From demure classical concerts to diplomats themselves stepping into the limelight to perform, James Landale, diplomatic correspondent for BBC News, considers the soft power of music throughout the ages
THE CHINK OF BOTTLE ON GLASS, the low hubbub of conversation, the overloud exclamation of greeting, the discreet exchange of indiscretion, the brief glance round to see who else is there. Just another diplomatic reception, another evening on the circuit. And then, something different. Almost imperceptible at first, just a whisper of sound rising up the stairwell. People look up, registering the new tone but unable to place it. The sound gets louder – ah, it’s singing, someone has turned on some music, perhaps? But it gets louder still and realisation dawns – it is live. Someone – or maybe some people – are singing, here in the building. And at that moment the lights dim, the double doors open and in comes the most ethereal procession one has ever seen. A cohort of beautiful Scandinavian young men and women, clad in white robes, walking two abreast. Each holds a candle. At the front a young woman wears a crown of candles, stepping carefully to avoid spilling the hot wax. And oh, how they sing! They are singing their hearts out: carols and folk songs – some you know and others you do not – a beautiful cacophony that silences gossip and soothes the soul. This is the Embassy of Sweden in London celebrating the feast of Sankta Lucia in mid-December, one of my favourite days in the diplomatic calendar, one that for me marks the start of Christmas.
As cultural diplomacy goes, it is hard to beat. One steps out into the night enveloped in a glow of warmth towards all things Swedish. And yet this kind of event is, of course, not exceptional. This concert may touch the heart strings like few others, but it is just one of many that embassies put on each year.
Music has long played a role in diplomacy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ambassadors competed to showcase the best performers and performances in honour of their monarchs. Where now diplomats brag about the size of their summits or warships, they then compared the grandeur of one another’s concerts and operas. In many respects, diplomats were almost musical agents, impresarios who could make or break musicians’ careers.
But now a new trend is emerging. Diplomats are themselves stepping out into the limelight – or as we call it these days, social media – and performing themselves. Last year Japan’s Ambassador and Consul General in New York, Yamanouchi Kanji, broadcast a video clip showing him playing the guitar to mark the 4th of July. The sight of this grey-haired diplomat in a red bow tie thrashing out the Star-Spangled Banner in the heavily distorted style of Jimi Hendrix ensured the clip went viral. A bit of fun? Not a bit of it. It was a deliberate, carefully calibrated piece of cultural diplomacy designed to be both respectful and noteworthy.
Perhaps less successful was the recent rap video by Dan Kritenbrink, the US Ambassador in Vietnam. The ‘Boy from Hanoi,’ as he styled himself, sang – or rather spoke/sang like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady – to celebrate the Tet lunar new year. The reception was not entirely positive. One critic branded it “the Tet offensive in reverse”, a reference to the series of attacks launched by North Vietnamese forces in 1968. Another wondered if the performance breached the Geneva Convention. But Ambassador Kritenbrink achieved his aim: he got noticed.
British diplomats have done their bit. Chris Sainty, the UK Ambassador in Lisbon, achieved some musical notoriety when he played the piano in honour of medical staff in Britain and Portugal who were tackling the pandemic. But his social media clips went viral when he played tunes associated with the country’s move from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s. This got him into the newspapers and onto the evening television news, thus promoting Britain more effectively than any speech or private meeting could have done.
More extraordinary were the recent performances of Hugh Philpott, Britain’s man in Turkmenistan, who broadcast videos on YouTube of him singing Soviet-era folk songs in front of sweeping pictures of the country’s mountains and valleys. The style might not be immediately familiar to a western audience, but it resonated in a country run by an autocratic leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who himself sings and plays keyboards in music videos, often with his grandson. When challenged on social media over why he was singing songs praising a country with a poor human rights record, the Ambassador replied: “This exercise has done more to further my serious agenda than I ever hoped… Sometimes a song can say things a thousand dull demarches just don’t get across.”
So music can get you noticed as a diplomat, but it can also be used for so much more: it can bring people together. In 1999, the Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American writer, Edward Said, formed an orchestra designed to bring together young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and Arab countries. It was controversial but such was its impact that in 2016 the then United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, made the orchestra a UN global advocate for cultural understanding.
Music can be used for blunt diplomatic propaganda. Russia put on a concert in the ruins of Palmyra in Syria after it was recaptured from Islamic State in 2016. The Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra played Bach and Prokofiev in the ancient Roman theatre where many killings had taken place. Russia’s aim was to try to show that it was a force for good in Syria, bringing peace to a UNESCO heritage sight, in contrast to the images of Russian warplanes bombing civilians in Aleppo.
Music has also been used for a more subtle promotion of national interests. In the 1950s and 60s, the United States deployed what became known as ‘jazz ambassadors’ to promote American culture behind the Iron Curtain. The likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck were dispatched by the State Department armed with a simple message: namely that jazz, as an improvisation within agreed boundaries, was a perfect metaphor for the freedoms of western liberal democracy. “No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” Dave Brubeck said. President Eisenhower said that jazz was “America’s greatest diplomat.” More recently, there was speculation that in the 1990s the CIA helped write the Scorpions track, Wind of Change, that became such a rallying cry for rebellious young eastern Europeans in the 1990s.
In recent decades, South Korean officials have trained up boy bands as so-called ‘K-pop stars’ to promote a positive image for their country around the world. Perhaps the most famous of these exports was Psy’s Gangnam Style whose video secured billions of views on YouTube, the first to do so. Again, this was a deliberate exercise in nation branding, to try to encourage an image of South Korea that was distinct not just from the north but also other parts of Asia.
Music can of course be used for more robust diplomacy. An American quango, the National Endowment for Democracy, gave money to bands in the early 2000s to write songs critical of Hugo Chavez’s leadership in Venezuela. Perhaps more successful was the decision by US armed forces to deploy rock music as a weapon in Panama in 1989. They were seeking to capture the country’s ousted dictator, General Manuel Noriega, who was holed up in the Vatican’s Embassy. Unable to enter, the troops simply blasted the mission with loud heavy metal and other rock music. On the playlist was Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi and The End by The Doors. The White House did not approve and ordered the music turned off, but shortly after Noriega gave himself up.
Such musical aggression from America is probably unlikely to be repeated soon. But note this: one of the most powerful diplomats in the world, the US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, is also a rock guitarist. A proponent of so-called ‘wonk rock’, he even has a couple of tracks on Spotify. If anyone knows the soft power of hard rock, it is perhaps him.