Universal language of song
BRATTLEBORO -- It seemed a long shot, at best, when the members of Windborne first heard about the application process for the American Music Abroad program, which is run by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Windborne is a four-member vocal group with roots in the Brattleboro area and Jeremy Carter-Gordon called his fellow members after hearing about the application process for the program, which sends musicians from the U.S. overseas to perform and teach American music.
The problem was that Carter-Gordon, who lives in Boston, found out about the program only a few days before the application was due.
Lauren Breunig, who grew up in Putney, was living in Arizona, while the other two members, Lynn Mahoney Rowan and Will Thomas Rowan, were home in Marlboro.
So after a frantic weekend of e-mails, Skype calls, and collaborating on the application essays and proposed lesson plans, Windborne applied for the American Music Abroad program.
"It was all thrown together in two days. We really did not think we would get it," Mahoney Rowan said. "We figured it would be a good exercise for us to apply, but we knew it was a long shot."
Out of 350 submitted applications Windborne was asked to audition in New York City, one of 48 groups that auditioned in New York, St. Louis and San Francisco.
They were ultimately one of 10 chosen for the program and the four singers have just returned from their one-month tour of Turkmenistan, Krygyzstan and Angola.
"We felt compelled to apply," said Breunig. "The program stresses cultural diplomacy through music and we sing music from all over the world, with a strong focus on American folk music. Music transcends language and culture. We have always felt that, and this seemed like a way to give us a chance to work with musicians who don't speak English, to learn their music and teach them about ours."
The American Music Abroad program was started in 1993 as a way to bring young musicians to areas of the world that typically do not have access to live American music.
The program focuses on younger and underserved audiences.
This year the 10 groups, which include gospel, hip-hop and bluegrass musicians, will visit more than 40 countries.
In many ways the members of Windborne have been training all of their lives to be American musical ambassadors.
Breunig and Mahoney Rowan have been friends since childhood, and the two have grown up singing traditional folk tunes from New England, Appalachia, as well as from around the world.
They gave their first concert as Windborne at The Twilight Tea Lounge, in Brattleboro, in 2004.
In the 10 years they have been singing together they have toured around New England, giving workshops and concerts, and consistently teaching and learning as they performed.
"This community in southern Vermont is so rich with music in the folk tradition. We have been around it our whole lives," said Breunig. "Whenever we got together we sang, and at some point we decided to put it out there, and put ourselves on stage."
"Growing up in this art-heavy area prepared us for this," Mahoney Rowan said. "We had our entire lives to draw from."
While receiving trainings and briefings in Washington, D.C., before the trip, as well as receiving support from the embassies abroad, the musicians said they were not given any restrictions or oversight on the music they performed.
All four make music a big part of their lives, even when they are not touring, but they also have day jobs to make ends meet.
One of the most exciting parts of the trip, they said, was having the schedule and accommodations all taken care of, allowing them to focus all of their time and energy on their music.
"We were treated like rock stars," said Thomas Rowan. "People were mobbing us and asking us for our autographs. We were in some areas where people had never seen someone from the United States."
"We were living the artist's dream," added Breunig. "Everything was taken care of and we could just focus on our art."
The program stresses person-to-person interaction and along with scheduled concerts the four singers held workshops, both with children and with professional musicians in the three countries.
In Krygyzstan they met and collaborated with the members of Ustatshakirt, a folk ensemble.
The two groups created new arrangements of each other's songs, bringing American banjo into the traditional Kyrgyz tunes and using a Kyrgyz flute and stringed instruments on American folk songs.
"When you are working with these musicians, and we are sharing a stage, it makes you realize that we are not so different," Mahoney Rowan said. "It was very powerful."
During a workshop in Krygyzstan translators wrote the words to an American song and a Kyrgyz song with similar tunes and structures. The songs were written centuries and miles apart, yet addressed similar themes.
"Both songs were about lovers saying goodbye before leaving on a journey," said Breunig. "Everywhere we went we felt like there were more connections with the people we met than there were differences."
In Luanda, Angola, they shared the stage at a massive beach side concert with Waldemar Bastos, a social activist musician from Angola who was once imprisoned and spent time in exile.
And during a concert in Turkmenistan they added a local, traditional folk song to their set list and the audience erupted when the American musicians started performing the familiar song.
While visiting an 11th century mausoleum in the ancient city of Merv, Turkmenistan the quartet performed the traditional American folk song, "Poor Old Soldier."
They worked on setlists for each show, recognizing what worked, and what didn't at previous concerts and making changes to include local songs.
"The reason this program is so important is that it brings people from different cultures face to face with each other," Mahoney Rowan said. "You get to experience culture through meeting real people, not through what the media gives you. It was very powerful and it went both ways. And what better way is there to do that than through music?"
For photos and blog posts from their trip, go to the Windborne Facebook page.
For a touring schedule and contact information, visit www.windbornesingers.com.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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