By Ricky O’Bannon

Last week, the Minnesota Orchestra wrapped up a five-day tour of Cuba that featured several concerts and cultural visits with local Cuban musicians, groups and students.

The trip was the first to Cuba by an American orchestra since the U.S. government announced an effort to normalize relations in December and also the first by a major orchestra since the Milwaukee Orchestra’s visit to the island nation in 1999. Minnesota Public Radio has documented the trip and photos, stories and concert recordings can be found here.

While strains of Beethoven’s Egmont echoed in Havana’s Teatro Nacional, sometimes-contentious debates in Washington continued as Congressional lawmakers worked through details of the normalizing process, such as whether Americans could stay at hotels or rent rooms at a bed and breakfast that might provide income to the Cuban government.

The process of peacemaking after a 53-year freeze can be slow and tedious, but Chic Dambach said music and artistic exchanges like the Minnesota Orchestra’s visit to Cuba or a planned trip by two Pittsburgh-based classical musicians to Iran can be important parts of peacebuilding.

Chic Dambach
Chic Dambach

“Music helps create a climate in which different societies, cultures or groups can listen to the same music, find common ground and come together,” said Dambach.”

Dambach has devoted his career to peacebuilding. He has served as CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, National Peace Corps Association and National Assembly of Local Arts organizations among others; been part of peace mediation initiatives in Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Congo; formerly served as chief of staff for Congressman John Garamendi of California; and is currently a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

While peacemaking involves getting adversaries to actually stop hostilities, peacebuilding is about creating an environment where peace can be sustained and thrive, and Dambach said this is where the arts can be an effective part of a larger strategy.

One of the initiatives Dambach worked on with Peter Yarrow of (Peter, Paul and Mary) called Operation Respect that has been implemented in New York City schools tried to use music as a way to build peace among grade school children to stop bullying. While school house bullying might have lower stakes than international politics, the lessons might be the same.

“When kids in 5th grade stand together and sing together, it becomes a lot harder to then go beat up on the kid you just made harmonious music with,” Dambach said. “It builds a bond between people who might not connect on any other level.”

The act of listening to or making music together can take potential adversaries beyond the normal debates to think of those adversaries in another way. For that reason, so-called “jazz diplomacy” was a major tool by the US government during the Cold War by sponsoring concert tours by the likes of Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie to the Soviet Union and countries that had yet to side with either of the rival world powers to build support through cultural soft power.

At the same time, Dambach said Cold War cultural trips also served to change American impressions of the Soviet Union.

“One of the pivotal moments in the Cold War was Van Cliburn winning the Tchaikovsky Competition,” he said. “Here this pianist from Kilgore, Texas goes off to Moscow, and they give him their top award. That said something to this country that was totally counter to the impression we had of the Russians and the Soviets and those ‘evil Commies.’”

Dambach said Van Cliburn’s award might not have shattered the image most Americans had of the Soviet Union in the mid-50s, but it certainly softened it.

“I'm old enough to remember the impact it had on me, my community and family,” he said. “People were talking about it.”

While official government cultural exchanges can be useful, Dambach said it carries a different and often more impactful message when those involved are private citizens. He said efforts like Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea under Lorin Maazel or the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are viewed in a different context precisely because they aren’t sponsored by the State Department. These don't have to support any political position or condone or condemn a governmental stance, rather they can be simply about interaction.

“[It can say] we know there are hostilities or unfriendly relations between our countries at the diplomatic level, but at the human level, on a personal level, there's no reason for us to dislike each other and not get along,” Dambach said.

Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman wrote on the orchestra website that he had heard from those with political objections to the trip and he and the others were instructed to avoid politics. However, Bergman wrote that while he understood the contrasting viewpoints, for him the trip was about that human-to-human interaction outside of official government positions that Dambach talked about.

“I didn’t meet any governments this week. I just met people: strong, proud, creative, energetic, and grateful people,” Bergman wrote about the trip. “And I tried — we all tried — to be strong, proud, energetic and grateful back to them. It was a week of coming together, of finding common ground and mutual understanding through a shared love of music. It’s easy to overstate the broader impact of an experience like that, of course, but I can’t for the life of me see how it could be a bad thing.”