Hard to believe, but Iraq was once seen as “an island in a sea of instability.” In Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Penny M. Von Eschen discusses how Iraq changed, and how American jazz musicians practically witnessed it. Dave Brubeck played Baghdad in 1958, just weeks before Abd al-Karim Qassim deposed King Faysal II. In 1963, mere months after Duke Ellington came through town, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, the mentor of Saddam Hussein, toppled Qassim’s government. The rest is history, one might say. But the tale of American and Iraqi cultural exchange continues, under vastly different circumstances.
This summer, in the northern city of Erbil, the Houston-based nonprofit American Voices launched the Unity Performing Arts Academy in Iraq. Its inaugural run began on July 14, oddly, the 49th anniversary of Qassim’s coup. With support from the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the academy flew in American and European faculty to provide 10 days of free instruction in jazz and classical music, dance (including ballet and hip-hop) and theater. The program attracted over 300 students: Arabs from Baghdad as well as Kurds from Erbil, Suleimaniya and other districts in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan.