Tuesday, 22 February 2011 11:37

Global music - An interview with Per Ekedahl

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Jeunesses Musicales International (JMI) is the world's largest music NGO. Founded in Brussels in 1946, it has member organisations in 45 countries of the world and aims to use "the power of music to bridge social, geographical, racial and economic divides and create a platform for intercultural dialogue". Apart from its flagships World Youth Orchestra and World Youth Choir, it runs projects such as Ethno, a global summer camp for folk music taking place in various European countries and even Uganda. JMI President Per Ekedahl has just presented his organisation at the ICD.

ICD: Mr. Ekedahl, how does music foster understanding and peace?

PE: I'm sorry that one of the problems of our organisation is that we are bad at proving what we achieve. After 15 years of funding the Swedish Ethno camps, the Swedish Institute all of a sudden asked us, so, what did you achieve? And I bit my lip and thought: oops...

I personally am totally convinced. Just to give you an example: there was a photo session with Ethno Sweden participants from all over the world, and the photographers wanted to take a picture with all of them waving their national flags. And many refused. They did not want to represent their countries, they felt they had come for the music. In the end there were about 85 musicians and 15 flags on the photo. It is crucial not to impose a diplomatic mission on the musicians.

ICD: Can there also be an opposite effect: music dividing, harming?

PE: I want to tell you another story. At the opening party of an Ethno session all participants were supposed to play music from their home. Among others there were two Croat accordeonists and a Serbian singer. And the Croats started playing a song about the Croats withstanding the Serbs, a song that had been very popular during wartime. The organisers were paralysed, they already saw a small civil war ruining their camp from the first day on. But then all of a sudden the Serb, who apparently knew the song well, joined in, and after having sung all the five strophes together with the Croats at the top of his voice he fell into their arms exclaiming: this has been the war of our parents, not ours, we are friends!

E&M: That is truly a moving story, but what makes you so sure that it was music that made these three overcome their countries' deeply rooted animosities?

PE: I don't claim that it was music alone. Obviously there needs to be some open-mindedness from the beginning. But I do think music can help a lot.

E&M: Did it ever happen that integration went really wrong on a JMI project?

PE: Hm… I remember only the success stories. The funding of the World Youth Orchestra has seen problems, costly, large scale projects are always less safe to be supported. On the other hand, sometimes you get a surprise: for Fair Play, an anti-corruption project in which young composers write music with a message against corruption, we got funding from the World Bank, which we hadn’t expected.

E&M: Music against corruption, how does that work?

PE: There were plenty of approaches, just have a look here. Really good music in any case! The people from the World Bank were enthusiastic!

E&M: Is it usually difficult for you to convince people that what you are doing is valuable?

PE: In earlier times, some organisations have not been very flexible when it came to supporting us. But now in general we are very good at recruiting sponsors. Some countries of course suffer. There are big differences between different sections.

E&M: We assume that it is those countries which have the least means that would need them most?

PE: Precisely. Thus we invest a lot in capacity building. We prepared a tool kit for people interested in starting Ethno in their home country – and there are many, that really comes by itself. We will soon be running an Ethno session in Jordan. And I haven't mentioned yet the Imagine Festival competitions for live performances taking place already in five African countries – another of our projects spreading epidemically.

E&M: The music competitions we're familiar with are equally about tough, if not hostile contest, partly even intrigue and nepotism.

PE: That's completely different at the Imagine Festival competition. I think a reason is that it is open for all genres: some may play string quartet, some Heavy Metal, some Samba de Roda. It is not about executing Chopin the best, it is about realising performances. Finally the supporting program offers joint workshops, jam sessions – so there really is a strong sense of enjoying music together.

E&M: We have talked a lot about JMI dissolving national representation in favour of the joint experience of music. Yet do you think that your work in a way contributes to the emergence of some sort of European identity and sense of togetherness (that could only be defined supra-nationally)?

PE: Hm, I will have to answer diplomatically about that…

E&M: …E&M is not an EU propaganda organ, so feel free to answer whatever you want!

PE: No, the point is that we get funding from the EU, and in this context some people have mentioned a lot the protection of the European idea. There has been a European part of JMI. But to be honest in my function as president of JMI I was actively dissolving this. To me it looked rather like a form of protectionism. Personally, I regard JMI rather as a global institution, I would like to have more members from Asia and Africa in it. That is the world the young people are living in, a global world, and I mean it is global, not international. – Of course we are Europeans.

E&M: Are we?

Pe: I am. I mean, I am here! However, I will move to Latin America soon.

E&M: Then you won't be European anymore?

PE: Hm, that is a good question.

E&M: Good question, no answer?

PE: I have to think it over. You have to ask me again when I will have lived ten years in Latin America.

E&M: Mr. Ekedahl, thanks a lot for this interview.

Christian Diemer is reporting for E&M as one of about 60 selected international participants attending the academy "Arts as Cultural Diplomacy" at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in Berlin.

Christian Diemer is reporting for E&M as one of about 60 selected international participants attending the academy "Arts as Cultural Diplomacy" at

Christian Diemer is reporting for E&M as one of about 60 selected international participants attending the academy "Arts as Cultural Diplomacy" at

Christian Diemer is reporting for E&M as one of about 60 selected international participants attending the academy "Arts as Cultural Diplomacy" at

Photo courtesy of Jose Jimenez

Last modified on Thursday, 24 February 2011 18:42
Christian Diemer

Christian Diemer, 28, is from Rottweil in South Germany. Having studied musicology, arts management, and composition in Weimar, he is now writing from Berlin and obscure spots in East Europe, where he is currently working on his PhD thesis about traditional music in Ukraine. 

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