U.S. Sends Musicians to Make Overtures in War Zones.


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In March four musicians from Alvin Atkinson and The Sound Merchants, traveled with the U.S. State Department for a new diplomacy program called Musicial Overtures.

When pianist Jonathan Lefcoski walked into a rehearsal at a Baghdad music club, he didn't know what to expect. He didn't know whether the Iraqi musicians would welcome him or whether they'd know how to play the same music he did.

Within minutes, however, Lefcoski and an Iraqi bass player were working their way through Caravan, a classic by the American jazz great Duke Ellington. During the clinking of piano keys and the plucking of bass strings, Lefcoski said, they soon realized that “music was universal."

The State Department wants to expand on that universal feeling with its new Musical Overtures program, which took Lefcoski and his band to Afghanistan, Armenia, Iraq and Lebanon in April.

Though U.S. musicians have visited other countries on cultural exchange missions for years, Musical Overtures is the first to take them into the dual war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, says Alina Romanowski, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for professional and cultural exchanges.

The State Department had wanted to send such delegations to both countries for years, but only recently have “situations on the ground" allowed for enough safety to send musicians, Romanowski says.

This kind of cultural diplomacy dates back to the Cold War, says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Music was considered “a good cultural weapon" and the government sponsored jazz musicians specifically because “jazz was an internationally known, admired and a respected art form identified with the United States," he says.

Sending jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie was one of the few ways to penetrate the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Morgenstern says.

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