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After teaching rock music in Kabul, songwriter Jerry Joseph turns toward optimism

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: April 12
  • Published April 12

Jerry Joseph (left) and the Jackmormoms (Photo by Tony Morey)

Jerry Joseph thrives on the unfamiliar. He seems drawn to upheaval.

The turbulent adventures of Joseph began when he was young and his family moved around the world while his father, an international fisheries scientist, shifted from job location to job location.

"We were in Nicaragua and El Salvador during testy moments for those countries and in Costa Rica," he said.

His musical career has followed a similar path, as he explored darkness and defiance in his solo work with backing band the Jackmormons, as well as with previous groups Little Women and Stockholm Syndrome.

In recent years, Joseph has taken his talents into some of the most unstable regions of the world, bringing gear and musical know-how to refugees and oppressed groups.

In 2015, Joseph traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, to deliver instruments and teach students in an underground "school of rock."

"A friend of mine was running a rock school in Kabul, and I had just done a tour of Lebanon and Israel," Joseph said. "The Taliban had put a fatwa on American aid workers. My friend said 'Hey, man, you go to those weird places, would you mind coming, because our teachers are leaving?'"

Jerry Joseph (Photo by Michael Schoenfeld)

"We did a bunch of fundraising and brought a bunch of gear to this rock school. It was cool. It wasn't a normal classroom. The kids would walk in 5 miles. One kid wanted to do 'Dancing with the Stars.' The woman who ran the Afghan Women's Symphony, this super ballsy woman, she would teach the girls violin. I would get angry teenage boys who wanted to learn Megadeth songs."

Joseph admits the trip wasn't pure altruism on his part, saying sometimes he wonders if it's more a product of his swashbuckling spirit than just making a contribution to the kids.

"Now you might hear about Jerry's selfless bravery," he said. "My wife is like, 'The only reason you do that is so you can drop that at a cocktail party.'"

Regardless of motive, Joseph believes the trip and other similar voyages have made a difference.

"Is this good for the kids or good for me?" he asked. "I don't know, but we had a kid who was either on a route to suicide or joining a fundamentalist group. Now he posts (songs) every day. Is that worth $50,000? You affect one kid and I think at the end of the day it's worth it. I was a pretty troubled kid, and people put a lot of effort into me."

That trip led to both other musical outreach efforts and inspiration for new songs Joseph penned during the downtime between teaching sessions and after his return to the U.S.

Last year, Joseph made a similar trip to work with Kurdish refugees in Iraq.

He said he had heard a bit of backlash when people noticed some of the young refugees had cellphones, feeling like it implied they weren't in such dire straits.

"Imagine you live in Omaha (Nebraska) and someone comes to the door and says you need to leave right now," he said. "You're 16 years old and what are you grabbing? There was this moment with them."

But the ability to access social media and share their musical creations was a major tool for engagement, according to Joseph.

"I'm teaching you the guitar because it's what I know, and personally it saved my life," he said. "It can be paints or dance shoes or clay. If you think differently, they can't take that away from you. But they wanted to know, who will ever know my songs or know my art? We live in a new world, and you can connect with anyone on earth. That's when you could see the lights go on with those girls."

That trip has softened the admittedly black-hearted Joseph, who along with his band has started a nonprofit to advance the type of work he did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And his music has taken on a more uplifting vision.

"I'm so known for my dark music," he said. "In Afghanistan, I figured the last thing anyone needs is another dark Jerry Joseph song, so I tried to write a little more hopeful. My kids are 5 and 8 and they still live in a world of magic. I'm really political, abrasive. I'm not afraid to say what I believe. At the same time, I felt like there was more need for songs that have a shred of optimism."

In coordination with Record Store Day, Joseph is releasing a new LP, "Full Metal Burqa," later this month.

The album, loaded with songs inspired by Joseph's trips into war zones, was recorded at Bob Weir's TRI Studios and produced by Dave Schools, Joseph's partner in Stockholm Syndrome.

The record comes on the heels of a full-length release from Joseph. "Weird Blood" was released in mid-November last year and features a collection of rockers Joseph wrote in a tiny home just blocks from his home in Portland. Joseph cranked out the songs in one weekend and added a few tracks he'd written in Scotland, giving the album a bold sense of immediacy.

"I rented this tiny house close to my house so I could be home for dinner and take the kids to school," he said. "It was a weird long weekend — the weekend Bowie died — and I wrote eight songs. I tend to write the songs and run out and teach the band, and we're playing it in two days.

There's definitely this feel to it."

Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons

With opener Tim Bluhm

Where: The Sitzmark in Girdwood

When: 9 p.m. and show at 9:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, April 12-14

Tickets: $10, thesitzmark.com

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