Music Reaches Sri Lankan Youth

Billy Fox 92C empowers children in Sri Lanka through music

By Michelle Valigursky

The creative journey often begins with notes of inspiration. Billy Fox 92C, an award-winning New York City-based composer and director "who is increasingly discovering connections between the worlds of music and film," began his scholarly career as a history major with every intention of pursuing a PhD in German history. His career path, he describes, "is an unfolding process about how my interests intersect."

A drummer in his teens, Fox started playing music again after he graduated from Emory. He shifted gears, pursued an additional degree in music performance, and has never looked back. "I realized in music school that I had a knack for composing."

In the intervening years since Emory, Fox founded the Kitsune Ensemble, a chamber group "inspired by rare facets of Japanese culture." He writes, "Although our music draws from traditional Japanese elements such as Koto tunings and Shakuhachi stylings, we perform on Western instruments and combine classical, jazz, free improvisation, funk, and other contemporary idioms." The group is comprised of American and Japanese musicians who have performed at venues such as the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery of Art.

Fox's fascination with Japanese culture drives his current research in rural Shimane Prefecture on Shinto ceremonies known as Kagura. With financial support from the Asian Cultural Council, he explains, "I'm currently in the developmental phase for an expansive interdisciplinary piece inspired by the folklore and performing arts of Shimane." This fall, Fox will return to Japan to do "pre-production work for an art film featuring several different Kagura groups performing in isolated mountain shrines."

Fox has been described as a composer "who uses his orchestra as an instrument." He is also the founder of Blackbirds & Bullets, a sextet blending jazz improvisation with musical elements from around the world.

With albums, film scores, and even screenplays to his credit, Fox admits he "chose the right path" in pursuing the artist's life over academia. In 2010, he joined Cartwheel Initiative, an artists' collective that volunteers to inspire youth in areas as diverse as Sri Lanka and New York City. Fox recognizes "the interpersonal connections we make through Cartwheel are hands-down the most fulfilling thing I've ever done as an artist."

The Cartwheel Journey Toward Healing Begins

Cartwheel Initiative was born in 2010 after New York-based photographer Ashok Sinha and 10 other journalists were granted special access to north Sri Lanka, an "area that was synonymous with the fighting between government forces and the LTTE, a militant separatist group seeking a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority." He quickly realized "The scars of battle were visible everywhere and even more prevalent was a silence—one that is synonymous with my memory of the post-9/11 days in New York." Returning to America, Sinha conceived a vision to "use art as a non-political and non-denominational tool to understand what the children are thinking today." Cartwheel Initiative was born, and Sinha rallied creative artisans like Fox to contribute their time and talents to better the youth of a beleaguered nation.

From 1983 to 2009, "Sri Lanka experienced a devastating ethnic civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Fighting for an independent Tamil state, the LTTE clashed violently with government forces with estimated casualties of more than 80,000 people and crippled the country's economy, infrastructure, and environment," the Cartwheel Initiative website explains.

The need for cultural enrichment is ongoing. "With the end of the war, fractured families are finally returning to their villages. But the landscape is broken, with more than 1.5 million landmines littering the countryside and most homes and schools destroyed," Sinha explains. "Children still suffer from profound psychological distress."

Through 2011 workshops in graphic design, collage, photography, and music, Cartwheel Initiative "inspired youth to find their voices and tell stories about their communities," Sinha explains. In 2013, the focus turned to stop-motion animation, with student films recently premiering at the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York City.

After two successful trips, the group is now raising funds for its next expedition to Sri Lanka in August 2014. Fox says, "I can't wait to collaborate again with my students from our previous workshops, and help empower them to move forward independently as artists."

The Beat of Creative Connection

Cartwheel aims to help children ameliorate their war- and natural disaster-compromised concepts of home and identity. From the first trip in 2011 it was apparent that reaching this goal was not without its challenges.

Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, Fox and his colleagues were met with primitive conditions, nonexistent supplies, and an abundance of students. "This forced us to improvise. In my workshops, I used plastic bottles filled with rice in lieu of maracas, rhythms were often practiced by hand clapping, and my students did a whole lot of sharing of the instruments Cartwheel did manage to bring to Sri Lanka," Fox shares.

For the 2013 trip, Fox taught music composition coordinated with stop-motion animation workshops. Cartwheel brought together Tamil survivors of the Civil War, and Sinhalese survivors of the 2004 tsunami. "Seeing these students working side by side and forming genuine friendships affirmed the power of art to transform lives and heal profound wounds. We have recently launched a program in New York (modeled on our Sri Lanka workshops) with displaced teenagers from other countries who have fled conflict and natural disaster. I'm honored to work with Cartwheel going forward as we expand our program here at home and journey to other countries beyond Sri Lanka."

Editor's Note: Composer/director Billy Fox has received awards and commissions from the Asian Cultural Council, the American Composers Forum, the Japan Foundation, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Puffin Foundation, and the MacPhail Center for Music. His music has also appeared in the films Paper Man, Backwards, and Rhyme Animal.

Learn more about how you can support Cartwheel Initiative or volunteer your time and talents.

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Michelle Valigursky