Saving the World with Banjos: American Roots Music as Cultural Diplomacy
The young ladies of Pakistan’s Fatima Jinnah Women University could not compose themselves. Word had rippled across campus that an all-female band from America was setting up in the assembly hall, and when the students got there and found the doors locked, they started banging. And hollering. And pushing. Until a school official grew concerned that the doors might come off their hinges.
On the other side of the door, bluegrass band Della Mae was attempting to sound check in the most surreal circumstances of their career. The five women had landed just a few hours before, after flights from Washington, D.C., to Kuwait to Islamabad. Upon arrival, they’d been told that an unplanned opportunity to perform had come up. The minders asked if they’d be willing – jet lag and all – to jump in and get started.
“I’ve never experienced culture shock like that before in my whole life,” remembers lead singer Celia Woodsmith. “This was our first big trip abroad. And I just remember walking out with our [airport] carts into this sea of people. And everyone was looking at us. It was the weirdest thing.”
A hired car took them to the campus, where they were met by a solicitous welcoming committee with tea and cookies. Still, the band couldn’t help but feel a bit tense. “Because a lot of people before we left told us, ‘Don’t go. It’s dangerous. What are you thinking?’ We got a lot of that,” Woodsmith says. “But we’re there, and we’re hearing all of this screaming and pounding on doors. My first reaction was certainly NOT: ‘Oh, this is so great; they’re pounding on the doors to come see us!’”
But they were, and with a passion not unlike Beatlemania.
“All the girls came running in screaming like crazed fans,” recalls the band’s on-the-ground facilitator John Ferguson, who established and runs the American Voices organization that organizes about ten trips per year for American bands. “And so all during sound check you had an audience applauding for everything they did.”
“They came right up, stood at the front of the stage and stood there the whole time,” says Woodsmith. “We started off with our song ‘Turtle Dove,’ and they really latched on to the yodel in that song. Every time it would happen they would scream.”
The show blurred into a giant meet-and-greet, with hugs, questions in passable English from some of the women, and the first round of what would prove to be a storm of selfies with young audiences all over Central Asia. The show, says Ferguson, “set the tone for the rest of that tour and really opened the band’s idea as to what they could accomplish as cultural diplomats.”
Cultural diplomacy is a new name for an ancient impulse to share music, dance, food, theater, arts, and crafts across national boundaries as a tool of statecraft. It’s a huge part of the concept of “soft power” – a theory made famous by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye that rejects old-fashioned propaganda in favor of the most vital resource of the information age, which Nye identifies as “credibility.” Well, there’s nothing more credible than bluegrass and folk music, and in a remarkable turn of events, the U.S. State Department has, over the past decade, shifted its cultural diplomacy focus from a diet of nearly all jazz to a robust mix of vernacular music, including hip-hop, folk, and bluegrass.
To many children of the 1960s, folk music was the definitive voice of the counterculture, and the government would have been as likely to send Peter, Paul and Mary or Pete Seeger abroad to represent America as it would have been to give our missile launch codes to Khrushchev. Indeed, the political forces that generally disdained soft power reached for a folk music metaphor to disparage it as “joining hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’.” Yet during the Cold War, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles initiated the Jazz Ambassadors program, which sent Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and others to Iron Curtain countries and the so-called Third World. Some today swear the ultimate triumph of the West had more to do with those visits and simultaneous jazz radio on Voice of America – which surreptitiously reached young people in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia – than with our military buildup.
Then came a period of relative stability and complacency. Cultural diplomacy dwindled and was essentially snuffed out with the elimination of the United States Information Agency in 1999. But only a few years later, as the Iraq War got complicated, even the George W. Bush administration realized it had better bring cultural diplomacy back from the dead, because it just might save lives and influence the battle of ideas between the U.S. and radical Islamism.
“After September 11, there was suddenly this realization that we’d neglected cultural exchange programs for a decade and we need to get back to it,” says Ferguson, who’s seen this form of diplomacy fall and rise again in a 20-year career in the field. “We had a problem where we were not understanding each other and we needed to start a dialogue again.”
Contemporaneous accounts agree. A remarkable document from 2005 outlines the findings of an expert commission on cultural diplomacy. At a time when the Iraq war was still popular at home, the white paper, from within Bush’s own State Department, bluntly cited the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, and U.S. policy toward Israel as inflammatory and damaging to our interests. “America is viewed in much of the world less as a beacon of hope than as a dangerous force to be countered,” the panel reported. “This view diminishes our ability to champion freedom, democracy, and individual dignity — ideas that continue to fuel hope for oppressed peoples everywhere. The erosion of our trust and credibility within the international community must be reversed if we hope to use more than our military and economic might in the shaping of world opinion. Culture matters.”
The study calls for more attention on and better funding for cultural diplomacy, arguing it “can enhance our national security in subtle, wide ranging, and sustainable ways. But limited resources and a lack of government-wide focus restrict our efforts in the battle for the hearts and minds of people everywhere.”
What got rolling during the Bush years picked up steam during the Obama years and Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Clinton went on CBS Sunday Morning a few years ago to endorse music diplomacy, which at the time was being run by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Today, the core program is called American Music Abroad (AMA), administered by the 20-year-old nonprofit NGO American Voices. This is the story of four artists, all well known in American roots music circles, who’ve supplemented their agendas, incomes, and souls with AMA tours in some extremely remote parts of the world.
It’s Not Just a Gig; It’s an Adventure
Bluegrass mandolinist, singer, and band leader Sierra Hull was taken in one improbable trip to the island nation of Micronesia in the South Pacific Ocean and then to the West Bank and Jerusalem, where she played for Palestinian refugees and orphans. The Henhouse Prowlers, a bluegrass band from Chicago, has two diplomatic trips to Africa on its resume, including a nearly five-week marathon that touched down in Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, and Brazzaville, Congo. Barbara Lamb – journeywoman fiddler for Doug Seegers and, before that, Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel and singer-songwriter Laura Love – has done three major trips abroad: two to Russia and a wild ride in the South Pacific in a trio with old-time masters Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. They’re typical of a wave of artists who’ve been accepted and supported by the State Department’s program. Progressive bluegrass/string band The Boston Boys went to Egypt, Cyprus, and Saudi Arabia in 2012 – a trip that directly inspired their friends Della Mae to apply to AMA. Della Mae consequently did an AMA stint in Central Asia (including Pakistan) in 2012 and Saudi Arabia in 2014, plus a third trip to Brazil last summer. The Amigos, accordion-driven Americana from New York, went to Vietnam and Cambodia, among other Southeast Asian locales.
AMA’s recent emphasis on bluegrass and folk music stems from a sense that in-country collaboration with local musicians is the most effective way to reach audiences. Folk musicians “can hear anything and play it back,” says Ferguson. “They can step into almost any musical situation and thrive.” Ferguson says the diversification of genres began about a decade ago. “The State Department caught on to hip-hop in 2005. We took a team of breakdancers to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam in 2003, and they were greeted like rock stars.”
Those early efforts demonstrated something vital for the future of the program – that even in the fraught 21st century, there was demand for American musicians to perform in just about every place on the globe. Says Ferguson: “No matter what the policy conflicts were of the day, and there were a lot of them under (the Bush) administration, people would turn off their I-Hate-American-Foreign-Policy button for a while and enjoy the show.”
Greetings from Della-stan
For Della Mae, three trips to far-flung corners of the world began with an audition in New York City. About 400 bands per year apply to American Voices. A few dozen are invited to formally audition live before a panel of judges and diplomatic officials who ask questions like: What kind of experience have you had working in school settings? What would you do if you were preparing to perform for 400 kids in a village community center and the PA power went out?
Della Mae was one of 12 bands selected in 2012. Briefings beforehand included some caveats about decorum and dress, but relatively little about any formal mission or connections with a larger diplomatic purpose. Different bands are given different instructions about speaking freely, depending on where they’re headed. Della Mae mandolinist and singer Jenni Lyn Gardner says there was almost no attempt to bring geopolitics into the trip. “Our sole purpose was to build relationships,” she says. “It was pretty cut and dried. Go. Play music. And make friends.”
AMA bands have no say in where they’re sent, and the program is looking for places far removed from Western ways, including places with fraught relationships with the United States. “Della Mae were understandably nervous about going [to Pakistan], because name one good news story that comes out of Pakistan,” says Ferguson. “So what was fun to watch was their initial apprehension, within hours, turn to something much more joyful when they realized how friendly people were and how excited people were about their being there. An all-female band in Pakistan is unheard of. So that created a lot of buzz.”
“They threw us right in, and I think it was a good move on their part,” says Woodsmith, adding that Pakistan has emerged as the place she most wants to return and where she felt the most profound connections. “We met a woman who’d started a sewing cooperative to help Afghan refugee women. And we met these women. They were very shy. One said she didn’t know where her family is and that she’ll not be able to go home. We were all crying at that.” There were many hugs and profuse thanks. Woodsmith calls it a “startling but a treasured moment.”
For Della Mae, the days were packed and structured, including visits to schools, embassies, and national auditoriums. They did morning TV shows that reached much of the country and radio sessions with live DJs. They jammed with the only documented five-string bluegrass banjo player in Uzbekistan – a woman, as it happens. They learned local folk tunes and brought down the house at the State Philharmonic Hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan. They joined native folk musicians wearing traditional dress for a grand concert in the city of Bishkek to help officially celebrate 20 years of U.S./Kyrgyzstan relations.
Della Mae arranged with AMA to make orphanage visits a priority wherever they went. Guitarist Courtney Hartman wrote movingly in Berklee College of Music’s magazine about playing for a very poor, very cold orphanage in rural Tajikistan with almost no power in the dead of winter. “As we finished and said goodbye, a seven-year-old girl clung to me. Looking me in the eyes she took out her sparkly purple hair barrette and pressed it into my hand. She gave me her single earthly treasure, something that made her feel beautiful, to show gratitude for the small thing that we had given her. There was silence in the van as we drove back to Dushanbe.”
They suffered through lengthy, awkward sound checks where volunteers translated English to Russian to Turkmen, and nobody knew the words for “reverb” or “treble.” They got stomach viruses and wound up in some strange situations – but nothing out of the ordinary for travel in the developing world. “AMA tours are not easy by any stretch of the imagination,” says Woodsmith. “They are some of the hardest tours I’ve ever done, but it’s the most meaningful touring.”
Escorting the band for much of the trip was another champion and facilitator of music diplomacy named Paul Rockower. He later took Della Mae to Brazil, where they had a ball mixing their string band sounds with choro and gaucho music.
“The reason why Della Mae or Sierra Hull or the Henhouse Prowlers work is they’re so authentically American,” says Rockower. “Jenni Lyn Gardner [of Della Mae] is one of the best spokesmen for American culture because she speaks to that American experience. You feel that real people-to-people connection. Which is why it’s so powerful. This is the best way of connecting to the world. This is how you change people’s perceptions. This, in the long term, will matter far more than anything else we do” on the diplomatic front.
Indeed, one of the evaluation forms from Pakistan came back to him with a note: “Send us more Della Mae and less drones.”
Being Beyonce on Chuuk
Sierra Hull followed the first Della Mae trip through social media and felt inspired. She’d had her first taste of musical exchange on a trip to Japan when she was 16. So she bided her time until she reached the minimum age of 21 to apply for American Music Abroad. Her band’s audition trip had to be scrubbed due to weather, so she missed her preferred window of opportunity. Yet, the program had become convinced she’d be a great ambassador, which led to some shoe-horn scheduling and improvising, launching her on one of their stranger double-feature journeys in May 2014: Israel’s West Bank, preceded by the Federated States of Micronesia.
“When they mentioned Micronesia I had to get out the atlas,” Hull says. It’s an island nation speckled across a million square miles of South Pacific Ocean with just over 100,000 inhabitants. A former U.S. territory, it still uses the American dollar, but it couldn’t be farther away. “It was disconnected from the outer world,” Hull says. “They’re not exposed to so many things. They had never had a bluegrass band come before. So to see the kind of reaction these people had to the music is something I’ll never forget.” Her mandolin and the band’s banjo and acoustic bass were objects of wonder. “It really made me realize how special these instruments are and the emotions they can bring to people.”
Their base was the island state of Chuuk. Also called Truk, it was the site of some intense fighting during World War II. Hull and her band got to take advantage of Chuuk’s world-famous snorkeling, which lets divers swim around an underwater graveyard of airplanes, ships, and tanks. But most of their time was spent en route to schools in remote villages. They were humble places to be sure; one was built into what had been a hardened bunker that housed a Japanese communications base during the war. It was feverishly hot and humid, stressing the acoustic instruments. But the joy at the schools – and on the roads to them – was palpable.
“We would go in a convoy with some police vehicles,” says Ferguson, who acted as road manager and facilitator. “And you can only travel about five miles an hour because of the potholes, so it takes forever to get anyplace. But people would line the roads. Word would spread that Sierra Hull’s driving around the island, so hundreds and thousands of people would line up along the roads just to watch her go by.”
“It was like Beyoncé had come to town,” Hull marvels in retrospect. “It was interesting because they don’t really know who you are. But just the fact that you’re an American who plays music – it meant something to them that you had decided to come.” Ferguson attributes the warm welcome to a hunger for engagement. “It’s kind of hard to describe how isolated young people feel in places like Micronesia,” he says. “Through the internet they’re aware of the world out there, but the world never comes to them.”
The school visits culminated in a concert at the only place on the island capable of holding a crowd – the airport’s enclosed parking area. A tiny radio station founded by missionaries contributed a rudimentary PA mixing board. The band brought its own microphones and cables, and AMA focused on security.
The stage went up haphazardly and behind schedule – island time, they call it. But around dark, construction lights beamed toward the platform and there were two to three thousand islanders ready for a great time. Hull’s band played bluegrass music in the heavy humid air, and they invited kids up on stage whom they’d met and played music with at the school during the five days on the ground. “For many of them,” Hull recalled, “it was the first time they’d ever got to sing into a microphone. And the first time many of those people had ever been to a concert.”
After the casual vibes of Micronesia, playing for Palestinians in the West Bank couldn’t have been more different. There were walls and checkpoints and machine guns. And there were more rules of decorum and diplomacy – chief among them: do not use the word Israel. Rather, the band was to say they were excited to be in Nablus, Jericho, Hebron. “You want to make sure you don’t go in there and destroy any footing right off the bat by saying something stupid,” says Hull.
Here, Hull says, the concerts felt a bit more one-directional. Some of the audiences were segregated by gender – men and boys here, girls and women over there. They worked orphanages, schools, and a refugee camp. They saw the stark difference between touristy, Western-leaning Israeli areas and Palestinian areas that could feel centuries-old and deprived. Standing in front of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency flag in Bethlehem, Hull’s quartet played a daytime show in the courtyard of a girls school for hundreds of kids who seemed ecstatic for the musical distraction and attention.
The trip “created a lot of love for people in me,” says Hull. “I’m from Tennessee and grew up right on the Kentucky border. I’m from the part of the world so much of the music I love started and came from. It really is so much of my culture that I felt like I was getting to go share, so it was a really special thing.”
Prowling in Africa
Ben Wright of Chicago’s Henhouse Prowlers didn’t need a map when his band got the assignment for its first trip abroad with AMA. His father’s a professor of West African history, plus Wright’s a banjo player, so the itinerary of a week each in Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, and western Congo had exciting prospects for some insight about the origins of his chosen instrument.
Almost immediately upon landing in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, the band started collaborating. “They had us playing with a local band,” says Wright. “We got together with them and jammed all day, as I remember. We worked up some songs to play together. And that became something we did in every country.”
They were taken aback by the widespread poverty they saw but were inspired by West Africa’s abundantly musical culture. “It’s just so different than what we know,” says Wright. Music is “part of everybody’s life, but at the same time there isn’t as much time to devote to it because there are different priorities that we don’t have to worry about, like getting food and money. The difference between amateur and professional was very blurry there. Because being a professional musician, statistically, was even less possible than it is here.”
One of their appearances was, in fact, structured as a workshop where young local musicians asked questions about pursuing an independent career. How were the Henhouse Prowlers making a living? “We ran into this kind of wall, because we realized our worlds were so different,” Wright says. “Talking about promoting on Facebook and putting up posters and all those things – it was nearly impossible to find suggestions that were useful to them. There were some great exchanges and some good conversation. It evolved into a jam session by the end of it.”
Prowler bass player Jon Goldfine fondly remembered working in Brazzaville with a band of disabled adults, ranging from high school age up to 70 years old. Some were in wheelchairs; a few were blind. “And we did a song called “Mourning Dove”— a slow, sad waltz,” he says. “We got them all singing along on the chorus.” Then it was “Oh My Darling,” and one of the younger African guys vocally improvised on the theme, he recalls. “That was pretty moving.”
Next was Liberia, where the band set up to play in a schoolyard. Some 400 children crowded around, craning their necks for a look at the instruments and the men in ties playing them.
The American ambassador – a senior diplomat with spiky white-gray hair named Deborah Malac – arrived in an armored SUV and stood among the children to welcome the band to Monrovia. They played. Kids danced. And, as always, there were locals who wanted to share music. One fellow taught the band a song he’d written, and within a few minutes everyone was singing it together.
“They can’t really identify with bluegrass music,” says Wright. “There’s no connection to be had there other than the fact that we’re playing instruments that they’re fascinated by, and they’ve never seen a banjo. And so they think that’s cool. But the minute you start playing a song that they recognize, it’s all over. They just lose it. And that was definitely one of those moments when you were just like ‘Holy God, I can’t believe we are doing this.’”
In a gut-wrenching twist, Goldfine said, the band found themselves reading about the very towns they visited several months later when Liberia was slammed by the Ebola crisis.
The most exotic stop of the adventure was Nouakchott, Mauritania, a Sahara Desert nation where cultures overlap. “All of a sudden there were these men wearing these flowing blue robes everywhere and Arabic was as common as West African languages,” according to Wright. “And it’s just an incredible place to behold, let alone interact with people musically.”
The first full night there, their hosts arranged a round-robin jam session between the Henhouse Prowlers and a string of local musicians. On the rooftop of a cultural center, locals virtually queued up to take turns of ten minutes each with the band – in front of an audience – with no rehearsal or prep time. “It could have been a disaster. And it so was NOT a disaster,” Wright marvels. “I just couldn’t believe it. We were playing with instruments you’d never seen before that were kind of atonal. And you had to change what you were doing. Instead of trying to figure out the chord structure, you have to figure out some way to play simply rhythmically. And then there were these beautiful voices, and we effectively backed these people up or played alongside them while they did their thing. And when it was over we were utterly exhausted. We just could not believe what had just happened. We formed these bonds with these musicians. And it was so hard to leave that country. It was such a beautiful thing.”
The band took its lesson about learning local music to heart on a subsequent trip last summer hosted by the American embassy in Nigeria. As told in a story on Public Radio International’s The World, the quartet did a little advance research and discovered a regional hit called “Chop My Money” by Afropop/hip-hop brother duo P-Square. Over a minor key progression and a friendly bounce, the guy in the song sings about giving up control over his credit card and invites his lady to go ahead and “chop [spend] my money, because I don’t care.” It’s infectious and proved to be the Prowlers’ ticket to stardom in front of every group for whom they played.
And Wright did have his banjo epiphany, playing with an akonting player in Niamy, Niger. The musician spoke French and his local language, but no English. “So all we could do was kind of bang on our instruments together and figure out how they worked. And it worked. We had a moment. I remember his eyes lit up when he realized our instruments were similar.”
Yodeling for Peace
Russia has been on the diplomatic itinerary of Nashville-based fiddler Barbara Lamb twice. Through invitations from embassies, she toured there in 2012 with banjo player and educator Bill Evans, and in 2014 with an ad-hoc quartet she pulled together featuring well-known bluegrass musicians Ned Luberecki (banjo), Scott Simontacchi (guitar), and Scott Esbeck (bass).
But the trip that really took her off to strange and far-away places was an early 2013 tour via American Music Abroad with longtime friends and famous old-time duo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. As a duo, Fink and Marxer have loads of experience in schools and as folk music educators, so their audition was just what AMA was looking for.
They launched their journey in Chengdu, the vast capital city of Sichuan province in western China, where they found themselves working through their jet lag in a rehearsal with the all-female Beauty and Melody Orchestra. The ensemble reflected the formal Chinese approach to folk music, with matching silk dresses and a range of traditional instruments, including erhu (bowed in the lap), pipa (a finger-picked lute) and guqin (a 7-stringed zither). The orchestra surprised the trio with arranging challenges that were more involved than they were expecting. “We were really faking it as fast as we could,” Lamb says. “The tune they wanted to do with us was ‘Country Roads.’ We aim to please.”
From Chinese mega-cities to villages in Borneo and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, they went. In Vanuatu, when the embassy staff couldn’t find professional musicians with whom to collaborate, Marxer found some ukulele players in a courtyard and struck up a jam session with them. Then, while waiting for a flight out, the trio opened up their cases and instigated an impromptu concert that nearly shut down the airport.
“People ran from their posts where they were checking in baggage to our part of the airport and were out of their minds,” remembers Lamb. “I rather enjoyed that. Somebody said, ‘What do you call that?’ And I said, ‘A fiddle or a violin.’ And he said ‘Where do you get one and how can I learn to play it? I’ve never seen anything like that.’”
In Malaysia, they were greeted by substantial media coverage, as well as the awe-inspiring and technically audacious pan-national band Akosha. According to the blog maintained by Cathy Fink, they embarked on a four-hour rehearsal that produced six songs. “We taught them the rockabilly ‘Rockabye Boogie’ and the traditional ‘Cluck Old Hen’,” she wrote. Then, in the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, they taught a giant conference hall full of Malaysians how to yodel, something that went over well everywhere. “It was the Yodeling for World Peace tour,” Lamb likes to say.
Papua New Guinea was the strangest destination – a place where suddenly there were many more rules. Chief among them: Don’t leave the hotel or walk around without an escort. “Oh, surely you jest,” Lamb remembers thinking to herself. “And as we drove to the hotel I didn’t see anything that would suggest there was any danger anywhere. So I asked what would happen if a person had their best jogging outfit on and was very fast and they left the front of the hotel and ran to the U.S. Consulate, which is about two blocks away? And the person I spoke to – she might have worked for the embassy – said, ‘You wouldn’t make it. You would be swooped up probably within a block and carted away and nobody would ever see you again.’”
So danger lurked, but it did not lurk at the National Museum, where the group held collaborative sets with two different local bands. And it did not lurk when the talented singers from nearby Vabukori Village learned and sang the old Delmore Brothers song “Blues Stay Away from Me.” Nor at the Buk bilong Pikinini Library , a one-room early childhood education center in Port Moresby. “We did the first family concert they have ever had,” wrote Fink. “Around 300 people sat under the tent. They sang along, clapped along, played AIR GUITAR with us and felt like a hometown crowd!”
Lamb remembers more the impromptu moments when Fink and Marxer would fill waiting time by engaging kids. They taught one bunch in Papua New Guinea “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and when that was done, some kid’s Justin Bieber T-shirt led to a Justin Bieber sing-along.
“So It was those kinds of things, unscheduled little weird things” that made the trip a success, says Lamb. “I believe the people that are smart at the State Department know that stuff happens. I don’t know how they figure it out. But they pick people that are going to do that. And that would be us, because we’re just weird enough to go: ‘Hey, let’s play with these guys over here!’”
Changed by the World
The adrenaline-addled disorientation and excitement of arriving for the first time in a less developed, non-Western country is one of life’s unique sensations. My own memories come from landing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as a tourist in 2005. Colors were off, skewed by industrial-strength fluorescent lighting. Improbable numbers of people surged about with their own agendas and their own rhythms. The signage might as well have been in hieroglyphics.
You have to adjust. You feel your way to the cab stand, reflexively checking your document wallet every 15 seconds. You get in a dinky car with a man who may or may not register a sense of recognition when you show him your printed hotel address. He plunges into a rolling tide of humanity – bikes, mopeds, scooters, taxis, trucks, and tuk-tuks – moving faster and taking up more space on the roads than you thought possible. You become aware of a disconcerting lack of traffic lights or orderly stopping. You trust and pray that when he pulls up to let you out, you will be in front of the place you saw online when you booked your room.
At a time like that, you can imagine that being there with your instrument and a mission to play would help that first day on the ground feel more normal, or at least less bizarre. You’d have a purpose, and a kind of vaunted one. Not many people get to be diplomats, after all. You know how to play. This’ll be great. And then you have to arrive at that first gig and plunge in. You have to engage whomever it is on the other side of that door, banging and shoving to get in.
“It’s definitely [like] getting on a roller coaster ride that you’re not going to be able to get off of,” says Della Mae’s Gardner. “And accepting that and going with it is a really beautiful thing.”
Paul Rockower says it takes a certain type of person and musician to make these trips work.
“The groups who excel at this are so flexible and so up for anything. You can’t be a diva. Every day is different. You can’t expect the tour you’re used to. Every day throws something at you.”
What nobody has said during extensive conversations about these trips is that they regretted it or that they wouldn’t go back. To the contrary, they all say it profoundly changed them. Gardner says if her band was sister-like before, they’re “bonded for life” after their journeys.
“We really took the program and ran with it,” she says. “We’ve talked about at every single show we’ve played [since getting back]. We play music that we learned in these different areas. We’re kind of the poster child for the program, just because we loved it so much and were very well received.”
Ben Wright says that while the Henhouse Prowlers have done encores in the audience in the past, the trip made that bit of off-stagecraft feel more important. “It’s the same kind of energy that comes from those shows in Africa. And I do feel like we’ve done it more since then, because it just fosters a connection and people talk about that a long time. It gives people a chance to hear the instruments the way they’re supposed to be heard instead of amplified, and also it gives you a chance to start the after-show dance where you talk and hang out with everybody. I can’t help but feel like these trips have and will continue to have a big influence on how we interact with people.”
Somewhere in Russia, an embassy guy told Barbara Lamb: “You are an incredibly great diplomat.” Lamb said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah. The whole point of this program is to show Russians how cool Americans are and you can’t get much cooler than musicians … .So the Russians talk about how cool those American musicians are. But then you go home and talk about how cool your experience is, because I know you’re going to anyway.” That’s the thinking behind the program. The guy said: “We don’t really know how this works. But we know that it does.”
“The value for these programs is tremendous,” says Rockower. “For the price of two soldiers in Afghanistan, you run the entire AMA program. For the price of one soldier in Afghanistan, you run the entire Next Level program (which takes hip-hop artists and dancers on similar trips abroad). The value and return on investment on cultural diplomacy is, I would say, one of our best long-term pubic policy investments.” (The pay, incidentally, is neither bad nor lavish at $200 per day, per musician plus a travel per diem.)
It’s provocative and paradoxical that when America wanted its values and its virtues projected during the Cold War, it sent music pioneered by black Americans who were then still excluded from hotels and restaurants in large swaths of the U.S. Our audience was behind the Iron Curtain, kept in the dark by official censorship. That’s not all gone, but today the mission is quite different. The world is wired. Even people living under extremist regimes see fragments of American culture, and it’s a weird, distorted mix of our most commercial music and TV, plus the worst of our missteps in foreign lands, whether prisoner abuse or errant drone strikes. When we travel officially to share music, it’s part magnanimity and part damage control.
In a world running hot, it’s hard to imagine a feeling of greater relief, catharsis, and even patriotism than getting to play bluegrass for girls in Pakistan and getting hugs in return. Kumbaya.
The Henhouse Prowlers are heading back overseas, to Russia, this spring. American Music Abroad invites artists to apply for the program on an annual grant cycle. The deadline for 2015 is coming up on Jan. 9. More information here.
Photos of Della Mae by Paul Rockower. Photo of Sierra Hull by Courtney Stinnett. Photo of Henhouse Prowlers by Mark Thayer.