Cultural Exchange: A Journey to Self-Discovery

Coco Zhao is China’s foremost jazz vocalist who has created a unique expression of the genre which combines Chinese and Western styles. He performs regularly in China and abroad with his Shanghai ensemble ‘Possicobilities’ Originally from Hunan, Coco studied at the Wuhan Conservatory and the Shanghai Conservatory where he studied western composition. He recently spent several months in the U.S. where he attended the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, performed in San Francisco and studied in New York with master jazz vocalists. His ACC program was funded by the Désirée and Hans Michael Jebsen Fellowship.


Cultural Exchange: A Journey to Self-Discovery
by Michelle Vosper

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes. --- Marcel Proust

This often-quoted line by Marcel Proust aptly describes the ultimate goal of a cultural exchange experience and will ring true among many ACC grantees. Most grantees travel to the U.S. or to Asia “seeking new landscapes” which will give them exposure to a world of unimagined possibilities and stretch their creative limits. In all cases this aspiration is realized and the results exceed all expectations if the grantee is fully open to the unfamiliar.

What often comes as a surprise in the exchange experience, however, is the gift of “new eyes” which come to gaze upon their own culture and history with a new respect. They are filled with the desire to delve more deeply into how it has shaped them and their work. This leap in self-awareness can trigger a major creative breakthrough for some artists, although it sometimes comes to fruition only years later.

Travelling to faraway places gives us all the distance needed to gain a fresh perspective on our homeland and can bring us to value what is unique and distinctive about our own culture.

Grantee Coco Zhao is a case in point. China’s leading jazz vocalist, Coco recently returned to Shanghai after spending half a year in the U.S . Coco received his musical training at the Shanghai Conservatory in western composition and he later moved into jazz as his own artistic expression. While his repertoire includes old Shanghai jazz sung in Chinese, his orientation has always been western and more contemporary. He applied to the ACC to study the authentic, traditional roots of this art form which America proudly claims as an indigenous genre.

His trip in the U.S. was a kaleidoscopic adventure filled with concerts, workshops and festivals in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans where he met legendary musicians, hung out in little jazz clubs and jammed on street corners with local musicians. But the highlight of his whole trip was a collaboration in San Francisco with Larry Reed and Shadow Light Productions which brought him back to his own cultural roots.

Reed is a jazz musician who directs cross-cultural cross-media performance and who gives collaborating artists space to create their own story and musical language. So Coco met the challenge and took a risk: he used singing and poetry reading techniques from Chinese opera, and the result was stupendous and very rewarding. The performance proved to be an epiphany for Coco. “I learned that my Chinese culture is so rich and deep that it will sparkle in any circumstance.”

Culture exchange forces us to look in the mirror and begin an arduous process of soul-searching that might last a lifetime. It can bring us home to our own roots, but it also challenges us to question values and beliefs that we once took for granted. Like good art, culture exchange does not give any answers or solve any problems. It just raises more questions and keeps us wondering forever. And it inspires many artists to expand their thinking and move into new creative directions.

Coco Zhao has returned to China and will continue his career as an international jazz vocalist. But he is not the same Coco Zhao as the one who applied for an ACC grant in 2009. We look forward to seeing where the wonderful cultural exchange conundrums will lure him in his artistic journey.