Guitar lessons aren’t exactly a top priority in places like Northern Iraq, where thousands of Kurds and Arabs have been displaced by the war in Syria. But it’s what Portland musician Jerry Joseph can offer. Joseph, who has written for Widespread Panic and his own band, the Jackmormons, goes to refugee camps and gives guitar lessons to teenagers there. The results have been inspiring. “I think we’re connecting with these kids on a level where at least right now nobody’s actively trying to connect with them,” Joseph tells Rolling Stone, speaking from an Iraqi refugee camp in March, just weeks after his Nomad Music Foundation became an official nonprofit, which he runs with co-founder Charlie Freeman. Its mission? To bring instruments and teach music to people in conflict zones.
It started out with Megadeth riffs in an underground rock school in Kabul in 2014, Joseph says. One boy he taught there still posts pictures on Facebook of himself holding the guitar Joseph gave him, which gives him hope that these lessons are worthwhile. Two years ago, Joseph accepted an invitation from the American University in Iraq to teach 25 kids at the Arbat refugee camp in the Sulaymaniyah region. In March, he returned to Iraq, this time as Nomad Music, partnering with Kurdistan’s SEED (Social, Educational, and Economic Development) Foundation. He divided 60 acoustic Recording King guitars between two camps, and led three hour-long beginner classes over the course of three days at each. With the help of both a kurdish and an arabic translator, he skipped lessons on technicalities and gave the kids three chords as quickly as he could—enough for a punk band, even if they don’t know what a punk band is.
“I could sit here and spend an hour teaching them how to tune a guitar or I could teach them to play this E chord right,” he says. Then Joseph leads call-and-response melodies, singing “hey, hey, hey” or “yo, yo, yo,” (“like a bad Bob Marley record,” he says) until everyone is playing and singing along. “When they get it, it’s everything.”
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At one camp, Joseph was asked to teach boys and girls separately. He finds it easy to relate to teen boys—he’s found young men’s infatuation with guitar to be nearly universal. “Boys to me around the world are all the same,” he says. “They’ve got pimples, they’re trying to make their hair look cool, and they want to learn some rock guitar moves and impress girls.” It’s taken more finesse for him to teach the girls, whose Islamic upbringing requires certain behavior in public and around men. It was harder to get the class of girls singing and playing on their own, and when they did, they stopped when older men from the camp came in to watch.
“I can’t tell a bunch of guys to get the fuck out of my tent because you’re killing the vibe, dude,” Joseph says. Instead, he encouraged all his students to channel their emotions through music, to strum and slap the guitar. His goal is to teach kids that art is something that can’t be taken away from them. “I’m like, look, take all your joy, anger, fear, sadness and love, and beat the shit out of that guitar, and scream it as loud as you can,” he says. “They’re so quiet [at first], and by the end i’ve got them all screaming and yelling and stomping.”
Joseph hopes to expand the foundation to include other arts and movement teachers and to return yearly for a week at each camp, if possible. “I want them to know there are actually Americans that give a shit,” he says, “And I’m one of them.”