U.S. Diplomacy: Hitting the Right Notes

Chen Lo and the Liberation Family in performance in Amar, Jordan, as part of the U.S. State Department's Rhythm Road program. The Brooklyn music group traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Chen Lo and the Liberation Family in performance in Amar, Jordan, as part of the U.S. State Department's Rhythm Road program. The Brooklyn music group traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
State Department

The Declaration of Independence refers to "a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind." And winning over modern-day world opinion is precisely what some low-key citizen ambassadors are trying to do right now. Striking THE RIGHT NOTE is key to their mission, as Tracy Smith reports now in our Cover Story:

On any given day, somewhere in the world, they're lining up . . . to hate us.

But even in places where they denounce the United States, the U.S. government is, in many cases, reaching out . . . with music.

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis is part of that effort.

"They want to love our country," Marsalis said. "We have to present them a side of it that is lovable."

The singers Oscar Williams and the Perfected Praise are now on tour in Eastern Europe. They're just one of the music groups the U.S. State Department sends around the world every year representing America.

The program, called the Rhythm Road, is a $1.5 million-a-year effort, in partnership with the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization.

There's no speech-making . . . no U.S. aid handouts . . . just Americans performing American songs.

In this kind of diplomatic mission, the music does all the talking.

When asked if there are times a musician can do her job better, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton replied, "Well, I think that there are certainly times when music conveys American values better than a speech.

"And for an American performer or group to come, gives people a chance to, in their own imagination at least, think about what might be."

It's not a new idea. Beginning in the 1950s, the State Department sent musicians like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and others to diplomatic hotspots overseas.

"The interesting thing is at that time, a lot of those guys didn't agree with the policies of our government. But they still represented our government overseas," said Smith.

"Right, well, because they weren't representing the government; they were representing the people," said Marsalis. "And they recognized that many times, a government does not necessarily act with the will of its people."

Politics aside, the musical ambassadors played the world. By late 1961, jazz icon Dave Brubeck was a State Department tour veteran.

On the CBS News program "20th Century" on December 31, 1961, Walter Cronkite asked Brubeck, "Dave, you've been all over the world now. Do you think people around the world react the same way to music? Is music an international language?"

"Rhythm is an international language," Brubeck said.

The years may have taken a little of the spring out of Dave Brubeck's step, but at 89, his belief in the power of music burns as bright as ever.

"I'll tell you, the more exchange with artists, all kinds of artists, the better this world will be," he told Smith.

It's not clear how much music can shape world events. But for one brief shining moment in 1988, Dave Brubeck's jazz quartet did what mere diplomacy could not.

When President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. President Mikhail Gorbachev were at a standstill during a Moscow summit, Brubeck and his quartet got up to play.

What happened in that room? Smith asked.

"The simplest thing, and the most wonderful thing: The room started keeping time," Brubeck said. "All these people who almost hated each other were swinging, all together."

His performance even drew praise from Secretary of State George Shultz, whom Brubeck recalls saying the musician "kind of saved the summit."

"You chuckle when you say that," Smith said.

"Yeah, because it's so unbelievable!" he laughed.

"Do you think cultural diplomacy helped end the Cold War?" Smith asked.

"Oh, yeah!" Brubeck replied.

Brubeck has retired from overseas touring, and the world has changed in other ways.

The State Department now sends music groups to places like Syria, a country on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But where jazz was the coolest sound of the 1950s, the young target audience in Syria calls for a totally different kind of music, such as Chen Lo and the Liberation Family, a hip hop band from Brooklyn, New York.

Why would the State Department pay to send a hip-hop band overseas?

"Hip-hop is America," Clinton said. "And so is jazz and so is every other form of music with American roots that tell a story."

What did Chen Lo think when told they would be sent to Syria? "Didn't know what to think, you know, at first."

Instead of a big concert hall, Chen Lo's venue was a converted restaurant in Damascus' old city . . . packed with curious kids.

But from the opening note, it was clear that the Syrian teens liked what they heard.

Some kids said the experience changed their minds about Americans: "They were very down-to-earth," one girl told Smith. "Nothing like anyone ever says about Americans."

Smith asked Chen Lo if there was a connection made with the audience and if, "for that moment, you made a difference?"

"No question. Definitely. The impact was felt, I think, in both ways. I know I was affected."

"I know it sounds like it's very basic, but sometimes you've got to get back to basics," said Clinton. "And we have to rebuild the image of our country, who we are as a people, where, you know, we are the most incredibly diverse, successful, freedom-loving people in the history of the world. And I want everybody to understand that."

"You say it sounds a little basic," said Smith. "To some people, it sounds a little 'kum-bay-yah,' like, Oh, come on, let's go to Syria and throw a free concert and join hands in peace."

"You know, it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can't point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Low and the Liberation Family showed up," Clinton said. "But I think that we have to use every tool at our disposal.

"You have to bet at the end of the day, people will choose freedom over tyranny if they're given a choice. So we move a lot of different pieces on the chessboard every day. It's multi-dimensional chess, if you will. And our cultural diplomacy is an important part of that."

"Hip-Hop can be a chess piece?

"Absolutely!" Clinton laughed.

And maybe music can be a bridge.

"Musicians, we're not there to threaten anything; we're not there to take anything," said Marsalis. "We're there to give something and to bring something. We're not there to proselytize. We're there to play. And I think people understand that."

For more info:
The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad (U.S. State Dept.)
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Rhythm Road at Jazz at Lincoln Center
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