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Bridging cultural gaps through music

Bridging cultural gaps through music

Music being a universal language has emerged as a rather new tool in soft diplomacy. The strength of music lies in its ability to serve as a medium that provides a shared experience and connects people from different backgrounds who may have little in common apart from their taste in music itself.

Against this backdrop, Della Mae, an American Bluegrass musical band, is in Pakistan as part of “American Music Abroad” – a cultural exchange programme initiated by the U.S. Department of State which aims to engage with people across the world through music.

Della Mae was recently nominated for The International Bluegrass Music Association’s ‘Emerging Artist of the Year’ for 2012.The band has embarked on a six country tour, of which, Pakistan is the first stop. It is also the only country from south Asia which the band is performing in.

As part of its entourage, the band on Saturday afternoon performed in front of a rare audience – a group of street children from Islamabad. The children, not aware of the niceties of appreciating a live performance for understandable reasons, were shy and rather uncomfortable as the band began its performance. However, as the event progressed, their involvement in the music deepened, thanks to the interactive approach of Della Mae members, who, through a Pashto translator, made it a point to explain the background of each song to the children before singing it. Also helpful was the presence of members of Lettuce be kids, who were hosts of the event and were familiar with these kids as they run free arts based educational programmes for these children on a bi-weekly basis.

A few songs into the performance, the children were clapping and singing along the band members, the happy expressions on their faces evident of the fact that they didn’t want to return to their routine life of collecting garbage for a living. The band members also introduced the children to the instruments each member played, such as the fiddle, guitar and the violin. The children even got to try their hands on these instruments, and admittedly, some of them weren’t that bad for starters.

Jenny Lyn, Della Mae mandolinist, who was all praise for Pakistani food, told me about the genre of Della Mae, which is Bluegrass: a sub-genre of country music. Associated primarily with the Appalachian Mountains in North America, this folk music is traditionally played on acoustic stringed instruments such as the fiddle, guitar, and mandolin along with a few other instruments. The musical group also features two-time U.S National Fiddle Champion Kimber Ludiker. The band members seemed visibly happy about their performance a day before at a local women university. They are going to perform in Lahore after a series of events in Islamabad.

Also present at the event was the U.S Cultural Attaché to Pakistan, Mr. Brian Gibel who shared with me the idea behind ‘American Music Abroad’. “Della Mae is here (in Pakistan) to bring a part of American culture and share the tradition of American folk music with Pakistanis,” he said. Another aspect of the programme, he explained, was to enable musicians like Della Mae “to better understand Pakistan and to bring back better understanding of Pakistan to US” through interaction and collaboration with Pakistani musicians and through engaging with people from different walks of life. It was both interesting and pleasantly surprising to know from the Cultural Attaché that Della Mae is interested in incorporating the poetry of ‘Poet of the East-Allama Iqbal’ into their music.

As the event ended, I was thinking to myself about how effective such cultural exchanges can prove to be? The prospects, to me, seemed quite promising. I for one, got to know about a band of females- whose mastery of instruments was remarkable – I had never heard of them before. As for Della Mae, who knows which poem of Allama Iqbal to expect in their vocals against the catching bluegrass music in the background. But most of all, it was the little street child, Jannat Gul’s remarks – who struggles to find the means to eat three meals a day – that made this exchange programme seem so worthwhile.

When i asked him what he enjoyed more at the event, the delicious food or the music, he replied with a smile, “It’s the music I enjoyed more.”



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