Musician Jerry Joseph Brings Music to War Torn Iraq and Afghanistan

Jerry Joseph
Tony Morey
Jerry Joseph
Portland, Oregon, rocker Jerry Joseph remembers the first song he wrote as a six-year-old. It was inspired by a graphic version of the Fab Four. “The Beatles had a Saturday morning cartoon show," he recalls, "I remember watching, and I already had a guitar, and I wrote a song. That’s kind of all I ever wanted to do."

Joseph, who has been touring and playing for more than 30 years, explains his generation as one too young to be inspired by the Ed Sullivan Show and too old to be influenced by the Velvet Underground. A a solo artist who has written songs for Widespread Panic, his past bands include '80s ska specialists Little Women, power trio the Jackmormons, supergroup Stockholm Syndrome, and two-piece The Denmark Veseys. Besides touring for a living, he recently brought music to young Syrian Kurdish refugees in Iraq and Afghani kids in Kabul.

Joseph's relentless travel has both perks and drawbacks. Back in Oregon, he has kids, ages 4 and 7. "Walking out the door is always difficult. Is it really worth it?" he wonders. "I was reading this thing not long ago that Sir David Attenborough said. They asked him what his biggest regret was, and he said missing the years of his children's lives between 4 and 8. It really struck me."

On the flip side, he recognizes that touring can be addictive. His own father, James Joseph, was a frequent traveler, a renowned marine biologist, tuna conservationist, and expert on tuna fisheries. Growing up in La Jolla California, he remembers his father calling every two weeks from remote locations like the Maldives. Traveling is in his blood.

"I’ve always traveled a lot. A few years ago, my band would do weird stuff like three nights in Nicaragua or New Year's Eve in Costa Rica. We had that kind of fan base. It was never an all inclusive thing," he says of his adventurous followers. "That turned into me going to places I never thought I'd get invited to."

On one tour, he played both Israel and Lebanon — something controversial in both countries that was noted widely in the press there. On the trip back he also reached back to his roots. His paternal grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian; they settled in East L.A. and had 13 kids. Joseph took advantage of that time in Lebanon to visit the area from which his Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) ancestor's hailed.

Despite many warnings, he got a driver to head into Hezbollah country. Once they saw Christian militia signs, they knew they were headed in the right direction. He thought to go to the oldest church in town because he assumed his grandmother was baptized there. He wanted to light a candle in her memory. The driver asked around to see if anyone knew his grandfather. He met a big guy who punched a key in his phone, and then came over and kissed him. "We thought we were getting kidnapped," he reflects of the tense scene. Two Range Rovers rode up, and instead of criminals exiting, out came a gaggle of crying women, thrilled about his return.

"I kept ending up in places where there were war and conflict," he says. A friend of a friend established a music school in Kabul, Afghanistan. There was fatwa (something like an Islamic death sentence) against aid workers there. So, they invited him to come to the underground co-ed Rock School Kabul. He raised money for instruments and taught the kids there to play.

"I really enjoyed it. It’s a pretty small footprint," he says modestly.

This spring a friend in Iraq invited him to bring guitars and supplies and to perform and teach music to the residents of a permanent refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

"For me, it was pretty profound. There were these teenage girls learning to play, Syrian Kurds. I wonder sometimes about the power or magic of music, but we certainly attach a lot to it," he says reflecting on his impact. "I think that there are these moments that I’ve found where music does make a difference. Showing these kids how to play a few guitar chords or teaching them 'Three Little Birds' by Bob Marley and teaching them about empowerment. It doesn't matter if it’s clay or dance shoes, no one can take it away from you. They can take the guitar, but they can’t take your brain. A lot of these people feel alone, and you go, 'Here [hand them a guitar], You’re not alone.'" He notes that putting their music on Facebook also connects them to the whole world, something unique to this era.

He's working on turning this work of bringing music to war torn areas into a nonprofit. There's no name yet for the budding organization. He's struggling with a mission statement. "I want to go wherever the hell I want with a guitar," he jokes of his intentions. But to reach those goals, he has to tour to raise money.

He's been pushing to play in Miami for a while, since it's one of two big American cities he's never played — the other is Detroit. He has a free happy hour show at Wynwood Yard on Friday, and is playing both the Funky Biscuit and Guanabanas this week. Catch his show and buy some merch to support the power of music and Joseph's mission to bring it to children affected by war in places other people are scared to go.

Follow Joseph on Facebook to stay on top of his trips to war torn countries.

Jerry Joseph. With Particle. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 5, at Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Royal Palm Place, Boca Raton; Admission costs $25.

Jerry Joseph. 5 p.m. Friday, October 6, at Wynwood Yard, the lots at 56, 64, 70, 82 NW 29 St., Miami, for a special happy hour show; Admission is free.

Jerry Joseph. 9 p.m. Saturday, October 7, at Guanabanas, 960 North Highway A1A, Jupiter;