About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.
In the late 1950s, the United States sent American jazz musicians -- including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington -- to foreign countries far and wide as part of a cultural outreach initiative. Last year, the New York Timeshighlighted a then-new photography exhibit that chronicled this little-known cultural gem of the State Department. Back then, the objective of this program was to counter the influence of the Soviet Union.
Today, American jazz musicians and other American artists and speakers participate in cultural programs to share a part of America through their chosen art form. Today's programs are designed to broaden the understanding among foreign audiences about who we are as Americans. Is there a "countering extremism" component to these programs? Yes, but they are more about sharing the rich tapestry of America through art and culture. Jazz is a truly American art form, and I can't think of a better way to introduce the citizens of the world to it than by bringing the music directly to their doorsteps.
When Embassy Baghdad approached Provincial Reconstruction Team public diplomacy officers with the idea of bringing an American jazz band -- Alvin Atkinson and the Sound Merchants -- out to the provinces, I jumped at the chance to have them come to Muthanna. The band, it turns out, was inaugurating a special initiative of the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) called “Musical Overtures” which was created to promote mutual understanding and to strengthen America’s ties with nations involved in or recovering from conflict, or facing other challenges. Their full tour, starting in Armenia, included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
When I heard that the Sound Merchants might come to Muthanna, I envisioned a quartet of cool cats on stage with young Iraqi musicians jamming together with lute and sax, making great music. I reached out to some of my artist contacts in Muthanna, and we put together a musical program for both groups to play. Alas, this musical union was not meant to be, as a transportation mix-up in Baghdad caused the Sound Merchants to miss their ride to Muthanna. Luckily for Dhi Qar Province (adjacent to Muthanna), the group was able to catch another flight a few days later and performed at the Great Ziggurat of Ur.
Personally, I was very disappointed that the transportation snafu turned my vision of jazz in Muthanna into "a dream deferred," but my boss and I made the best of it. We went to the concert, sans jazz, in Muthanna and listened to great traditional Iraqi music. There were songs dedicated to the sweet dates of Muthanna and melodies that told tales of the winding Euphrates. There were a number of television stations covering the event. Never missing an opportunity to spread the message, I gave more than a few interviews that day. I told the press that cultural exchanges between the United States and Iraq were clear indicators that the relationship between our two countries was changing, becoming more normal. The media opportunity gave me a chance to make another point. I told a number of journalists that I very much wanted for the American jazz musicians to come to Muthanna to see a side of Iraq not reported in the mainstream Western media. The residents of Muthanna were ambassadors themselves, I explained, and it would be my great pleasure to introduce these American musical ambassadors to the many friends I've made during my year in Muthanna.
A few days later, at the base of the Ziggurat, jazz finally made it to southern Iraq. The PRT for Dhi Qar Province organized a concert for the Sound Merchants and a popular Iraqi singer. That evening, the temperature was perfect, the skies were clear, and it was fun to see the Iraqis enjoying the music.
The Sound Merchants played two more shows in Iraq, one in Baghdad and the other in the northern city of Kirkuk. Friends who attended both performances said the audience participation was great. The musicians made connections here in Iraq and shared a slice of American culture that many Iraqis were experiencing for the first time. For the jazz musicians, these trips are an opportunity to share music and culture, as well as their views with foreign audiences. Citizen ambassadors are not required to advocate U.S. policy, so it's a great chance for Iraqis to meet Americans and hear a wide range of opinions on matters. During their visit to the south, I spoke with Alvin and the band at length about their travels as musical ambassadors. On their last trip, as part of ECA's Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, they visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Oman.
What made me happiest was to hear about the friendships that Alvin and his group had made across the Middle East. When I told him I was headed to Oman next, he said, "Oman? Oh, man! You're going to love it there. Folks there are so cool. I just got an e-mail from one of my Omani friends the other day. I would love to get back there again and play with them."
Hearing that, I have a feeling this won't be the last time I see Alvin and the fellas.
Read more about Aaron Snipe's work with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.