State Department Enlists Musicians as Cultural Ambassadors
The Wall Street Journal, 6/17/10
"There is an Arabic expression that David Berntson picked up on his recent tour of the Gulf States:Insh'allah, 'if God wills it.' The blues musician from Tulsa, OK, found himself making use of it frequently in the run-up to a concert at the King Fahd cultural center in Riyadh last April. Public concerts are virtually unknown in Saudi Arabia—let alone performances for mixed audiences of men and women—and here was the Little Joe McLerran Quartet, an American band specializing in an upbeat and highly danceable form of the blues, on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Up to the last minute, the musicians were told there was a 90 percent chance the performance would be banned…
Mr. Berntson says the significance of the event struck him only later. 'Afterwards, when we were up in Oman, some diplomats said we accomplished more in a week than they have in years.' The Little Joe McLerran Quartet is one of 10 ensembles chosen to represent the United States this year on the 'Rhythm Road,' an arts diplomacy initiative funded by the State Department and administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Since 2006, the program has sent more than 100 musicians on tours to 97 different countries, most of them outside the reach of American music."