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A Different Kind of P2P: The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad

The Rhythm Road facilitates not only cross-cultural discourse but also provides an extraordinary platform for artists to emerge from their own localism and share what they do, face-to-face, with the unknown.
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In a recent CBS Sunday Morning program on The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quite rationally asserts, "I think there are certainly times music conveys American values better than a speech." Of course, most people usually expect to hear Secretary Clinton discuss foreign policy, various humanitarian developments or other global issues -- and this is precisely what makes this particular interview with Ms. Clinton so intriguing and unique. The art of music can ultimately transcend barriers such as language or ethnicity and the U.S. Department of State has utilized this cultural reality in terms of our country's relations with other states. So many of our artists today, like so many of their counterparts across the globe, surely command the necessary qualities to represent their work and expertise to foreign audiences and The Rhythm Road is a long-term program that provides the necessary structure and support for this kind of cultural communication.

So what is The Rhythm Road? Produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center in partnership with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, The Rhythm Road developed from the U.S. State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program, a cultural initiative originally established in 1955 dedicated to sending America's robust jazz musicians throughout a planet chilled by the Cold War. Even if you haven't heard of these programs themselves, chances are you're familiar with figures such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Not only were these household jazz giants among the first to represent an American musical art form to distant communities abroad, they were also often the first American people that many of our foreign neighbors had ever seen in person. This marriage of bridging disparate cultures and communities along with actual face-to-face interaction with local citizens continues to be an integral aspect of The Rhythm Road in our time.

Each year, ten bands are chosen from a comprehensive audition process and then tour around the world in an exciting schedule of master classes, community workshops, lecture-demonstrations, jam sessions and public performances. The bands are usually in a given country for about a week and often engage thousands of citizens during their visit. Kuwait, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, Tanzania and Syria are just a few of the more than 100 countries that The Rhythm Road program has visited since its launch in 2005. I recently discussed the cultural and social significance of The Rhythm Road with three key perspectives from the program: Adrian Ellis, Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Ari Roland, international jazz musician; and Maura Pally, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

What is so prominent and inspiring following these diverse conversations is that even today, cultural diplomacy clearly continues to affect the hearts and minds of our foreign neighbors -- unconstrained by social, religious or geopolitical boundaries. Perhaps it sounds simple enough, but this is no easy feat considering the complex international relations in our globalized society and the vast but often biased media outlets in every region of the world. The Rhythm Road program is particularly important considering our current multifaceted communication networks. DAS Pally explains, "Music transcends language, religion, politics, and other potential barriers...We need policy speeches and formal communication but we also need to get to know each other on a basic human level." When it comes to a country's image, cultural diplomacy often offers alternative insight to the usual political, religious or linguistic barriers that may prevent deeper discourse and understanding between citizens of countries.

Utilizing jazz music in The Rhythm Road comes partly from the precedent of the former Jazz Ambassadors program but also from the inherent inclusiveness of the jazz genre itself. Roland, who has participated as a musician in the program numerous times in twenty-six countries, believes non-Westerners can easily feel comfortable with jazz -- even if it is their first time hearing it. "What jazz did in the 1920s, 30s and 40s by bringing together people from all different backgrounds in America ... jazz is now doing that again all over the world," he enthusiastically states. "In the West we emphasize individualism. In jazz, self-expression does come from the individual, but it's all within this group context. You're always aware of the group, the people on stage, the audience, the history and culture and legacy of jazz. It's much closer to a non-Western psychological vantage point." Roland's vast experience as an actual on-the-ground participant in The Rhythm Road has allowed him to understand the utility of integrating the local culture into his own music in order to connect with his audience. Since it is quite common for Roland to perform for audiences that have yet to hear jazz music, local musicians often teach the American bands to play their community's traditional songs in jam sessions. The result is their traditional local songs interpreted by the language of jazz, of course: "Audiences love to hear their cultural heritage celebrated. This really pays a very sincere tribute to both cultures in the most fun, dynamic and unacademic way. Three or four times during a concert we'll have the entire audience singing along to some local song we're doing the jazz version of," Roland recalls. Often these audiences are comprised of citizens of a country known for having less-than-stellar relations with the United States government, which makes the experience all the more important and necessary in an increasingly competitive and complex world.

But jazz is not the only genre that The Rhythm Road welcomes. While still evoking the earlier fundamental goals of Cold War diplomacy, today's program has filtered its diplomatic mission through the reality of the 21st century. Hip-hop, cajun, zydeco, folk, blues, bluegrass, country and gospel bands are all encouraged to audition. When first administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2005 the program, The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, featured both jazz and urban/hip hop music. In 2008, the program expanded to include other American roots music such as blues, bluegrass, Cajun, country, gospel, and zydeco. DAS Pally says of the expansion, "We wanted to reach younger and more diverse audiences. Jazz is incredible but we also have many other incredible types of music that can show how America really has this cultural diversity."

Uncovering a nation's actual cultural diversity cannot be accomplished exclusively through limited platforms such as the news media or television. Though there will always be skeptics of government-supported programs -- particularly during a recession -- the amount of money spent on such initiatives are miniscule in comparison to other budgets, and the effects can be broadly profound. JALC's Ellis notes, "If you look at people's general disposition towards culture and look at the work of Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute, you often find the impression of a country or culture becomes manifesting behavior years after, in unpredictable ways. What people are doing in public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy specifically is, I think, trying to create a backcloth against which formal diplomacy takes place."

The bands that are selected for the ten coveted spots for The Rhythm Road tour encompass two fundamental qualities: high caliber of work in their genre and the ability to educate their audience. Ellis emphasizes the new importance of selecting musicians who possess a solid ability to directly communicate about their art: "I suspect this is one of the differences between cultural diplomacy in its form circa 2010 and cultural diplomacy circa 1960 -- the education element is absolutely essential to the whole enterprise now. The point is not to sell America, it is to present individuals as artists able to communicate across barriers." Transnational communication, through the language of music, is the ultimate objective in The Rhythm Road program.

But despite being supported by the government, The Rhythm Road's participants do not have to agree with every single policy by the administration. Roland recalled that on every tour he has been a part of, the State Department "made very clear to us that we were private United States citizens who were completely free to express our views and opinions on any matters." Already highly interested in foreign affairs and international issues, Roland enjoys having conversations on such subjects with people abroad. This freedom is perhaps one of the most important kinds of artistic expression that a nation can champion.

Support for the arts along with freedom of cultural and political expression is, frankly, a fantasy for many citizens in our world. Though formal assessment of cultural diplomacy initiatives are often difficult to capture (particularly in the shorter term), what is clear is how The Rhythm Road facilitates not only cross-cultural discourse but also provides an extraordinary platform for artists to emerge from their own localism and share what they do, face-to-face, with the unknown. Considering the lightning speed dissemination of music on the internet by everyone from independent musicians working from their bedroom computers to recording artists supported by major labels, we would be foolish not to recognize the relevance of always striving for a broader cultural audience. As artists increasingly become interested in globally-progressive ambitions instead of narrowcasting in the safety of their backyards, the more our collective cultures will be challenged and pushed forward by these international exchanges -- all while deepening human relations and human progress across our cultural borders.

If you are a musician who is ready to participate in this important cultural program (or know of one), visit The Rhythm Road to learn about the audition process. The deadline to apply is November 1, 2010 and auditions take place in New York City and, for the first time in the program's history, New Orleans. Cultural exchanges are only growing and the world is waiting. Good luck!

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