Published April 27. 2013 4:00AM
For two weeks earlier this month, Robert A. Richter was traveling in Pakistan, scouting performing artists as part of a new cultural diplomacy initiative.
Richter, the director of arts programming at Connecticut College, was asked to be part of a team that was assessing talent for Center Stage, a program of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The goal of the program, which was launched in 2012, is to bring performers from other countries here "to interact with audiences and create opportunities for greater understanding of their cultures."
Richter's four-person group - along with teams that went to Morocco and Vietnam - will recommend who they think Center Stage should bring to America to perform later this year. Ultimately, six to eight ensembles from the three countries will be selected.
Last year, the musician BélO from Haiti was among the Center Stage performers, and he did a November concert at Connecticut College.
"With Center Stage, they are really looking for contemporary artists - not classical performance arts coming out of classical traditions, which I think is what we often expect from Pakistan," Richter says. "This is to show what's going on now and not necessarily what went on historically."
Among last year's Center Stage artists, for instance, were sketch comedians from Pakistan.
On his trip, Richter heard a heavy-metal band, and he met a female street performer.
One of his favorite groups was Khumariyaan, a contemporary ensemble from the Peshawar region. They sing in Pashtoon and perform on both modern and traditional instruments.
"It's really a merging of contemporary and classical," Richter says.
The Islamabad concert where they performed was part of the U.S. Embassy's international young alumni conference for 400 people - most from Pakistan, along with some from India and Afghanistan - who had participated in exchange programs like the Fulbright.
"It was amazing to see (Khumariyaan) in concert. When this band went up to perform, the crowd just went wild ..." Richter says, adding that audience members who had been sitting on the floor in front of the band were inspired to jump up and start dancing.
Khumariyaan describes in its Center Stage application how it "came into being at the peak of societal chaos brought forward by terrorism and fundamentalism. ... Our specialty was a pure instrumental experience. As time went by, the band became a mobile social and intellectual experience in itself."
As for how Richter was invited on this trip: Center Stage is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. NEFA knew Richter through their various interactions over the years, including his applying for NEFA grants and his bringing their regional dance development initiative to Conn one year.
On the Pakistan-bound team with Richter were Deirdre Valente from Lisa Booth Management, which has been contracted by NEFA to help manage the program and tours; Sarah Long Holland, NEFA development manager; and Brian Jose, executive director of fine arts programming at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
A NEFA advisory committee narrowed the original list of 65 nominated performing ensembles down to six. The team then met with those artists, talked to them about the program and saw them in performance.
In addition, the team gathered information about each ensemble's work so they can help presenters put it all in context when they bring a given group to their communities.
Before Richter travelled to Pakistan, people here asked if he was scared to go. (He says he went in with a wide open mind.) When he was there, Pakistanis asked what he had expected of their country.
"I had a really hard time answering the question. I didn't know what to expect. Yes, there's the stuff I read in the paper about bombings here and kidnappings there, but that isn't what I expected," he says.
"It was an odd dichotomy for me in terms of the suppressed society where things like YouTube are banned. There are not places for large gatherings, which I think they do because of the potential for violence and targeted attacks. So the artists are sort of this underground culture but not completely ... It's not like they're hidden. The artistic activity takes place in smaller venues or private venues or homes."
Although YouTube is banned (which Pakistan students and musicians complained about, since it restricts their ability to share their own music and to hear other people's music), artistic activity does happen on the Internet. An ensemble that Richter saw consisted of one musician who lived in Pakistan and another of Pakistani descent who lived in Australia - and they originally met and collaborated online.
As for security in Pakistan, it was strict at hotels, a remnant of the devastating bombing five years ago at a Marriott in Islamabad.
"The security to get a vehicle up to the hotel is pretty tight," Richter says. "Before you enter the hotel grounds, the vehicle goes through a security check. Then you're let into the hotel grounds, into the parking area - not necessarily driving right up to the hotel. If you have luggage and that kind of stuff, you can drive up to the hotel, but you go through another check."
Richter says the precautions extended throughout the city. There were road checks. Colleges and universities were fenced and walled. Hotels had metal detectors.
The teams were pretty much always accompanied by either a Pakistani cultural affairs assistant or an American cultural affairs officer.
But, Richter says, "On our very first day there (in Lahore), we hired a car at the hotel and a driver, and he took us to a museum, and then we went to an outdoor market, and we walked alone then."
Richter says he's not sure the consulate was too happy that they did that.
But, he says, "I never felt unsafe."