Are we really ‘Saving the World with Banjos’?

The American Music Abroad program (AMA), run by American Voices (an NGO) and highlighted in Craig Havighurst’s article “Saving the World with Banjos”, has provided many folk and Bluegrass artists with the opportunity to take their talents to other countries, with the intention of showcasing authentic American music and building connections through performance across the globe. Around a dozen bands are selected yearly to travel to far-reaching countries with non-Western cultures, some of which might have difficult political relations with the United States, and complete a packed tour itinerary of performances for communities spread around a region.

Cultural diplomacy through the sharing of music can accomplish many things. It can shorten cultural distance between places that share few similarities and many differences. It can educate people about a different part of the world, widen global perspective, and change lives. From the sounds of Havighurst’s article, AMA’s form of cultural diplomacy seems to be going well. Many folk and Bluegrass groups are selected to go every year, and they are ostensibly always met with warm welcome in even the most politically “hostile” places.

What his article does not touch on, however, are the downsides of this kind of “diplomacy”. At the risk of sounding cynical, I don’t know if I agree that sending “authentic American” bands to other countries accomplishes just what it is supposed to. From what Havighurst described in the article, bands aren’t really prepped before they leave the country, at least on what the mission of the tour is; this leads me to wonder if they are encouraged to engage in an exchange at all, or if they leave the US with an agenda to promote their music, American music, as superior (subversive colonialism, if you ask me).

Another problematic part of the piece is when Paul Rockower is quoted, saying, “The reason why Della Mae […] work[s] is they’re so authentically American”. I have huge issues with this statement. How exactly is Della Mae any more American than another band started in the United States, by citizens of the United States? Rockower is implying here that there is some quality about the band that qualifies them as more “American” than another. Are they more American because they emerge from the heart of Appalachia, where so many “American values” are upheld? Appalachian values and ways of life are overwhelmingly stereotyped and exaggerated by outsiders, and it seems that this statement is playing on those generalizations. Is it because the sounds that they create are particularly American? Last I checked, I remember learning that Bluegrass emerged from the blending of many different styles of music, brought from all over the world, but that doesn’t seem to be Rockower’s point here. What I gleaned from his statement was the fact that so many

“Send us more Della Mae and less drones” read one evaluation of the AMA tour. This is poignant. Yes, breaking down cultural barriers and allowing for exchange is better than ignorance and unfamiliarity. But what if we brought Pakistani bands to the United States instead of sending our own, with the goal of promoting cultural dialogue? Maybe that would cause Americans to start listening to others and breaking down the misunderstanding and fear that leads our country to make violent militaristic invasions of other places (under the pretense of preserving democracy and spreading our superior Western way of life).

Della Mae might have brought good music to the ears of a few dozen Pakistani people while touring with AMA, and from my research they are doing truly wonderful things in the aftermath of their visit — but they certainly aren’t saving the world with banjos.

Leave a Reply