Tuesday, July 12, 2005

"My Milkshake Is Better Than Yours"


In "U.S. Diplomacy Takes Experimental Turn," the Lebanon Daily Star describes U.S. Embassy Beirut's successful effort to connect U.S. experimental musicians with their Lebanese counterparts. Chicagoan Gene Coleman visited Lebanon's Irtijal '05 festival* under State Department auspices, generating some extremely free-form work for the host-country audience on his bass clarinet, among other instruments:

If you went in expecting jazz—or at least the abortive nods to swing that can be heard in even the most "out there" works of John Coltrane or Albert Ayler—you might've come away from Coleman's performances a bit disappointed. But the (lamentably small) weekend audiences at Theater Monnot and the Espace SD art gallery gave no hint of being anything but thrilled by the opportunity to listen in on the proceedings. And as far as representatives from the U.S. Embassy were concerned, such rapt attention was bang enough for the average U.S. taxpayer's buck, even if the officials themselves had to cheerfully confess a degree of ignorance about the music they had funded.

"Did you understand that?" Juliet Wurr asked her colleagues after Coleman's Sunday solo performance, which added video projection and pre-recorded soundscapes to his bass clarinet stylings. Still, when discussion turned to the goals of the "CultureConnect" project, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy was on much more certain ground.

"America is a lot more than Hollywood and television sitcoms," Wurr said. "In that respect, programs of improvisational jazz reflect the value we accord innovation, originality, even risk taking. We admire people with original voices, even if we don't necessarily 'enjoy' the sound."

Still, given Coleman's fortnight-long stay in the country—and the decidedly modest turnout at the festival—how much sincere connection is the mission counting on? U.S. Embassy Cultural Attache Ryan Gilha said the idea was to start with "baby steps."

"We're not going to change attitudes overnight. ... This is the first time [since the Civil War] that we've done anything like this in Lebanon," he said, noting that the "CultureConnect" program isn't a quick fix for the problem of cultural estrangement, but is instead a way to take advantage of opportunities wherever they appear—whether in business, sports, or the arts.

It's possible that, due to its experimental nature, Coleman's music is currently getting bigger audiences in Lebanon than at home. But the important thing for public diplomacy is that it's getting Lebanese audiences out to see U.S. innovators one-on-one.

"... The nice thing about this," Wurr added, "is that no one can say this [music] is pushing a particular foreign policy."

* "Irtijal" is Arabic for "improvisation."

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