photos by Charlie Freeman
When Americana Highways talked to Jerry Joseph he was awaiting an appliance delivery truck, a very domestic affair after weeks of the very undomestic, exotic, world traveling he had been doing. In addition to having recently worked on a new album, produced by Patterson Hood at Matt Patton and Bronson Tew’s Dial Back Sound studio in Mississippi, he has a solo tour through Nashville and Memphis coming up in Mid-May. And he’s fresh off a trip, through the Nomad Music Foundation, where he teaches guitar (and the guitars are donated) to kids in refugee camps in Kurdistan. If that wasn’t enough, the trip was bookended by gigs in India and Mexico. And so the conversation began!
AH: Can you briefly summarize the situation in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan, where you went with the Nomad Music Foundation?
JJ: Arabs from Iraq consider this area “Northern Iraq” but when you’re talking to a Kurd, it’s “Kurdistan.” They have autonomy but they are not recognized as a nation.
There are large populations of Kurds in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. But if you look at a map, where they live makes up one area. For thousands of years they have wanted their own country, but like a lot of things after WWII the territory got carved up into those countries.
The ones I’ve been dealing with are the Syrian Kurds, who have been displaced by the bombing there. They are in the permanent refugee camp of Arbat. I had been to this same camp in 2017.
There are 1.2 million refugees in Kurdistan. Some of these camps have gotten more attention, Angelina Jolie was at the big one, Ben Stiller is talking about it.
They wanted me to also go to the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps because those are not getting attention.
What’s really crazy about it, to add to all of the displacement, is that in the next few years, there could be up to 10 million climate change refugees. I mean, when it gets to 135 degrees in Baghdad they are going to want to come north. Because the countryside in Kurdistan looks like Montana. It’s snowcapped mountains, big green valleys, giant rivers – there’s water. And they hate the Arabs. And someday 5 million Arabs are going to go north.
AH: What does it mean when there are “permanent” refugee camps, as opposed to the temporary ones?
JJ: Once they start building your camp with cinder blocks, and they move you from tents to an actual structure, it’s kind of “good news/bad news.” The good news is you are not in a tent anymore. Because for example, while we were there, there were these biblical rains, and by biblical I mean that’s actually the Euphrates River, that’s where it all started. We were joking that the last time it rained like this, we built an ark. It’s mud and rain. So when they put you in buildings you’re in out of the rain, which means you’re probably never going home. That’s the bad news.
AH: And what are the temporary camps like?
JJ: This time was I was mostly in an IDP camp, which is not considered permanent: Chamishko in Zakho, it is 27,000 people. They are the Yazidi people. Their religion predates Judaism, Islam, Christianity. There are the people that ISIS is conducting a pretty concerted genocide against.
A lot of these kids had gotten out of literal slave camps. When the girl says she was raped, she means by multiple men every day for two years, when the boy says he saw his parents die, it’s because they made him kill them. IDP are displaced because their homeland was taken by ISIS in Iraq. ISIS calls big swaths of Iraq the Caliphate; their new nation.
When our president was saying “I’ve defeated the Caliphate” the Caliphate was going: “Oh yeah? How about this?” and they were taking women and children and slitting their f-ing throats. Not shooting them, slitting their throats. Just carnage. Brutality.
I know guys in the cartels. They are sociopathic, phantom worshipping mass murderers. You would be appalled. The Nazis would be appalled by ISIS. The Nazis rounded people up and gassed them. They didn’t one by one cut their throats.
It’s slaughter. And they are coming back. They didn’t really go away, and we didn’t really defeat them. And the rumor is they are coming back with a new motto: “We’re less merciful.”
AH: So there were two kinds of camps, and two different groups of kids.
JJ: Yes, I was working with two different groups of kids, I was working with Syrian kids (in the permanent camp), and they’ve been there for a couple of years now and they can’t go back to Syria because there’s nothing to go back to in Syria. Some of the cities in Syria have been literally reduced to rubble. Mosul, Raqqa, these places have just been destroyed. These Syrian kids were middle class kids. You’ll see the girls with Ray-Bans and cellphones. But imagine you life in Omaha, and somebody comes to your door and says ISIS is on the next block and you gotta run. And you can’t get in your car, you have to run out the back door and run as fast as you can. What are you gonna grab? These people can’t go back. They were accountants and shop owners and lawyers.
The Yazidi kids, in the temporary camp, I’m not sure what their families did, because the language barrier was more complicated there.
Do you speak Arabic or Kurdish?
JJ: I’m Lebanese and my grandparents spoke Arabic but I never learned it so I’ve got interpreters.
AH: What’s the structure for the classes?
JJ: Years ago, in Afghanistan I was teaching underground rock school to teenage boys, and like in that Rolling Stone article, I was teaching them Megadeth. (See the article, here: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/jerry-joseph-nomad-music-foundation-iraq-820221/ )
And then in the Kurdistan camps, last time and this time, I had one big class and 30 guitars and if they come for all the classes they get to keep the guitar. (Which is kind of controversial because then there are kids who don’t get a guitar.)
The Yazidis were split into two groups, the boys and the girls. They are conservative. Some of these girls aren’t supposed to laugh in public. I had to ask permission to touch their hand, to show them how to make a chord.
I teach them a chord or two, but I’m also trying to teach them to sing. The idea is that if they can sing it, if they can take all their fear, and rage, and love, and if you can channel that into their throat, and sing it and yell it, they get to release it. And once they start doing it, it’s remarkable, and is worth the whole thing.
And it’s the same thing at the Syrian Kurd camp, there were a couple kids there who really stuck with music, for example one kid said he had come to the camp in 2017 and learned a couple chords, and now is leaving in a couple weeks to go to a university to study music.
So with all that it costs to get all these guitars over there, and then if it changes the life of even just one kid, is that worth it? It’s worth it. Even if its one kid, it’s worth it. And among these girls in these camps, there is a high suicide rate, and they get married so young. It’s worth it to see them discover something like this they can do.
AH: And you had been in India just before heading to Iraq?
JJ: I planned that India trip on the way, I did a gig in Mumbai. I bookended this trip with India, through Qatar, the Netherlands, then afterward got home to Portland OR, packed up my 6 and 9 year old and took them to Mexico. We went to the city of Mérida in the Yucatan, then my wife joined us and I did some concerts. It was weird to bookend Iraq with India and Mexico, which are two of the more vibrant cultures of the world. I mean, Iraq — that area of Kurdistan — invented civilization; they literally invented wheat. And with all that, they couldn’t have embraced the chili and the lime and the color pink? (laughs)
AH: And you had been working on an album right before all this?
JJ: I’m making this record with Patterson Hood producing it, and so right before I left for Iraq I was in Mississippi, recording at Dial Back Sound. Matt Patton and those guys were my band. We cut all those songs, and have been mixing it here in Portland.
AH: What is your connection with that area?
I used to be really infatuated with Oxford, Mississippi as a San Diego kid. Originally I brought the band Widespread Panic out to the west for the first time, in 1990. I started having connections in the south because of them. And then in 1992 I lost what was supposed to be a really big record deal with Capricorn. For years Phil Walden would even be calling my Mom about this deal. It was going to be Widespread Panic, Colonel Bruce, Danny Hutchens and Bloodkin, and me. And at the last minute they didn’t sign me or Danny. And the reason they didn’t sign me was because I just wasn’t Southern. Which was too bad. I’ve also made a number of records in Athens, Georgia.
I made this record Love and Happiness in Alabama, and Patterson’s Dad played bass on it, and I wanted to live in Oxford, MS; I mean it was where William Faulkner was from, and it was cool, and had a great literary theme. But the shine came off the apple for me about the South.
But it was nice to go back to Water Valley, to record at Dial Back Sound. That is just 20 minutes south of Oxford. It’s a super hip town, and with all the artists of Oxford, it’s the Woodstock of Mississippi. There are a couple studios, and bunch of galleries.
AH: And you have a solo tour coming up?
JJ: Yes. I’m doing storytelling with Will Kimbrough and Andrew Nelson at City Winery in Nashville on May 13th and then May 17th at the Basement in Nashville. I met Will Kimbrough and a guy named Phil Madeira at 30A songwriting festival in Florida and they were really lovely to me. They both play with Emmylou Harris. And I ended up in a songwriter’s circle with them and, they play in the same band and they knew each other’s songs, they knew each others harmonies, and then it was my turn and I was thinking “what the f-ck am I gonna do?” But they were really nice to me, and said I should come to Nashville. I’ve always resisted the idea of moving to Nashville – it was probably 20 years ago the first time somebody said to me “you ought to move to Nashvile.” Phil Madeira said my songs are iconic. Not something that people can simply take and easily make their own.
AH: Your songs are complex, though, too.
JJ: Well that’s what I thought was the point of songs.
We think so too. Check out Jerry Joseph’s tour schedule and all things Jerry Joseph, here: www.jerryjoseph.com
Jerry Joseph Solo Tour Dates:
May 8 – The 8 x 10, Baltimore, MD
May 10 – The Abbey Bar, Harrisburg, PA
May 11 – Rockwood Music Hall, NYC, NY
May 13 – City Winery, Nashville, TN – with Will Kimbrough and Andrew Nelson (Doors 5pm, show 7pm, $10)
May 17 – The Basement, Nashville, TN – with Chris Gelbuda and Chuck Canon in the round (Doors 6:30pm, show 7pm, $10)
May 18 – B-Side, Memphis, TN
May 19 – Blue Canoe, Tupelo, MS