Music and Politics

On February 26, 2006, the New York Philharmonic went to North Korea to perform-the first major American cultural institution to visit that dismal country. While they and their guests feasted on what the New York Times called an "endless banquet." In the rural areas, people live in a state of malnutrition. In the past, some have even known famine. Still, there is a hope that this great orchestra will help open up that nation to the outside world, despite the inclinations of its long time dictator, Kim Jong-Il.

Indeed, it was touching to see the American flag and hear our anthem being played in that concert. Music has a way of cutting across national hatreds and national pride to touch the diverse souls of men and women. But sometimes even music is not enough. Still, the Philharmonic is to be praised as are all artists who try to promote international dialogue through the charms of music and the arts.

Sometime ago, I got a call from my daughter, Abigail, who is a jazz singer in New York City, and who had been asked by the State Department to go to Yemen to perform. I shuddered-why couldn't they invite you to go to Paris or Tokyo, I responded? She insisted that it was an incredible challenge. What does a young girl who is comfortable singing in Manhattan at the Jazz Standard and Kitano do for a week in Yemen? I artlessly reminded her and my wife that Yemen is the original home of Al Qaeda. Does an American really need to sing the great American songbook to terrorists and their fellow travelers? Abigail reminded me that I had gone with a group of college presidents after the first Gulf War to Kuwait to offer advice on how to restructure their destroyed university.

I did go, and I regarded it as a fascinating experience at the time, even now. But I also remembered lecturing in a hall with soldiers guarding the doors with rifles. I remembered that our hosts refused to shake hands with the women in our delegation, even though they were the leaders of our group.

Abigail went, performed to fascinated crowds, sat down and tried to integrate the non-tonal music of Yemen musicians with her own beloved jazz. On the trip through the mountains from Sana'a to Aden, the creaky van stopped and immediately little children surrounded them begging for some money. Abby got out and reached for some cash, but she was told she could not give money just to one child, for if she did he would be beaten to a pulp by the others. Sort of like in New Jersey. She ended up giving them all money, and ended up with little of her stipend from the State department left.

The Yemen people loved the harmonious selections from US jazz. It has been said that in a century from now there will be three American contributions to the world remembered-baseball, the US Constitution, and jazz. Spectators poured out for a special concert in front of the German embassy as well. Some of the Yemen people asked Abigail if her parents were worried about her coming to their land. She said honestly, "yes." "Oh," they countered and said that they like Americans but not the American government. Several months later, Spanish tourists were killed by terrorists in Yemen.

So music is indeed food for the soul, but only for some people in some ways. Yes, Abigail's parents were proud she went, and we were relieved when she arrived back at JFK airport. I would guess that the parents and spouses of the members of the Philharmonic feel the same sentiments. Still, I salute the orchestra for their courage and for their good deeds.