These US ‘diplomats’ wield fiddles and dance moves, not briefcases

Maria Recio / McClatchy Washington Bureau

Published Aug 6, 2014 at 10:32AM

WASHINGTON - East Carolina University’s Greg Hurley is going abroad again for a two-week trip this month, but not exactly for a classic vacation.

It will be Beirut for the viola and violin teacher, who’s left Greenville, N.C., every summer for the last five years and gone to places “emerging from conflict” as part of a program for students in formerly war-torn areas. A kind of summer camp, it teaches students who already have some musical training, and they rehearse and form an orchestra for a concert at the end of the visit.

Every year, the State Department and nonprofit groups help send musical troupes, dance groups and teachers abroad to promote American culture and generate goodwill.

It’s all part of cultural diplomacy, an idea that got its start with the “jazz ambassadors” at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. To buff its image, the U.S. sent jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and others overseas to showcase the unique American art form.

The programs and cultural exchanges have exploded since then, with the latest rage being hip-hop, an in-demand art form but one that has also drawn criticism of “hip-hop diplomacy.”

For Hurley, an associate professor of music who’s on the board of American Voices, the St. Louis-based group that’s sponsoring the trips with State Department support, the experiences he’s had in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Thailand have been life-altering for him and, he thinks, for his students.

“It’s opened my eyes to other places,” he said in an interview.

While the teaching is slower because of the language barrier - done through hand gestures and the international language of music - it all comes together for the big final concert.

“It’s always great,” Hurley said. “You’ve worked so hard to pull it off in two weeks’ time. The parents are proud. The kids are proud.”

The Beirut program has 100 students, including several from Syria and Iraq.

“I think it brings goodwill towards us, and goodwill happens person by person,” said Hurley.

The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs pays for these kinds of programs and exchanges out of its budget, which is $568 million this year. It’s very clear about their mission.

“The primary goal of all our cultural exchanges is to build cross-cultural understanding,” said Susan Pittman, the bureau’s spokeswoman. “With more than half of the world’s population under age 30, it’s especially important for us to provide avenues for connecting with youth.”

The approach is part of what’s known as “soft diplomacy,” the use of the arts and other forms of social interaction - from agricultural programs to public construction - as an instrument of foreign policy that contrasts with the “hard diplomacy” of the military and the economy. It’s largely been an easy sell to performers and teachers.

Oklahoma City musician Kyle Dillingham plays a mean fiddle and with his band, Horseshoe Road, has always liked introducing foreign audiences to Western swing, folk music, bluegrass and jazz. His band recently completed a 16-day tour in Liberia, in West Africa, as part of the State Department’s Arts Envoy program. It performed for the country’s president, as well as to a rural audience where there was no electricity.

“At the heart of what we do is sharing our music with these people and giving these people a taste of American culture through our performances,” said Dillingham, who also holds student workshops.

“I am an eclectic blend of traditional American music, which I think is an important aspect of musical diplomacy,” he said. “I’ve developed a career as a music ambassador.”

In a State Department-sponsored gig last year, Dillingham, 35, and his band toured Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Burma for five weeks. They get their expenses paid plus a $200 per day per person honorarium, a lot less than a concert tour, he noted. But he’s happy to do it and creates his own riffs in unexpected ways.

In a performance with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, Dillingham launched into “Orange Blossom Special,” a bluegrass favorite that showcases the fiddle, but which drew the classical musicians in.

“Music does transcend languages and cultures and just about any barriers to traditional means of communication,” he said.

That’s been the experience of hip-hop artists, the most requested groups by foreign nations and U.S. embassies. At Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris Puremovement, company manager Rodney Hill and a troupe of dancers were in Central Asia earlier this year and performed in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in 2012. They also held master classes and gave lectures.

The surprise may be that hip-hop is now so entrenched due to social media that Hill found the students in the know, even able to distinguish differences in the genre, such as West Coast style, which has a more laid-back feel and harmony and uses bass.

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“We did what we did; tell hip-hop through a story, and people gravitated to us,” Hill said in an interview. “They knew it on YouTube and multimedia.”

He said the style, which breaks all the rules of conventional dance, with floor lunges and jumps, “came out of the civil rights movement. We’re not going with a message. We let them take it in; it’s an exchange. We do, time and time again, enlighten people about the history of hip-hop dance.”

One element that was the same in conservative religious places such as Egypt and Israel was a concern about having a woman and a man dancing together. “We didn’t put them as close together,” said Hill.

“Hip-hop breaks barriers,” he said. “It breaks racism. It goes through every religion and every country.”

Mark Katz, a music professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’s the director of its Institute for the Arts and Humanities, is leading a new two-year program for the government that’s all about hip-hop.

“We see hip-hop as a global culture,” said Katz, who’s written a book, “Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ.”

“At this point you go anywhere in the world and they have their own dialects of hip-hop.”

The State Department awarded the school a $1 million grant from its new Next Level program last year and Katz has taken hip-hop teams - disc jockeys; rappers; beat makers, as producers are known; and dancers - to India and Serbia and in September will go to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to Montenegro.

In India, Katz said, the students embraced everything about the experience, and in one exercise they used hip-hop to tape public service announcements for local media on such topics as the environment and violence against women.

“They meet Americans,” he said. “They get a more nuanced view of what Americans are like. The idea is they will think positively of the U.S. It will be harder for these students to stereotype Americans.”

The hip-hop effort has its critics.

“There’s no reason we should think hip-hop is some kind of effective communicator of the U.S.,” said Robert Albro, an expert on sociocultural anthropology at American University. “It’s not terribly central if you want to change perceptions in the world.”

Ill will toward the U.S. in some quarters of the world over its foreign policy can sometimes complicate the cultural mission.

Also, Dallas gospel singer Oscar Williams Jr. and his group, The Band of Life, were on a South American swing for the State Department earlier this year and found themselves in the middle of anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela. Their concerts were canceled, although Williams said they never felt in any danger.

The tour continued, as will others for Williams, who’ll travel to Chile next February to spread the musical word about gospel music on behalf of his country.

“Every time we go in, we are trying to share that it goes to the soul of America,” said Williams. “It’s something about the sound of the music, even if you’re not a believer. We firmly believe music is the universal language.”

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