Somewhere etched in memories and images of Louis Armstrong being royally greeted by throngs in Cairo and blowing his trumpet to the ear of the sandy sphinx, or of Duke Ellington’s regal jazz ambassadorship as he stared down at sitars, American cultural diplomacy found its groove.
The American Music Abroad program represents the evolution of the great Jazz Ambassadors tours organized by the State Department that once had the world enthralled with a swinging new beat of U.S. public diplomacy. Today, American Music Abroad artists represent the new generation of citizen diplomats creating musical exchanges abroad.
American Voices administers the American Music Abroad program on behalf of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Since 1993, American Voices has been conducting cultural diplomacy as a means to foster people-to-people connections. Founded with a focus on bringing American music and culture to the recently independent nations of Central and Eastern Europe, American Voices has expanded its mission to support youth through cultural and educational programs in nations emerging from conflict or isolation. The bands that are sent overseas participate in public concerts, lectures, demonstrations, workshops, media outreach and collaborations with local musicians.
To project the full spectrum of the American musical landscape, all musical genres are invited to apply for the American Music Abroad program. The most recent season included blues, bluegrass, cajun, country, folk, Latin, Native American, gospel, hip hop, indie rock, jazz, R&B and zydeco. In short, any and all musical traditions that can claim roots in the diverse American musical canon are welcome to apply.
The crop of musical diplomats for the 2012-13 season were selected from nearly 300 applications; music ensembles applied from more than 40 states, as well as D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and represented a tremendous variety of musical styles and world-class experience. From bluegrass to hip hop to Hawaiian slack key guitar, American Music Abroad is designed to communicate the nation’s rich contributions to the global music scene as it fosters cross-cultural communication and people-to-people connections.
Prior to going abroad, American Music Abroad ensembles perform and work with students in Washington, D.C., as they conduct their orientation. Before heading off on a five-country tour in Africa, the Detroit-based hip hop group Mahogany Jones-Live had a poignant and inspiring concert at Duke Ellington School of the Arts — poignant because of the connection to a school named for the pioneering Jazz Ambassador, and inspiring as Mahogany Jones rhymed to teach girls respect and empowerment through hip hop poetry.
American Music Abroad ensembles traveled to nearly 50 countries around the world during the 2012-13 touring season. These musical diplomats perform at national halls and offer master classes to music students. And they reach beyond concert halls and classrooms to collaborate with local musicians.
“Communicating through rhythm and melodies is an experience that transcends boundaries and transcends language,” said mandolin player Eric Robertson with the Boston Boys, which just concluded a musical tour through the Middle East, from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
I recently toured with the dynamic five-girl bluegrass group Della Mae for a “Bluegrass on the Silk Road” tour of South and Central Asia. American Music Abroad activities focus on younger and underserved audiences in countries with little or no access to live American performances. As such, Della Mae kicked off their tour in Islamabad, Pakistan, at the all-female Fatima Jinnah University.
Della Mae’s presence on campus was akin to that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones — students at the country’s first female university were so excited to hear the female bluegrass band that they literally tore the doors off the hinges of the theater to get in on the sound check warm-up. “We’ve never played for crowds so excited and enthused to hear live music,” said Della Mae fiddler Kimber Ludiker.
Meanwhile, the emphasis on collaborating with local musicians on songs resonates with local audiences. While on their tour of Thailand amid a Southeast Asian swing, the Alabama acoustic rock band Act of Congress worked with Thai music students to learn and perform “His Majesty’s Blues,” a piece written by the Thai monarch, borne out of his days jamming with the Jazz Ambassadors.
As it looks forward to a new season of sending American talent abroad, the American Music Abroad program is building on the rich legacy of U.S. cultural outreach, while shaping a whole new generation of musical diplomats.
About the Author
Paul S. Rockower is the communications director for American Voices, a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to administer the American Music Abroad program. Musicians interested in applying for the American Music Abroad 2013-14 season can find application information at www.americanvoices.org/ama.