The Jazz Ambassadors

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

saxophone Just leave it to U.S. President Barack Obama to come up with an innovative way to mend the bridges that former President Bush annihilated in the Middle East region. Armed with trumpets, drums, voices smoother than silk and a piano, or two, the newly recruited ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ have set their sights high in U.S. Foreign Policy.

In 2005 Rhythm Road was created as a joint venture by the US State Department and Lincoln Center to share the beat of American music with the rest of the world. The program continues to grow by leaps and bounds and has captured the attention of America’s first African American President as a way to continue the dialogue he promised during his campaign speeches.

Throughout the history of America, the U.S. government has sought to bridge the cultural divide between nations through music. Since jazz is the epitome of American cultural expression and the lifeblood of art in it’s most raw form, what better platform for America to extend a hopeful hand to other nations around the world.

Every year the Rhythm Road tours a different segment of the World. This year, the motley crew of jazz musicians toured several international locales including Belarus, Myanmar and the Middle East while kicking up just a little bit of dust in the process. Composed of approximately 10 separate quartets, Rhythm Road musicians are spread out in the region that they are touring for maximum exposure and results. One band, The Chris Byar’s quartet, was dispatched to conservative Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Oman and Bahrain. The saxophonist was floored at the opportunity to play jazz for people who had never been exposed to the music genre, “These people have never heard jazz before,” he was recently quoted as saying.

The Jazz Ambassadors do a whole lot more than just play music on stage. They interact with the public by holding jam sessions in local hot spots and even offer classes for anyone wanting to learn a thing or two about Jazz. Some even visit the music department of local schools to give students a view of jazz up close and personal. Residents of the Middle East are often well acquainted with American pop music as the likes of Britney Spears and the Black-Eyed Peas typically blares out of the speakers of popular western tourist attractions in the region. For reasons that have never been spoken, publicly at least, it’s easier to trust the music than it is to trust American foreign policy which has consistently failed to win the hearts and minds of the every day Arab.

Middle East observers and commentators see Obama’s army of jazz musicians as a means to an end. The Bush Era has forever changed the way that Americans are perceived overseas in the Middle East as well as other regions. Through Jazz, American can connect to people from different cultural backgrounds without words but a common thread of humanity that ties us all together. Most, if not all, countries of the world have some sort of musical expression that has evolved throughout the ages. The drum, or daff, is the most popular musical instrument in the Middle East as Islamic traditions frowns upon music in general with the drum being the only acceptable means of creating music.

Enrollment in the Rhythm Road music program continues to grow with auditions for new musicians already underway to tour the globe in peace and understanding from the American people to whole new worlds.