American Musicological Society, Inc.

From the Blog

Music in Diplomacy: Just a Show?

University of Michigan Jazz Band members discuss their instruments with interested spectators after a workshop. Photograph courtesy of Lanny Austin.

Just as the U.S. government sends diplomats abroad for political negotiations with foreign countries, it also sends musicians abroad to entertain foreign audiences. In 1965, the University of Michigan Jazz Band went to Latin America, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The band drew large crowds. Sometimes the crowds cheered enthusiastically, and sometimes crowds disliked the music. As band member Lanny Austin recalled years later, at one stop audience members covered their ears.

In the best-case scenario, a tour like this might reach thousands of listeners, charm them with good music, and make them feel positively toward the United States. Music and dance are fun and can usually get people to show up and listen. But can they really make a difference in foreign relations?

Sending music overseas for political reasons may seem like “just a show,” and sometimes it has been exactly that. During the 1950s, countries thought of music diplomacy as a way to look good to others. Each country tried to present a distinct style. America promoted rock, jazz, and blue jeans as American products. Mexico sent a dance group that wore sombreros and swirling skirts. The West African Republic of Guinea sent drummers and dancers in costumes that other countries would recognize as “African.”

Like advertisements, these acts tended to be attractive and simple. Often, they relied on stereotypes that did not accurately reflect the way citizens of these countries typically dressed or made music. Sometimes audiences liked them, sometimes not.

Yet musicians and dancers can do things that politicians cannot do because artists do not only perform in concerts. Artists also interact with people. They give lessons. They have informal conversations. They practice and perform with local musicians. In fact, the experience of making music together has been the most successful element of music diplomacy.

When artists from different countries make music together, they must adapt to each other’s style and this brings people closer together. In his book, Build, Mark Katz describes how hip hop artists from different parts of the world work to bring their styles together. It is not always easy, but with effort they learn from each other and find ways to collaborate. In 1965, the University of Michigan Jazz Band held workshops and exchanged ideas with Latin American jazz experts. And later they recalled these informal connections as highlights of their tour.

The results of collaboration are not only musical. Performing with others builds trust. In the verbal poetry of hip hop, artists take risks by creating art on the fly—but they always assist each other. As the American artist, Toni Blackman, explains, “Someone is always willing to catch you…. Each time a person runs out of things to say, someone else is coming in, so they never have to worry about falling off.” This experience of trust creates a personal bond that matters even after the performance is over.

Much of the United States’ musical diplomacy today consists of hip hop workshops. But just as in the 1960s, these efforts build trust with audiences and among musicians. And once this trust is built, it can be used for political purposes.

The Michigan Jazz Band’s tour, for example, helped the United States embassy in Bolivia recruit young audience members into better relationships with the United States. In fact, the embassy eventually invited the youths to visit the United States and observe elections. So that what began as a shared musical experience eventually led to political influence.

Musical diplomacy affected the musicians as well. Fifty years later, the members of the University of Michigan Jazz Band still remembered people they played with and talked to during their tour. They said that the experience made them feel like international citizens and made them care about people outside their own communities. One member, Ron Post, even became a professional diplomat.

Making music together builds a kind of relationship that cannot be achieved at a distance. This is why the United States uses musical diplomacy. Music is not just for fun: it builds relationships that matter.


Picture of Danielle Fosler-Lussier

Danielle Fosler-Lussier is Professor of Music at the Ohio State University. Her interests include global mobility, the politics of music, and women’s roles in musical life, as well as how we teach and learn music history. Learn more…

Learn more about this topic: