Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
by Penny M. Von Eschen

Penny Von Eschen raises the question as to whether music can be a universal language, transcending national boundaries and communicating with all people regardless of language or social barriers. Can music act as a “tool for global transformation?” She suggests that American jazz was such a universal language acting as a bridge to other cultures. The key ingredient appears to be the individualistic nature of jazz. Jazz carries a subtext of individualism, of personal expression, and of the possibility of freedom. There are serious claims that the Cold War was won largely by American blue jeans and music presenting an alternative societal vision to the Communist bloc.

As appealing as this view is, it appears na├»ve and romantic. Cultural influence is a form “soft” power as opposed to “hard” power which is economic and military. As Mao Tse Tung once observed, “all power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Countries with more hard power tend to have more soft power (i.e. cultural influence). Thus after the Second World War, British and French cultural hegemony in the Third World declined as American and Soviet cultural influence rose. As much as American culture may have influenced the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, forty five years of military containment and the collapse of the Soviet economy probably played more decisive roles.

Can the world be changed by song? Problematic. When the artist creates a song the meaning of the song passes to the audience. Thus a jazz listener in Africa during the Cold War might respond to jazz because, “to speak English as an American, put him in the vanguard”. In addition, “to be liberated (from French colonial rule) was to be exposed to R&B….” an alternative source of cultural capital. (Von Eschen, 178). How the audience receives the song and what meaning it fashions from the song may be totally removed from the artist’s original intent.

More problematic yet is that artists are in and of their culture and cannot necessarily transcend it. While an artist may oppose certain aspects of the culture, he/she is also a product of that culture. Thus, the same individualism, personal expression and possibility of freedom that is found appealing within Western culture may be totally anathema, for example, within the context of traditional Islamic culture. American music, as a product of a secular Western consumer society, may be perceived by both the elites and the masses in traditional religious non-consumer societies as part of overall American cultural imperialism, as opposed to something benign.

Since we do not have a universal world culture, and many political scientists posit that we are in an era characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, policy makers will assess the merits of using music as a “tool/weapon” in this struggle of competing civilizations. For example, Western societies embrace notions of gender equality. Islamic culture largely rejects this western value. Thus American policy makers might use American cultural products to target the aspirations of Islamic women for power/political purposes. However unwittingly, the artist becomes an agent of cultural imperialism in its broadest sense.

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