From Pakistan to Uzbekistan: Student Tours as Music Ambassador
Bridging musical, cultural, and gender divides, Berklee student Courtney Hartman is on tour with her all-female bluegrass band, Della Mae, bringing the group's distinctively American roots style to such countries as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan as part of the the U.S. State Department's American Music Abroad Program. Dispatching from Uzbekistan, the 22-year-old guitar principal/performance major from Loveland, Colorado, took some time out during the tour to answer some questions over email about her group's experience as musical ambassadors.
Tell me about Della Mae’s tour abroad.
We've been to six countries in 42 days. We are on a State Department tour called American Music Abroad. The tour we were assigned to consists of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Our very first stop was 10 days ago in Islamabad, Pakistan. We spent a week there and it was filled to the brim with incredible experiences and wonderful people.
Today I am writing to you from our second country, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Every day on the tour is a new experience. So far we have spent our time teaching at schools, performing at colleges and pubic concerts, working with street children and underprivileged English students, and collaborating with local musicians. Every new city has brought about new challenges and learning experiences. As Americans, we know so little about this part of the world, due in part to their closure to the Western world and to our political relations with them. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to spend time with people from these countries and hope to bring back a new perspective to share.
What are some of the goals of this tour?
We are here to connect with the locals, the musicians, the children, and the women, and to expand our vision of these countries by sharing our music and who we are with the people we meet. We performed at a few women’s colleges in Pakistan, one in Lahore and one in Islamabad. I don’t think we have ever played for more excited or enthusiastic audiences. It is not culturally acceptable in Pakistan for women to go out after dark so it is rare for them to be exposed to live music and even more uncommon for women to play music. To see the joy and excitement on their faces as they watched us gave me a slight glimpse into the strong impact we could have on these audiences. After one of the performances we were handed a pile of evaluation sheets the girls had written about our concert. Many of the students had never actually met Americans. One response was, “I learned today that Americans aren’t racist,” and another, “I realized that they are all just like us.” This is why we are here. To broaden our vision of the world through relationships with the precious people from these places and hopefully give them a new view on who we are as well.
How did you get involved with Della Mae?
I joined Della Mae about a year and a half ago. Most of the band members I had known for a while through the music scene in Boston. We have had a very busy year touring throughout the U.S. and after this tour abroad we look forward to releasing our newest album, This World Oft Can Be, on Rounder Records in March.
What have you learned so far during your travels and what can you say about the musicians you've encountered?
As I said, today is only our 10th day in our 42-day journey. Coming into the tour, I had so little knowledge of what the cultures here would be like. What we see in the headlines is what we know, and more often than not that is only a snippet of the whole story. In Pakistan, I was completely blown away by the people there. They treated us with so much overwhelming love and generosity. We collaborated with an amazing young woman Natasha Ejaz, in Islamabad. Her passion to reach the people of her country through her music was an inspiration to me. She is applying to Berklee and hopes to spend a few semesters in Boston. Another musician we collaborated with, Ali Abbas, is an incredible Kuwallee singer, coming from the classical Indian traditions. The spiritual depth in his singing was astounding. Within the short amount of time that we have spent here, we have already had so many great musical exchanges with local musicians. The traditional instruments here have blown me away!
What does it mean for a Berklee student like yourself to be representing the college abroad?
A few times already, I have had a chance to connect with young musicians in both in Pakistan and in Uzbekistan that have heard of Berklee. Just having the one extra thread common bond of knowledge created more of a connection with them. Berklee was a valuable part of my education and wherever I play I hope to share that with others.
What about bringing the American style of bluegrass to audiences who may have never been exposed to this type of music? And the element of performing with an all-female band?
We have had an overwhelmingly great response to our music here. Every time we have played for a new audience it has driven home the point that music is a universal language that the whole world shares. Even if people have never heard bluegrass, or can’t understand English, they can feel the emotion behind it, the joy and sorrow, the love and pain that encompass our lives and come out through our music. We are all humans and at the most foundational level, we all have the same basic struggles and triumphs in life, and that is what comes through in our music. It has been amazing how easily our traditional music has blended with both the traditional music of Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I have learned so much already from playing with the musicians here. I also have a deeper gratitude than ever before for having grown up in a place where I have had the freedom to pursue what I am passionate about. We cannot take that for granted. We do not know how valuable our freedom and light is until it is taken away.
What’s next for you when the tour is over?
After the tour, I will be heading to Colorado for a few weeks to be with my family over the holidays. Then over the second week of January I will be recording an album with Berklee faculty member Darol Anger in Boston before starting Della Mae’s winter tour of the Northeast in mid-January.
And lots more writing, playing, and sharing throughout!
Applications are being accepted for students interested in the tour. Visit http://amvoices.org/ama/ to find the application and more information.
Meanwhile, another band with Berklee roots is touring the Middle East as part of the State Department program; visit the alumni-rich Boston Boys' website for updates on their trip.