Harmony Beat

William Harvey's thoughts about cultural diplomacy and news about Cultures in Harmony, the non-profit he founded in 2005.

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violinist, violist, educator, composer, conductor, arranger, cultural diplomat

Thursday, October 08, 2009

TCF reception and the perception of cultural diplomacy

Yesterday, the German blogger Ilona Oltuski interviewed me about Cultures in Harmony. If you read German, you can check out her interview here.

Last night I enjoyed attending a reception honoring Ahsan Saleem, one of the founders of The Citizens Foundation. Of his many anecdotes, one brought tears to my eyes. One student at a TCF school was considering joining a gang. The gang could offer him more money and food than he felt he could earn honestly. His mentor in the TCF mentoring program introduced him to a former gang member.

Why did you leave, the student asked. I got married, the gang member replied. The ex-gangster proudly showed off his wedding video, but midway through, he began crying. Why are you crying, the student asked. Because I see thirty of my friends in this video. Only twelve are left. The others were killed.

The student declined to join the gang and stuck with his education. Thank you, TCF, for changing the lives of 80,000 children throughout Pakistan.

It was a privilege for CiH to work with TCF during our project in Pakistan. Today I read an article by Alec Baldwin supporting the New York Philharmonic's thwarted effort to play a concert in Cuba. I agree with Mr. Baldwin that cultural diplomacy should proceed in Cuba, but the hundred-plus comments afforded me an unusual opportunity to reflect on the perception of cultural diplomacy's impact. Certainly, I saw the impact first-hand when working with TCF in Pakistan and throughout CiH's other 18 projects over the past five summers, but what do others think?

Most people used the comments to offer their opinion on US-Cuban relations, ignoring the topic of cultural diplomacy altogether.

John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development posted a link to his impassioned defense of the trip. As he notes, "The rest of the world has active two way cultural exchange with Cuba and they think we are idiots or bullies, or both. The Royal Ballet was so popular in Havana last summer that they put giant TV screens outside the theater so more people could enjoy their performances."

Blogger Richard Walden describes a Music Bridges event in Cuba in 1999. It sounds like a wonderful experience.

The other comments hid behind the execrable internet custom of anonymity, but nonetheless had good things to say. OneLiberalLady observes that "Opening up an exception for cultural and humanitarian projects would be an excellent path to the goal of normalizing relations with Cuba. And it's long overdue." Wikwox says: "Let music and the Philharmonic cross borders and issues as it always has." Khirad notes: "Music should know no boundaries. People of the world should try to be friends even if their governments aren't. I'm sick of a segment of a divided community dictating our foreign policy. At least on something as universal as music, I would have hoped for some unity. What harm is there in an orchestra's visit?"

Tages72 describes the interestingly mixed reaction to a previous cultural diplomacy effort: "As a Cuban American who supported the recent concert by Latin music artists such as Juanes, Olga Tañón, and Miguel Bosé, I fully support the Philarmonic's visit to Havana. My mother called her cousins on the day of the concert. These ladies are long in their golden years. They were moved beyond belief and wanted me to somehow contact the musicians to express their gratitude for bringing modern music to their country. In Miami, reaction was split as always. Some people destroyed CDs in public while others phoned or wrote death threats to local radio and TV personalities who supported the event. But for my mother's cousins, the concert was the most fulfilling experience they have had since the Pope's visit in the 90's. I can only imagine what the New York Philharmonic could achieve by breaking down further political barriers."

BetsyBrown writes: "My son's youth orchestra in Baltimore is in the process of getting approved for a trip to Cuba next summer. It should be an amazing experience for everyone involved, if it actually happens! Support the Arts!" Good luck to her son and everyone going! I hope they get a chance to engage all levels of society.

No one seems to oppose cultural diplomacy, though CanadianCzechChick sarcastically writes: "Maybe if they played in Gitmo it might work." Revhatchell says, "Let them play in Afghanistan, too," to which MosheDayanHero responds: "Too much talent and great instruments would be in jeopardy in A-stan. Better not. Let 'em rockers and B list comedians do it." I disagree. Whether or not I am talented I cannot judge, but I have performed solo in Carnegie Hall and graduated from Juilliard, and I will be bringing my best violin to Afghanistan when I move there in March.

Huffington Post must not attract those who would oppose cultural diplomacy. The primary focus on politics in the comments can be taken as positive for cultural diplomacy—the arts acting as an entrée to a discussion of politics proves the centrality of the arts to society—or negative—people decline to discuss the arts, viewing them as irrelevant to the serious issues meriting debate. Even the positive comments about cultural diplomacy seem to imply that it is a nicety that should not be discouraged, rather than an essential component of international relations that should be encouraged, developed, and expanded.

I hope that with time, populations come to view cultural diplomacy as a primary means of cultivating relationships based on trust and respect.

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