(Vatican Radio) When you think about diplomacy and the U.S. State Department, you probably don’t think about jazz singers or pop idols. Yet cultural, and specifically musical diplomacy, is not a new phenomenon – way back in the 1950s Louis Armstrong was described as America’s most effective ambassador. What American diplomats could not do, the New York Times said, Armstrong and his jazz music managed to do.
Fast forward 60 years and meet Phillip Assis, who’s just concluded a year as cultural affairs officer at the US Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. Formerly on the staff of the US embassy to the Holy See here in Rome, Phillip Nelson – to use his stage name – made his mark on the cultural scene in Karachi after a guest appearance on the popular TV show Pakistan Idol, singing alongside the three semi-finalists. But that performance, as he told us while passing through Rome on American Independence Day, was just one of many opportunities he discovered to forge friendships and promote understanding between the people of Pakistan and his homeland…..
Listen to Philippa Hitchen’s interview with Phillip Assis:
“It was a great opportunity, living in Pakistan, as a musician myself,” Assis says, “to collaborate with Pakistani musicians…the most highly visible exposé was Pakistani Idol but there were other platforms as well where I was able to share music and collaborate and create something that is bigger than any one set of musicians from any one country…..
I’ve been passionate about both (music and diplomacy) for most of my life…..I started singing in church choirs when I was a kid….. I got away from it a little when I started in the international realm, firstly as a peace corps volunteer in West Africa, but then I got back to it when I got back to the States again…. the big personal story that happened to me was that I had cancer…..I had always dreamed of making a CD but once that happened, I realised you can’t assume that tomorrow will still be there….
Since then I’ve been able to use music for other means, such as diplomacy….when there are political and religious tensions, music and sport and art and cinema provide an avenue to break down those tensions and create a cultural space, a shared appreciation of music that everyone enjoys…..musical diplomacy is not new, it started with Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong back in the 50s and 60s and it continues to today……