesy of SF World Music)

Santoro and SF World Music are still figuring out some logistics for The War Project. In other words, it’s a work-in-progress partly, Santoro says, because nothing of this scale has really been tried before. “There’s no model that integrates all of this together in one space,” he says. “What we’ve been doing these years is putting parts of the pieces in place, experimenting in a festival format. Now, audiences and performers in the physical and virtual worlds can interact like never before.”

Among the performers at the November 21 concert: SF World Music’s youth orchestra; South Indian Carnatic music master Anuradha Sridhar; Azeri kamancha master, Imamyar Hasanov; Chinese erhu master, Zhang Xiaofeng; Indian mridangam master, Shriram Brahmanandam; Chinese percussion master, Wang Wei; Iranian percussion master, Pezhham Akhavass; Vietnamese dan tranh master, Van-Anh Vanessa Vo; Irish Celtic harp master, Diana Rowan; and Zimbabwean percussion master, Ronnie Daliyo.

Last year, Hasanov traveled with Santoro and other SF World Music personnel to China, where they worked with children attending a school for migrants on the outskirts of Beijing. These children are considered “illegal immigrants.” Even their school is considered “illegal.” Santoro, who plays the Chinese dong xiao (vertical bamboo flute), Hasanov (who grew up in Azerbaijan, but now lives in the Bay Area), and the other music staff taught both students and teachers at the school. Then they performed with a well-known migrant band at an evening concert in the community, which was live-streamed to other migrant communities in China.

Besides the concert, SF World Music gave the community unique software that lets students – regardless of their language – learn traditional music from around the world through a step-by-step method that emphasizes video instruction. SF World Music also gave the community unique hardware that lets them share seamless live-stream music with distant communities.

“It was,” says Santoro, “the most significant thing I’ve done in my entire life. That community has an opportunity to have access to the world in a way they never could because of politics, the economy, education, lack of access to global resources. We got as much out of it as performers as did the immigrant community.”

When a similar SF World Music team travels next year to refugee camps, they will bring the same software and hardware, and teach the communities how to use it. “We’ll begin to wire these places,” Santoro says. “We’ll bring interactive tools. So that it’s not a ‘one-off.’”

This sort of outreach will also be applied locally enabling SF World Music staff to connect – via live-streaming – music students from under-funded Bay Area schools with students from wealthier schools. With the video technology that SF World Music is perfecting through The War Project, they can develop collaborations between students around the Bay Area. What’s local is global. What’s global is local. That’s what SF World Music has always been about. That’s what it continues to represent, even as its vision has morphed into something much, much bigger.

The first part of The War Project, Music UnPlugged is Friday, November 21, 2014, 8pm, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. For more information, visit sfworldmusic.org.

With ‘War Project’ SF World Music Moves in a Radical New Direction (and That’s a Good Thing) 19 November,2014Jonathan Curiel

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