To build harmony, trumpet America's melody
We should use our musical traditions to show other nations our best side.
BANGKOK, THAILAND — On Sept. 12, 2001, American culture suddenly became a premium export product. The attack that was both a tragedy and an awakening for our nation propelled my small nonprofit organization, American Voices, into overdrive and onto the stages of Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beirut, Lebanon. Our mission is to bring American musicians and culture to parts of the world emerging from isolation and conflict. Overnight, we transformed from a quaint endeavor in the cold war's aftermath to an essential tool in communicating who we are as a people and as a nation.
I moved to Europe in 1989 to pursue my career as a concert pianist. Immediately, I was drawn into an exciting cultural dialogue with the newly open societies of Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
American Voices worked closely with the United States Information Agency (USIA) to provide performances and expertise. We also donated music scores and educational materials of American genres such as musical theater, country, ragtime, jazz, blues, and opera.
The intense dialogue of the early 1990s gradually slowed to a halt as Congress put an end to the USIA in 1999 with the rationale that we had "won the cold war." The short-sightedness of this decision became glaringly apparent as we woke to new realities and responsibilities in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.
As one of the few US arts organizations with extensive experience in the Middle East and Central Asia, American Voices was able to respond nimbly to the new challenges of communicating American culture and values abroad. Within months of the disaster, we were organizing jazz festivals, Broadway shows, and opera performances with Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Lebanese, and Omanis.
The culmination of these efforts was our Jazz Bridges Afghanistan project last October – the first concert of American music for an Afghan audience in more than 25 years. It was a heartwarming week in which we brought a quartet of jazz musicians together with five traditional Afghan musicians and an Afghan pop trio. Our concerts had the Afghan audience dancing in the aisles, and these joyous images were broadcast nationwide by radio and TV. This project will start to reach a wider audience in the West through our upcoming concerts in February 2007 at the festival of Muslim cultures in London.
After an initial surge of support from Congress and the White House in 2002, funding for cultural diplomacy has again run out of steam. However, the need to communicate our vision and values as a nation has never been more urgent. Given the huge audiences American cultural programs draw, the glee local media take in broadcasting our interactive performances, and the tiny fraction of the federal government's budget that these programs cost, exporting our culture is cost-effective over the long term in promoting mutual understanding and, therefore, security.
Our culture is powerful. The musical art forms that America built grew from the intermingling of our myriad ethnic and folk traditions. They are among the best ways we have to communicate the best of what we are as a nation to the rest of the world.
It might be a stretch, but try for a moment to imagine the hope and inspiration a Broadway show, blues festival, break-dancing workshop, or concert can bring to an entire nation emerging from isolation or conflict.
A frequent comment from Afghans who saw the performance in Kabul was, "Your concert makes us feel normal again." If you factor in local musicians performing these genres together with a handful of American soloists or, better yet, fusing their traditional music with ours, it becomes especially powerful.
There is still a deep well of appreciation for our culture and ideals. It would be wise public policy to nurture this appreciation. Through artistic dialogue, we can lead one another out of the gathering darkness of mutual distrust. The possibilities for this type of exchange are endless, and Americans, more than any others, have the means and the imperative to continue the communication.
• John Ferguson is executive director of American Voices, a nonprofit organization based in Houston that brings American cultural diplomacy to more than 80 countries worldwide.