After a brief introduction to our projects around the world, I did a couple exercises to illustrate the suitability of music to cultural diplomacy. First, I did an exercise (cribbed from Augusto Boal) in which I drew a person with a dotted line. I asked the participants to imagine that the person is a London rioter. Within the person, on the left side of the dotted line, we will write one justification the rioter would offer for his/her actions. On the right side of the line, we will write a self-critical comment. The area outside the drawing of the person represents the way the London rioter would be viewed by a business owner affected by the riots. On the left side, we had to write a positive comment this person would make about the rioter; on the right side, we had to write a negative comment.
The participants enjoyed the exercise and gave creative answers. Then, we repeated a similar exercise with music. I played the beginning of the third movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto and then the beginning of the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I asked the audience to explain why one excerpt sounded like the perspective of the rioter and why the other excerpt sounded like the perspective of the business owner. As they soon discovered, arguments could easily be made that the two pieces of music, different and emotionally communicative though they are, represent either one or the other perspective. The words in the first exercise pin us down; music communicates powerfully while enabling us to bring our unique perspectives to bear.
With the help of my observing friend, the superb British violinist Simon Hewitt Jones, I warmed up the participants, getting them used to creating music through the sounds they could make with their voices and bodies. Soon, we created a short but effective piece about arriving in a new country while jet lagged.
I asked them to consider what they knew about their fellow participants before we started, and what they knew now. I told them: “As you reflect on the composition we have just created, ask yourself if you know what religion I am. Wait, how would this question be relevant to musical diplomacy in action?
“In Egypt in 2009, Cultures in Harmony created compositions with underprivileged girls in Alexandria. Afterwards, we wanted to know what the girls thought, so working with our translators, we asked them. One little girl named Marwa, who works in a factory making rugs when she's done with school each day, said that she loves us. When we asked the girls what religion they thought we were, they all thought that we are Muslim. This reaction shows that over the course of the workshops, they had come to see us as not so different from them after all. If musical diplomacy can get this reaction, what can't it do?
“In addition to my work with Cultures in Harmony, I also teach violin at Afghanistan National Institute of Music; in fact, this morning I arrived from Kabul via Dubai. I also conduct the orchestra at the school, an orchestra that has included little girls playing the violin ever since I conducted the concert celebrating the school's inauguration on June 20, 2010. That concert took place on a stage donated by the British Council.
“For me, the tragic attack on the British Council in Kabul was not an attack on a faceless institution. It was an attack on Paul Smith. I don't know Paul well, but I've spoken with him at parties in Kabul. He's the director of the British Council in Afghanistan: an older man, jolly, easy to talk to and like. No ideology that seeks to kill a decent man can claim any kind of sanction or justification.
“Fortunately, Paul was in New York. The casualties were mainly Afghan policemen. But once again, this is personal for me: Afghan policemen protect the home where I live. When they see me, they wish me a good afternoon and ask me to play the violin for them. I put down my case and play a few Afghan tunes next to the barbed wire and concrete barriers. These are men who like to listen to an Afghan tune and have agreed to work for next to no money so that their country can have a safe future. They deserve to be a part of that future, and the Taliban cruelly denied them this possibility. The British Council, the oldest and most prestigious cultural diplomacy organization, was attacked in spite of all their outreach. Why should Cultures in Harmony continue creating compositions with Egyptian girls like Marwa? Why should the music school in Afghanistan keep going when one of its donors cannot operate safely?
“This conference speaks of a three-piece puzzle, but I can't help thinking a fourth piece is missing. Culture can help us deal with inhumanity, international relations provide a forum for trying to prevent it, and globalization often increases it. The pieces didn't fit when the British Council was attacked. Why should we keep going?
“Reason might impel us to give up, but that fourth piece is not reason. It is hope. Cultures in Harmony will continue to create compositions with girls like Marwa, because especially after the events of this year, we know that Marwa can aspire to have a voice in Egypt's future. After her composition workshops with us, hers is a voice she will lift as a friend. And a week from tomorrow, I will return to Kabul to teach violin and conduct the orchestra, because I have hope that the future of Afghanistan will be determined not by men with guns running towards the British Council, but by little girls playing violin on a stage built by the British Council.
“I ask from you the same hope. Whether you use music or another medium, engage in cultural diplomacy. Reach out. Let the hope that you cherish make the pieces of the ‘three-piece puzzle’ fit.”
The presentation and my closing remarks went over well. On Saturday, August 27, I performed a recital at the Embassy of Bulgaria. Entitled “Echoes Across the Divide,” this recital explored music inspired by folk music, as well as actual folk music. I began with the Nigerian folk song “Imeda Mbre Idi-Oh,” which I learned during CiH’s Cameroon project in 2009. Then I played Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 6, which is loosely inspired by Spanish folk music. Japanese violinist Midori Komachi spoke briefly about her own musical diplomacy project involving Britain and Japan before joining me for some Bartok Duos. Next, I played my arrangement of the Pakistani folk song “Mor Tor Tillay Rana,” followed by my arrangement of the Afghan song “Bia Ke Birim Ba Mazar.” The concert closed when pianist Gabi Teodoru joined me for Rhapsody Vardar, which is perhaps the most beloved Bulgarian piece by the most beloved Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov.
I enjoyed the rest of the conference. The Grand Union Orchestra presented about their work combining young musicians from many musical traditions into a single orchestra. The recording was interesting, though as I have discovered in Afghanistan, it is hard to balance the sitar with Western brass instruments, and sometimes in the arrangements made for this group, the Hindustani instruments were drowned out.
Several presenters did a good job of questioning an unabashedly positive view of cultural diplomacy’s role in the world. As Prof. Francois Nectoux of Kingston University pointed out, France originally used rayonnement (its cultural diplomacy policy) to justify colonialism. The Belgian Ambassador to the United Kingdom compared diplomacy to a tree. People often make the mistake of trying to extend the branches (outreach to other countries, multilateralism, internationalism) while cutting the roots (identity, parochialism, nationalism). As he points out, “This kills the tree.” Both need to be nourished. Rod Fisher, Director of the European Cultural Foundation UK, told us that a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the British Council was asked to develop a strategy for how to use culture to engage with the Iraqi population after the invasion. And John Holden, a visiting professor at City University, observed that it’s called “propaganda” when your enemies do it, and “winning hearts and minds” when you do it.
Many presenters simply proved the truism that diplomacy, like anything else, depends primarily on the charisma and personal force of its practitioners. When the head of a Latin American music society gave a presentation about the gloomy prospects for Latin American music in the United Kingdom, I found myself wondering if those gloomy prospects have anything to do with the pessimistic outlook of some of the advocates of this vibrant and profound music. In contrast, while I have never been particularly interested in the unique issues of the Jewish community in the UK, the head of the London Jewish Cultural Centre was such an extraordinary person that we all hung on her every word. Similarly, Paraguay’s Ambassador to the UK charmed everyone into wanting to visit his country.
Often the participants’ questions provided some of the most striking and provocative insights. A young man from Zimbabwe said that there is too much cultural exchange and not enough cultural diplomacy. As he put it, “gangsters and pimps” can do cultural exchange when they meet from different cultures. Additionally, you can know a lot about a group of people and still be a racist. “Knowledge does not lead to liberation from prejudice,” he said. “Only responsibility can do that.”
A young man from Norway asked if it is right that we in the West seek to adopt other cultures while rejecting our own, and yet we expect people outside the West to proudly celebrate their own culture and are uncomfortable if they appreciate Western culture. Certainly, I have experienced this when Americans (typically young, white, educated, and liberal) asked if the work of Afghanistan National Institute of Music or of Cultures in Harmony amounts to cultural imperialism. I have not encountered an Afghan who views ANIM in that light, nor am I aware of anyone in the Philippines, Pakistan, or Tunisia who feels that way about CiH.
We may not have solved the “three-piece puzzle” of culture, globalization, and international relations referenced in the conference’s title, but we sure enjoyed playing with the pieces.