On Monday, May 13, ASP hosted Della Mae, the Boston/Nashville-based all-female bluegrass band which recently returned from an American Music Abroad tour of Central Asia. Their 43-day tour of Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was part of a program administered by American Voices, and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department.
Cultural diplomacy is a public diplomacy tool for long-term relationship building with a long history in the United States. It can be used to humanize U.S. culture and its people, showcasing the diversity of this country and setting the stage for broader discussions. The long history of cultural diplomacy techniques by the United States includes the Jazz Ambassador Program, which sent Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and others on overseas tours.
While cultural diplomacy is far from being any type of magic bullet, it can sometimes be used to make significant inroads into closed-off societies. This was the case in the Soviet Union.
In their discussion, Della Mae brought attention to the two-way nature of their tour. Rather than focusing entirely on American culture through bluegrass music, the band members explained the relationships they built overseas, and how their interactions served as a learning experience they brought back to the U.S.
By absorbing the local culture in each of the countries they visited, Della Mae was not only able to better bring America to Central Asia, but help tell the story of Central Asia to America. This included performances of native tunes they picked up in several of the countries they visited.
The “Dellas” also discussed the excitement their tours brought to the people they visited. In Pakistan, the doors had to be removed from the auditorium they played in at a women’s college because of massive crowd overflow. By interacting with children, many of whom had never seen or held an instrument and were enthusiastic to do so, Della Mae introduced them to new possibilities for personal expression. And playing with local musicians and exchanging musical knowledge allowed a type of basic cross-cultural communication that is otherwise unattainable without the help of language fluency.
Overall, the members of Della Mae demonstrated that they are among the best cultural ambassadors the U.S. has to offer, not only because of their immeasurable talent, but because of their ability to build relationships on a one-to-one basis. Their work inspires not only those in other countries, but also those in the United States to think about alternative ways in which we can increase our national security.
Della speaks about their tour:
Della Mae plays selections, including some learned on their tour:
U.S. Cultural Diplomacy in Central Asia: Bluegrass with Della Mae, a set on Flickr.